22 April 2016

In Honour Of Earth Day

How you can make a positive contribute to the philosophy of Earth Day during your visit to Mongolia

But first. The view of Mongolia‬, Russia‬ and ‪‎Kazakhstan‬ as seen by Tim Peake. British ESA astronaut & test pilot. Living & working onboard the International Space Station for 6 months. That should help put it all into perspective!

Earth Day. Today. April 22nd.

That's great. What is it?

Earth Day began in 1970 as a day to celebrate the planet and encourage people to be more environmentally friendly. It is widely regarded as being the start of the modern environmental movement. 

There are various activities associated with the day with people worldwide getting involved.  On the list includes raising awareness about the environment - recycling or energy use as an example, planting trees and volunteering for green projects.

OK. So why are you writing about it Jess? 

Mongolia. For centuries, the traditional nomadic way of life helped to sustain the natural environment. By nature of their lifestyle, herders have an in-depth knowledge of conservation practises which was key to limiting any ecological impact.  That knowledge has been a fundamental ingredient of the herding way of in Mongolia, even into the 21st century.

But more and more challenges face the country. Mongolia’s rich oil and mineral deposits have caught  the interest of developers.  Environmental problems include desertification due to excessive grazing, inadequate water supply, and air and water pollution

So.  In honour of Earth Day, I thought I would highlight four ways you can make a positive contribution to the philosophy of Earth Day during your time in Mongolia.

Plant A Tree

Mongolia is one of the few countries that celebrates National Tree Planting Day twice a year rather than just the once. Tree planting events are organized on the second Saturday in May and October respectively and both the President and Prime Minister of Mongolia get involved.

One of the projects that I and my Eternal Landscapes team actively supports is Gobi Oasis  - based in Dundgobi Aimag's provincial town - Mandalgobi. Located in the middle Gobi in an area of desert steppe, Gobi Oasis is a  family operated project  formed in 1975 - planting trees in the Gobi Desert to help stop desertification and erosion.  
Get in touch, come and get digging  and add to the (roughly)  6200 different sizes of saxaul trees, 1500 elm trees (Siberian elms - native to Mongolia, Turkestan, Eastern Siberia and Korea) and a small number of aspen and almond trees that currently grow at Gobi Oasis. Our most current visit was on April 14th.

And as the saying goes…'from small acorns...'

Carry  A Bag For Life

Ditch the plastic. Purchase a 'bag for life' - with a twist. For those who enjoy retail therapy, here's a great opportunity. If you're in Ulaanbaatar, head to either the Mongolian Quilting Shop or Mary and Martha's. 

The Mongolian Quilting Centre  is known more formally as the New Way Life NGO - established in 2005 to make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged and unemployed women.  They are trained in the art of quilting, textiles and embroidery and  use their skills to generate income for their families by crafting products to sell. Head to their Quilting Shop on Seoul Street.

An alternative is Mary and Martha close to Michele's Bakery (probably still advertised in guidebooks as Cafe Boulangerie) - the  first and only World Fair Trade Organisation registered in Mongolia. Their aim is to support the growth of small and micro indigenous businesses in the country. Particularly great for items of Kazakh embroidery  - so many tote bags you won't know where to look!

Have A Picnic

Why? The key focus here is that you buy local produce. Pineapple? Brie? Think about what you're buying and its country of origin. Those oranges might taste delicious but one thing is for sure, they're not native to Mongolia. And don't think it's only mutton! Search out the locally produced sweet tasting tomatoes and cucumber. There's also great local salami, freshly made bread and smoked fish. And if you're visiting later in the year, delicious watermelons (yes, really). 

Become More Aware

Africa has the 'big five.' Mongolia has its own version - snow leopards, saiga antelope, Przewalski's horse, Khulan wild ass and the wild Bactrian camel, to name a few. 
Khustain Nuruu National Park is noted for its successful reintroduction of the endemic Przewalski horse (Equus przewalskii) – the only wild horse to survive in modern times and known as Takhi in Mongolian. 

The Khustain National Park Trust deals with  the management of the national park contracting with Mongolia’s  Ministry of Nature and Environment and Khustain is now run as an NGO. 

Located just under 100km from UB, why not visit  for the successful conservation story and for the wilderness. En-route visit the small on site shop where you can purchase excellent books such as the Flowers of Hustai National Park and Birds of Hustai National Park - both produced by the Khustain Trust.

If I've inspired you to do your part for Earth Day during your visit to Mongolia then please get in touch. Visit my Eternal Landscapes website to find out more about the philosophy behind EL and why I set it up.

