30 May 2015

Small Group Adventure Mongolia


What are you doing towards the end of July? Looking for something just that little bit different? Have you thought about Mongolia?!

Those of you who read my blog and newsletter know that I don't typically use them as selling tools. I use them to write about Mongolia and a small amount about Eternal Landscapes. Well. For once, I have decided to go against my own rule.

Khovsgol - Image by our guest Zeynep

It's called Untamed Mongolia and it's our 23-day June and July departure. For those of you with a taste for adventure and the desire to really immerse yourselves in the country and culture this is the perfect active itinerary with a mix of wild camping out under the stars,  family provided ger accommodation and a homestay. Not a tourist ger camp in sight. If you're trying to work out how many hot showers that results in - minimal - but we do use the local town shower houses en-route.

(In the words of the author Jack Weatherford - 'Compared to the difficulty of daily life for the herders living permanently in those areas, ours were only the smallest of irritations.')

Image by our guest photographer Nick Rains 

If you’re able to take the rough with the smooth - give it a week or so after your return and you won’t remember what you missed from your everyday life. What you will remember are the essential ingredients of Mongolia – the vast landscapes, the way the locals make their life in this harsh terrain, the solitude, the impromptu friendships and the impact they have made on your daily life.

Celebrating their grandson's first birthday with Batbold and Jargaa - Image by our guest Susan Macleod

Vegetarian? Pescetarian? Lactose intolerant? Gluten free? We can cater for all. We prepare all the meals ourselves so you will be eating breakfast as the sun rises over the steppe, sharing your picnic lunch with a view of Mongolian White-Tailed Gazelles or eating a traditional Mongolian barbecue (vegetarian options provided) with the Batbold family. Yep, sometimes it rains or sand gets in your sandwich - but we have a kitchen tent and the vehicle has a sunshade which comes in very useful for those damp picnic lunches!


Not a bad location for lunch! - Image by our guest John Holman
Our group size is a maximum of 6 which provides  you with a more individual style of trip. We operate all aspects of the holidays we offer - there are no outside agencies or suppliers apart from the rural families that provide accommodation. This leads to a more personal style of trip  where you experience  a more local way of travel.  

Your neighbours in the Gobi - Siberian Ibex by our guest Marian Herz
Time to explore and discover for yourselves - Image by our guest Marian Herz
No need to wear a watch - just sit and watch the world pass by - Image by our guest Marian Herz

What is Untamed Mongolia?

I have chosen some of our favourite places from our 12 years of offering adventures through Mongolia and put them into a three-week itinerary.  Explore, discover and hike (optional!) the striking landscapes of the Gobi Desert, the high open steppe and the spectacular lakeland and northern regions of Mongolia, including Lake Khovsgol and the interior region of the Khoridol Saridag Mountains. 


Solitude at sunrise at Khongoryn Els - Image by our guest Leslie
Our Untamed Mongolia provides variety, is flexible and provides a genuine introduction that will enable you to get under the surface and experience the real local Mongolia. 


The itineraries I create are fluid not rigid. Each one is designed to provide you with a more individual style of travel - time to explore and discover each location for yourself. We’re on hand but my itineraries are tailored to give you a feeling of freedom and a sense of independence.


We set up lunch at the finish line! - Image by our guest Lynn McCaw 
Not comfortable with the idea of a group trip? Completely understandable. A majority of our travellers are those who typically travel independently (or have done in the past) but want the best out of their Mongolian experience and so are looking to do an organised trip but have trouble with the ethos of an organised trip. 


Getting away from it all at Khustain Nuruu - Image by me (that's why it's hazy!!)
To put it simply, if you’re looking for the style of trip where you want to tick off the sights of Mongolia in a ‘tick-it-off-the-list-job-done’  kind of way then this trip won’t suit you.  But, if you’re looking for a slower paced more immersive experience and are open and flexible as to what you do experience then this definitely for you. 

Sunrise over Gobi Gurvan Saikhan 
 If you're reading this and wondering why you should choose us against all our competitors (and I know there is an overwhelming number to choose from) then hopefully this quote by one of our past Untamed Mongolia guests Sarah Cutler may help:

'The thing I needed most and the thing I got out of my trip to Mongolia is/was the refreshment of my soul and spirit.  Living such a simple life and camping, the extreme natural beauty and the wonderful company allowed me to do that.' 
Up in the clouds at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur - Image by our guest Lynn McCaw
Waiting for lunch to be prepared at Dungene Am - Gobi Gurvan Saikhan - Image by our guest Violaine Coard
I'll leave you with the words of two of our previousUntamed Mongolia guests - Marian Herz and Violaine Coard. 


