30 July 2016

Sustainable Mongolia - Small Group Tour

I’m the founder of EL. But I arrived in Mongolia as a tour guide and being a tour guide still defines who I am as a person. I first visited Mongolia over 11 years ago and I fell in love with a country. In its entirety. I felt completely at home and Mongolia is still my home.

If you want to know more about me, visit the notes section of my FB page, this is where I record my personal aspirations for EL and my team.

Although my role has evolved, I still lead experiences through Mongolia. If you’re interested in getting a ‘Jess perspective’ on Mongolia, then below are the details on one of the trips that I will be leading in 2016 that is still open for booking.  

Sustainable Mongolia - September 17th, 2016

The focus of my Sustainable Mongolia trip is taking an active involvement in community tourism at a local level. Supporting local is a major part of my philosophy behind what drives EL and is at the heart of what we do  and at the centre of each experience we offer. Why do this? It helps to support the rural communities through which we travel and working directly with the local people allows us to source local knowledge leading to a more personal style of holiday for you.

Because of this philosophy I have got to know some remarkable Mongolian people working for change at a grassroots level. These people were the motivation behind this itinerary. 

Join me as I travel through the Middle Gobi and remote Khangai Mountains, meeting the local Mongolian people we work with. Learning more about the challenges they and their home environment face and what they are doing to combat these challenges. There will be freedom and flexibility for private exploration as well.


The soviet art work of Zaisan Hill to the south of Ulaanbaatar
Image by our guest Frank Jones

Start off in Mongolia’s capital city. Not with a typical tour of museums or souvenir shopping but by meeting local people. The ger districts form part of the urban landscape of Ulaanbaatar - large informal settlements that have grown on the edge of the city.
This full day walk is arranged in association with the Mongolian Ger Area Mapping Centre NGO.

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. 

Pedalo boats at Nogoon Nuur, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

This will include visiting Nogoon Nuur (Green Lake) - a thriving community space made possible by a committed individual, Ulzii. I love this community area immensely. Ulzii's next big project is working on building a library space at Nogoon Nuur for the local children. During our visit you will be helping me with choosing Mongolian children's books to purchase and donating them to Ulzii.

Gobi Oasis Tree Planting Project

Tree planting in Mongolia's middle Gobi Desert

Gobi Oasis Gobi Oasis is a small, family run, non-profit conservation project. Their focus is the planting of seedlings and nurturing them into trees to help combat desertification in the semi-desert steppe.

Although trees in Mongolia have a long growing period (Mongolia, on average, experiences only 90-120 frost free days a year) 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 steppe environment of Mandalgobi - the provincial capital of Dundgobi Aimag.

You will stay as the guests of Byamba and Radnaa - the founders of Gobi Oasis. Urnaa is their daughter-in-law and she will be our main host. As well as experiencing the daily life of a family in a provinical capital, you will also visit the nursery so you can see for yourself the work and dedication of Gobi Oasis.

Well Restoration Project

Collecting water from a Mongolian well

CAMDA (Cambridge Mongolia Development Appeal) is a UK based charity dedicated to supporting and bringing resources to Mongolia’s herders.

By refurbishing derelict wells or constructing new ones, herders have access to wells in the winter when the streams and rivers are frozen. In the summer months, it also means (with more wells) that grazing is spread out rather than focusing on just around one water source. This helps with degradation of the pasture. The wells are created using local labour and materials and when the well is complete, handed over to the local authority with a designated person for maintenance. 

During this trip we will stop off and visit some of the wells supported by CAMDA and learn more about their importance to the life of a herder.

Cooperative Ar Arvijin Delgerekh

Mongolian gers in the Khangai Mountains

Meet the families involved in the Cooperative Ar Arvijin Delgerekh. This cooperative focuses on working specifically with yak herders in the remote Khangai Mountains producing spun yak wool, providing them with an alternative to diversify and increase their income.

During your time here you will walk ‘ger to ger’ meeting a few of the families working as part of the cooperative and gaining a further understanding as to their way of life. 

One of our EL guests with a member of the yak herding cooperative

Community Clean Up

Our 2015 Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur clean-up team

Our three-day clean up is a joint effort between the administration of the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, members of the local community and the EL team (including you as our guest). Our  aim for 2016 is working with the rangers on signage for waste in the lake area, focusing on improving wilderness conservation and visitor management and of course the rubbish collection particularly  covering camp grounds, the shore line and surrounding steppe and forest land.   We cover all costs (including yours for the three days).

