27 February 2015

Winter Travel in Mongolia - Images From A 2014 Winter Journey

I know you are probably not going to believe me but....winter is a wonderful time to experience Mongolia. Yes, it does have a bit of a fearsome reputation and you may think that -30 does not make for a  very enjoyable holiday but trust me (!).....

Not only does winter obviously offer a sharp contrast to the busy summer season but the landscapes come into their own. Also, the ger becomes very much the nucleus of the herders way of life with the livestock being brought closer to the homestead for protection. Because of this, as a visitor, the families’ way of life is brought closer to you. Winter in Mongolia is a time of year when families have more time to spare and are freer and more relaxed.

Throughout the months of November through to February, I offer Mongolia winter tours. It wouldn't be for everyone, but for those who choose to travel at this time of year, Mongolia produces a stunning natural show as these photographs that I have just received from our December 2014 guests show.

Yes, Mongolia still has a limited tourist infrastructure and access to winter recreation activities that you may be used to elsewhere are limited. But, I'm an old-fashioned kind of girl and for me, travelling in the winter in Mongolia is as much about experiencing the landscapes and meeting and spending the time with the locals rather than hard-core adrenaline activities. Enjoy being part of a minority who visit Mongolia in the winter - enjoy slowing-down and seeing and experiencing Mongolia like few other people get to do.
For now, enjoy experiencing the journey without having to pop to the outdoor loo in minus 30 temperatures!

Preparing for the camel trek at Khogno Khan Nature Reserve - Bulgan Aimag. Khogno Khan is a granite mountain within an area of secluded valleys, fresh water springs, open steppe and the striking Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes. 

Ulaan Tsutgalan - the Orkhon Waterfall in its winter guise. 

The Orkhon River has had UNESCO World Heritage status since 2004. This region is considered the cradle of Mongolian civilisation and w is an area rich in nomadic life as the Orkhon River provides an essential lifeline for nomads and their livestock. 

Looking great in their Mongolian deels! 
At Ulaan Tsutgalan - for the winter months, an extra layer (or two) of eskii (felt made from sheep wool) is added to the ger to help insulate against the winter temperatures.

Turuu showing how to prepare to put on the traditional Mongolian felt winter boot!

The winter beauty of the Orkhon River. Note the excellent felt boots!

Ulaan Tsutgalan in all its incredible winter glory

Yep. That's a Grey Wolf!
I'm waiting for photos from Turuu, Ross and Enkhee that have just returned back to UB from our Tsagaan Sar Insight trip. However, if you're planning on visiting Mongolia within the next week or so and looking for an experience, join us as we head south to the Thousand Camel Festival held in the small community of Bulgan in the southern Gobi. And if you're wondering what on earth to expect from Mongolia's Thousand Camel Festival, then this article in the British Guardian newspaper may help!

24 February 2015

Books That Go Beyond - A Reading List for Mongolia

Everyone prepares differently for a holiday, but for those interested in reading, it can be a way to spend a very enjoyable few hours, exploring a country's past, present and future, before you arrive. 

Here are a few of my most recent additions to the EL Reading List


John Man - The Mongol Empire

In a previous post, I recommended John Man's Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection which is a good introduction to Genghis Khan's  life and his influences. The Mongol Empire is similar in its focus. Also, for an in-depth introduction on the Gobi, I highly recommend John Man's Tracking the Gobi. If you like his style of writing, he has written about the life of Kubilai Khan as well.


Uuganaa Ramsay - Mongol

Uuganaa is a Mongol living in Britain but she grew up as part of a nomadic herding family in Mongolia. This is a powerful memoir about when her new-born son Billy is diagnosed with Down's Syndrome. It skilfully interweaves the extraordinary story of her own childhood in Mongolia with the sadly short life of Billy. 


Rob Liwall - Walking Home From Mongolia

In 2012, Rob Lilwall and Leon McCarron walked over 5,000 km from the Gobi Desert down into China - following the Great Wall, trekking through the mountains of central China  and finising in Hong Kong. 