'The trip was flexible and took advantage of situations that presented themselves. I liked that we could go at our own pace while exploring - no group hikes with pressure to keep up. I really felt that I got to know the rhythms of the country. Nothing was contrived. We truly experienced Mongolia. You really  delivered on what you promised.’ (Marian)
‘Thank you for keeping a good, respectful and strong relationship with the locals in order t o allow us to experience/interact with them and their lives in a genuine way. We got exactly what we e x p e c t e d a n d wished for: a beautiful overview of a very large, magnificent and wild country, the real genuine and 'raw' way. The true story.' (Violaine)
Mongolia is a country of spectacular raw natural beauty and sublime space that inspires adventure and exploration.  The wide open ‘eternal landscapes’ (now you understand our name!) will awaken a sense of possibility in you and make you feel free. Even better there is now a 15% discount per person. 

I look forward to hearing from you!


Taking time to learn about the traditions in the Khangai - Image by our guest John Holman

Your home with a view - Image by our guest Mandy Wong

The view above our campsite at the Selenge Gol - Image by our guest Violaine Coard

26 May 2015

Food of the Nomads - Tsuivan - Mongolian Noodles


Turuu and I spent most of yesterday at Ulaanbaatar's Naran Tuul market.  As well as everything from a can opener to a full-size ger (seriously), you can eat to your heart's content here. 








For a typical Mongolian eating experience you just pop into any of the  guanz (what could best be described as a Mongolian canteen) and order up your lunch.  Guanz serve cheap food  and serve the usual collection of national staples. With the option of tomato ketchup or Maggi sauce.

If you're a regular to my blog (thank you!), then you'll know I've previously written other posts under the heading Food of the Nomads. Because Mongolian food gets such a bad rap from travellers and guide book writers and....well, almost anyone who isn't Mongolian, I thought I would run a series of posts introducing you to the delights of a typical Mongolian table. And that's not meant to be sarcastic.

So far you've been introduced to khorkhog (the REAL Mongolian barbecue) and what to expect during Mongolian Lunar New Year (a whole lot of dumplings). There's been the ultimate street food (khuushuur - got to love those mutton pancakes) and now for your introduction to tsuivan.




Tsuivan is the sort of meal you can rely on when you're hungry. It tastes great, is cheap and fills you up. For those not fond of mutton, just add vegetables or beef. For those that follow a gluten free diet - just source gluten free flour.

It's  a staple dish that you will find anywhere throughout the country and it basically comes down to if you prefer the 'dry' or the 'oily' version. Admittedly, those last few words don't exactly make the dish sound palatable  but this uncomplicated dish of Mongolian noodles, fried vegetables and meat is simple and delicious. The noodles are versatile and you'll find them in a variety of dishes including another popular dish  - Guriltai Shol - Flour Soup.


  • The noodles are traditionally prepared by hand - flour and water mixed together (pinch a side of the dough using your thumb and index finger. If it is fairly hard but still soft enough to give into the pressure of your finger, the flour is ready) then rolled out (until around 2mm at their thickest) and cut into strips (this is the pared down version of the recipe!). Prior to rolling the key is to oil the flour as this prevents the noodles from sticking together at the end. 
  • They are usually sautéed together with small pieces of mutton or beef (and fat for the Mongolians) and a mix of vegetables typically including onions, carrots and peppers. 
  • Once the vegetables have been seasoned and sautéed you then add water to the same pot until it reaches up to around two/thirds of the vegetables. 
  • Place the noodles on top and close the lid tightly - basically, the noodles are cooked by the steam from the boiling water and this requires around 15 minutes on a medium heat followed by a low heat (the water should have evaporated by the time the noodles are ready). 
  • Once ready, take off the lid and use something to fan fresh air into the pot - the noodles turn dry at the surface and will lose their stickiness.   Use a fork to separate the noodles from each other (sticky noodles basically mean that either there wasn't enough oil on the dough in the first place, or they need to be cooked further) and voila!
Of course, I highly recommend that you come out to Mongolia and let one of my great trip assistants give you an informal cookery lesson first. I have yet to perfect the art of making tsuivan...but I'm pretty good at eating it!

