31 October 2017

Focus On Ulaanbaatar for World Cities' Day

A blog post focusing on a social entrepreneurship in Ulaanbaatar for World Cities' Day

So. Now you know. Today is the World Cities' Day. You probably know it more as (the probably more famous) Halloween. So if you need an introduction, United Nations designated October 31st as World Cities Day with a general theme of 'Better City, Better Life.' 

And to acknowledge the day, I have decided to focus on one man that is making his own impact on Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia's capital city. One of the most polluted cities in the world. This is about Ulziitogtokh Sodnomsenge  and Nogoon Nuur. 

UB is situated in the Tuul River valley.  It was a nomadic settlement - moving to its present location in 1778.  From 1924 until the early 1990’s, Mongolia was run from the Kremlin and a course of socialist development was undertaken that was very close to the replica of the Soviet experience. 

Ulaanbaatar’s downtown was designed by Soviet architects with the entire city being designed for pedestrians  - built to hold 500,000 inhabitants. I'll repeat that - 500,000 inhabitants.

So what's the current population? Approximately 1.3 million. I'll repeat that - approximately 1.3 million. Almost three times as many as the city was initially designed for. In the last census (2010) the population density of UB was 246 persons per square kilometre (compared to 1.4-1.7 in rural areas).

More than half of the capital’s residents live in the city’s ger districts. Life in the ger district is hard but for many citizens the ger remains central to their identity. It is not just new migrants from the countryside and impoverished residents who have homes in the district. Many successful city workers live here too.  

It’s not easy though. The ger district is not connected to the city’s piped central heating system that runs to many other suburbs. In winter, when temperatures can drop to -40C, raw coal, rubber and even plastics are thrown onto the stove. These toxic emissions are one of the main reasons Ulaanbaatar is one of most polluted cities on Earth (during the winter months), according to the World Health Organisation - especially as the city is set in a hollow between four hills and struggles for space.

The new President of Mongolia has recently mentioned that:

 ‘Ulaanbaatar is like a family living in a ger that became too small to contain all of the members of the extended family.’

One person who is working on making his city a better place to live is Ulziitogtokh Sodnomsenge – or Ulzii, as he is known. There are few safe community spaces within the ger districts - especially community spaces where children can play. But, Nogoon Nuur (Green Lake) - the brain child of Ulzii is bucking this trend.  

Ulzii is a philanthropist (his 2015 TedExUlaanbaatar talk focused on being rewarded someday for for what you have done or are doing).  In 2009, Ulzii gained approval to develop the Nogoon Nuur (Green Lake) at Denjin Myanga. He cleaned up the lake and used his savings to turn the former dumpsite into an affordable community space.

In December 2012 it finally opened, offering affordable ice-skating (winter) and paddle boating (summer). In his words: 

'The kids in this area often have a very hard life. I want to give them somewhere to play.'

Over this time Ulzii has planted over 500 trees and focused on creating a  healthy, green, public space for Mongolian people, especially children in the ger areaWhat is most noticeable about the whole area is the lack of rubbish. Surprising in Ulaanbaatar. The local children that visit are encouraged to respect the area and to help protect it. 

I love this place immensely. That's why we include it as part of our free city walking tour of UB - making a donation per person that visits. It shows our guests a different more local side to Ulaanbaatar.

As a traveller, you will more than likely bring your guidebook but why not ditch the guidebook for a while and discover a new side to this city that is now my home.  The plug (of course!). If you would like to experience the community aspect of Ulaanbaatar with either myself or one of my Eternal Landscapes team, why not try one of our Mongolia one-day experiences?

26 October 2017

Photo Essay: Mongolia's National Parks and Nature Reserves

Roughly 17% of Mongolia's landmass has some form of national environmental protection. A further 10% has local protected area status. Every September I offer our National Park and Nature Reserves experience - designed to bring bring our guests into contact with some of the less visited national parks and nature reserves in the country. The following images were taken by our guest Séverine Baptiste-Blanchard who joined us this September.

The vast landscapes of Mongolia’s middle Gobi and the mountain forest steppe of Khentii provide  the backdrop. By visiting two contrasting regions - the Gobi and Khentii  - it provides  a better understanding of the diversity of the people and their way of life and the landscapes in Mongolia.

