26 May 2016

Experience Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia's Capital City

I'm recently arrived back into Ulaanbaatar (UB). It's a city I call home. It's also a little like Marmite; some people like it, others definitely hate it. I like Marmite. I like UB.

Ulaanbaatar as seen from Zaisan Hill to the south of the city

Ulaanbaatar (UB) is the capital city of Mongolia. It divides visitors into two strong categories of love or hate...two opposing corners of take it or leave it. I happen to love it. 

Yes, as a visitor with a restricted time schedule, it is the wilderness landscapes that have the greatest draw - completely understandable. UB can be a difficult city to get to know (not on a logistical basis) and sometimes even like.  But, don't dismiss it too quickly, it's a city worth spending time in.

They're actually quite interesting!

Over 1.3 million people live in Ulaan Baatar (the population of Mongolia is only 3 million - as of the start of 2015)In fact, this number for the resident population of UB is fairly sure an underestimate. The population as with most capital cities and major conurbations is organic.

The population density of UB in 2000 was 162 persons per square kilometres; it has since increased to 246 persons in 2010 (from the latest Census in 2010). Compare that to the average population density of Mongolia outside of Ulaaanbaatar - 1.7 per square kilometre.

A modern city with a nomadic heart

Ulaan Baatar is strongly keeping time with the beat of the 21st century. But commerce and technology rub shoulders with tradition.

The modern Blue Sky Hotel built overlooking the Choijin Lama Temple and Museum
Image by our guest, Tammy McCorkle

It's origins were as a nomadic monastic city  - seeking pasture for the livestock that the various monasteries and temples owned. It settled in its present location in the Tuul River Valley in 177 where it became a centre for pilgrimage, religious teaching and international commerce with a mix of camel caravans, international traders and unique 18th century Buddhist architecture.

According to current statistics, over 60% of UB's population live in the ger districts - these are areas surrounding the modern downtown hub consisting of extended families living in the traditional felt tents. There have been ger districts in UB since the city was established in the 17th century.

This image below is of Gandan Khiid taken in 1913. See how this Buddhist monastery dominates the city skyline? See the ger districts surrounding it?

Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, early 20th century
Gandan (Gandantegchinlen) Monastery, 1913, Wikipedia

The next image is of Gandan Khiid from Tsagaany Ovoo taken recently by one of EL's guests.  The ovoo is connected with the monastery. Come up here and you'll share the space with monks, local teenagers, a family and a whole heap of pigeons. It also gives you a great perspective on the city's own unique Mongolian identity - a city of nomads rushing headlong into the 21st century.

Gandan Khiid from Tsagaany Ovoo, Ulaanbaatar

Red Hero

From 1924 until the early 1990’s, Mongolia was run from the Kremlin and a course of socialist development was undertaken that was very close to the replica of the Soviet experience. The socialist city of UB lost virtually all its oriental character – it was ripped from its heart as being incompatible with socialism. 

Zaisan Hill, a circular memorial of modern Socialist art that depicts scenes of friendship between the people of the USSR and Mongolia
The capital city of Mongolia has had many names in line with its rich and varied history. Ulaan Baatar translates as Red Hero and relates back to when Mongolia became the second communist state in the world under the banner of the USSR

21st Century

It has it's issues. To name a few...Planning. Traffic congestion. Pollution. Issues with garbage disposal, sewage, and other waste management infrastructure. Social inequality. Lack of investment in public transportation. It is also said to be the coldest capital in the world.

It is a tough, modern and cosmopolitan city full of contrasts and extremes. It is also the cultural and business centre of Mongolia and a thriving urban hub. It maintains a strong Mongolian identity of its own. 

A few of just some of the ger districts that surround 'downtown' Ulaanbaatar
Image by our guest, Massimo Rumi

As a traveller, you will more than likely bring your guidebook but why not ditch the guidebook for a while and discover a new side to this city that is now my home. UB only offers a hint of the people and the varied and rich culture that have preceded the modern city. Think of the contrasting stories and different layers of history that have created its fascinating history. It helps put the city that you are experiencing into perspective and will make it more alive to you. 