If you like armchair adventures then also pick up a copy of Tim Cope's On The Trail Of Genghis Khan

Having had his horses stolen one night close to the start of his trip, the following day Cope spotted a herd of horses moving swiftly with a single horseman in charge. On approach, Cope recognised his two horses among the pack. I particularly like the next bit:
“These two horses came to me this morning,” the horseman said grinning. “You must have tied them badly.” 
The horseman returned the horses without compensation, but insisted that Cope understand an important unwritten rule of the steppe:
“A man on the steppe with no friends is as narrow as a finger,” the horseman said. “A man with friends is as wide as the steppe.” 


Jiang Rong - Wolf Totem

Take yourself off to the wild steppes of Inner Mongolia during China's Cultural Revolution in this  part fiction/part biography. This is not a new release but worth highlighting again since the release of the film  by French director Jean Jacques Annaud opened in France and China on February 4th. (If you're reading this in Mongolia, the film will be screened in cinemas in Mongolia from February 27th). 

Non - Fiction

Helen MacDonald - H is for Hawk

Not about Mongolia but it does focus on the art of falconry which is fascinating if you're planning on the Kazakh eagle hunters in western Mongolia. 

If you are planning on visiting the Altai then the following two books are recommended as well (although they are also not new releases and have featured for the last few years in my EL Reading List).

Louisa Waugh - Hearing Birds Fly

This travelogue describes the year the author spent living in Tsengel, a Kazakh village in western Mongolia. The descriptions of the stark landscapes and local stories make this an honest account of time spent in Mongolia's westernmost town. 

Stephen J Bodio - Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia

A perfect read for if you're considering visiting western Mongolia as it gives a good account of 
the life of the Kazakh eagle hunters as he spends time living among them and their birds, learning their traditions.

'Each time I return I see constant changes alongside the things that never change. I love its paradoxes, its space and hospitality, its freedom and ancient customs. Its is a place of great roadless areas, all known and inhabited since prehistory. It is wild enough for great horned sheep; wolves, snow leopards and the last undomesticated camels; with the lowest human population density on the earth. It is the home of Buddhist hunters and Muslims who toast their guests with vodka. I can't get enough of it, and probably never will.'

This list is by no means exhaustive but all the above come highly recommended and will provide you with a good overview to Mongolia - it's people, history, culture and environment. In another blog post, I'll be posting the details of book titles from the 19th and 20th century that will provide you with an insight into the explorer-scientists such as Roy Chapman Andrews and the work they did in Mongolia.

For now, I'll leave you with the words of Jack Weatherford (author of both Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens).

‘Compared to the difficulty of daily life for the herders, living permanently in those areas, ours were only the smallest of irritations.’

'In the Mongol perspective, challenges choose us, but we choose how to respond. Destiny brings the opportunity and the misfortunes, and the merit of our lives derives in those unplanned moments.'

18 February 2015

Mongolia's Tsagaan Sar - Lunar New Year

February 19th is Mongolian Lunar New Year -  the second new moon after the winter solstice.

New moon rising over Khongoryn Els sand dunes in the southern Gobi. Image by our guest Egon Filter.
Mongolian New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar - White Month. It is a deeply traditional holiday bringing together family members and lasts a minimum of three days. The year of the Wooden Horse has finished and the year of the Blue Sheep just starting (sheep are considered 'fortunate' animals representing fortune and peace).

The last night of the lunar year—when the moon is invisible and darkness is total—is New Year’s Eve, known in Mongolia as ‘Bituun' - meaning to close down. 

Turuu and Ganba, Tsagaan Sar, 2014
On bituun people eat to be full - it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year. On the Tsagaan Sar table will be bread, meat, up to (or more than) 1000 buuz (dumplings) and the fat tail of a sheep. According to custom, the fattest sheep should be killed and the lower back and tail boiled and served on the table for the entire holiday.