Ikh Nart Nature Reserve - Dorngobi Aimag

We start with a journey on the local Trans Mongolian train - travelling through steppe to desert terrain and starting to get an understanding of the diversity of Mongolia’s natural habitats as the immense landscapes start to unfold before you.

The final destination is Ikh Nart Nature Reserve - a wildlife region of rocky terrain and canyons. Ikh Nart represents one of the last strong-holds for the globally threatened Argali Sheep - the largest mountain sheep in the world (Ovis Ammon). It is also a breeding site for one of the world's largest vultures, the Cinereous Vulture - also known as the European Black Vulture. Here we work with the protected area ranger Batbold and we always arrange an afternoon wildlife safari with him as long as his schedule permits.

Ikh Gazriin Chuluu - Dundgobi Aimag

Ikh Gazriin Chuluu is characterised by extensive granite rock formations and surrounded by steppe and semi-desert habitat. 

It also has local level protection within Mongolia. The site is one of Mongolia’s 70 Important Bird Area’s - providing a good stopover habitat for many nesting and migrating raptors including the Saker Falcon and the Lesser Kestrel. 

Erdenedalai - Dundgobi Aimag
Erdenedalai is Mongolian for ‘Jewel Ocean’ and although far from the ocean this small town located in the middle of the Gobi steppe provides a genuine insight into everyday life in Mongolia. It is also the hometown of a majority of the EL team and a very tight knit and traditional community.

Even though annual precipitation in this area is low, with no permanent lakes and very few springs, roughly 5880 herder households make their home in this transition zone between steppe and desert. 

It is a beautiful region little visited by other international visitors as it's not considered a highlight by guidebook writers or tour companies. And that's exactly why we make it one of our bases. It's great for slow travel experiences of a more immersive kind.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park - Tuv Aimag

Yes, Gorkhi-Terelj is the closest national park to Ulaanbaatar and is very developed (some would say over developed) for the tourist industry (the main valley was first developed for tourism in 1964) but it shares a common border with Khan Khentii and the two reserves  are similar. Between the two sites, altitudinal variation is significant, leading to the development of different habitats but both support large areas of forest steppe and mountain steppe, with alpine habitats on higher peaks.
The area is rich in rivers and streams, including the Terelj and Tuul and these water sources together with the  rainfall in this mountainous region brings life to the pastureland – providing grazing for the livestock of the herding families who make this area their home. These herders include Naraa, Bujee (his wife) and their two children Tsindee and Bayasa - the family we work with in the region. 

Khentii Aimag 

Named for the Khentii Mountains that dominate the north west of this province. 

The region also hosts a number of cultural heritage sites demonstrating an evolving sacred cultural landscape. This includes Baldan Bereeven Khiid Monastery which would have been the centre of local life for a population whose faith and devotion more than made up for the simplicity and the challenging remote life-style. The monastery is surrounded by four mountains each said to resemble an animal: a lion on the east; a dragon on the south; a tiger on the west; and a Garuda on the north - each cardinal point is also guarded by a Protector Deity.

Regions of Khentii are also home to the Buriat ethnic minority. They traditionally live more in log houses and move around in the summers with a ger. They also harvest hay in preparation for winter and lead a more settled lifestyle than other Mongols. The communities at Batshireet, Binder, Dadal Bayan Uul, and Dashbalbar are mainly Buriat.

In Khentii Aimag you will also find the stunning Onon Balj National Park - the biodiversity of the national park is unique and rich due to its location situated at the juncture of two big ecosystems of central Asia, the Siberian taiga and Daurian/Manchurian dry steppe.

You also cross the mighty Onon River using the birvaz.  The what? The birvaz is one of my favourite inventions - a floating platform on a pulley system that crosses the river - used by locals with their motorbikes or in this case, by EL with our Furgon van. Tserendorj is the operator and crossing the river this way gives you time to discuss the weather, the state of the Mongolian economy and to count fish.

And then there's the delight of the community of Dadal considered by many as the birthplace of Genghis Khan. Dadal is an attractive small community on the border of the Onon-Balj National Park. Genghis Khan’s birthplace is believed to lie at confluence of the Onon and Balj rivers at Delüün Boldog - 3km north of Bayan-Ovoo (the centre of Dadal district) in the Delüün Boldog hills. It's just a lovely local community to spend a little time in with no set-plans.