You never know, you may even like it.

The plug (of course!) If you would like to experience Ulaanbaatar with either myself or one of my Eternal Landscapes team, why not try one of our Mongolia one-day experiences?

20 May 2016

Buddha's Birthday Celebrations - Ulaanbaatar

Did you know that this May 21st is Buddha's Birthday? Find out what's going on in Ulaanbaatar to honour the celebrations. 

All images are of Gandantegchinlen Monastery and taken by photographers Nick Rains and Paul Allerton - both who travelled with us.

The spectacular 26.5-meter-high statue of Avalokiteśvara
Image by photographer Nick Rains

If anyone of you reading this has a birthday tomorrow (May 21st) then you will be sharing your celebrations with Buddha.   Vesak Day (as it is commonly known) is also known as Ikh Duichen in Mongolia (it means Great Moment in Tibetan). 

It's Buddha's birthday, the date of reaching enlightenment and the date of reaching nirvana all celebrated in one day. 
It falls on the 15th day of the first month of summer in the Mongolian Lunar Calendar (so this means the date changes in the western calendar). The 15th day in the Mongolian Lunar Calendar is also full moon. 
(Listed throughout the Tibetan Lunar Calendar are auspicious and non-auspicious days. May 21st is a non-auspicious day - it particularly mentions against having any medical procedure. Just so you're prepared!)

Sukhbaatar Square (renamed Chinggis Square in 2013) will be the focus point of the start of the day's celebrations in Ulaanbaatar.  The day will start with a flashmob meditation of a thousand people and then a parade of more than 1080 people from Sukhbaatar Square to Gandan Monastery where the focus will then be on the Migjid Janraisig Süm.

(108 is considered a sacred number in Buddhism. Although the number's significance is open to interpretation, it is said to represent the 108 human passions.)
Migjid Janraisig Süm at Gandan Monastery
By photographer Nick Rains

Inside Migjid Janraisig Süm
By photographer Nick Rains

Inside Migjid Janraisig Süm
By photographer Paul Allterton

And in case you're in the area, below are all the details (although you will have to be able to read Cyrillic). Why not go along and be part of the local community?

 I include Gandantegchinlen Khiid on our free city walking tour that I offer to all EL guests. Why not see what else we offer in Ulaanbaatar on our Mongolia one-day tours?

17 May 2016

A Month In The Life Of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia

What did you get up to this month? I've put a brief glimpse together of the world of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia. Everything from planting trees to helping a goat give birth.

Community Tree Planting Day - Ulaanbaatar

The cry went out for help. And we answered.

Nogoon Nuur, formerly a waste dump site, is now a thriving community space in Ulaanbaatar. The whole vision is made possible by a committed individual, Ulzii. Ulzii has been committed to renovating this public space since 2012 and over this time has planted over 500 trees and focused on creating a  healthy, green, public space for Mongolian people, especially children in the ger area

It won't win any photography awards, but I love this great image of local children on pedalos. Who'd have thought it in downtown urban Ulaanbaatar?

The old waste dump of Nogoon Nuur in Ulaanbaatar, which is slowly being transformed into a community space

On May 7th,  to help to kick-start community participation, the cry went to to support Ulzii - to help him plant more trees and help him improve this community park. The work focused on volunteers preparing the area for the planting of trees, landscaping and the building of a composting system.  

I arranged for my female trip assistants that were available to go along and help provide some (female) manpower.

Selenge - one of my brilliant Mongolian trip assistants

Some of the volunteers working on the tree planting day

My trip assistant Tuya finishing off planting one of the trees I helped finance

Asral Volunteering

More travellers are looking to volunteer as part of their holiday experience. To make a difference. To share a skill. To get a 'more under the skin' introduction to a country and its culture and people. The list is long.  Voluntourism is a very current trend in tourism although it has been around for a substantial amount of time. 

