28 February 2016

Five Signs You’ve Fallen In Love With Mongolia

I write this blog as an informal insight into who we are, the Eternal Landscapes philosophy, what's going on and our trips. It is also definitely about my love of Mongolia. Of course, you could say I was biased. 

So I was delighted when I was contacted by Jess Signet. Jess is a travel blogger who spent some time in Mongolia last year and who loved it - 'Mongolia is such a beautiful and diverse place, there is a lot to write about.'

And write about it Jess has. 

Some travellers to Mongolia come, visit, and move on to the next destination and experience.  For others, it is so much more than that. It is the start of a much longer commitment.  Where the immense, raw silent landscapes and the way the locals make their life in this harsh terrain keeps calling you back.

If you have yet to travel to Mongolia, how will you know if you have fallen in love with the country I call home? This brilliant blog post by Jess Signet will tell you.

Five Signs You've Fallen In Love With Mongolia

Mongolia is a vast, unique and diverse country, and it’s this individuality that causes visitors to fall deeply in love with the place. From the culture, to the cuisine, to the spectacular and unmatchable views over the steppes, there are so many reasons that Mongolia can touch your heart and have you yearning to return. 

The home of nomads and the birthplace of Genghis Khan and his subsequent empire, this country and its long vibrant history is truly like no other, and once you’ve had a taste of it’s magic, it’s hard to leave it behind. Here are five signs that you have well and truly fallen in love with Mongolia.

You Miss the Wide Open Spaces

The first thing traveler’s notice about Mongolia is the space. Located between Russia and China, this unique country offers a wide, varied and mostly untouched landscape that is breathtaking for any visitor. Whether you’re camping in the Gobi Desert, trekking through the Altai Mountains in the west or exploring the forests of the Khentii Mountains, you are always surrounded by fresh air and stunning views for miles and miles around. 

Image by our guest John Holman. He has visited Mongolia with Eternal Landscapes three times. “My favourite destination is Mongolia. The landscapes are stunning.”
This wide-open space makes it easy to understand the lure of the nomadic lifestyle that many of the countries people lead across the numerous steppes and mountain ranges of this spectacular country. Once travelers have had a taste of this unlimited freedom then the cramped, claustrophobic city life is hard to go back to! Don’t be surprised if you’re dreaming of crossing the Great Plains on horseback while sitting in your office at work.

You Get Culture Shock When You Go Home

A testimony to any culture is that it’s harder to leave it than it is to arrive. This is certainly the case for anybody who truly experiences Mongolian culture. The people of this region are some of the most friendly and hospitable that you will meet anywhere in the world. Their strong superstitious ways and nomadic life entwines them with the land they live on in a way that can only be described as truly beautiful. 

Image by our guest Egon Filter. Long time no see! 'The unforgettable experience of traveling on the wide open landscapes of Mongolia was something really special in my life.'

Although they do not expect foreigners to know their customs, it’s easy to memorize a few, and the delight that will bring to locals is unmatchable. On arrival you will be offered a drink or snacks and greeted with such warmth and hospitality that it’s even considered rude if you don’t accept. After spending any amount of time with these heartfelt and passionate people, the culture shock you experience when you have to go back home can be a bit of a surprise!

You Love The Winter Just As Much As The Summer

Mongolia’s two seasons differ dramatically, but a true sign that you’ve fallen in love with this country is that you’ve learned to love the winter just as much as the summer. The cold months in the country are unarguably difficult and many tourists tend to stay away until peak season, but for those brave enough to venture out into the country during the winter, the rewards are infinite. The sight of the winter sun shining on the ice-covered mountains and frozen rivers is unmatched in beauty. 

Alongside this, the cold season is a great time to check out city life. Winter in the capital, Ulaanbataar, includes many winter festivals, that you can enjoy without the usual crowds of tourists. Other than this, you can spend your time making friends at a local bar or even just curl up in your hotel room and catch up on Netflix while listening to the howling winds outside. Plus, experiencing the Lunar New Year celebration—Tsaagan Sar—makes it clear that the soul and vitality of this country is there to be loved all year round.

Ross joined us for our 2015 Tsagaan Sar Insight Winter Journey. 'I haven’t the words to describe this trip.  Turuu at his best, Enkhee just wonderful.  I have learnt so much and now have a much greater understanding of Mongolia.  Thank you.  Once again the leaving is hard.

You Want To Own A Mongolian Dog

One thing that is overtly evident no matter how long you stay in Mongolia is the love that the people have for their animals. Alongside horses, eagles and other birds of prey, the Mongolian dog is a common and well-loved part of any Mongolian family. Although these animals all play equal importance to the families, the dog is the only animal that is given a name. 

