29 November 2016

The Great EL Mongolian National Park Clean Up

True. Not the most eye catching of subject titles. It's difficult to try and 'jazz' it up. But, that's what this post is about - the annual EL funded rubbish clean-up. 

Whoop! Whoop!

OK. When most people travel to Mongolia they don't do so to be part of a rubbish clean-up. It's not in the top ten highlights suggested by Lonely Planet or Wanderlust.

Still. This year we had three EL international guests come along and join us. They donned the gloves, picked up the sacks and got on with it.

What's it all about?!

Mongolia is frequently sold by tour companies as being a pristine untouched wilderness. It's not. But, with Mongolia's scenic beauty and wilderness experience being key points behind why people visit Mongolia, preservation of these values is a prerequisite for sustainable travel here in Mongolia. Much of Mongolia’s tourism sector in fact depends in the long term on the preservation of the country’s cultural and physical landscapes. 

Unfortunately in Mongolia (as with elsewhere in the world), there has been a noticable increase in the amount of rubbish that is discarded. A majority of our clients commented on it so I decided to do something about it.....and make it part of our philosophy and a feature of the EL calendar.

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

Our community clean up team at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia

Our community clean up team at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia

Our community clean up team at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia

Why Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park?

Because of these guys. Batbold and Jargaa (I'm pictured here with them and their grandson Anand - who deserves a blog post all of his own). Some of the kindest and warmest people you could ever hope to meet.

Our friends Batbold and Jargaa outside their home at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia

We picked Terkhiin Tsaagaan Nuur initially due to the strength of our contacts there. We wanted a community involvement and Jargaa and Batbold (our hosts at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur and owners of Surtiin Tulga Eco Camp) are at the centre of their local community.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is popular with Mongolian families making the most of the five-day annual Naadam holiday. And this is where rubbish, human waste, and camp fires had degraded the environment over the course of several years as visitor numbers have increased. Discarded rubbish is a major issue for the local rural communities as many of them lack the funds and resources to collect the rubbish. 

That’s the basic combination that inspired Turuu and I to arrange and facilitate a trial clean-up in 2014 at the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park and then to repeat it in 2015. And now 2016.

This year? We wanted to see the differences. And gladly there were.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia
Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia

A natural highlight of Mongolia, White Lake National Park encompasses an area of wild nature - volcanic craters, rugged mountains, river valleys and rolling steppe.

This large freshwater lake (formed by the damming of the Chuluut River from the lava flow from Khorg Uul  - radiocarbon dated at about 4930 years ago) has 10 tributary rivers and over 6000 hectares of wetlands of international importance. The numerous bays and peninsulas on the northern shore are home to Bar Headed Geese, Ruddy Shellducks and Northern Lapwings. It is one of 70 Important Bird Area’s (IBA) in Mongolia and part of the East Asian Australasian Flyway protecting migratory water birds. There are also populations of Siberian Marmots on the open steppe and Grey Wolves (mainly in the larch dominated coniferous forest in the mountains).  

Working Together

Our suggestion of two-days dedicated to cleaning up waste were welcomed by the administration of the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park back in 2014 and the joint effort was planned.  It is still warmly welcomed and this year for the first time I met with the governor of Tariat sum - Altan Ochir.

Altan Ochir - the governor of Tariat District

As with each year, we paid a small financial incentive to each person involved - including unemployed locals and nomadic herders who make their home in the area who volunteered to come and join us.  We were also joined by the protected area rangers. We obtained the local town (15-ton) rubbish truck and paid for the fuel and the driver. We provided a cooked lunch on both days as well as urns of tea. AND! Between us (on both occasions)  we filled the rubbish truck.  

The end of clean-up party was rather monumental - sorry, the vodka was flowing so we have no photos. But, we were awarded our first EL Өргөмжлөл - Certificate of Merit or Tribute. An extremely proud moment.

The 2016 rubbish collection group in Tariat, Arkhangai, Mongolia

We'll be returning to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur in 2017.  We are also thinking of opening it up in 2017 to our guests - offering an opportunity for active involvement in community conservation work. Why not consider joining us and make the most of an opportunity to take experiential travel to a new level by contributing  with time and effort to a good environmental cause? (We will cover the costs of the days spent on the rubbish collection itself).

Interested? Dates to follow but get in touch for more details!

One of our posters for the rubbish clean-up


23 November 2016

Mongolia - The Ultimate Star Gazing Destination?!

Experiencing the night skies of Mongolia - one of the best experiences you can have …as long as the weather behaves!