My 'taste of volunteering' experiences are set up in direct relation with the projects that I work with and help support. The aim is not to make any profit. We don't.  Guests pay directly for any services to the service provider. They also make a donation in person directly to the project. 

The volunteer options that are available I limit…on purpose.  They have been chosen by the projects as being of full benefit to them. None involve working directly with children unless the volunteer holds a professional educational qualification. Numbers of participants are also limited to between one to three to make sure not to overwhelm the project staff or the local people that the project supports.

Eileen joined us on our May 14th Spring Journey Mongolia small group tour. She asked to extend her time in Ulaanbaatar with a volunteer experience. And so she has.

Eileen with a community member of the Asral NGO Gachuurt project, Ulaanbaatar

She joined Asral - the Mongolian based Buddhist NGO. 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. 

Eileen assisted on two of their social welfare projects. One is in the Gachuurt area of Ulaanbaatar where up to 30 families are trained annually in organic vegetable growing at the Asral training centre.

Is it beneficial? In the autumn, family participants harvested salad greens, peppers and squash, as well as:

  • 2.6 tons of potatoes
  • 70 kg of cabbages
  • 75 kg of carrots
  • 110 kg of cucumber
  • 20 kg of onions
  • 30 kg of turnips
It might not look like much, but then Asral is not competing for best kept market garden!

The planting area for Asral NGO Gachuurt project

Eileen also spent three days with Asral's Made in Mongolia. As part of Asral's philosophy, the NGO is committed to supporting women (often the head of the household) and their families to achieve sustainable livelihoods. Asral works  closely with community leaders, to provide access to education, skills training and family support for the women.
Made in Mongolia (MIM) is an Asral initiative established to create employment for the women and to provide wider support for their communities. 330 women have been trained by the MIM Project in sewing, embroidery and felt making in Ulaanbaatar and Underschil in the Gobi Desert. In the Asral Centre in the Bayangol district, there is a designated  space to house the felt making and sewing project.

20 women are now employed full-time by MIM in Ulaanbaatar and Underschil. Eileen worked specifically with the team on producing felt slippers and small felt brooches which will be sold to help create an income for the MIM project.

At Made in Mongolia at the Asral NGO centre in Bayangol district, Ulaanbaatar

Eileen learning to process wool to turn into felt

Essence of Mongolia

Read a guidebook and it will probably mention that as a traveller you should consider avoiding spring in Mongolia. Yes, it's a challenging time of year - especially with the weather (you'll need thermals and shorts - it's not a pack light time of year). However, travelling at this time of year gives a very real insight into the spring calendar of the herders - a very industrious time of year with the livestock giving birth, cashmere being combed from the goats and the male animals being castrated. This is one reason why I continue to promote and offer trips during spring in Mongolia. 

One trip ended towards the end of April. Here's part of a blog report written by one of our guests:

'March and April tend to be the time of year when goats and sheep give birth. We actually got to witness a goat give birth. She was having trouble with her first birth and with a little human intervention the baby slid right out, the sac was picked off, and the umbilical cord torn by hand. I think, when you are not exposed to that kind of event, you are reminded that nature is indeed a wonderful and amazing thing. Especially so when the babies stand up within an hour and are running soon after. Their incessant cries at the gers were also quite funny as were the occasions when a baby would attempt to wander into the ger or when watching a baby goat try to nibble on an adult's horns or watching the baby goats and sheep play and jump and stand on top of adults. Baby goats, especially, have so much character.'

And here's the mum and baby just after the event:

Around the middle of March is when Mongolian herders aim for their livestock to start giving birth

And finally…


EL is a business. But we are very much a family as well. This is one of our youngest EL family members  (Turuu's son) graduating from school (seen together here with his (proud) grandparents). If you join us on our  February 2017 Mongolia winter tours Tsagaan Sar Insight trip, they will be your hosts for Mongolian Lunar New Year.

Lkhagwadorj standing proud with his grandparents

If you're interesting in joining us for any aspect - whether that be lending a hand on a community project to joining one of my small group trips, then please get in touch!