Traditional Mongolian herding dogs—historically of the Bankhar breed—are huge, furry and impossible not to love. They have been trained and used throughout history to protect herds and placate endangered predators, such as the snow leopard. Although cross breeds have become much more common for herders to use over the years, you’ll always know a Mongolian dog when you see one, and you’ll most definitely be tempted to take one home with you. 

Cyril! He joined us on our 2015 five-day camel trek through the landscapes of the southern Khongoryn Els sand dunes

You Know The True Potential of Milk

In the West, milk tends to be very unexciting and run of the mill, with the only variation being the difference in fat content and bottle top color. However, all true Mongolians—and travelers who have fallen in love with the country—know that milk is a versatile and delicious staple with uncountable health benefits. Dairy products are known as Tsagaan Idee—or white food—and vary massively from the typical produce that most travelers know as “diary”. 

From Tarag, a traditional yoghurt, Airag, a national beverage made from fermented mare milk, or Mongol Arikh a light milk based liquor, to Orom, a creamy jam-like condiment, or Khailmag, which is basically caramelized clotted cream, there is no end to the delicious treats that are made from milk in Mongolia. So much so that no traveler will ever want to go back to experiencing bottled milk once they’ve had a taste of the delicacies. 

There is so much about Mongolia that grabs you as soon as you enter the country, and the more time you spend there, the more reasons you find to fall in love with it. Although these five things are real signs that the country will forever have a place in your heart, there are many more reasons to feel this way. If you can think of something else that should be added to the list, then be sure to comment below. 

As written by Jess Signet - an avid traveler who enjoys writing about her adventures. For more of her brilliant writing check out her Tripelio site. 

18 February 2016

Mongolia From The Air - Magnificent Aerial Photos of A Magnificent Country

I have a confession to make. I can lose hours looking at aerial photography. The unique perspective it gives. The way the world feels different when viewed from above. It always gives me a newfound appreciation for our world.

Naturally, I have hunted out aerial photography images of Mongolia and dedicated a large amount of time to researching drone footage of Mongolia's sweeping landforms. It’s a terrain I know very well but when I see it from above, it gives me a completely new perspective about the country.

This blog post is completely selfish, as it just showcases some of my favourite aerial images of Mongolia that I have discovered. It might not benefit you in anyway, but spending a little time seeing a bird's eye view of the immensity of Mongolia and her wide-sweeping landscapes will certainly add to your day.

'From the air Mongolia looks like God's preliminary sketch for earth, not so much a country as the ingredients out of which countries are made: grass, rock, water and wind.' 
(Stanley Stewart, In the Empire of Genghis Khan)

Taken by our guest Megan Greentree as she flew over Mongolia, 2014

A herder and his livestock crossing a Mongolian river (see below) 
Gobi landscapes (see below)

Both of these incredible images were taken by Yann Arthus–Bertrand for his non-profit organisation created `to raise people's awareness on sustainable development concerns.' Yann Arthus-Bertrand is considered one of the most celebrated aerial photographers.

A frozen river and urban habitation on the outside of Mongolia's capital city - Ulaanbaatar.
Image by Reuters
Immense river valleys. Image  Midkhat Izmaylov/Shutterstock

Sukhbaatar Square in central Ulaanbaatar. Image by Andrea Fazzari  

Aerial view of the Mongolian steppes which comprise the largest expanse of unspoiled grassland in the world.Image by Chris Pague. Senior Conservation Ecologist, The Nature Conservancy

Ulaanbaatar by Tomfong on Flickr

This final image was taken by pilot Mark Vanhoenacker. In his words:

'I have never been to Mongolia, but I’ve flown over it a number of times – normally in the last few hours of a flight to Beijing – and it is just amazing. It’s these tawny-rolling hills; there’s often snow in the valleys, even in summer. You barely see a road… you just have this amazing landscape, and every time I fly over it, I think that has to be my next holiday.'
And now the plug! (Because if you read any 'how to write a blog post' article, they all suggest that you should 'wrap' the post up with a call to action).  If you're inspired to visit Mongolia (and you should be as it is spectacular), then why not look at the range of  Mongolia holidays and small group tours that I offer?

Mongolia will not disappoint. 

11 February 2016

A Photo Diary Of Mongolia

Mongolia inspires. 

The immensity of its 'eternal' landscapes. The way the local people live their homes within those vast landscapes. The impact all of this has on your daily life. 

As I said, Mongolia inspires and I receive some spectacular photographs taken by our guests during their Eternal Landscapes Mongolia experience. 

As a thank you to all our guests that permit me to use their images of Mongolia, I have uploaded them into the new Eternal Landscapes Photo Gallery. It's an ongoing project but experience Mongolia‬ through the eyes of our travellers.

Mongolia is such a richly diverse country that I couldn’t hope to represent all elements but my aim is that they help to provide a feel for the inspiring experiences that Mongolia can provide.

