24 February 2017

What does Tsagaan Sar mean for Mongolian's?

Mongolian New Year - known as Tsagaan Sar is fast approaching. Here's my (brief you'll be pleased to hear) guide.

Most people will have heard of Chinese New Year. Not so many people know that Mongolian New Year is a completely separate celebration to that celebrated by the Chinese throughout the world. 
Tsagaan Sar (White Month) is Mongolia's Lunar New Year - celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice. It is a deeply traditional holiday bringing together family members and lasts a minimum of three days. The year of the Fire Monkey is currently finishing and the year of the Fire Chicken is beginning.

What does Tsagaan Sar mean for Mongolian's?

Prior To Tsagaan Sar

In brief, you clean!

I'm currently in Ulaanbaatar and the city is a hive of industry with families out doing something to prepare for Tsagaan Sar - from being at the Naran Tuul Black Market in Ulaanbaatar buying sweets and carpets to shovelling snow oe cleaning their homes. 

* We have also spent a lot of time in a traffic jam that is the whole of Ulaanbaatar in the run up to the festival. 

The preparation for Tsagaan Sar begins many weeks before the actual national holiday. Mongolians like to start off the new year with their ger, apartment, or house being very clean. Many families will take this time to redecorate by buying new flooring or rugs to hang on the walls. In addition to new household goods, families will buy new clothing as well.

Why clean?

Basically, you are cleaning out the previous year - both literally and metaphorically with old quarrels being reconciled and outstanding money paid back. Tsagaan Sar brings together family and friends – the problems between
each other are put behind them and you start over fresh – you do not bring previous problems forward into the New Year.

And here was today at the Naran Tuul - purchasing boots and a deel.

Bituun - New Year's Eve

In brief, prepare and then eat a lot of mutton dumplings.

Sunday February 26th is 'bituun' - meaning to close down. This is the last night of the current lunar year — when the moon is invisible and darkness is total. We would know it as New Year’s Eve.

Prior to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolian families make literally hundreds of buuz - Mongolian dumplings  (kept frozen until they are steamed for the guests - no need for a freezer when outside it is -30 at night!).  Tsagaan Sar is a time when Mongolians come together to show respect to the family elders and the number of buuz prepared is a way of showing respect to the eldest members of the family. 

On bituun people eat to be full - it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year.

Shiniin Negen - New Year's Day

In brief, honour the spirits and honour your family

On the morning of the New Year everyone rises bright and early to greet the sun. Traditionally, members of the household honour the nature and spirits of Mongolia by going to an ovoo - a stone shrine placed on a hill or mountain top. They will take food and offerings and the oldest will voice words of gratitude and praise to the spirit of the mountain and the surrounding area. Turuu always says that the air on the first day of Tsagaan Sar is fresh and clean, reminding him that they have successfully passed winter, and that spring has arrived.

In order to have health and happiness in the new year each individual must take their 'first steps of the New Year'. Their lunar year of birth and the current year will dictate the direction that they walk in - it is believed to be important to start your way in the right direction on the first day of the new year.

After the first steps are taken all family members re-enter their home and start the Tsagaan Sar greetings. There are many traditions followed between families on this day such as passing the snuff bottle. The symbolism of the passing of the snuff bottle is new friendship and honouring friends and family. 

However, one of the most formal traditions is when family members honour their senior relatives in a greeting called 'zolgokh.' This is when the younger person places their arms under the elder person's and hold their elbows  to show support and respect for them as their elder. This is all with the exception of the husband and wife as they are considered one person so they don’t need to be greeted by each other. 

The traditional greeting is 'Ta amar mend baina uu?’ which means ‘How are you doing?’  The answer back to the first greeting is ‘Amar mendee’ which means I am fine, I am good. Elders are given a ‘khadag’ (a Mongolian sacred scarf) as a sign of deep respect and are wished good health and long life.

The Tsagaan Sar Table

In brief, mutton!

Mongolians typically prepare three important dishes for Tsagaan Sar as well as the buuz mentioned above there is also boov and the whole back of a sheep.

The main one you can see in the photo is boov – a traditional Mongolian bread (basically biscuits made of flour).  The boov are stacked in layers which have to be an odd number – three, five, etc – as the odd numbers represent happiness. The older the family members, the higher the stack of boov to show respect (the number of levels indicates the status of the family, which is determined by the age of the parents and the number of their children). The boov is then decorated with aaruul (Mongolian dried cheese) and small sweets. 