10 May 2016

Birds Of Mongolia - Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day

Brief guide by Jess to some of the birds of Mongolia. Why? To celebrate World Migratory Bird Day

May 10th is World Migratory Bird Day. It's probably not something that you have marked on your calendar. 

World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) was initiated in 2006 and is an annual awareness-raising campaign highlighting the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats. 

Why the post?

Mongolia has some of the last remaining wilderness areas in the natural world. A natural world that is fast changing due to the modern world - with the primary changes being caused by  human population growth and alteration of the landscape. And these changes have and are affecting Mongolia just as elsewhere - such as the voracious appetite for natural resources that feeds Mongolia's mining industry. 

Birds are an integral part of the web of life and are essential components of healthy, functioning ecosystems. Diverse bird populations reflect the underlying health of the ecosystem in which they - and we - live. When birds start disappearing, it means that something is wrong with our environment.

Marian Herz is a guest of Eternal Landscapes. Her major loves are bird life and wild flowers.  She first travelled with us back in 2014 on a 23-day overview of the country. She is returning this September for a more specific focus on the birdlife of eastern Mongolia. 

To celebrate birds, I thought I would share some of the spectacular images that Marian took of birds here in Mongolia during her first trip with us.

Common Shelduck - Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Dundgobi Aimag

Baga  Gazriin Chuluu comprises an area of rocky mountains, semi-desert and dry riverbeds with elm trees. The site is characterised by extensive granite rock formations, surrounded by steppe habitat. The site provides good stopover habitat for many nesting and migrating raptors and other birds.

Common Shelduck, Mongolia
Pied Avocet - Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Dundgobi Aimag

Pied Avocet, Mongolia

Horned Lark - Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Dundgobi Aimag

Horned Lark

Lesser Kestrel - Tsagaan Suvraga, Dundgobi Aimag

Lesser Kestrel

Isabelline Wheatear - Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, Omnogobi Aimag

Gobi Gurvan Saikhan is Mongolia’s largest national park – a mountainous terrain rising out of the extensive desert plains and a region of incredible biological diversity. This mountainous region was formed by the same tectonic activity that created the Himalayas and is part of the Gobi Altai Range – the outer crumple zone of the Himalayan geological activity. 
The site is characterized as a high upland (around 1,000 m in elevation) with dry stream beds, punctuated by mountain ranges rising to 2,835 m, mountain massifs, hummocks and rocky outcrops. 

Isabelline Wheatear

(Change of landscape and natural habitat now as we head north out of the Gobi Desert)

Billed Chough - Khogno Khan Nature Reserve, Bulgan Aimag

Khogno Khan Nature Reserve was taken under state protection partly due to the specialised taiga and steppe plants that grow in this area. The small but vital Tarna River provides an essential water source for the nomadic herders and the striking Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes and a small oasis located at the foot of the sand dunes provide a natural habitat for numerous birds such as the Demoiselle Crane. 

Red Billed Chough
Common Tern - Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Arkhangai Aimag

 This large freshwater lake 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. 

Common Tern

Ruddy Shelduck - Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Arkhangai Aimag

Ruddy Shelduck

Bar Headed Geese - Ider River, Jargalant, Khovsgol Aimag

Bar Headed Geese

Whooper Swan -  Ider River, Jargalant, Khovsgol Aimag

Whooper Swan
Monk Vultures - Ikh Uul, Khovsgol Aimag

Monk Vultures
Demoiselle Cranes - Ikh Uul, Khovsgol Aimag

Demoiselle Cranes

If Marian's images have inspired you, why not get in touch? I can design a Mongolian tailor made tour for you in conjunction with a member of the Mongolian Ornithological Society. Get in touch for further details!

2 May 2016

Blogs About Mongolia - By Our Eternal Landscapes Guests

What does Mongolia mean to the people who have travelled there? What was their experience like? Find out through the blog posts of some of EL's guests.

This is a blog. About Mongolia. But, it is written from my perspective - that of the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia.  Sometimes you need the perspective of someone who has been there. Experienced it. And is someone like you - a traveller looking for unbiased advice and reviews. 