If you've been to Mongolia, please let me know what your favourite local food was. If not, and you're thinking of visiting, what are your concerns about the food? I always like to know. It helps with menu planning :-) Please do get in touch, Jess

22 May 2015

Some Of Our Mongolian Winter And Spring Adventures in Pictures

Hello from Mongolia! 

According to the Mongolian Lunar Calendar,  the 19th of May was the first day of summer. So as we face ahead to the summer, what better way to say goodbye to the winter and spring than through photos taken by Turuu throughout some the trips we have run from December through to April. 

(For those new to the blog, Turuu is my informal business partner and the lead driver for EL. He is not a photographer and his camera is a new purchase but he's proud to take photos of his own country.)


December 2014 - Winter Journeys

‘The trip was amazing. We loved it thoroughly. We always try and travel with smaller companies offering more sustainable and cultural experiences. The price and support were the best we had seen in Mongolia.’
Tammy, Australia


Selenge Gol - Mongolia's principal river
Orkhon River - now an UNESCO World Heritage Site

Note the excellent felt winter boots!

Khovsgol Nuur National Park with the Khoridol Saridag Mountains forming a western backdrop 


February 2015 - Tsagaan Sar Insight

Sunrise over the Gobi during Shine Negiin - New Year's Day in the Mongolian Lunar Calendar
'I have enjoyed this trip immensely. Turuu and Enkhee have taught me so much. I have a greater understanding of Mongolia and the people.  I have observed the closeness and strength of families and see the strength of Mongolia.'
Ross, New Zealand
With the Zorgio Family at Tsagaan Suvraga
This description is from Ross who joined us during our Tsagaan Sar Insight:
'On to our hosts, the Zorgio family.  We are invited into the main ger, it is beautiful.  Centre at the back of the ger is the Tsagaan Sar feast.  A stack of large biscuits, 9 high topped with dried cheeses, dried yoghurt, white sweets and sugar cubes.  Around this are plates of buuz, potato salad, pressed mutton, salami and gherkins, pickled vegetables, a large bowl of sweets and beverages.  The eldest daughter serves us individually, milk tea first followed by airag (here it is fermented camel milk, I like it) followed by all the dishes and beverages ending with a shot of vodka.  The hospitality is marvellous.'

With the Zorgio Family at Tsagaan Suvraga
Again from Ross:

'Shine Negiin (New Years Day) sees everyone together for zolgokh, a ceremony to show respect and support for your elders. The eldest person is the mother of the Zorgio family, she has pride of place and I, being the second eldest, sit beside her.  The rest of the family form a line around the inside of the ger in age order and start by greeting the mother first and then me.  Being the eldest we are supported at our elbows, the greeting amar mend uu is exchanged, and we kiss the cheeks of all the others.  The line folds on its self until everyone has greeted each other, the younger person with their hands under the elbows of the older.  I feel very honoured to be included in this very Mongolian ceremony.'

Ross with Turuu and his family
Again, from Ross:
'Erdenedalai is Turuus home town, we spend the night there visiting his parents and family members.  The Tsagaan Sar traditions are observed but are less formal this fourth day of the holiday.  It is also time for Turuus nephew to have his hair cutting ceremony.  Mongolian children do not have their hair cut until they are about three when all their hair is clipped (time in the womb is counted as a year).  All the family members cut a lock of hair give gifts and money.  The final cutting is done by a family member with a birth sign most compatible to the childs, Turuu does the clipping. I feel privileged to be included and to witness this event.'

Essence of Mongolia - March and April 2015

'Just to let you know that we are having an absolutely magical trip, it could not possibly have been any better.'
Kate and Karin, Canada
The Orkhon River landscape

Spring in Mongolia! Heading from UB on the Dundgobi road
'Highlights? Vulture Canyon, climbing the sand dunes, the school visit, sleeping in the gers, and all of the baby animals.'

