27 May 2017

The 'soul' of Seoul Street, Ulaanbaatar

With the news that one of Ulaanbaatar's beating arteries is about to turn into a pedestrian zone, just what can you experience on this urban thoroughfare?

And so the EL blog once again focuses on Ulaanbaatar (UB) - Mongolia's capital city and a place where most visitors are happy just to spend a few hours before heading out to the 'real' Mongolia.

But, as I keep on saying, I really like Ulaanbaatar - Red Hero. It  is a surprising mix of East meets West. Yes, it is polluted and dusty but it is also dynamic. From its origins as a nomadic city, it has developed into a tough, modern and cosmopolitan city full of contrasts and extremes. UB maintains a strong Mongolian identity of its own and has a ‘frontier’ feel and vibrancy.

One of the most central streets is Seoul Street that runs on an east - west parallel to the south of Peace Avenue. It has been reported in the local Mongolian news that come early June, part of Seoul Street will be pedestrianised (with some reports saying 24 hours and some saying just the evening. Still, either way its a great decision).

So  why would you head to  Seoul Street in downtown Ulaanbaatar? What is there to experience? Here's just a hint of what's available … what puts the 'soul' into Seoul Street.

Mongolian Artists Exhibition Hall

True. It's not quite on Seoul Street - it's on the junction of Peace Avenue, Seoul Street and Chinggis Avenue.

If you are interested in art then I do recommend that you visit. 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. 
As well as an art gallery - with changing exhibitions, it is also houses artists studios where you can buy directly from the artists. Frequently overlooked by international visitors, this is a small but vibrant community space. 

And then having had a dose of culture, you may be in need of a drink …

Grand Khan Irish

It's not particularly cheap, it's not authentic Mongolian and you wouldn't necessarily choose the Grand Khan for a fine dining experience. However, their outside patio is just perfect for a summer's evening drink or two.

Rosewood Restaurant

The main focus here is locally sourced produce and hand cut meat from their own butchery. It advertises itself as a neighbourhood restaurant serving Italian inspired cuisine with a modern perspective and global twist.

Anyway. Just visit. The reviews are excellent for a reason. 

Rev | Revolution Bar \ Republic

One place, many titles. It's popular with the urban youth as well as expats. There's a pub on the ground floor and the next floor up is a venue for live music.

UB Jazz Club

This is UB’s only dedicated Jazz club. You don't go for the cuisine. You go to listen to live music performed by talented domestic and international musicians - whether that be blues, jazz or swing.

Mongolian Quilting Centre

Also known as the New Way Life NGO, the  aim of the Mongolian Quilting Shop is to provide women with traditional handicraft skills to create an accessible and sustainable source of income. Many of these women are head of their households; the income they generate through NWL is essential in helping to sustain their families and gives them a skill and confidence). 

This is the perfect place to do some guilt free retail therapy. 

Torgo Fashion Salon (Jun 1 to Sept 25 only) 

This is where Mongolian models strut their stuff on the catwalk in outfits created by local designers  with a blend of traditional Mongolian outfits with contemporary fashion. You can purchase items or just pay to experience the show.  

So there you go. Just a short section of one street - a 30 minute stroll and look what's on offer. I hope to see you there this summer. And if you want to know what else is happening, you can always look the Our News page on the Eternal Landscapes Mongolia website


16 May 2017

Experiential travel Mongolia - Meet Batmonkh

 Tomorkhuu Bat­monkh is a specialist bow and arrow maker in Ulaanbaatar.
Batmonkh's home is also his workshop and every surface of his home is dedicated to his skill with sinews, glue, ar­rows, bird feathers, arrowheads, ready­made bows, tools, and implements ev­erywhere. As soon as you enter his 3-room apartment in the Bayangol District, his love for this profession is evident.

Those of you that know me, know that I am always trying to promote experiences available in Ulaanbaatar as a way of showing the skills and knowledge of the local people that make their home in this vibrant city.

So many travellers are quick to dismiss Ulaanbaatar and what it offers but many talented people make their home here. And one of those is Batmonkh. From outside Batmonkh’s apartment, you would just think it yet another piece of brutal Soviet inspired architecture in need of some TLC. It is. But, inside Batmonkh’s apartment is a different story. As you cross through the doorway, his dedication for what he does becomes apparent. It is remarkable what you can fit into a three-room apartment.

In Mongolia, bows were primarily used for hunting animals for food and protecting the tribe from outside enemies. The composite bow and arrow also accompanied the Mongol Army as they conquered what became the largest contiguous land empire on earth. Over the centuries, the tradition of archery was passed down to become one of the Three Manly Sports of the Naadam Festival.

The Mongolian composite bow remains a formidable tool. And those that have experienced the archery competition at the National Naadam in UB will tell you that is has an explosive acceleration and velocity.

It takes one year to make one bow. Birch wood is typically used as it is resilient (and in plentiful supply in Mongolia). It is cut, glued and shaped into a bow and kept to dry. Most available surfaces of Batmonkh’s apartment  are used for drying the bows and each one of them had dates of when they were put up to dry. 

Also filling the apartment are the other component parts required for making the bows (and any arrow sets). There is also the fish glue, birch bark (to protect against moisture), horn or bone (Ibex is good - used on the ‘belly’ of the bow), sinew (stretched on the outside of the bow) and feathers and arrowheads. As I said, as soon as you enter his 3-room apartment in the Bayangol District, his love for this profession is evident.  

As a visitor, not only do you get to see Batmonkh’s craftsmanship, you’ll also get an informal history lesson as he tells you about the development of the bow and arrow in Mongolia. So enthusiastic is he about his profession that it has become a family affair - with all family members involved and his son following in his footsteps.

