28 January 2016

The realities of facing a Mongolian winter

Those of you who know me,  know that I am keen to promote travel to Mongolia outside of peak season. Even going as far to offer a range of winter journeys in Mongolia. Why? It makes for more sustainable travel - providing a more equal spread of income and extending the positive impact of tourism out over a longer stretch of time as well as For the traveller, it means that you deal with much smaller crowds while having more chance for an authentic experience. 

Of course, there is a very real side to winter in Mongolia and that's the weather. Yes, as a visitor we are impacted by that weather, such as facing the low temperatures and dealing with the pollution in UB caused by the coal fires.  However, Mongolia's herders face bigger challenges when dealing with the weather.

(Leap coming up but stick with me!)

If you're in the middle of making travel plans to Mongolia and you're completely honest, how much do you want to experience Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital city of Mongolia? It's probably not high on many people's list. Most travellers are keen to explore the rugged wilderness and the way of life outside the city. However, UB is home to roughly 45% of the population.  The last census (2010) recorded the population density of UB at 246 people per square kilometre. Compare that to the population density outside the capital - 1.7 people per square km. 

Some of the population of UB are ex-herders. Forced to relocate after severe winter weather killed off their livestock and therefore their sole means of income. Can you imagine being one of those herders - independent and self-sufficient and just because of one weather event, the only option is to move to UB. Can you imagine the psychological battle?

(It's a psychological battle just returning to UB after 3 weeks spent camping and hiking in Mongolia's vast landscapes. The drive back in through the city can drain even those with the hardiest resistance. That's why CODE (an authentic French p√Ętisserie) was put on this earth. To be specific, to be put on this earth in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Check out the Facebook page. Even better, go there!).

Ulaanbaatar - the view overlooking part of the ger districts. Autumn 2015

This is where the phenomenal work of different NGO's working throughout Mongolia comes in. CAMDA is one of those NGO's. Who? The Cambridge Mongolia Development Appeal - one of the projects that I make a yearly financial donation to as part of my Responsible Travel ethos. CAMDA was first formed in 2000 following a countrywide severe weather event known as a zud. There was another such severe event in 2010, which killed 11 million livestock died, leaving entire herding families destitute.

To quote from CAMDA, there are currently over 207,000 households in Mongolia (out of a population of just a smidgen over 3 million)  who are dependent on livestock for their living or to supplement their income. 146,000 of these are specifically herder households spread throughout the immensity that is Mongolia.

That is what makes the current weather in Mongolia that little more concerning - extremely low temperatures and high snowfall - although the Mongolian government have yet to officially declare a zud. Bill Munns the secretary of CAMDA contacted me to let me know about the potential severity of this year's winter. Especially as 2015 was considered a drought year, which caused herdsmen to have a shortage of foodstuff for their livestock for the winter and with the harvest 40% down. 

I mentioned to Bill in an email that I would write something to help raise awareness about the situation. So, as a visitor, what can you do to help? 

Selenge Aimag in northern Mongolia is one of Mongolia's most productive crop producing regions. 

Read Around The Subject

Zud means ‘lack of grazing’ and describes the conditions that prevent livestock from grazing – including drought, deep snow or even degradation of the pasture due to overcrowding. A zud causes massive losses to livestock due to fodder shortage over a severe winter.  There are different types of zud, such as a 'tsagaan zud (white drought' when heavy snowfall prevents animals from grazing. A gan zed (steel drought) occurs when there is a thaw followed again by freezing conditions. Grass becomes sheathed in a film of ice and the animals cannot graze. 

Include UB In Your Visit

Book a ger district tour through the Ger Area Tour. The organization behind the Ger Area Tour is an NGO called Ger Community Mapping Center (GCMC). GCMC conducts research in the ger areas of Ulaanbaatar with the objective of compiling better data so that projects to improve the ger area communities such as where the ex-herders live, are more effective.

It is different from 'slum tourism' in other countries because the ger areas in UB are not considered slums. The purpose of the ger area tours is not to commercialize and commodify the 'spectacle' of the ger area, but to humanize it. The team behind the Ger Area Tour want to give visitors the opportunity to discover that the ger area is not a slum, but a unique part of UB with endless potential. 

For more information, check out their Facebook page. 


Our 2015 £400 CAMDA donation went to the construction / renovation of 1.5 of the 7 wells that CAMDA worked on in Ovorkhangai Province (if you've been to Arvaikheer or the Orkhon Waterfall or Naiman Nuur or Kharkhorin then you've been to Ovorkhangai).