19 April 2016

Stuff YOUR rucksack for Asral's Hot Meal Project

Why I have arranged for you to stuff your rucksack for Asral NGO based in Ulaanbaatar

I have mentioned Asral NGO a few times in different blog posts.  Asral is the Mongolian word for ‘care’ and the NGO was founded by High Tibetan Lama, Ven. Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche. In 1994 Rinpoche was invited by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to assist with the plight of Mongolian people after the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus Asral NGO was created.
Since its foundation Asral has helped with the ever present levels of poverty and social problems in Mongolia - specifically in the Bayangol ger district - one of the largest ger districts in Ulaanbaatar. 

Back in autumn 2015, I was invited to the Asral and Kunchab Jampaling Buddhist Centre in Ulaanbaatar to have lunch with the Ven. Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche during his visit to Mongolia. Why? As an acknowledgement of my continued support for the work of Asral. 

I am always touched by the kindness and generosity of EL guests who are always keen to bring gifts with them for the Mongolian people they meet. I have almost an entire page in my Practicalities document dedicated to gift ideas - ranging from yo-yos through to handkerchiefs.

Davaa, the Director of Asral joined us for the lunch. I mentioned about how EL guests are often keen to bring items from their home countries as a way of offering support and assistance…and thus an idea was born.

These are some of the children supported by the Hot Meal Project located at the Asral and Kunchab Jampaling Buddhist Centre (Asral's multi purpose centre located in the Bayangol district of UB houses many of Asral’s social initiatives, training projects and community activities).

Asral works in partnership with community leaders to develop self-sustaining options through education, training, medical care and family support. Their core aim is to keep families together and prevent children from going onto the streets. 

Community leaders from the Bayangol ger district select the most vulnerable children aged between the ages of six and sixteen to participate in the Hot Meal Project. This comes under Asral's Improving Access to Education scheme. The Hot Meal Project ensures the poorest families get support in ensuring their children get to school each day. The children are given a hot lunch from Monday to Friday, get extra tuition and help with their homework - all at the Asral centre. Also as participants of the project their health needs are provided for as well as additional support in clothing/ school uniforms, books and school supplies.

Davaa has provided me with a list of items that would be invaluable to the Hot Meal Project and its participants. So. For those of you travelling to Mongolia with EL (or planning to!), here's how you can help to make a practical difference. 

Once here, I will arrange for you to visit Asral NGO to deliver any items you bring. The children do have a summer holiday so you may not get to hand items to individual children but it might be that you visit them at their home.

Please only bring items if you can. It is not obligatory. Remember, Mongolia is not a pack-light destination at the best of times, so you may not have a lot of extra space.

This list will be included on my online documents page as well. 

If you're reading this and travelling to Mongolia but separate to EL but would still like to be of help then that's great. Please get in touch with me and I can provide assistance. 

I have also been in touch with Julie Veloo of the Children of the Peak Sanctuary based in Ulaanbaatar and she and I will be be working together on a similar list which I will also post.

Small Items For School

  • Colour pencils
  • Erasers
  • Black pencils (drawing)
  • Drawing note books
  •  Pens with blue ink
  • Notebooks for maths
  • Correction pen
  • Colored pens
  • Rulers (different types of rulers  for instance: for geometry)  

Small Items Additional

  • Small hand towels
  • Small hair combs 
  • Hand soap/Sanitol
  • Pantyhose white colour for young girls
  • Winter hats and scarf
  • Socks for summer and winter (all sizes. For boys and girls)

Larger Items

  • Winter jumper with open collar (for boys and girls. All ages)
  • School bags
  • White T-shirts (for boys and girls. All ages)
  • Winter and spring coats  

For those of you who would like to help, but have no space. You can also purchase items here in Ulaanbaatar and I can arrange for you to donate them to Asral.

Get Packing! Or should I say stuffing?! Jess

13 April 2016

Insight Into The Mongolian Herding Calendar - May

No generic templates or copy and paste here. Here's an insight into how I put the individual elements of an EL trip together. Starting with our May 14th Spring Journey. 

What are you up to in May?

I was sitting with a mug of tea (tea fuels most of what I do), and put into Google where to visit in May. Ideas from across the web include visiting the Caribbean - especially the Bahamas, exploring Crete without the crowds, tackling a trek in Nepal and Marrakech in Morocco.

Asia does get a  mention - namely Japan (experiences warm pleasant weather in May) and  China (depending on the area that you are considering for a visit).

No-where did I see Mongolia listed.

But, if you search through the web you will notice that more and more tour companies (local and international) have started to offer trips in May in Mongolia.

Why? Why would you even consider Mongolia in May? 

Having looked through the trips on offer, I would make a guess that it all comes down to profit for a majority of my competitors.  Most of the available trips look like they have used generic templates. However, I have always done things differently. 

Here are some of the individual elements behind the inspiration for my small group Spring Journey tour (May 14th!) and why I have included them.


We start with  a free (informal and relaxed) walking tour of Mongolia's capital city. Why? Ulaanbaatar is home to 45% of Mongolia's population and you have to experience it to get a full overview to life in modern 21st Century Mongolia.