And so that's our National Parks and Nature Reserves experience through the eyes of our guest Séverine Baptiste-Blanchard.  

If you're interested in getting a more local insight into Mongolia, then have a look at our Eternal Landscapes Mongolia website for a more realist introduction to the way of life in contemporary Mongolia. 

10 October 2017

The Annual EL Mongolian National Park Clean Up

True. Not the most eye catching of subject titles. It's difficult to try and 'jazz' it up. But, that's what this post is about - the annual EL funded rubbish clean-up. 

OK. When most people think of Mongolia they don't think of a rubbish clean-up. It's not in the top ten highlights suggested by Lonely Planet or Wanderlust. Still, this is what we do - donning gloves, picking up sacks and getting on with it.

What's it all about?!

Mongolia is frequently sold by tour companies as being a pristine untouched wilderness. It's not. But, with Mongolia's scenic beauty and wilderness experience being key points behind why people visit Mongolia, preservation of these values is a prerequisite for sustainable travel here in Mongolia. Much of Mongolia’s tourism sector in fact depends in the long term on the preservation of the country’s cultural and physical landscapes. 

Unfortunately in Mongolia (as with elsewhere in the world), there has been a noticable increase in the amount of rubbish that is discarded. A majority of our clients commented on it so I decided to do something about it.....and make it part of our philosophy and a feature of the EL calendar.

For the past four years, Turuu and I have arranged for members of the Tariat community to spend two days clearing the north-shore (and surrounding area) of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park.

Our community clean up team at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia

Our community clean up team at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia
Our community clean up team at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia


Why Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park?

Because of these guys. Batbold and Jargaa (I'm pictured here with them and their grandson Anand - who deserves a blog post all of his own). Some of the kindest and warmest people you could ever hope to meet.

Our friends Batbold and Jargaa outside their home at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia

We picked Terkhiin Tsaagaan Nuur initially due to the strength of our contacts there. We wanted a community involvement and Jargaa and Batbold (our hosts at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur and owners of Surtiin Tulga Eco Camp) are at the centre of their local community.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is popular with Mongolian families making the most of the five-day annual Naadam holiday. And this is where rubbish, human waste, and camp fires had degraded the environment over the course of several years as visitor numbers have increased. Discarded rubbish is a major issue for the local rural communities as many of them lack the funds and resources to collect the rubbish. 

That’s the basic combination that inspired Turuu and I to arrange and facilitate a trial clean-up in 2014 at the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park and then to repeat it in 2015 and 2016. And now 2017.

This year? We wanted to see the differences. And gladly there were.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia
Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia

A natural highlight of Mongolia, White Lake National Park encompasses an area of wild nature - volcanic craters, rugged mountains, river valleys and rolling steppe.

This large freshwater lake (formed by the damming of the Chuluut River from the lava flow from Khorg Uul  - radiocarbon dated at about 4930 years ago) 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. There are also populations of Siberian Marmots on the open steppe and Grey Wolves (mainly in the larch dominated coniferous forest in the mountains).  

Working Together

Our suggestion of two-days dedicated to cleaning up waste were welcomed by the administration of the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park back in 2014 and the joint effort was planned.  It is still warmly welcomed.

As with each year, we paid a small financial incentive to each person involved - including unemployed locals and nomadic herders who make their home in the area who volunteered to come and join us.  We were also joined by the protected area rangers. We obtained the local town (15-ton) rubbish truck and paid for the fuel and the driver. We provided a cooked lunch on both days as well as urns of tea. AND! Between us (on both occasions)  we filled the rubbish truck.  

There is absolutely no way to make a 15-ton truck full of rubbish look like an exciting image. Still, here it is:

We battled through all weather conditions - including snow, thunder and lightening and a massive hail storm that drenched us within seconds. 

The end of clean-up party was rather monumental - sorry, the vodka was flowing so we have no photos. 

But, we'll be returning to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur in 2018.  We will also be extending our rubbish collection to Erdenedalai in the middle Gobi - the home region of most of the EL team and also the inspiration behind our Mongolian business name - Gobi Gua Undur.  

This experience is open to our guests - an opportunity for active involvement in community conservation work. Why not consider joining us and make the most of an opportunity to take experiential travel to a new level by contributing  with time and effort to a good environmental cause? (We will cover the costs of the days spent on the rubbish collection itself).