We’re dealing with a local community and it won’t all go according to plan. In fact, the plan itself is flexible. All you’ll need to bring is your enthusiasm, your flexibility and a whole heap of patience! You will definitely need to be extremely flexible and patient. The start is nearly always delayed as not everyone turns up on time (or even turns up). Some of the Mongolian team disappear part way through to go and drink tea with a friend. There are often lots of discussions on how to achieve the objectives….and then the complete opposite is done. 

If you're feeling inspired and want to be part of something different why not consider joining me and Eternal Landscapes Mongolia on our Sustainable Mongolia trip and make the most of an opportunity to take experiential travel to a new level. The views are pretty spectacular as well! 

20 July 2016

Podcasts About Mongolia

A small selection of podcasts about Mongolia. Plug yourself in and take yourself off to the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky.

I am the founder of Eternal Landscapes - a micro business here in Mongolia. I and my small Mongolian team offer ‘low to the ground’ sustainable travel experiences.

My role is split into many different aspects - trainer and coach for my female Mongolian trip assistants. Research and itinerary design. Emails. Welcoming committee. Tour guide. 

Some of my work finds me travelling this glorious land.  Other aspects finds me sitting in front of the computer seeking inspiration. Part of that inspiration comes in the form of podcasts.

I've come late to podcasts but love them - different lengths and subjects to fit all situations. I love the randomness of them. I frequently search out podcasts connected with Mongolia. Obvious I guess. Here are some I have listened to recently that are in English:

Tedx Ulaanbaatar

TEDx is a program of local, self-organised events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience.  In this podcastJack Weatherford (professor and author of Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World) gives a Tedx talk studying the relationship of tribal people to the larger societies around them and to world history…all within the context of Mongolia.

Statue of Chinggis Khan

History Of The Mongols

This is a weekly podcast about the Mongol Empire. The most specific so far are Episode One (Chinggis Khan from his birth through to election as Khan), Episode Two (the conflicts that finally led Chinggis Khan to be leader of the Mongols), Episode and Episode 11 (the capital city of Kharkhorin / Karakoram).

Erdene Zuu Monastery, Kharkhorin, Mongolia
Image by our guest Mick Egan
Palaeontology In Mongolia

Mongolia is a vast country with fossils from almost every period in the history of life. Important specimens representing the origin of birds, the origin of mammals, many unique dinosaur species, and the first dinosaur eggs to be identified, have all been found within it’s borders. 

This podcast (split into two) covers the history of palaeontology in Mongolia as well as about the work being undertaken to prevent fossil trafficking.

Bayanzag, Flaming Cliffs, Omnogobi Aimag, Mongolia
Image by Turuu!

Sky Burial In Mongolia

A lot of travellers connect the practise of sky burial with Tibet but it  is a practise that has also been carried out in Mongolia. In this podcast, a student reporter travels to Mongolia in hopes of witnessing such a sky burial. 

Monk vultures, Khangai Mountains, Mongolia
Image by our guest Marian Herz

If listening to any of these podcasts inspires you to search out your passport and visit Mongolia, why not hop on over to my EL website and see what style of Mongolia travel experiences we as a small micro-business offer. 

15 July 2016

Mongolian Horse Racing - Your Introduction

There's horse racing. And then there's Mongolian horse racing - specifically  the Naadam horse racing.

‘They gallop like the wind and their power is that of a mountain avalanche.’ 
(Song Dynasty Annals) 

The finishing line of a Naadam horse race, Mongolia
Image by our guest Volker Mueller

Horse races in Mongolia are a test of speed, stamina and strength. Tradition dictates that race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses. 

In all Mongolian horse races, the jockeys are children - both boys and girls. At the National Naadam, the children have to be over seven years of age. Protective clothing is now law).

So. What constitutes a long race in Mongolia? Anything from 10km up to 27 km depending on the age of the horse. Yep. You read that correctly. 10 to 27km.

Here's the break down:

Race Categories In Brief

Horse racing is completed in age groups and only male horses’ race. 