This is what 1500 Mongolian dumplings look like! As made by Turuu and his family

Tradition states that before starting the meal, the host parts with the old year in a symbolic ceremony. Having placed a leg of mutton on his plate, he slices it and gives everyone a piece. Then he breaks the bone and draws out the marrow, thus symbolizing the opening of the New Year.

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.

One of my trip assistants (Oyun) joined  a volunteer group called Jack's Tours for sunrise on January 1st 2015.  They climbed Tsetsee Gun - the highest peak (2256m) of the Bogd Khan mountain range that dominates the landscape south of Ulaanbaatar. In Mongolia, the practise of greeting the rising sun from a high place is connected with their (still current) shamanistic beliefs. As the rising sun brings forth the birth of a new beginning, a new day, a new life. so it should be greeted with great respect. 
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. The snuff bottle is passed round. During New Year's Day children honour their senior relatives in a formal greeting called 'zolgokh' 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.  White and blue scarves, khadag,are presented to the most honoured as a symbol of respect (white scarves symbolise milk and the blue the Eternal Sky).

 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. 

If you would like to read more about Tsagaan Sar, there was an interesting article on the personal meaning behind Tsagaan Sar in the UB Post last year.

Turuu and Enkhee are currently with the Zorgio family at Tsagaan Suvraga on our Mongolia winter tour Tsagaan Sar Insight trip. I texted both this morning - 

Sar shinedee saikhan shineleerei.

17 February 2015

Northern Mountains and Sacred Lakes - Images From Our 2014 Mongolian Small Group Adventure

For those that follow EL, you'll know that the website has had a bit of a revamp since the start of 2015 . Please do pay a visit! 

One new feature is the photo gallery.  I am very lucky that our guests continue to share their photos of their time in Mongolia with us. In fact, the whole website is based around these images. That way the website is a true representation of the experiences of Mongolia that we can provide.

Katherine Walker traveled with us in 2014 on our Northern Mountains and Sacred Lakes Mongolia trekking tour and has recently been in touch with images from that trip. Isn't the saying 'a picture tells the story of a thousand words'?

Amarbayasgalant Monastery - Selenge Aimag

The NMSL itinerary now includes an extra day here for hiking in the hills above the monastery in the  Burenkhan Mountains. 

The complex of Amarbayasgalant Khiid was constructed between 1726 – 1736, when Mongolia was under heavy Manchu influence. Amarbayasgalant was built to honour the memory of Zanabazar - the first spiritual and political leader in Mongolia and considered one of the greatest Renaissance artists in Asia (he was revered as a sculptor, artist, politician and religious teacher).  After he died his remains where brought to be buried in this monastery.

Selenge Gol

Most companies fly from UB to Khovsgol or vice versa. However, jump in the Furgon and look what you can find. This is one of my favourite sunset viewing platforms in Mongolia. That's the Selenge River you can see stretched out in front of you - the same one that flows into Lake Baikal. 

The Selenge River is Mongolia's most major river  that forms at the confluence of the Ider and Delger Rivers in the north of the country. Tributaries include the Eg River that flows out of Khovsgol Nuur and the Orkhon River.

On The Road

Most of the guests of Eternal Landscapes have heard my philosophy behind our 'road trips' - that flying from place to place gives you no context, no real experience of the country. 

Stopping for airag (the infamous fermented mare's milk) in Bulgan Aimag. The rainfall in this northern province guarantees rich pasture and the airag is considered some of the best in the country. 
A blanket of wild flowers at all of our campsites - with the Alpine Aster featuring prominently 

Khovsgol Nuur and Khoridol Saridag Mountains

Northern Mongolia is dominated by Khovsgol Nuur - a national park with a beautiful fresh water lake at its core. Mongolians know Lake Khovsgol as Dalai Ej (Mother Sea) and its water is considered some of the purest on earth. 

Biologists use the word ecotone for places where different habitats meet - where a forest meets a meadow or a lake meets a shore. Khovsgol is an ecotone on a very large scale. The result is a wide range of habitats - wet meadows, shallow ponds, coniferous forest, steppe woodland, open steppe, alpine meadow, high mountains and the lake and lakeshore. 