Interested? Dates to follow but get in touch for more details!

One of our posters for the rubbish clean-up

1 October 2017

Mongolia's Middle Gobi

There are many places in Mongolia to visit  but 12 years on from when I first arrived into Mongolia, the landscapes 
of the middle Gobi remain my favourite.

So why this post dedicaed to the middle Gobi? I was returning today from a research trip - we were travelling late afternoon with three cars filled with relatives of Turuu and this was the view. 

As the sunset over the land, I thought … 'I love this landscape.' It's not particularly famous for anything and that's partly why I love it - it's bypassed by a majority of international visitors - all keen to head to the more famous sites of the southern Gobi but, spend time here and you'll find a healthy fix of silence — time to think clearly.

These are just a few reasons why I love the region:

Image by our guest Tristan Clements

 Zorgol Khairkhan

A sacred mountain that rises almost vertically out of the middle Gobi steppe. True, it's in the Bayan-Unjul district of Tuv Aimag so actually in the middle Gobi but let's overlook that for now. It forms forms part of the Mongolian granite belt with its peak rising to 1668m above sea level. The small natural springs are vital for the herders and the wildlife in this region. This is the ultimate camping destination.

Baga Gazriin Chuluu

This area is characterised by extensive granite rock formations and surrounded by steppe and semi-desert habitat with local protection.  It is the ultimate camping spot … as this image from our campsite shows.

Image by our guest Tineke Cornel

At Baga Gazriin Chuluu we work with  the local protected area ranger Batsaikhan and he loves to arrange an informal one-day tour exploring petroglyphs, burial mounds and old monasteries - specifically Delgeriin Choiriin Khiid. Once one of Mongolia’s most important religious centres.  It was destroyed during the religious and political purges of the 1930’s. In the past few years, reconstruction work is taking place in order to rebuild the monastery in traditional style using local materials. 

Image by our guest Nick Rains - photographer

Image by our guest Tristan Clements

Image by our guest Tristan Clements

Ikh Gazriin Chuluu 

Sister site to Baga Gazriin Chuluu,  the area is one of Mongolia’s 70 Important Bird Area’s. The site provides a good stopover habitat for many nesting and migrating raptors including the Saker Falcon and the Lesser Kestrel. It's also a great place to watch the sunset from.

Image by our guest Marian Herz
Image by EL team

Tsagaan Suvraga
Image by EL team

It translates into 'White Stupa' and White Stupa which has Buddhist connections. This is an open expanse consisting of sun-scorched rock, scrub, 30m high limestone formations and emptiness. It is an eroded landscape rich in marine fossils as well. Groups come here but pass through quickly so let them take their selfies and shout out at the space and then once they've gone listen to the Kestrels and Martins circling on the currents and be at one with the immensity of this incredible landscape. Actually, even better, visit in the winter such as during Mongolian Lunar New Year and you'll get this landscape to yourself. 
Image by EL team


Mandalgobi is the capital of the region. Is Mandalgobi  considered a highlight of Mongolia by the guidebook writers? No! But, it is a vibrant town and staying here will give you an understanding as to the way of life of Mongolia’s small town inhabitants. Such as staying at Gobi Oasis - a family run conservation project that has been dedicatedly planting trees for over the past 35 years. 
Image by our guest Sue Fox
They're not nomads and would be the sort of family most westerners would dismiss because of that, but by staying in Mandalgobi you get to see that Mongolia is so much more than just nomads.


Erdenedalai is Mongolian for ‘Jewel Ocean’ and although far from the ocean this small town located in the middle of the Gobi steppe provides a genuine insight into everyday life in Mongolia. It is also the hometown of a majority of the EL team and a very tight knit and traditional community.

Image by our guest Grenville Smith

Image by our guest Séverine Baptiste-Blanchart

Very few westerners visit this region as it’s not considered a highlight. However, Even though annual precipitation in this area is low, with no permanent lakes and very few springs, roughly 5880 herder households make their home in this transition zone between steppe and desert. It is a beautiful region little visited by others. 

Just a few reasons why I love the middle Gobi of Mongolia.

If you're interested in getting a more local insight into Mongolia, then have a look at our Eternal Landscapes Mongolia website for a more realist introduction to the way of life in contemporary Mongolia.