29 October 2015

Food Of The Nomads - Tsagaan Idee - Mongolian Dairy Products

Mongolia. Under the Mongols in the 12th and 13th centuries it was (and is still considered to be) the largest contiguous land empire in history. In the 21st century,  it remains one of the  largest areas of contiguous common grazing land in the world, with approximately 73% of its landmass classified as grassland (World Bank 2013).

(Cue some images of ger and grasslands.)

That's why (as well as the arid/semi-arid climate with roughly only 100 frost free growing days out on the steppe) the raising and herding of livestock remains the predominant use of the land. If you have approximately 56 million head of livestock you can see why the herders of Mongolia sustain their lives primarily with the products of their domestic livestock (that will be meat and milk then!). 

These simple base materials are processed with a surprising variety of methods with traditional dairy products remaining hugely important.  In the short warm summer season, a variety of dairy products are produced in great abundance (obviously!) and along with meat remain one of the main foods for herding families in the long, cold autumn-winter-spring period (October–May). 

Tsagaan Idee - Dairy Products

All Mongolian dairy products are known as Tsagaan Idee -  White Food. 

Just what are some of the milk products  produced by herders out in the wilds of the Mongolian steppe? There are regional varieties but milk products can be broadly classified as fat or protein based or fermented and range from from sun-dried curds known as aaruul to the infamous airag - the fermented mare's milk. When the quantity of milk or by-products is too small to process, it is accumulated over a number of days, allowed to sour naturally and then processed. 

As travellers to Mongolia will tell you, many are unique! Here are a few of my favourites...


One of the best dairy products out there. Ever. No contest. Basically, this is when milk is boiled to separate the cream. Yak milk (or camel milk if you're in the Gobi) is considered best because of the high fat content. It is at its most delicious with jam (short on jam?...just add a sprinkling of sugar) on a thick slice of fresh bread. YUM! 


If orum is one of the best dairy products out there then khailmag is the best (if you're reading this Ross then I can see you nodding your head in agreement). What is it? I It's basically caramelized clotted cream.  The cream is heated in a pan and sugar and flour (and sometimes raisins) are combined into the mix (once any liquid fat has been scooped away).  Simply the best ingredient for an afternoon tea. 

Suutei Tsai

Taking Mongolian tea is a time-honoured tradition - at the root of all nomadic hospitality.  The sharing of tea provides nourishment, creates comfort, and puts all at ease  - the custom of serving tea to guests is nearly as old as the history of nomads on the steppe - a vital part of the tradition of Mongolia. Tea is frequently served with boortsog - home made biscuits cooked on the ger stove. The everyday beverage is salted milk tea (Suutei Tsai), which may be  turned into a robust soup by adding rice, meat, or dumplings (bansh). 


The most prominent national beverage is airag, fermented mare's milk (with the mare's milk being pummelled to aid fermentation).
Airag is a meal in one or even a meal replacement as herders will frequently drink airag rather than eating. The chemistry of airag (apart from the sugars) does not change during fermentation. It is said to stimulate the metabolism and has an alcoholic content of approximately 1.5-2.3 %.

Shimiin Arkhi

As described by one of our 2015 guests, it smells like yak. Shimiin arkhi  is the traditional vodka of Mongolia and you'll be surprised how many herding families own their own still! It's made by heating milk, yeast and yoghurt culture then using an open vat on top of a large cooking pot and over heat with a second pot acting as a lid but holding cold water. When heated, this will create condensation which will drip down to the collecting bowl in the centre. This distillation process produces 'milk vodka' and the alcohol content can be between 10 to 20%. 

Naturally, the Mongolian diet includes a large proportion of animal fat which is necessary to withstand the cold winters where temperatures are as low as -40  and to provide sufficient energy reserves for the outdoor work of a herder. However, if you're vegetarian or worried about you cholesterol levels why not try the wild berries that are best served with yoghurt (even better mixed together with sugar for a wild berry smoothie), or the sweet tasting watermelons, cucumbers or tomatoes home grown in the southern Gobi or even the smoked Khovsgol lake fish. 

Whatever you choose to eat on your trip to Mongolia, be sure to try some of Mongolia's infamous vodka (usually made with wheat / barley). Toast your travelling companions, toast your Mongolian team and make sure to toast the spectacular country that is Mongolia. Toktoi!

23 October 2015

In Praise Of The Slow Travel Movement - Making A Connection In Mongolia

The Slow Movement. Slow food. Slow culture. Slow travel. The list keeps growing.  If you read around the subject of the Slow Movement then you'll know that it's not necessarily about doing things slowly. It's more about finding the right speed with which to do something and how you approach that something.

Do what the locals do, not only what the guidebooks say

Slow travel is about having the courage not to always go the way of the crowd. Popular wisdom may suggest that a first visit to any country must include the ‘must-see’ spots. But in fact there are no ‘must-see’ destinations.  All places in Mongolia whether city, town or rural areas form part of the country and its culture and communities.