Also on the table you will find  a whole back of a sheep including the fat of its tail (it's just off to the right in the photo). Mongolians try to cook a sheep with as big a tail as possible, wishing the family wealth and prosperity.  It is served on the table for the entirety of the holiday. 

As Tsagaan Sar is celebrated by Mongolians all previous things pass away with the previous year. As the new crescent moon rises so the new year starts - positive and white (or clean). During Tsagaan Sar you should not be angry, greedy or sad. You clear your mind and spirit of all negative things and open it up to pure clean positive thoughts.

We'll be in the middle Gobi in the rural community of Erdenedalai for Tsagaan Sar. For the Eternal landscapes team that won't be with me, I will be  wishing them all 'sar shinedee saikhan shineleerei'. I wish you all the same.

And remember, you could always join the Eternal Landscapes team as they celebrate Tsagaan Sar in 2018. How? By joining one of our Mongolian winter tours. Alternatively, just email me (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk) - I'm always happy to be of help and all advice is free with no sales pitch. 

And, unless I have mentioned otherwise, all images used throughout this post were taken either by EL guests or members of the EL team. This is the Mongolia you will also experience if you chose to travel with us.

Wherever the road takes you in 2017 - Sain Yavaarai - Journey Well

8 February 2017

Wild Swimming In A Landlocked Country

Mongolia is the world's second largest landlocked country after Kazakhstan. When you think of Mongolia you might not automatically think of swimming. Well, I might be about to change that. Maybe 

Mongolia.  A landlocked country where the number of swimming pools outside of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar can be counted on one hand (with a few fingers left over) and any fresh water lake is frozen hard for at least a third if not more of the year.

This is the surface of Khovsgol Nuur now … in February.  Stunning. But perhaps a little hard to access.

Mongolia and wild swimming may seem a strange combination - not one you automatically think of - Mongolia being a land-locked country with more than 30% covered by the Gobi Desert - the world's 5th largest desert.  But both are fundamental to who I am.

I swim for the feeling of freedom in the water and the absolute joy it can bring - whether that be the rhythm (and 'mindfulness') of lengths in a public swimming pool or something outdoors and 'wilder'. Swimming outdoors is about feeling alive - I swim for the feeling of adventure as well. It's exhilarating. It's refreshing. It's invigorating. And frequently cold. I don't always get in either sometimes a slate grey sky can abruptly remove any motivation that you had. 

I swim in Mongolia. At the municipal pool in Ulaanbaatar and then when I can when I'm out on a tour. Travelling is about new perspectives and wild swimming in Mongolia always provides a new perspective. 

Turuu (my business partner) is from the Gobi. He sees water in a completely practical way - accessing the local well for drinking water for the family and the livestock. Yet, he understands this desire I have to swim  - the first question always asked is 'Boss, you swim?', knowing that if I'm swimming then everything is OK with the world.

For those that understand the reason why we swim, this blog post is for you - my top five swim spots in Mongolia:

Khovsgol Nuur 

Khovsgol Nuur National Park has Khovsgol Nuur, a beautiful fresh water lake, at its core. Lake Khovsgol is a spiritual place for Mongolians  where it is known as Dalai Ej - Mother Sea. 

It is a large, deep and ancient lake that is part of the Baikal Rift System. Located in the northernmost extension of Mongolia it is part of a transition zone where the southern reach of the monumental boreal forest meets the central Asian steppe (with a backdrop of a mountainous landscape formed by the Khoridol Saridag Range - an imposing rampart (primarily dolomite) with many peaks topping 3,000 meters in elevation).

For those that like statistics, the lake is 136 km long, 20-40 km wide, 260 m deep, and accounts for nearly 70% of all freshwater in Mongolia. The lake's surface lies at 1645 m above mean sea level. 

 It will be cold, but also clean and pure. 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur 

I know this image shows little of the lake, but it puts the wilderness of the area into perspective. Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is a large freshwater lake in Arkhangai Aimag in central Mongolia. It has 10 tributary rivers and over 6000 hectares of wetlands of international importance. The numerous bays and peninsulas on the northern shore are home to Bar Headed Geese, Ruddy Shellducks and Northern Lapwings. It is one of 70 Important Bird Area’s (IBA) in Mongolia and part of the East Asian Australasian Flyway protecting migratory water birds. 

This for me is one of Mongolia's wildest, moodiest and most rugged of lakes. I am rather in love with it.

Khar Nuur

Khar Nuur is in Zavkhan Aimag which connects the Gobi Desert in the south with the western Khangai Mountain Range and the great lakes depression of the north west. It is unexpectedly beautiful. And off the beaten track. 