The ger districts form part of the urban landscape of Ulaanbaatar - informal settlements that have grown on the edge of the city. The ger districts are not slums. Yes, life for some here is hard but for many citizens the ger remains central to their identity and they have chosen to live in the ger districts and are proud to do so.

Our Ger Area tour is arranged through the Ger Area Mapping Centre - an NGO which conducts research in the ger areas of Ulaanbaatar with the objective of compiling better data so that projects to improve the ger area communities are more effective.

Come for the day and learn not only about the challenges but experience every day life and meet local Mongolians who are making a positive impact in their local ger communities.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

This is Naraa. He is a herder who migrates twice  a year. By May, he (together with his family - his wife Buje and children Tsindee and Bayasa) will have moved to their summer camp next to the Terelj River. They will have moved away from their winter camp in the lee of the mountains because as the winter snow has melted, so they need another water source. 

The family operate a small tourism business - hosting international guests. They  are herders but the supplementary income they gain from hosting visitors  helps to pay for their children’s education and also allows them to remain as herders. 

Staying with Naraa and Bujee not only means you help to support their way of life. It also means you get to explore the more hidden side to Gorkhi-Terelj - away from the main sites and tourism development.

Gobi Oasis Tree Planting Project

Gobi Oasis Gobi Oasis is a small, family run, non-profit conservation project that has been operating since 1975 in Mandalgobi, Dundgobi Province. Their main conservation work is the planting of seedlings and nurturing them into trees. 

Mongolia only experiences, on average, 90-120 frost free days a year. By May,  land and greenhouses are being prepared by those that plant crops. The same applies to Gobi Oasis where they will be preparing the land for the planting of the seedlings.

It's a harsh environment but with constant care in their early development, many of the young trees will have become established. They help to bind the loose soil and thus are effective against erosion, help reduce wind, dust and desertification, attract rainfall and help build suitable conditions for biodiversity - all very important in the (increasingly) desert environment of Mandalgobi.

Tsagaan Suvraga

Why do we include Tsagaan Suvraga? For all that is represented in the image above. And...

The Gobi is a harsh environment and herders here live a more unsettled way of life. During your time at Tsagaan Suvraga, you will stay at ger accommodation offered by Zorigoo and Deegii - camel herders who have lived in the region all their life.  Due to the limited water sources and challenging climate resulting in little pasture for their livestock. Zorigoo is frequently absent as he has taken his main camel herd further away in search of pasture. Often, only Deegii remains at the ger looking after the livestock that have to be milked.  Sometimes one of her three daughters will be with her.

Domestic bactrian camels are well adapted to  life in the harsh Gobi Desert and are a valuable, desert livestock species. They are bred as multipurpose animals - for transportation, for meat, for their milk and for their wool. In May, Deegii will be shearing the camel wool - although ideally all the females should have given birth  so that calving does not coincide with shearing time. 
 It is a hard way of life and, as with other rural families, they offer these extra gers as a way of supplementing their income.  

Saikhan Yak Festival 

Yaks. In the Gobi Desert? Yes. Specifically in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park where there are permanent water sources, a higher elevation and shelter.

The  Saikhan Yak Festival takes place in May. Yes, yak herders are in the minority in the Gobi. However, due to the altitude and terrain of the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park there is a community of yak herders. The Saikhan Yak Festival is a yearly event organised by the Governing Administration of Omnogobi Aimag and held in the magnificent mountain landscapes of Yolyn Am - Vulture’s Gorge or Mouth. It is  held to promote the breeding of yaks and the traditional Gobi way of life.  It's a celebration of the way of life in the Gobi and a chance for the local herders to come together as a community at what can be quite an isolating time of year (late winter / early spring). 

Orkhon River Valley

The Orkhon River Valley is one of Mongolia's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It encompasses an extensive area of pastureland on both banks of the Orkhon River and includes numerous archaeological remains dating back to the 6th century. The site also includes Kharkhorin - the 13th- and 14th-century capital of the Mongol Empire. 

The region was designated a WHS for numerousn reasons - one is that it  is considered the cradle of Mongolian civilisation. Another is for its links to the historical and counting modern-day development of the nomadic culture in Mongolia.

As part of your Orkhon River Valley experience, you spend time with Tumee and Jargaa - herders that make their home in the river valley.  By May, they have started to milk their goats and sheep. It will depedn on the climate in late April as to whether they have moved already to their more open summer camp. But, regardless of their location, they will already be looking for fresh pasture for their livestock. 

Experiencing their way of life  is a great way to take in the historical, cultural and natural perspective of this beautiful area. A horse trek would also be an option.