  • A two-year old horse is called a Daaga and they race roughly 10-12km 
  • A 3-year-old horse is called a Shudlen and they race 14-16km
  • A 4-year-old horse is called a Khyazaalan – racing 18km
  • A 5-year-old horse is called a Soyolon – racing 22-24km
  • A stallion more than 5 years old is an Azarga and they race 22-24km
  • Castrated horses more than 5 years old are known as Ikh Nas and they cover roughly 25-27km

Just so you know, professional level observers in Mongolia don’t like to miss the 3 and 4 year old races and mixed breed races as they want to pick good horses for future races and trading. 

Participants of the five year old horse (Soyolon) race approaching the finishing line, Naadam, Mongolia
Image by our guest Egon Filter

Race Training

Mongolians believe that the qualities of a Mongolian race horse are handed down through the maternal side, by the mares that give birth to them.
Horse trainers are experts at detecting future racehorses by observing external and internal signs that characterise the promising horse. According to old chronicles:
‘A good horse must have a narrow forehead, thin mane and tail, a wide chest, a horizontal back and steady back legs. The pelvic bone must be near the floating rib. Being  constantly at the herd is a sign of valour. Small and straight white teeth show a saddle animal but one who would be ill-suited to long distances.’
The training of the race horses is meticulously carried out in stages, taking into account the age and characteristics of each animal. The aim of each three stages is first to ensure weight loss, then the acquisition of a minimal speed, and finally progression on to the maximum speed.
The determining factors that indicate whether a horse is ready for a race or instead needs to continue training are the consistency and colour of the sweat and droppings as well as the regularity of the breathing.

Weight Loss
The training begins two or three months before Naadam. The horse is left out to graze on the best pastureland but must not put on any weight. For two days it remains tethered. For the third day it is covered with a felt blanket and, at the hottest time of day, led up a slope. 
Proper training regularly alternates with periods of scraping of the sweat with a ‘khusuur', a long wooden pallet often carved with the twelve animals of the zodiac. This is the main method used to eliminate the excess food and increase blood circulation and muscular activity. 

The Tar
The ‘tar’ is a race run as fast as possible over a distance of about one kilometre, used to train the horse to develop regular breathing and the fastest rhythm when running. The distance run is gradually increased. When the horse’s breathing becomes stable again after these races, the time has come for the next stage, called ‘sungaa’ – training over a medium distance.

The Sungaa
Ten days before the competition the horse must run a distance of 10-13 km. Four or five days before the race it runs 15km. This race is meant to develop the horse’s breathing pattern and to determine the results of the training. 

The Winners And The Losers

The top five horses in each class of race are awarded the title of ‘Airgiin Tav.’ Every category has its own total prize money.  Usually winners up to the 10th place receive a prize. 

This image is of the 2016 mixed breed 3 and 4 year old horse race (National Naadam held at  Khui Doloon Khudag). We were at the finishing line watching as they came in. We were told that the winning horse in this specific race would be awarded  Tg 30 million.

Image by EL friend Anne Camille Souris
At the National Naadam, the horses are blessed with airag and a song of praise sung to each. Each horse and  jockey riding those horses receives presidential awards and gifts.The horse trainers will receive monetary awards (see above) and state titles. In order to qualify for state titles, the horse trainers must go through a rating process conducted by the Horse Trainers’ Association. 

It is believed that touching the sweat from a winning steed and being blessed by the dust the horse creates brings good luck and fortune. Mongolians flock to the Soyolon (5-year old horse race) always help on July 12th. The Soyolon is considered the fastest horse and Mongolians believe that by taking in some of the dust of the racing horses, they are then connected to the spirit of the strongest horses. 

If you're considering experiencing the Naadam horse racing, here's a tip: Get there early for the Soyolon race on the 12th - as in hours before the race starts - otherwise you just spend the race sitting in a car park of a traffic jam.

Actually, if you're interested in experiencing Mongolia's Naadam or one of the other annual festivals, why not have  quick look at the Mongolia Festivals page on my EL website. I'm always happy to answer questions so do get in touch. 

10 July 2016

Mongolia's Naadam Festival - What To Expect 2016

So. If you're interested in Mongolia then you have probably heard of Naadam - Eriin Gurvan Naadam - The Three Manly Games.  I've been living and working in Mongolia for the past 11 years and what still surprises me is when international visitors consider Naadam a 'tourist event.' It's not.  

