28 July 2017

Mongolia Through A Lens

My brief guide to photography in Mongolia

Am I a photographer? No. Do I take photographs? Mostly no. So why am I writing a post on photography in Mongolia?

Because when I was biking home through Ulaanbaatar yesterday and I observed a group of westerners with cameras almost chasing a group of older Mongolian's wearing deels I felt embarrassed.

We host photography groups each year and these are some of the tips passed on from them. This is not advice about landscape versus portraiture or of finding a foreground. This is photography advice with a more cultural focus.

You're Not The First 

Mongolians have encountered many westerners before. Mongolians and the ethnic groups of Mongolia are not undiscovered tribes and you will not be the first or last person they have hosted. They are a modern people who have welcomed visitors from all over the world, and confront many of the same challenges as the rest of the modern world.

Mongolians and groups such as the Kazakhs are warm and welcoming. But although they are curious they are not typically that talkative. They can also be stubborn, taciturn, reserved and indifferent. They certainly do not like displays of impatience, superiority, arrogance or anger. 

Mongolians have encountered many filmmakers and photographers and are savvy to the concept that some photographs are designed to produce products that yield profits or publications. Talk to them about what you want to achieve. Be prepared to compromise.

Ditch The Stereotype

Mongolia is so much more than nomads, Kazakh eagle hunters, the Tsaatan reindeer herders and the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians are not a museum exhibit - it's the 21st Century. Ditch the images that simply perpetuate the stereotypes of Mongolia and aim for  a more honest portrayal of real life.  

Slow Down

Take time to get to know your subject. Have a conversation,  get a feel for the space around you. If possible, don't even pick up your camera. Drink the tea that's offered to you - actually, drink two bowls. Even if the light is perfect.

Once your subject feels comfortable with you, they’ll share parts of themselves with you and your camera, which make for much more rich and honest portraits. 

The Small Details

The Mongolian concept of time will definitely differ to yours. And remember, your hosts have a life to lead and a daily workload. If they're herders, herding their livestock is integral to their way of life and comes first over your photography. Also, as in our everyday lives, sometimes plans change.

And Mongolians themselves have cameras - everything from an iPhone to a Canon or Nikon. If you're taking photos of them and they ask to take photos of you, of course you should accept.

We're not a specialist photography company but we do host photography trips each year for a range of photographers and photography companies. If you would like to learn more about the trips and experiences we offer in Mongolia, please take a look at my Eternal Landscapes Mongolia website.


20 July 2017

Wilderness Trails - Trekking In Mongolia

My brief guide to trekking in Mongolia. If you prefer glamping (one of the current 'buzz' words in travel) then read no further.  There is no mention of scatter cushions or wood-burning stoves in this post. 

Mongolia is a trekking mecca – wild landscapes & endless horizons stretch before you in this sparsely populated land without boundaries. But, this is Mongolia. Trekking in Mongolia is not like trekking elsewhere. There are few ‘official’ trekking routes. OK. So it’s not great for boasting to your friends as they won’t have heard where you have been, but does that really matter? 

It is also vast - the size of Western Europe and as a result, your trekking region won’t necessarily have a large diversity of landscapes as you won’t be able to cover the distance to provide such variety. But you know what? That's OK. Slow down and savour your surroundings. 

Of course, there are always those that want to trek to the furthest, highest, remotest, or the most off the beaten track location. That's fine but that turns the experience into a competition. For me, it's the power of Mongolia’s ‘eternal landscapes’ that forms an integral part of any trekking journey here.

What I believe is that you should remove your watch and let each day unfold and enjoy the constantly changing shadows and light moving across the landscapes, the silence, meeting the locals, the stretching horizons and the joy of the great outdoors. And knowing that you are trekking in the least densely populated country in the world. 

Here's a brief summary of five trekking locations in Mongolia. But … don't get tied down into what is the most authentic or untouched region to visit. Instead, embrace the words of this Mongolian proverb: 

'Man's joy is in wide open and empty spaces.' 