Our Northern Mountains and Sacred Lakes trek route takes us through the Khoridol Saridag Mountains   a strictly protected area and primarily uplifted dolomite and the very barren, arid upland areas contrast with great beauty against the lower rich alpine meadows. 

Bambakh and his family

All treks are arranged through the families we work with - rural families who herd their livestock in the region and know their home area like the back of their hands.

For our Khovsgol treks we work with Bambakh.....

The end of trek celebratory khorkhog - Mongolian barbecue - always a winner!

Khatgal Naadam

 For the final of Northern Mountains and Sacred Lakes, we include the Khatgal Naadam (Khatgal is the small community at the southern edge of Khovsgol Nuur). 

The style of my Mongolia trekking tours influence the  accommodation choices and therefore the amenities available. But, a hot power shower couldn't compete with the beauty and immensity of the landscapes through wish you will trek.

Our treks are not tests of endurance or competitive races. Naturally, there will be some challenges but they're mainly about seeing the world from a different perspective, new horizons and the joy of the great outdoors.

Interested? I'm currently offering a 5% discount per person off our 2014 (!) prices until the end of March. Go on! Please do get in touch! 

(Remember, all my small group adventures are guaranteed to depart with a minimum of two people! Please do share this with anyone who you think may be interested. Thank you!)

That's enough exclamations marks for now!

14 February 2015

In the Abode of the Gods - Mongolia and Altitude


Did you know that it's one of the highest countries in the world with over 80% of the country over 1000m? It's a high plateau with an average altitude of 1580m above sea level.

Although Ulaanbaatar is not the highest capital in the world, it is given the ominous title of the coldest capital city and is 1350m above sea level.

Why have I started to spout statistics?

I offer Mongolia trekking tours. One frequent question is about the altitude.

6 February 2015

Untamed Mongolia - By Our Guest, Lynn McCaw

Untamed Mongolia is one of our Mongolia small group tours. In 2014, Lynn McCaw joined us on our June departure.

Lynn wrote  a series of blog posts detailing her time with Eternal Landscapes in Mongolia - covering subjects including the landscapes, Mongolia's climate, the history, its people today, ger life and Ulaanbaatar.

Lynn also documented the trip in photographs which are used throughout the post (some descriptions are mine and some Lynn's).

So, here is the first of Lynn's posts on traveling with us through the glorious immensity of Mongolia. As we say in Mongolia - Sain Yavaarai - Journey Well!

Mongolia Introduced

I spent 3 weeks travelling overland in Mongolia, covered 3300 kilometers and yet only skimmed over perhaps 15% of the area of the country. We travelled in a Furgon and slept mostly in family gers (details coming up in a later blog post) and occasionally in provincial hotels. We ate picnic-style for most of our meals, and occasionally in guanz or small-town restaurants. We shopped in the local markets. We visited a hospital. 

Our beloved Furgon which took us 3300 km in safety and comfort
Our first luncheon picnic amidst the course grass and flowers of the Middle Gobi. From Jess - this is not a one-off picnic photo - we really do choose our picnic spots for their beauty or cultural interest

We rode horses and camels and fell in love with the baby goats. 
Grateful livestock enjoying the water we put into their troughs
We saw the main city, Ulaanbaatar, the Gobi Desert, the mountains, the volcanoes, the grasslands, the monasteries, the lakes. We walked through fields of exquisite wild flowers, climbed sand dunes and granite “rock castles”, visited ruined Buddhist chapels, explored red sandstone gullies where dinosaur skeletons can be found, watched rare ibex silhouetted against the sky-line on cliff tops. 

The Two Sides to UB

This is what you see as you come into Ulan Bator on the Trans-Mongolian railway. Look at the variety of housing. As mentioned in a later part of this blog, Mongolian laws allow every Mongolian 0,7 hectares of land. However this must be fenced in if it is to be legal and if the owner is to  be allowed to send his children to school. What he does within his 0,7 hectares is up to him. There are very few planning restrictions so he can keep his animals, set up a small business, fill the space with gers, build a luxury house. 