Ulaan Tsutgalan

The area surrounding Ulaan Tsutgalan was created by a series of volcanic eruptions (there are often different types of igneous rock lying on the surface – such as basalt and pumice stone which solidified from molten Magma after reaching the surface). 

The  20-meter high waterfall is formed by a series of small streams and rivers including the Ulaan Gol. The plunge pool formed by the waterfall is a delightful swimming spot. It's popular, but there is enough to go around..

Khoton / Khurgan Nuur

Altai Tavan Bogd National Park in far western Mongolia can be divided into 2 regions, the Tavan Bogd Mountains in the northwest and the lakes area to the southeast. The lakes are fed by glacial melt and annual snow fall that flows into the Tsagaan Us Goland form the head waters of the Khovd River. There are three lakes - Khoton Nuur, Khurgan Nuur and Dayan Nuur. The western shore of Khoton Nuur, with the Chinese border providing a stunning backdrop is a particular favourite. 

And. If you're a swimmer or 'to go swimming' was on your 2017 resolutions list but doing regular lengths at the local pool is becoming a little dull, why not consider joining us on our Wild Swimming Mongolia experience this June.

Nine days (June 9th - 17th). An opportunity for you to come and experience a little of what Mongolia has to offer. And an opportunity to swim and train with the Mongolian Triathlon Federation and to (in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson):

'Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.'

Interested? Please just email for details (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk)

If you're interested in Mongolia but without the wild swimming element then why not pop across to the Eternal Landscapes Mongolia website and see what we're offering for 2017.

And because it's always good to mention, for safety tips on swimming, look at the Outdoor Swimming Society website. As always, thanks for listening.


3 February 2017

48 Hours In Mongolia

Seriously? 48 hours in the world's 19th largest country? For those travelling on the Trans-Mongolian this is sometimes the reality. Just what can you do?

This is not the ultimate list. This is not about the 'top six must do' sights. I am not a travel blogger being sponsored to write this post. This is just some ideas based on 12 years of living and working in Mongolia in the tourism industry. If I had 48 hours in Mongolia, this is what I would consider doing. But, I like being challenged so let me know if you have any ideas that you would consider adding to the list.

DO: Bike Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Yes, areas of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park are overdeveloped and can come as a shock.  Still, hire a bike from one of the mountain bike shops based in Ulaanbaatar and book yourself a driver. Head to the national park and pass the village of Terelj, cross the river (choose a driver with a 4x4 and it becomes no issue) and spend the day exploring the regions to the north of the Terelj River. 

Of course, you could swap your two wheels for four legs and head off into the sunset on a horse trek instead.


DO: Khustain Nuruu National Park

Khustai National Park is one of three locations in Mongolia chosen for the re-introduction of the endemic Przewalski horse – the only wild horse to survive in modern times and known as Takhi in Mongolian. Khustain is one of the success stories of environmental protection in Mongolia although it is facing frequent challenges. Spending longer than the typical two hours may help to provide you with a better understanding of the biodiversity of Khustai - its people, landscapes and wildlife.

Depending on your arrival time, hike the ridges with views over the distant Moltsog Sands as well as the partly forested Khustai Mountains. Do things properly by hiring a guide at the NP entrance and ask them to help you explore the region on a trek - there are incredible look-out points and you have a reasonable chance to see red deer, corsac foxes, Siberian marmots, black vultures and other numerous raptors such as eagles and falcons.

The herders in the buffer zone of the protected area are part of a community based tourism project where they open their homes to visitors. Why not spend a night with a herding family   in the southern region of the park - close to the Tuul River. Staying here means you are also in the right place for  exploring the archaeology of the region including the Neolithic ├ľngut  graves (roughly from the 6th or 7th century A.D). 

DO: Amarbayasgalant Khiid

En-route, stop off at Aglag Buteel Temple. Since the collapse of communism in the 1990’s and as Mongolia’s religious freedom has returned, a number of Buddhist monasteries have been newly established. Aglag Buteel is one of these. Established by Mongolia’s renowned Buddhist lama and artist Purevbat, it is located within a stunning mountain forest steppe landscape. Granite rocks have been carved as statues of Buddhist tradition, each signifying a particular symbolic meaning. There is also a road ‘a kora’ meditation route designed to harmonise with the natural environment.