As all journeys in Mongolia should go in  a clock-wise direction, so does this one:

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Yes, this is one of Mongolia's most visited destinations. It's bound to be as it's located just 60km from Ulaanbaatar, Yes, it is included in many general tour itineraries but it doesn't have to be about the 'must see' sights. The hinterland of Terelj is stunning to explore in its own right - especially if you're prepared to trek just that little bit further. With a little effort you can explore habitats as diverse as river valleys, barren mountain tops, high open Mongolian steppe, coniferous forests of Siberian Pine and Siberian Larch and sub-alpine meadows. The region features abundant streams and springs.

Horse and foot treks are both available. Great options for winter trekking as well. Just bring thermals! 

Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park 

This is Mongolia's largest national park located in the southern Gobi – a mountainous terrain rising out of the extensive desert plains and a region of incredible biological diversity. This mountainous region was formed by the same tectonic activity that created the Himalayas and is part of the Gobi Altai Range – the outer crumple zone of the Himalayan geological activity. 

Yes, you will have heard of places such as Yolyn Am (the Ice Canyon) but these are all popular regions. Instead, explore the further regions by camel (bring padded shorts) or on a foot trek.

Khangai Mountains

The Khangai dominate central Mongolia - extending northwest-southeast for about 500 miles. That's a glorious amount of trekking terrain. Popular locations would be Naiman Nuur, Terkhiin Tsagaaan Nuur, Otgon Tenger and anywhere surrounding Tsenkher Hot Springs. I can also highly recommend Tarvagtai National Park. 

Altai Tavan Bogd National Park 

Mongolia is one of the highest countries in the world. Did you know that? Over 80% of the country is over 1000m. So. A lot of the country provides epic views. But if you're looking for a view of views then you may want to head to western Mongolia. More specifically to Altai Tavan Bogd. 

The Altai Tavan Bogd Mountains are the highest mountains in Mongolia, with Khuiten Uul ('Cold Peak') at 4374m (14,201 ft) being the highest. These permanently snow capped mountains form a bowl around the Pontanii Glacier. The other peaks are Nairamdal ('Friendship', 4180m), Malchin ('herder, 4050m), Bürged ('Eagle', 4068m) and Olgii ('Cradle', 4050m).  

But, this is a common trail so why not do something a little different and head to the small community of Altai in Bayan Ulgii and start a trek from there.

Khovsgol Nuur National Park

So much variety in one location - everything from Mongolia's largest freshwater lake (Dalai Ej - Mother Sea), to the remarkable Khoridol Saridag mountain wilderness and also the Darkhad Depression.

Perfect for an extended horse or foot trek. Also works well as a winter escape (trust me!).

As promised, not a mention of scatter cushions. If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia on a trek then why not have a quick look at  our Mongolia trekking tours page? We have a small group trip (guaranteed departure) leaving on August 5th. Wherever you explore, as we say here in Mongolia - Sain Yavaarai - Journey Well. Jess


13 July 2017

Mongolia's Naadam Festival - 2017

If you're reading about Mongolia then you have probably heard of Naadam. What surprises me is that people just see Naadam as the Three Manly Games. Naad means games and yes, Naadam highlights the ‘three manly games’ of wrestling,  archery and horse racing.  But, Naadam is so much more than wrestlers, horse racing and archery.

Naadam is a national celebration for Mongolians.  It is also a favoured public holiday, one of Mongolia's top sporting events, a celebration of culture and tradition and pride, and a vibrant festival. It is a celebration of first-class sportsmanship, ordinary people taking pride in their country  and century’s old tradition melded together.  It is also a time when Mongolians celebrate who they are, how proud they are to be Mongolian, their heritage and the qualities that produced the warrior nation of Genghis Khan. 

Countrywide Naadam

This national event is held in Ulaanbaatar on July 11th and 12th (with horse racing taking place in the week leading up to the event). The dates are the anniversary of the 1921 Revolution led by the Mongolian revolutionary Sukhbaatar that brought independence from the Qing Dynasty.  

Then, each aimag (province) also holds its own Naadam with each aimag deciding on their own festival dates. Often, the dates of these provincial celebrations are announced roughly one month in advance only.   Each province is split into districts and so most of the districts will also hold a Naadam. Naadam celebrations are also held by small communties - as an example, herders coming together to honour the community ovoo (sacred stone shrine). Naadam is a holiday and a celebration and so most communities decide an auspicious day from the Mongolian Lunar Calendar. These smaller community events are typically only advertised by word of mouth within the local community.