It’s the journey not the destination

Mongolia is an ideal canvas for those who enjoy slow travel. And basic travel.  You should be prepared for the frustrations that come with such a style of travel and embrace the challenges of navigating through a country that really doesn’t have a well-trodden tourist track. However you decide to cross and experience Mongolia’s ‘eternal landscapes’ it can take hours, or even an entire day, before you reach a ger settled in the distance or arrive at a small-town community. But, it’s the same for the local people and they live this every single day. It is a country where you start to understand the saying 'it's the journey, not the destination’ and where you start to value travel for its own sake.

Café Culture

Yes Ulaanbaatar has an excellent selection of museums. However, it also has an excellent variety of cafes as well. There is absolutely nothing wrong in spending time savouring the café culture. Sitting in a café, you become part of the cityscape and not merely a passing observer. Ditch the iPhones and tablets and Kindles though. Just look and observe and enjoy your coffee. 

Sain Baina Uu?

Take time to get a feel for the Mongolian language. Even just a few phrases such as hello, thank you and good bye will get you further than not trying at all. Yes, the pronunciation will be difficult and you will have the odd embarrassing moment but that’s part of the experience. Mongolians can be warm and welcoming and they can also be stubborn, taciturn, reserved and indifferent. By trying to learn a few words you’re helping to break down any communication barriers  such as reservation and indifference that may be in place.

Go Local

Even if you only have a few days, you can still get an insight into the local community. Choose to explore the local markets and shops. Choose accommodation and eating options that are appropriate to the area where you’re travelling. Yes that western owned tourist ger camp may have reliable Wi-Fi and flush toilets but does it help you to engage with the local communities through which you’re passing at the right level?

Think what you can give back to the communities you visit

An example. At the back of every ger is the family khoimor – the family altar. Very few families have a camera. Some have cameras on their phones but no way to print off the images and therefore few families have photographs. If you take a photo of a family and promise it to them, make the effort to get it to them. It's not too difficult to ask for their address. Even better, invest in a polaroid camera.

Savour the unexpected

It won’t all go according to plan. It can’t. Mongolia is the size of western Europe with a basic (although steadily improving) infrastructure. It’s challenging for the locals and will challenge you as well. Instead of getting worked up about the lack of a daily hot shower, why not enjoy waiting in line at the local town shower house with members of the local community? Yes your vehicle may break down but why not use the time to stretch your legs and head for a viewpoint? 

Mongolia will teach you to embrace the enjoyment that comes from simplicity and you’ll end up revelling in the overwhelming sense of liberation that comes only from travelling through and standing in the immensity and diversity of such landscapes. This applies even if your time is short and yet the distances so huge. Travelling through Mongolia will give you time to think and gain a fresh perspective. It’s definitely  a country well suited to the slow travel movement. 

16 October 2015

Leaving Small Footprints In A Big Country - The Annual EL Rubbish Collection

Responsible, sustainable or ethical travel - in recent years, it has developed many labels and is now a widely-used selling tool in the tourism industry. But, what does it mean? Although there is no real clear definition, it has to be more than ensuring that we collect all of our rubbish, asking before taking a photograph or being aware of the cultural norms. That’s what we should be automatically doing anyway.

For me, this is about our responsibilty to Mongolia. Travel can, and should be, a positive experience for both you, the visitor, and for Mongolia – its natural environment, people, culture and traditions. I believe that travel has to be beneficial to all concerned. That for me is responsible travel.

When I set up Eternal Landscapes, I wanted to have responsible travel goals that were realistic and attainable - ones that we could actually achieve. I also wanted to be able to show real evidence of our practise.

We are not perfect and do at times struggle with certain aspects of our responsible travel philosophy. But, I believe in improvement and re-evaluate each year our achievements and weaknesses.  I also welcome any suggestions or feedback on how our guests feel we can increase our commitment to sustainable travel in Mongolia.

What do I think is our biggest achievement to date? Turuu and I arranging the 2014 community clean-up of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park. And then repeating the event in 2015. 


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 RT philosophy and a feature of the EL calendar.

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

Why Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park?

We picked Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur 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.

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, and the joint effort was planned. 

For 2014 and 2015, 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 four of the protected area rangers and the two head rangers as well. 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 as well as a smaller 3-ton vehicle.  

2015 - the start line!

Help To Make A Difference

At the end of the two-days, much had been achieved. Camp grounds, shore lines and surrounding steppe and forest land had been cleared of rubbish.  

2015 - en-route during the morning of Day One
This year, we were joined by one of our most loyal guests - Ross. Rather than asking him to contribute to the experience, we paid for his accommodation, food and transport during the time of the rubbish collection. 

We'll be returning to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur in 2016 with one potential aim being to work with the rangers on signage for waste in the lake area as well as to focus on improving wilderness conservation and visitor management as well as the rubbish collection.

We are also thinking of opening it up in 2016 to our guests - offering 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!