Andrea and Tom, USA 


Just had lunch! At the Gobi Oasis Tree Planting Project in Mandalgobi, Dundgobi Aimag

Not a sight everyone gets to see - snow and sand at Khongoryn Els in the southern Gobi
 'Just writing to say a huge thank you, the Gobi Desert trip has been perfect. Your team was the best we could expect and every day was a new surprise, a new world. We had such a food time together. Time passed so fast! '
Eugenio and Valentina, Italy 


The hidden landscapes of Baga Gazriin Chuluu

Incoming weather - en-route to the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park

The road less travelled!
'Highlights? Connecting with locals, the great flow of the trip, the great guides, your accommodating vegetarians (I know this is not so easy), the gers and new borns, and the sense of security we felt and the knowledge of the drivers and guides. And how well you read us and what we were wanting to experience.'
 Katherine, USA


Entrants for the best dressed competition at the Thousand Camel Festival, March 2015 in Bulgan Soum, Omnogobi


Sunset....and a time for quiet reflection

'We experienced the real Mongolia - helping people in a snowstorm, asking to use a family's ger for lunch, sleeping in gers, matching baby goats with their mothers! Highlights? The continually changing scenery, the expansiveness, the changing weather, the baby animals, the geographic variety, the warmth of the people, our TERRIFIC guides!'
Kathy, USA 

If any of the above has inspired you to travel outside of the main tourist season in Mongolia then please do get in touch. We have a variety of Mongolia short tours available throughout the winter and spring  - each one different in its focus (and all can be adapted and tweaked to be a private trip or to connect with the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian).

That's it for today from my Ulaanbaatar base. Thanks as always for reading. Back shortly! Jess

17 May 2015

Your Guide To Mongolia's Seasons

This is the last blog post I'll be writing from my home of Devon in the UK for a while as I'm heading back out to Mongolia to head my great Mongolian team for our busy 2015 summer and autumn season.
Here in the UK, Dartmoor National Park (which I consider my back garden) has a bit of a reputation weather wise. When people in my local community ask about Mongolia I say it's like Dartmoor - but  the landscapes and weather are 'bigger'. I mention that anyone heading to Mongolia should expect everything
The problem is that that means you have to be prepared to bring everything or at least be prepared to purchase on route anything that you suddenly require - from a large sunhat to thermals or wellington boots (all of which were purchases made by 2014 EL guests). For those planning on coming to Mongolia, I recommend the Weather Wunderground website. But, if you don't have time for that, here in (almost) a nutshell is a guide to the Mongolian seasons.

Mongolian Climate

Mongolia is one of the highest countries in the world, with an average altitude of 1580 metres above sea level. Known as the ‘Land of the Blue Sky’ it is names for its (on average) 260 days of blue sky per year - but these do not all occur in the summer months! The high central Asian mountain ranges protect the country against the humid air masses creating an extreme continental climate with a temperature range to suit. 


Welcome to the 'Land of the Eternal Blue Sky'

There’s not much point in detailing averages as if travelling between May and September, 4 seasons in 1 day is a distinct possibility, and 4 seasons during the trip is an absolute certainty. Anything is possible, from 30°C and no wind in May, to 15°C and snow in August. There are, however, some distinct benefits about this changeable climate as bad weather often passes very quickly.  

Image by our guest John Holman

Mongolian weather is known for its sharp fluctuations with warm, short summers and long, dry and very cold winters. The coldest months are December to February with some areas of the country dropping to as low as -50°C , with Ulaan Baatar often seeing temperatures of -35°C. In the summer, the Gobi frequently hits temperatures of 30°C+, whilst (slightly obviously!)  it's colder the further north you go.   

Spring

(March to May, very few visitors, dry but very windy. Often sunny but with large fluctuations in temperature - Day 10-20°C; Night 0-10°C)

Arid. Windblown. Dusty. Welcome to spring in Mongolia!

Spring has sprung in 2015! From Gobi Oasis Tree Planting Project in Dundgobi Aimag in the Middle Gobi where EL and our guests have together planted over 45 trees so far....

Dry and arid but with a hint of things to come!
Overlooking the Khangai Mountains at Ulaan Tsutgalan - the Orkhon Waterfall on one of our May day-hikes back in 2013
Of the four distinct seasons, spring in Mongolia is notorious for its whims and unpredictable weather.  Mongolians say, 'like a spring sky' (хаврын тэнгэр шиг), in reference to moody behaviour. Although Mongolian winters are infamous for their bitter temperatures, March and April are considered the hardest time of year by Mongolians, especially the herders because livestock are thin and weak after a long winter, and rain is rare. Winter chills can sometimes last through to the end of April.  Animals and people are waiting for the weather to stabilise, for rain to bring fresh growth to the land and for the spring winds to move on.
The Gobi!