Opening Ceremony

It's not just the National Ulaanbaatar Naadam that holds an opening ceremony - no matter the size, each Naadam will have an 'opening' of some kind. 

For the Ulaanbaatar Naadam, did you know that each year the Opening Ceremony is designed by a leading Mongolian artist? Based on a different theme?  In 2017, N. Naranbaatar was the artistic creator - the Executive Director of the State Academic Theatre of Drama and State Laureate.

The Three Manly Sports

Well. There's four.

Horse racing, wrestling, archery and also shagain kharvaa - ankle bone shooting. 

At the 2017 national event the wrestling was won by Ts.Sodnomdorj - who previously had only achieved success at the 6th round (Hawk). It was a good year for new titles - with one Lion, Garuda, two Elephants, two hawks and six falcons being born. No. It's not  a zoo. These are the titles given to the winners of round 5 upwards. And remember that 512 wrestlers compete so getting to round 6 or 7 is a huge achievement.

Even the Olympic gold medalist N.Tuvshinbayar took part - earning an Elephant of State title. 

The President Takes Part

Here's part of the Naadam opening speech made by Mongolia's President (Fifth President of Mongolia - Kh.Battulga) this year:

'Everywhere around the world, our people are raising the fame of our beloved country, Mongolia. The banner of our independence is still standing strong. The hardworking Mongolia has won and is striving for development … Naadam celebration is a significant cultural heritage that is spreading the name of our country in the world. In the sweet times of summer, our tradition of statehood, wonder of cultural history and pleasure of our people National Naadam celebration has now started. In the days of laughter and hardship of our proud people with great history and culture, let their hearts be at ease, horses be quick and bows be accurate … Happy Naadam. Let our sovereign state be flourished. And let my people be at peace.'

If you read anywhere about Naadam being too touristy, ignore it. Naadam will be so much more than you will probably expect it to be.  The most important thing to remember is to experience Naadam from a Mongolian perspective. Apart from the stadium events, it’s free for all members of the public and it draws a large number of Mongolian families - there are  far more Mongolian spectators than foreigners- creating a vibrant holiday atmosphere. 

If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia's Naadam or one of the other annual festivals, why not have  quick look at the Mongolia Festivals page on my EL website. I'm always happy to answer questions so do get in touch. 

For now, Saikhan Naadaarai!

2 July 2017

Photo Essay: Family Experiences In Mongolia

Mongolia? With kids? Seriously? Yes!

Wide open spaces. Freedom. Exploration. Adventure. Discovery. And yes, even a decent 3G network with affordable data for those times when the IPad is really needed.

The itineraries I design are designed with kids in mind. Not the adults. Yes, the parents will be the ones that email me but I put together the itinerary based on experiences for the kids.

That's why there's not too many monasteries or archaeological sites and more interactive experiences. With everything from local train rides to cookery lessons and wild camping. 

Doing your bit for the future by planting a tree at the Gobi Oasis Conservation Project

Interactive visit to the Nogoon Nuur Community Project in Ulaanbaatar

Learning about the traditional way of life on our one day 'ger to ger' walk

25 m pistol training at the Монголын Буудлага Спортын Төв Клуб

* This is where members of the Mongolian Olympic team train

Collecting water the local way

* Don't panic parents. Each of our vans includes a Lifesaver carbon water filter

Get on your bike and ride

* Each of our Furgon vans has a City Nomads folding bike.  They're as popular with the local Mongolians as they are with our guests! It's a way of bringing both together in a way that doesn't need language

Rural Homestays

* Everything from milking a goat to sampling the local cuisine 

Freedom of the open road with your private Furgon van 

* Loved by all kids even though the parents may prefer a Landcruiser!

Not a museum in sight!

Cooking up a storm on the steppe

And then there's always the wildlife

Yes. I could write a list of reviews but I think the photos say it all!  Mongolia provides  the backdrop for a family holiday like no other - rejuvenate your spirit of adventure and spend quality time with your family on a trip you will always remember. Our family itineraries are private trips of discovery adapted to suit your budget, travel dates and your children and what you would like them to experience in Mongolia. 

If you're looking for ideas and inspiration then do check the Mongolia family holidays page on my Eternal Landscapes website.  I look forward to hearing from you!