A transfer tattoo of the Mongolian flag
Image by our guest Barry Meadow
What also surprises me is that people just see Naadam as the Three Manly Games. Naad means games and yes, Naadam highlights the ‘three manly games’ of wrestling,  archery and horse racing.  But, Naadam is so much more than wrestlers, horse racing and archery.

An archer at the Naadam Festival
Participants of the Soyolon (5 year old horse) Naadam race, Mongolia

The participants of the 5th round of wrestling at the Naadam Festival, Mongolia
All three images by our guest Egon Filter
It is  a Mongolian national celebration designed for Mongolians.  
Naadam is a favoured public holiday, one of Mongolia's top sporting events, a celebration of culture and tradition and pride, and a vibrant festival. It is a celebration of first-class sportsmanship, ordinary people taking pride in their country  and century’s old tradition melded together.  It is also a time when Mongolians celebrate who they are, how proud they are to be Mongolian, their heritage and the qualities that produced the warrior nation of Genghis Khan. 

Naadam is Mongolia's version of the Olympic Games and as an example of how highly the winners are regarded,  the winners of the 2014 wrestling competition won between them a Toyota Land Cruiser 200, a Lexus 570, a four-bedroom apartment, a three-bedroom apartment and 15 million and 10 million tugrik in prize money from the government (not including prize money from the Naadam sponsors).

So. Now that that's cleared up just what can you expect.

Countrywide Naadam

This national event is held in Ulaanbaatar on July 11th and 12th (with horse racing taking place in the week leading up to the event). The dates are the anniversary of the 1921 Revolution led by the Mongolian revolutionary Sukhbaatar that brought independence from the Manchurians (Qing Dynasty).  

Then, each aimag (province) also holds its own Naadam with each aimag deciding on their own festival dates. Often, the dates of these provincial celebrations are announced roughly one month in advance only.   Each province is split into districts and so most of the districts will also hold a Naadam. Naadam celebrations are also held by small communties - as an example, herders coming together to honour the community ovoo (sacred stone shrine). Naadam is a holiday and a celebration and so most communities decide an auspicious day from the Mongolian Lunar Calendar. These smaller community events are typically only advertised by word of mouth within the local community.

 Khatgal Naadam, Khovsgol 2014

Mongolian flag and banner at the Khatgal Naadam, Khovsgo
Both images by our guest Frank Jones 

Local Naadam wrestling event in the southern Gobi. Bayandalai, Omnogobi Aimag
Image by our guest Egon Filter

Lining up for the start of a horse race at the Bulgan Naadam in northern Mongolia.
Image by our guest Mick Egan

 Opening Ceremony

It's not just the National Ulaanbaatar Naadam that holds an opening ceremony - no matter the size, each Naadam will have an 'opening' of some kind. 

For the Ulaanbaatar Naadam, did you know that each year the Opening Ceremony is designed by a leading Mongolian artist? Based on a different theme? 

In 2016, N. Naranbaatar (the director of the National Academic Drama Theatre) is the artistic creator. In a recent interview he was asked about his plan for the opening ceremony:

‘Mongolia has a great and rich history. Spending a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean the festival will be amazing. Since our economy is in a slump, we have no other choice but to limit our budget and be resourceful. Our ancestors had great tradition, customs that we should still follow and value today. In the old days, Mongolians valued water like one's eyes, they never washed their head in the river, and never wasted any water. So this year's Naadam will take visitors through four historical eras of Mongolia - starting from the Hunnu era, the Great Chinggis Khaan era, Bogd Khaan era and through to the People's Revolution era. The main idea of this year's Naadam Festival is try to give people "what will we do without water, and how important water is to our lives". Let's stop here because it is no fun to reveal everything before the festival.'

Opening ceremony at the Bulgan Naadam.
Image by our guest Mick Egan
Ceremony of the State Banner of Mongolia - Chinggis (Sukhbaatar) Square
Image by our guest James Goober
Image by our guest James Godber
Mongolian Khuurshuur Festival

If you're vegetarian then you won't appreciate khuurshuur. However, Mongolia's ubiquitous mutton pancakes are the food of Naadam (along with khorkhog - Mongolian barbecue).  Held for the past few years, the Mongolian Khuurshuur Festival is held to  promote this most Mongolian of all Mongolian national food.