Image by our guest Ross Briggs
But, don't let the challenging backdrop provided by the weather put you off. Just make sure to pack  a windproof jacket and a scarf to protect yourself from the dusty wind. April  is one of the most industrious times of year for herders and one of the most fascinating times of year to experience Mongolia - especially with the newborn offspring and the cashmere harvest.
Here is one of our most recent reviews -  from a guest who travelled with us in April of this year (Essence of Mongolia, private tailor-made trip):
'Highlights? Connecting with locals,  the great guides, your accommodating vegetarians, the gers and new borns, and the sense of security we felt and the knowledge of the drivers and guides. And how well you read us and what we were wanting to experience.'

Summer

(Late May to August, the busiest time of year for international visitors. Expect a mixed bag -  changeable with sunshine most days, but also cloud and rain  (with some humidity).
Summer is one of the busiest times of year for Mongolian herding families. In July and August, summer rains bring fresh grass growth and livestock are moved looking for the rich summer pasture so they can fatten, enabling them to survive the harsh winter. Summer is also known as the White Season due the processing of the livestock's milk into other dairy products such as airag (fermented mare's milk), orom (clotted cream) and aruul (hard cheese). Summer brings the highlight of the Naadam Festival (the Three Manly Sports).

Summer on the steppe. Overlooking the rolling landscapes of Khustain Nuruu on our June Untamed Mongolia small group adventure
Bulgan Naadam 2014 - Image by our guest Mick Egan
Well watered pasture at Amarbayasgalant Khiid in Selenge Province. Taken by our guest Julie Cook on our 2013 Wilderness Trails small group adventure 
The wild Takhi horses at Khustain Nuruu National Park. In the heat of the summer months they spend the day up on the ridge lines in the cool breeze - only coming down into the valleys around sunset as the day loses its heat

Image by our guest Anne-Marie Berretty

Autumn

(September and October, not very crowded, dry, sunny, clear and cool. Day 0-20°C; Night -5 to +5°C)
If you've booked a trip to Mongolia for 2015 and are travelling in August, you may not want to know that the Mongolian saying goes, 'Autumn is after Naadam.' It is true. Summer does start to slowly fade  away in August. 
Naturally, autumn is a time of spectacular colour. Nature is still visible before the start of the long hibernation period with birds such as the Demoiselle Crane gathering in large flocks to start their annual migration. There is also harvesting of the wheat and barley crops and the cutting of the winter grass that will be used as fodder for the livestock. 
Autumn is perfect for traveling to Mongolia because it isn’t crowded—you may even be the only travellers around.
(The Eagle Festival takes place in the third weekend of September (Sagsai) and the first weekend of October (Bayan Olgii) indicating the start of the Kazakh eagle hunting season.)
Dawn over Khar Nuur in Zavkhan Aimag - September 2013. 
The autumn colours of the Onon River in Khentii Aimag in September on our Landscapes of the East itinerary. Image by our guest Sue Fox
The Opening Ceremony of the Bayan Olgii Festival 2013. Image by our guest John Holman

Winter

(November – February, the quietest time of year, dry but bitterly cold)

Winter is a quintessential Mongolian season. It is cold, very cold, but the cold is an important part of what makes Mongolia and its landscapes extraordinary at this time of year.  The Mongolian Lunar New Year falls in January or February with visitors being welcomed to celebrate one of the most important times of years in the Mongolian calendar. 

(From the winter solstice on, winter in Mongolia is classified into 9 sets of nine days (it’s set from the lunar calendar and understood as the 81 days of winter). Mongolian's in the countryside didn’t always have the luxury of knowing the date or time so a set of 'standards' were set that herders used to determine where they where in winter.)


The Orkhon River in December 2014. Image by our guest Tammy Ruddick on our Winter Journey

Ulaan Tsutgalan - The Orkhon Waterfall in December 2014. Image by our guest Tammy Ruddick on our Winter Journey
The Selenge River in December 2014. Taken by Turuu!
So here I head to Mongolia. The thermals are packed. As is the sunscreen. As is the waterproof. If you're trying to decide what season would suit you best for your visit to Mongolia, I will leave you with a quote from the book  Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. 

'The steppe has one other unchanging characteristic: day and night, summer and winter, in foul weather or fine weather, it speaks of freedom. If someone has lost his freedom, the steppe will remind him of it.'
The next blog post will be on Wednesday or Thursday once  I reach Mongolia!