Then continue on to Amarbayasgalant Monastery - situation in a haven of rugged beauty in the cul-de-sac of a long, deep valley backed by Mount Buren-Khaan against which the 18th century monastery is built. The valley is well watered by the Iver River and has long provided an essential water source for nomadic herders and their livestock.

DO: Discover the world of Chinggis Khan

Nope. This is not getting off the beaten track. This is called being a tourist. But you know what, sometimes that's just fine.

Go to the National History Museum in Ulaanbaatar and acquaint yourself with the section on the Mongol Empire. Then head to Tsonjon Boldog - the 131ft high stainless steel statue of the man himself. The views out over his homeland are spectacular. 

Then head to the 13th Century Park. This is owned by Genco Tours - it is a living museum - just one owned by a tour company. But that's OK as it does give you an essence of what life was like as a Mongol under the rule of Chinggis Khan. 

Spend time exploring the six 'camps' - each one dedicated to a different cultural aspect of 13th Century life in Mongolia. Yes,  there is an element of 'dressing up' but the views are spectacular. Even better, wait until the crowds have gone and arrange a horse trek in the stunning surrounding countryside of Yol Mountain.  

DO: Gun Galuut Nature Reserve

Gun Galuut is a nature reserve protected by members of the local community association located close to the banks of the Kherlen River. Two areas within the protected reserve are of international importance – Mount Baits is a habitat of the globally endangered Argali wild mountain sheep and the Ayanga Wetland is the natural habitat of another endangered species - the White Naped Crane.

For many years, Ariunaa was the protected area ranger of Gun Galuut - together with her husband, they are herders. Book a horse trek with them and they can show you the diversity of this splendid area with the aim that  you might be able to see  the Argali sheep and other wildlife in their natural habitat. Pack binoculars.

DO: Culture in Ulaanbaatar

Start off at the bow and arrow workshop. Actually, a 3-room apartment in Ulaanbaatar where every room and available floor space has been taken over by this family business owned by Batmunkh (it takes up to six months for one bow to be ready). Batmunkh was  a professor of geography at the Mongolian State Teacher’s Train­ing University  but he started his business of making traditional Mongolian bows and arrows approximately 20 years ago. 

You then move on to felt making. Mongolia has roughly 63 million livestock (as of December 2016) -  45% of which are sheep. That's a whole heap of wool and you can learn about the traditional process of felt making itself.  Our felt workshops are with B. Erdenetsetseg - a retired Associate Professor and member of the International Felt makers Association. Held at her home here in UB, these workshops are informal and relaxed and designed to give you an iinsight into someone’s way of life in UB as well as a chance to practise this traditional art form.

Dedicate an afternoon to wrestling. Throughout the year, competitions take place at the Wrestling Palace in Ulaanbaatar. As well as league matches in preparation for Naadam, there are also matches sponsored by government organisations or private business to celebrate anniversaries (such as the anniversary of Chinggis Khan) or special occasions.

You can also explore the  Mongolian Artists Exhibition Hall  – this operates as an ongoing exhibit, a workshop and a shop. Frequently overlooked by international visitors, this is a small but vibrant community space.  Established in 1942, the Union of Mongolian Artists (UMA) is Mongolia's largest, national, non-profit, arts organisation which aims to promote Mongolian fine art and art crafts. The Union has membership of more than 600 artists and has sections of painting, graphic art, sculpture, murals and traditional crafts.  As well as an art gallery - with changing exhibitions, it is also houses artists studios where you can buy directly from the artists. It is a small and informal space but provides a good informal insight into Mongolia's art and culture.

Then head for a cocktail at D.D/H.Z - one of the only visible LGBTQ bar/cafes in Ulaanbaatar. The bar is small, but friendly with cheap international fusion meals and a great local crowd. Mongolia is a traditional society and, although things are slowly changing,  D.D / H.Z is difficult to maintain in a society that is relatively unaccustomed to alternative lifestyles. So. Pop in for an evening beer or a cheap lunchtime meal and you'll be helping to support not only a local business but one where the owner is actively involved in promoting knowledge about and supporting the LGBTQ community in Ulaanbaatar.

If you're interested in Mongolia,  then why not pop across to the Eternal Landscapes Mongolia website and see what we're offering for 2017. Alternatively, just email me (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk) - I'm always happy to be of help and all advice is free with no sales pitch. 

And, unless I have mentioned otherwise, all images used throughout this post were taken either by EL guests or members of the EL team. This is the Mongolia you will also experience if you chose to travel with us.

Wherever the road takes you in 2017 - Sain Yavaarai - Journey Well