Batmonkh was formerly a  professor of geography but he was a competitive archer so for him it was a natural progression to constructing them. He still competes and as you spend time at his apartment, archers pass through - coming to talk about the purchase of a new bow or just coming to have a chat in general. Like I said, from outside Batmonkh’s apartment, you would just think it yet another piece of brutal Soviet inspired architecture in need of some TLC. It is. But, inside Batmonkh’s apartment is a different story.

If you're interested in meeting Batmonkh as part of your Mongolia experience, just let me know. Alternatively, spend time exploring our Eternal Landscapes Mongolia website for other ideas on experiential travel in Mongolia.


6 May 2017

Well Refurbishment Project Mongolia - CAMDA NGO

Let's start with a question. Say you're a herder in Mongolia, what do you think is one of the main requirements for your livestock apart from grazing pasture? Yep, you're right. The answer is water. And that's what the focus of this blog post is about.

There are around 150,000 herder households spread throughout the 1.56 million square miles that form the immensity that is Mongolia.

Although personal usage by herders is minimal, of course water is essential for their livestock … all 61.5 million (approximately) of them. 

Those of you that have been to Mongolia will be aware that streams and rivers are only prevalent in certain areas of the country such as the Khangai. Elsewhere, access to water is severely limited due to geography and climate change.

'Climate change has been monitored over several decades due to the country's vast grasslands and equally vast livestock herds. Satellite monitoring and field research by rangeland experts and academics from around the world all find that it is changing there at a faster pace than in most other countries, with warnings of yet greater severity and unpredictability in future. '

Bill Munns, CAMDA

That's why wells ('either deep engineered or shallow bore and drawn from aquifers' - Bill Munns) are so essential. 

CAMDA is a UK based NGO dedicated to  supporting and bringing resources to Mongolia’s herders. It was formed in 2000 following a countrywide severe weather event known as a dzud  - a weather event unique to Mongolia.  CAMDA provides support not just by providing financial aid, but real practical help, the sort that makes a long term difference. Part of their essential work includes the restoration and replacement of fresh-water wells.

Time for a photo. True, probably not one of the most Instagrammed images from Mongolia.

Wells are an indispensable source of water to herders and livestock in Mongolia. To those whose lives revolve around and depend upon their livestock they are absolutely invaluable. 

CAMDA's well project is an ongoing project - aiming to provide about 30 wells each year shared among four provinces in Mongolia. They are created using local labour and materials and when the well is complete, handed over to the local authority with a designated person for maintenance. 

Some of the provinces are in Gobi fringe regions, and most wells there are refurbished. Khovsgol Province is in the north, not arid in the main but due to hilly terrain it suffers rain run-off and localised water shortage. Where herds are forced to travel further to graze or find water, their trampling degrades pasture. A solution to ease this situation was seen by adding new wells, especially in areas where climate change has reduced other natural water sources.

In 2016, CAMDA constructed 20 in Khovsgol (EL's 2016 donation helped to fund the construction of two wells here) - now serving more than 170 herder households with an overall total of livestock exceeding 28,000 heads. A further 5 wells were rehabilitated in Ovorkhangai province, serving some 28 households and their 3,700 heads of livestock. 

2017 should see CAMDA being able to fund 35 + wells.  

If you're considering visiting Mongolia in 2017, maybe you could help the work of CAMDA by making a small donation to their vital work? 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.

And, (because there always has to be a 'plug'!) learn more about why we support CAMDA as part of our responsible travel philosophy.

As always, thanks for listening. Jess

1 May 2017

Photo Essay: The Landscapes Of Mongolia

What’s inspired this post? One of our guests has just returned from a two-day EL experience in the middle Gobi. The following images are his own.

The middle Gobi is frequently overlooked as a destination in Mongolia -  not remote enough, not detailed in a guidebook list of highlights, not 'enough to do' but the fact that so few people visit it makes it one of my favourite locations in Mongolia.

    Tristan Clements

Landscapes are often overlooked though - they just form a backdrop as, for a majority of visitors, making contact with the local people is the most important element of their trip to Mongolia – for a moment or two, crossing the cultural divide. I understand this but have always firmly believed that landscapes are central to any experience of Mongolia.

They're  immense and immeasurable, weathered and stark. And after 12 years of living and travelling through Mongolia, it is still the time spent exploring and ‘just being’ in the landscapes which I continue to find the most uplifting and enlightening of experiences. That's why this blog post is dedicated to Mongolia's landscapes.

       Tristan Clements

       Tristan Clements

Like I said, I understand that for a majority of visitors, making contact with the local people is an important element of their trip to Mongolia – for a moment or two, crossing the cultural divide. For me though, the power of the landscapes (and the horizons that are so expansive that they also become part of the landscape) is also an integral part of any journey. The people of Mongolia are well-matched to the land they inhabit and by travelling through the diversity of Mongolia’s landscapes, I feel you can start to understand how the landscapes have helped to form the Mongolian personality  - the sturdy individualism, their hardiness, endurance, self-sufficiency, tolerance and definitely their spirit of freedom. 

       Tristan Clements

So when you next visit Mongolia, don't forget that time spent exploring and ‘just
being’ in the landscapes will also be uplifting and enlightening.  It’s a chance to remove your watch, take a break from the modern world and let each day and each journey unfold. Travelling in this way gives you time to think and gain a
fresh perspective. 

Spend time in Mongolia's landscapes. They're good for the soul. 

        Tristan Clements

     Tristan Clements

If you're interested in spending time in Mongolia's landscapes with EL please take a look at our Eternal Landscapes Mongolia website. This is where you can get to meet us and understand a little more about our travel philosophy and style of trips. 

Thanks for listening, Jess