So here is Mongolia, in the news and photographs of some of EL's guests - all in the form of their own blog posts.

Touchton Family

Travelled with us on one of our private Mongolia family holidays - our Wild Family Explorer. Their experience focused on the Gobi Desert and the National Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar. 

'We all fell in love with Mongolia. The trip was authentic, and that is what Iwanted. I look for a company that 'gets' me and understands how I want to travel - not a canned approach. It was very personalised – I appreciate your willingness to adjust to our needs.’
Having just built a family ovoo at Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park
Read more  about their impressions of Mongolia here

Brittany Zeller Holland 

Travelled with her husband on a private Mongolia tailor made tour - Essence of Mongolia through the Gobi Desert and the Khangai Mountains.

'What impressed me most about Mongolia was the endurance of the people and their kindness. The things that surrounded us – ger interiors, temples and skies were vibrant and full of life.'

At Gobi Oasis Tree Planting Project
Read more about their impressions of Mongolia here

Deborah Liao

Travelled with us on one of our small group 'seasonal insight' trips (April). The trip focused on northern Mongolia, the Orkhon River Valley and the middle Gobi.

'The sky is so big, the vistas so vast, and so few people live in Mongolia per square mile. It's just amazing. It's just amazing how mile after mile can reveal huge expanses of plains and mountains for miles on end. I have never been able to look out across that much open land in my life.'

Learning the art of making Mongolian khuushuur
Read more about her impressions of Mongolia here

Lynn McCaw

Travelled with us on one of our Mongolia small group tours - our 23-day Untamed Mongolia.

'And do avoid the corporately owned 'tourist ger camps which is where most tour groups end up. They are ghettos with rigid rules, poor quality or phoney ger accommodation, and where you will end up listening to fellow westerners talking about their mortgages or about how they are going to “do” Bhutan next.'

At Tsagaan Suvraga - White Stupa
Read more about her impressions of Mongolia here

Sovay Berriman

Joined us on our Wild Gobi Mongolia Research trip which included a five-day camel trek at Khongoryn Els sand dunes

'The dunes of Khongoryn Els sweep up against Zöölön Uul, a mountain range that is at the easterly reach of the Gobi Altai. You could say the dunes were a mountain range themselves. They are mammoth, the highest peak of sand being approximately 300m. They present the stereotypical beauty I think of in relation to a desert; sweeping lines and sharp contrasting forms lit by an unforgiving sun. There is certainly a beauty here, however, it is the gravel plains of the Gobi that stop my heart and leave my mind gaping in painful awe.'

The 'girls' with Baagi - our camel guide
Read more about her impressions of Mongolia here.

Megan Greentree

Joined the same trip as Sovay above.

'The Gobi will make you question everything you thought you knew about the desert. It will strip the layers of expectation, familiarity and ‘seen it all before’ mentality from the harshest of critics. No longer will you compartmentalise landscapes into preconceived boxes. 
The remoteness lends itself to a sense of freedom and unconscious ownership. Just when you feel an element of power over the landscape, mother earth will remind you of your perilous position in the world.'

3/4's of the way up climbing Mount Bogd 
Or. Alternatively
'I’ve never been on a camel before' was all I could manage to say as my Mongolian Bactrian camel stood up. 'I’m also scared of heights' quickly followed.'
Read more about her impressions of Mongolia here.
Ross Briggs
Has joined us three extended times in Mongolia - cover  a wide range of experiences including for Tsagaan Sar - Mongolian Lunar New Year, an extended Khovsgol tre, twice to the Altai and also accompanying us on our annual rubbish clean-up.
'Otgon Tenger Uul would have to be my most memorable cultural experience.  Seeing the reverence Turuu  showed to the mountain and lake, taking part in the lake water ritual, knowing, seeing and experiencing the significance of the area made it a very special day.'
With Turuu during Tsagaan Sar  - Mongolian Lunar New Year
Read more about his impressions of Mongolia here.

If you're interested in any of the experiences listed here…please do get in touch. Mongolia is a truly wonderful country.