Auspicious Days

As a herder in Mongolia, you live your life through the lunar calendar - all your activities are typically conducted on 'auspicious' days. In the Mongolian lunar calendar, there are favorable and unfavorable days according to the combination of elements: earth, air, fire and water. These combinations impact on the effectiveness of one’s activities as well as one’s health. Herders look at the lunar calendar to look for a suitable (positive and auspicious) day on which to move their herds, put up their ger, to comb the cashmere or to castrate their male animals.

I went through the Mongolian Lunar Calendar for May to see when the auspicious days were. There's a total of nine within our Spring Journey tour dates.

If any of the above has inspired you to travel with us then please get in touch. 
The Gobi Desert and central Khangai Mountains form the main backdrop to our Spring Journey as you travel and meet and stay with local rural Mongolian families. You’ll get to experience the traditional way of life but at the same time gain an overview as what it means to be Mongolian in 21st Century Mongolia. 
Interested? The dates are May 14th - 29th. It is a guaranteed departure with only four places remaining. There is also a 15% discount which brings the price down to £1237 pp.

 Please do get in touch for further details!

6 April 2016

The Realities Of Facing a Mongolian Spring

As the days become longer and warmer, we start to look ahead to the summer. However, March and April are two of the toughest months for Mongolian herders. This post is about the reality they face. 

We are slowly moving from winter into the warmth of spring. With DST (daylight savings) the longer days have started to arrive (I'm writing this from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere). 

Late spring is when the tourism season in Mongolia starts to shake it's tail feather. The short number of winter festivals have finished and tour companies are starting to use social media to entice travellers to Mongolia for summer 2016. The reality being that companies only have a short timespan in which to make a profit.

However, we not in summer yet and what happens in March and April in Mongolia? 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. 

A short time ago I wrote a post about the realities faced by Mongolia's herders during winter. As we look ahead to the summer season, I wanted to provide an update to that post as to what current life is like for the herders impacted by this winter's harsh weather.  I contacted Bill Munns at CAMDA for an update:

'Although the weather is now milder, much damage was done during the recent bitter cold, killing and weakening livestock without sufficient fodder.'

The latest figures published by the Mongolian Montsame News Agency on March 25th is that 
681, 000 livestock have perished so far - including 222 camels, 25, 200 horses, 65, 200 cattle, 237, 000 sheep and 353, 500 goats.

The worst affected aimags (provinces) are Sukhbaatar, Uvs (if you have trekked the Kharkhiraa circuit then you have been to Uvs), Arkhangai (central Mongolia - home to Tsenkher Hot Springs, Tsetserleg and Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur), Zavkhan and Bayankhongor.

Such was the concern, that the United Nations (under the Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF)) kickstarted a US$2.4 million emergency response to the situation.

According to the report:
'Around 60 per cent of Mongolia’s 339 districts have been in dzud or near-dzud condition since December 2015. Dzud is a cyclical slow onset disaster unique to Mongolia. It consists of a summer drought followed by a deterioration of the weather conditions in winter (10 to 350 cm snow thickness, temperatures -40° C to -50° C) and spring during which shortage of pasture and water leads to large scale death of animals. The dzud conditions have been compounded by a prolonged, El Nino induced, drought in the summer of 2015 that resulted in a 40% reduction in wheat harvests and grazing pasture in some areas. 
As of 15 February 2016, an estimated 225,788 people (62,719 herder households or 41 per cent of the total herder population) in 211 districts are impacted by adverse weather conditions. Out of this, an estimated 11,800 herder households with less than 100 animals who reside in the 98 most dzud affected districts are considered particularly vulnerable.'
The emergency fund will deliver a package of food, nutrition and basic relief items to facilitate the survival of the most vulnerable herders. Provision of fodder to livestock will help to protect livelihoods of vulnerable herders who are dependent on their livestock.. There will also be a cash intervention which will ensure that low income households can buy additional warm clothes, heating and cooking fuels.
Although their resources are limited, CAMDA funded 9.5 tons (380 sacks x 25 kg) of all-mash or mixed fodder (together with the European Space Agency) to be transported to the herders of Tsagaan Ovoo bagh Of Erdenedalai district in Dundgobi Aimag. To put it into perspective, this cost 7. 5 million Mongolia tugrik (approximately US$ 3680)  including transport.

So what can you do?
The obvious one. It works though. CAMDA (Cambridge Mongolia Development Appeal) was first formed in 2000 following a countrywide severe weather event. There was another such severe event in 2010, which killed 11 million livestock died, leaving entire herding families destitute. And now again in 2015/16. 
CAMDA is dedicated to  supporting and bringing resources to Mongolia’s herders - not just by  focusing  on just financial aid, but real practical help, the sort that makes a long term difference. Their essential work includes the restoration and replacement of fresh-water wells in addition to providing machinery to aid in crop harvesting during the short harvest period. In the words of CAMDA:
'Funds are not spent on 'handouts rather on a means to bring resources to low-income herders.' 
Here's how you can donate.