The festival’s organizer will select two food stands at the Central Stadium (where all events take place) with the most unique khuushuur, two with the most delicious khuushur, and the two cleanest pavilions, and award each winner one million MNT and the opportunity to participate in a trade fair that will be held later in the summer. 
* Remember the average monthly income for a 'typical' Mongolian family is 849,500. However, roughly 14.4% of all families have a monthly income of only MNT 300,000). 
Shagain Kharvaa - Ankle Bone Shooting
National ankle bone shooting competition, Naadam Festival, 2015
Image by our guest James Godber
Although not 'officially' one of the Three Manly Sports,  it is a nationwide sport and there is a Mongolian Federation of Knucklebone Shooting. It might not get the same glory but 

Male teams of 6-8 members (typically one or two have to be younger) flick domino-like tablets on a smooth wooden surface towards a target of sheep knuckle-bones, aiming to knock them into a target zone. Typically each team will have one or two younger members and there is a team leader as well). Each shooter possesses their own adjusted shooting tools including stools and wear uniforms  embossed with distinguished characteristics depending on their rank and merits. 

Look at the team structure and you should see one or two younger members - this is a traditional method of apprenticeship training - the passing of knowledge from master to apprentices and is part of the philosophy of the shagain kharvaa sport in Mongolia.

As you’ll be able to see, it’s all about accuracy. Members of each team communicate via traditional shooting melodies their opinions to the shooters developed and expanded in each Mongolian provinces and regions.

‘Aduuchiin Naadam' - Horse Trainer's Naadam

Held on July 13th at the Khui Doloon Khudag racing area (roughly 40km outside of UB), this event is held for the benefit of the horse owners and trainers who have not been able to watch the Ulaanbaatar stadium events. 

Events include mixed-breed horse races - professional observers focus on the mixed breed races as they want to pick good horses for future races and trading. There is also a wrestling competition, an ambling trotting competition (which is actually taken very seriously and more exciting than it sounds) and a cultural show. 
Finishing line of a Naadam horse race, Mongolia
Image by our guest Volker Mueller
It’s free for all members of the public and it draws a large number of Mongolian families - there are  far more Mongolian spectators than foreigners- creating a vibrant holiday atmosphere. 

Sukhbaatar Square Cultural Performances

Over the holiday period (Naadam is a five-day public holiday), free concerts are hosted in central Sukhbaatar (Chinggis) Square.  They showcase the depth of Mongolian culture.

There's the Deeltei Mongol Festival showcasing traditional Mongolian dress with the  aim to encourage young Mongolian people to take pride in their national culture, and to celebrate the richness of the historic and contemporary fashion of  Mongolia's traditional dress.

There's also a live outdoor performance of 'Uchirtai Girvan Tolgoi'  - a Mongolian opera titled Three Dramatic Characters.  There's free live music by one of Mongolia's top rock groups  - Kharanga finished off with a spectacular firework display (trust me, it is spectacular).  There's an open air International Festival of  Morin Khuur (Horse Head Fiddle) and to finish off with there's the International Ulaanbaatar Swing Night Festival which is one of the best live performances I have ever experienced. 

At the opening ceremony of the 2015 National Naadam Festival
Image by our guest James Godber

As you can hopefully see, Naadam is so much more than you probably expect it to be.  The most important thing to remember is to experience Naadam from a Mongolian perspective.
You can search my blog for more details on the rules of Mongolian archery, wrestling and a description of the horse racing events. For now though, I'll leave you with part of the Naadam opening speech made by Mongolia's President (Tsakhia Elbegdorj) in 2015:

'The national Naadam, the tradition of our statehood, historical and cultural wonder, and delight of the people of Mongolia begins with pride and vigour. 
I wish the wrestlers be strong, the cheer of horse riders be clear, the horse racing astonishing, archers be sharp and our people be peaceful. From this rostrum, I declare the supreme festivity of the Mongol people, the Naadam, open. Have a great Naadam festivity. May my Mongolia dwell eternally.'
If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia's Naadam or one of the other annual festivals, why not have  quick look at the Mongolia Festivals page on my EL website. I'm always happy to answer questions so do get in touch.