UB from the "Blue Sky" highrise office building. As you can see UB is a "work in progress" with a pollution problem from its coal fired power generators. 

The Gobi

The strange granite "pancakes" of the Baga Gazriin Chuluu formation which rises from the flat bare plains
The "Flaming Cliffs" on the horizon. The Flaming Cliffs are eroded sandstone. All this area was once a soupy swamp much enjoyed by dinosaurs. In the 1920s expeditions of paleontologists began to find skeletons, some unknown before. The dry climate and the isolation had preserved them far better than in most places in the world. 

This taken as we crossed the Gobi towards the Three  Beauties mountain range .Sand is only found in small areas of the Gobi and in the inaccessible far south of the desert. The rest is rough barren gravel-like ground like this.

We found canyons choked with ice in June in the middle of the Gobi Desert , we watched horses and trainers preparing for the Naadam races in July, we drove through the heat and the hail and the rain and sunshine from the Eternal Blue Sky, we planted trees, we walked under such stars as you have never before seen, we saw Bronze Age carving on pillars in the middle of nowhere that not even the experts know much about. 

And this is what you find as you walk further into the Yolyn Am canyon. Ice! In June! In the Gobi Desert!The temperature in the Gobi in the winter can descend to minus 40 degrees so you can see how the ice would build up.

Rain on the mountains as we cross from the Gobi into the central steppe land
One of the young jockeys practising for the Nadaam races. This young lad won hands down in the practice session we saw.
From Jess - we placed our picnic lunch spot at their finishing line so we got a great view!

The Central Steppe/Heartland

Change again! Now we are in the central steppes. From the steppes rise the granite formations of Khogno Khan. These gigantic boulders really do look like some giant's toys scattered over the steppe. Some of the boulder look like Henry Moore sculptures. And  believe it or not there is sand! Yes here 400 kilometers north of the Gobi on a parallel with the city of Ulan Bator is a strip of sand dunes. It is often referred to as the Mini-Gobi and attracts those tourists who don't have the time or stamina to go the the real Gobi.
This is the quintessential view of the nomadic life--the isolated ger (we tend to call them "yurts" which is a Turkish word), the herding family and their flock of goats and sheep on the green green steppe.  Wide open spaces and the herds of animals.

Khangai Mountains

The view on our horse trek at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park

Northern Landscapes and Khovsgol Nuur

This photo does not do it justice but the ground was covered with a wonderful display of all colours of wild flowers. The country becomes more lush as you go north and there are more streams and more trees.

The ger camp we stayed in beside Lake Khovsgol. It turned out it was a rest and recreation camp for members of the Mongolian armed forces so most of the gers were occupied by soldiers and their families  who had driven hundreds of kilometres form the far west of the country over two days drive away to reach this spot. They were having a wonderful time on this brief one week's holiday. 

The view during one of our picnic lunches. This is large-scale crop growing, a legacy of the Soviet farming collectives which were for the most part abandoned when the Soviet Union collapsed. Here the soil and terrain suits crop growing and so it has become the bread basket of the country.
I seem to prefer places without many people! And so Mongolia fits that bill rather well. However the people of Mongolia tread lightly on their land and their character and history are also fascinating. 

Eternal Landscapes specialises in bespoke trips in Mongolia with small groups and a personal touch. I cannot think of a better way to see the country. 

Coming next...Mongolia, the land.

From Jess.....of course, Mongolia likes to throw in one or two challenges of its own on any trip so if you thought the above was all rose tinted spectacles....

One of our driving routes from the Gobi through to the central steppe! Lynn travelled with us on our Untamed Mongolia adventure. Find out more about this trip and our others by going to the Mongolia small group tours on my website.  As an added bonus, I'm currently offering a 5% discount on our 2014 prices until the end of February. I'm always happy to be of help so please do get in touch if you're interested!

Please help to spread the EL story by sharing this post. Many Thanks! Jess