They might not look like the most beautiful piece of architecture...

This is the well from Dulaan bag - a division of the district areas that make up a province. 

...but herders can access the wells in the winter when the streams and rivers are frozen. In the summer months, it also means (with more wells) that grazing is spread out rather than focusing on just around one water source. This helps with degradation of the pasture. Created using local labour and materials and when the well is complete, handed over to the local authority with a designated person for maintenance. 

Again, in the words of CAMDA, funds are not spent on 'handouts rather on a means to bring resources to low-income herders.' Here's how you can donate.

As I said, I mentioned to Bill Munns in an email that I would write something to help raise awareness about the current situation. Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  For more information, contact CAMDA or me. 

6 January 2016

New Year, New Travel Experiences!

The New Year has been celebrated around the world, including in Mongolia. From 9pm through to the early morning,  music and entertainment was provided in a public concert in Sukhbaatar Square. Temperature? A balmy -29. As is customary, the President of Mongolia (Ts. Elbegdorj) addressed the nation on New Year's Eve:

'A new year is coming. Let us strive to reinforce our previous achievements and accomplish far more in next year. Let us learn from our previous mistakes and move towards future prosperity.'

Midnight! Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar. Image by www.ulaanbaatar.mn

A New Year, A New Travel Style

So. With the celebration of the new year, so starts the 'made any resolutions?' conversation. 2016 brings the opportunity for a new start. If you're struggling with those resolutions or don't even usually make them, why not change the focus? Make them about the type and style of holiday you have.

Travel Resolutions To Inspire In 2016

Support Local

Even if you only have a few days, you can still get an insight into the local community. Choose to explore the local markets and shops. Choose accommodation and eating options that are appropriate to the area where you’re travelling. Yes that western owned hotel may have reliable Wi-Fi and en-suite hot showers but does it help you to engage with the local communities through which you’re passing?

Retail therapy - Gobi Desert style

Take A Digital Detox 

Leave your tablet, your SmartPhone and any other modern life technological must haves behind and go unplugged. Whether that’s for just one day or an entire holiday. It will mean you see things from a different more refreshing perspective. 

Taking a digital detox in Mongolia's Altai. Image by our guest Kairi Aun

Set Yourself a Challenge

Try and leave your comfort zone behind on at least one 2016 holiday experience - it will invigorate and give you a new motivating goal. It can be as simple as climbing the nearest hill for an inspiring view. Whatever you choose, there are challenges of all sizes for everyone.  

Worth the puff! The inspirational view out over Khovsgol Nuur and the Khoriol Saridag on one of our day-treks

Get Up To Watch The Sunrise - At Least Once

Yes, the alarm going off when it’s still dark won’t be a pleasant experience but the rewards will be definitely worth it. You already know you won’t regret it. 

Sunrise. Tsagaan Suvraga. Middle Gobi. Say no more!

Learn A Language

Take time to get a feel for the local language. Even just a few phrases such as hello, thank you and good bye will get you further than not trying at all. Yes, the pronunciation will be difficult and you will have the odd embarrassing moment but that’s part of the experience.  By trying to learn a few words you’re helping to break down any communication barriers  such as reservation and indifference that may be in place.

Say hello. It will help make more genuine moments. Zaisan Hill, Ulaanbaatar

 Don’t Rush

It doesn’t always have to be about ticking off the sights. Have the courage not to always go the way of the crowd.  Enjoy sitting in a local cafe and watching the world pass by. Explore a city without a guidebook for an hour or so - see where it takes you. Meet people. It's the best way to travel.

Taking time out over the Selenge River landscapes

 Travel Out Of Season

It will be cheaper for you  and it means you can enjoy  the destination without the crowds.

Some...but not quite all...of my brilliant EL team on a winter picnic

Sleep Under The Stars

No reason needed. If you need one though - it put everything into perspective. 

On tour. October 2015. Photograph by our guest Paul Allerton

Savour the unexpected

It won’t all go according to plan. It can’t. Instead of getting worked up about what you can't control, enjoy the unexpected.

Where will 2016 take you? Why not Mongolia? Mongolia will teach you to embrace the enjoyment that comes from simplicity and you’ll end up revelling in the overwhelming sense of liberation that comes only from travelling through and standing in the immensity and diversity of such vast landscapes and meeting the people that makes their home amongst such landscapes.

If you need a little persuasion...

I look forward to welcoming you!

Refresh your sense of adventure in the immensity of Mongolia. Image by our guest Egon Filter