Here are four images from our 2015 trips that that will shortly be making it into our Eternal Landscapes Mongolia Photo Gallery.

Mongolian Horse Games

This image was taken in the Bayandalai district of the southern Gobi. It was during a community mini-Naadam held to honour the local ovoo (sacred shamanistic shrine) - we were invited along to the celebration by the Batsuuri family that we work with. The ovoo was erected by the local herding families in the area to show respect and gratitude and to honour the spirits of the mountains of Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park - the region where the families have their livestock pasture. 

The ovoo (with juniper (known as arts in Mongolian) and the sacred blue khadag (scarves).  

After a ceremony to bless the ovoo, the rest of the day was dedicated to the 'celebration' part - mainly wrestling and horse games interpreted with eating and drinking (naturally!).  The main image was taken as the local herders and 'aduuchiin' (horse wranglers) competed to pick up a 'uurga' (a type of lasso combined with a long pole particular to Mongolian pastoralists). 

Northern Mongolia Reflections

Zuun Nuur is a lake in northern Mongolia in Khovsgol Province.  For me, northern Mongolia is not just the highlights listed in the guidebooks such as Lake Khovsgol but also the quieter places in-between that make this region so special – the ancient deer stones, meadows of wild alpine flowers, winding rivers, volcanic landscapes and lakes.

On our Untamed Mongolia trip we take three days to cover what is typically a one-day trip - from Jargalant to Murun crossing the Ider River and heading  north across some wild and beautiful grassland dominated mountain passes passing through the community of Shine Ider. 

We leave these days flexible as although there are no hiking trails there is plenty of scope for day-hikes within these timeless landscapes. The area is also rich in archaeology including burial mounds (some dating back to the Bronze Age) as well as Deer Stones - known as Bugan Khoshoo in Mongolian they are believed to possibly be ancient grave markers for warrior chiefs.

This image was taken as the sunset on a foot exploration of the local landscapes surrounding Zuun Nuur.

Life Of A Kazakh

Tsambagarav Uul National Park stands high above the provincial borders of Khovd and Bayan-Olgii aimag and forms part of the Mongol Altai Mountain Range. The 4208m peak that the national park is named after is one of Mongolia’s most beautiful snow-capped mountains and surrounded by wild open valleys.

Dakhar is a retired eagle hunter. He doesn't want to be retired. It's just the ache in his bones due to arthritis is forcing him to retire. He still herds the families livestock together with his son and daughter in law. He also still has an eagle which he continues to train.

We went to Tsambagarav to research the area in relation to offering trekking experiences there. But, having met Dakhar and spent three nights with him and his family, we ended up not worrying about what the competition will be offering and how we can compete. Instead, we chose the option 'just to be'. Dakhar has lived in the Tsambagarav region his whole life and he showed us a more local aspect to his home.

He showed us where during the Communist era in 1988 an earthquake caused an avalanche down the Zuslan Creek on Tsambagarav killing a large population of horses belonging to the local cooperative. He shared with us his memories of the yearly wolf hunt and under his guidance, we discovered fresh wolf scats. We learnt about how the pastures are used in the summer by Mongolian herding families and then in the winter by the Kazakh herding families.  And after many attempts, we finally caught sight of the large group of Siberian Ibex grazing on the side of the mountain that Dakhar had noticed through the binoculars within minutes of arriving when all we could see was shrub!  We also just sat under the immensity of Tsambagarav and enjoyed the silence.

A Mongolian View

Where? Khogno Khan Nature Reserve in the south of Bulgan Aimag. Khogno Khan itself is an immense granite massif that extends north to south for some 12 miles and east to west for around 6 miles. It also rises to 2000 feet over the surrounding steppe and sand dunes.  It is home to what was once a very important monastery - Erdene Khambiin Khiid.

It may only be 285km from UB but the views here provide the perfect antidote to the rush and crowds of everyday life elsewhere.  Sometimes it's not necessarily where you visit but how you visit. 

Mongolian Wrestling Outside of Naadam

Back in September and October, we arranged  the logistics for a photography workshop led by US based photographer Scott Davies. This image was taken by one of Scott's participants - Paul Allerton.
Wrestling (known as bokh) in Mongolia is one of Mongolia’s most popular sports. 
During the national Naadam Festival, held in Ulaanbaatar in July, 512 wrestlers compete in a single elimination tournament of nine rounds (during Naadam in rural area there may be a smaller number of rounds).
However, wrestling takes places all year round and one of the best locations to experience top level competitions is the Wrestling Palace in Ulaanbaatar where tournaments take place prior-to and during national holidays and important anniversaries. You can get close up to the action, all for a ticket that costs around 15,000 MNT!
If reading about Mongolia has inspired you, why not come along on one of our small group Mongolian adventures and fall in love with the landscapes and culture of Mongolia? I look forward to welcoming you!

8 February 2016

Your Brief Guide To Tsagaan Sar - Mongolia's Lunar New Year

Most people will know that it is Chinese New Year. Not so many people know that it is also Mongolian New Year and that Mongolian New Year is a completely separate celebration to that celebrated by the Chinese throughout the world. 

Tsagaan Sar (White Month) is Mongolia's Lunar New Year - celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solsticeIt is a deeply traditional holiday bringing together family members and lasts a minimum of three days. The year of the Blue Sheep is currently finishing and the year of the Fire Monkey starting.

Here's my (brief you'll be pleased to hear) guide.

Prior To Tsagaan Sar

In brief, you clean!

As is normal, I've been talking to Turuu on the phone this week. However, every time I have called him he has been out doing something to prepare for Tsagaan Sar - from being at the Naran Tuul Black Market in Ulaanbaatar buying sweets and carpets to shovelling snow, cleaning his hashaa (the fenced plot of land given by the Mongolian government). He has also spent a lot of time in a traffic jam that is the whole of Ulaanbaatar in the run up to the festival. 

The preparation for Tsagaan Sar begins many weeks before the actual national holiday. Mongolians like to start off the new year with their ger, apartment, or house being very clean. Many families will take this time to redecorate by buying new flooring or rugs to hang on the walls. In addition to new household goods, families will buy new clothing as well. 


Basically, you are cleaning out the previous year - both literally and metaphorically with old quarrels being reconciled and outstanding money paid back. Tsagaan Sar brings together family and friends – the problems between
each other are put behind them and you start over fresh – you do not bring previous problems forward into the New Year.

Bituun - New Year's Eve

In brief, prepare and then eat a lot of mutton dumplings.

Today (February 8th) in Mongolia is 'bituun' meaning to close down. This is the last night of the current lunar year — when the moon is invisible and darkness is total. We would know it as New Year’s Eve.

Prior to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolian families make literally hundreds of buuz  (kept  frozen until they are steamed for the guests - no need for a freezer when outside it is -30!).  Tsagaan Sar is a time when Mongolians come together to show respect to the family elders and the number of buuz prepared is a way of showing respect to the eldest members of the family. 

On bituun people eat to be full - it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year.

I saw this image this week on the Expats in Mongolia Facebook page and just had to include it.

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. You clear your mind and spirit of all negative things and open it up to pure clean positive thoughts.

Shiniin Negen - New Year's Day

In brief, honour the spirits and honour your family

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.

Our Enkhee at sunrise on Tsagaan Sar 2015. Tsagaan Suvraga, Southern Gobi

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.

The Zorgio family. Tsagaan Sar 2015.
After the first steps are taken all family members re-enter their home and start the Tsagaan Sar greetings. There are many traditions followed between families on this day such as passing the snuff bottle. The symbolism of the passing of the snuff bottle is new friendship and honouring friends and family. 

However, one of the most formal traditions is when family members honour their senior relatives in a greeting called 'zolgokh.' This is 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. This is all with the exception of the husband and wife as they are considered one person so they don’t need to be greeted by each other. 

The traditional greeting is 'Ta amar mend baina uu?’ which means ‘How are you doing?’  The answer back to the first greeting is ‘Amar mendee’ which means I am fine, I am good. Elders are given a ‘khadag’ (a Mongolian sacred scarf) as a sign of deep respect and are wished good health and long life.

The Tsagaan Sar Table

In brief, mutton!

Turuu's son Lkhagwadorj and daughter Uugantuya during Tsagaan Sar 2014

Mongolians typically prepare three important dishes for Tsagaan Sar as well as the buuz mentioned above there is also boov and the whole back of a sheep.

The main one you can see in the photo is boov – a traditional Mongolian bread (basically biscuits made of flour).  The boov are stacked in layers which have to be an odd number – three, five, etc – as the odd numbers represent happiness. The older the family members, the higher the stack of boov to show respect (the number of levels indicates the status of the family, which is determined by the age of the parents and the number of their children). The boov is then decorated with aaruul (Mongolian dried cheese) and small sweets. 

Also on the table you will find  a whole back of a sheep including the fat of its tail (it's just off to the right in the photo). Mongolians try to cook a sheep with as big a tail as possible, wishing the family wealth and prosperity.  It is served on the table for the entirety of the holiday. 

Turuu and his oldest friend Ganba, Tsagaan Sar 2014

As Mongolians celebrate the start of the Fire Monkey, I will be texting and messaging the Eternal Landscapes team and wishing them all 'sar shinedee saikhan shineleerei'. I wish you all the same.

And remember, you could always join the Eternal Landscapes team as they celebrate Tsagaan Sar in 2017. How? By joining our Mongolian small group Tsagaan Sar Insight adventure