Did you know that no part of Mongolia has been designated a dark sky reserve, park or community? Now you do.

Moon rising over sand dunes, Mongolia

However, Mongolia is the 19th largest country in the world and said to be one of the (if not the) least densely populated countries in the world. If you've been there, you'll agree with the statistics without even looking into the details. We're talking glorious empty space. 

Mongolian gers and a night sky

True, if you're anywhere in the vicinity of Ulaanbaatar then your view of the night sky won't be so impressive. After all, nearly half of Mongolia's entire population of 3 million live in Ulaanbataar (roughly 1.3 million). That's a whole heap of artificial light and other forms of pollution to cloud your view. (Of course, you could head to the Khurel Togoot Astronomical Observatory (trying saying that after a cup of Mongolian yak milk vodka) for uninterrupted night sky views). 

Another challenge can be the unpredictable weather. Mongolia is said to experience four seasons in one day (I sense a nodding of heads from those that have travelled there). We've all been there. In blows a windstorm.  Or thick mist. Or driving rain. Something to but a 'dampener' on your plans.  Still, moving on.  

As long as the moon is either side of being full, then wrap yourself up warm and be prepared to be amazed because when the sky is clear,  Mongolia is almost unrivalled as a stargazing destination. At least it must firmly make the top ten.
Mongolian ger and a night sky, Kharkhorin, Mongolia

Of course, if you do go star gazing with a Mongolian be prepared for some spitting. What?   In Mongolia, a shooting star is seen as an omen of death (yes, really). In shamanism, each star represents a person. We each have an energy line and a shooting star is that person's energy line dying out. If a Mongolian sees a shooting star they will basically spit and say 'it's not mine.' It doesn't make for the most romantic of evenings. 

Still, wrap up warm and brave the elements for a spectacular night time show. Look out for  Altan Gadaz (the north star), Doloon Burkhan (the Seven Gods - the Plough), Migid or Mushin (the Pleiades), Tengerin Zaadas (the Milky Way) and the beautiful Uuriin Tsolmon (morning star).
Looking at the night skies in Mongolia really does give you a healthy sense of wonder. The catch? Mongolia is not exactly a convenient destination —but isn't that kind of the point? 

Tent camp in Mongolia

Unless I have mentioned otherwise, all images used throughout this post were taken either by EL guests or members of the EL team. This is the Mongolia you will also experience if you chose to travel with us. 

Thanks for listening as always. Jess


14 November 2016

24 Hours In Ulaanbataar In Winter

What would you do if you had 24 hours in Mongolia's capital city? Here is my very rough guide!

I recently met someone who was going to be in Ulaanbaatar for 24 hours. At the end of November.  Just as the cold is really starting to make itself known. Ulaanbaatar has a reputation as being the world's coldest capital city. It's not considered the most glamorous of cities either. But, for me, it won't be like anywhere you’ve ever been to and that’s much of the city’s raw appeal. 

So what would I do if I had only 24 hours in Ulaanabatar at the end of November? Apart from buy thermals? Here's a few of my ideas. It is not a definitive list. 

Ride The Ulaanbaatar Railbus

OK. So, if you're arriving or departing on the Trans Mongolian then cross this one off as the Ulaanbaatar Railbus is NOT the same as the epic, country crossing international train. However, it works well as a way of crossing the city that puts you in touch with the local community as it is commonly used by locals. And just so you have the basics, it travels from Tolgoit station in the west to Amgalan station in the east through eight stations and takes around 50 minutes.

Ice Skating

My favourite location? The outdoor ice rink in central Sukhbaatar Square although this doesn't typically open until mid-December. You can always head to Hunnu Mall and it's indoor rink…and if you're not that into ice skating, choose the go-karting option instead! Wherever you head, I think it is a great way of creating a sense of community in a city with very little public space.

Gobi Sauna

Open 24 hours, you'll  emerge relaxed, revived and ready for whatever the day may bring. It is also  located in Ulaanbaatar. Not the Gobi. It is a sauna though. 

On the entry level is a shower and sauna room and on another two levels there is a massage room, cafe, relaxation room, oxygen room and different sauna rooms.

It is in the city district of Bayangol on Ard Ayush Avenue known as the shopping district. Don't let the hideousness of the building design put you off. I doubt any photographer could capture this building in a positive light! Bayangol is known locally as the 'shopping street' so having relaxed and unwound, head to the row of small independent shops and larger national department stores. There are great local cafes serving everything from good coffee down to the ubiquitous mutton pancakes. 

Wrestling Palace

A landmark building on Peace Avenue. Wrestling is a major sport in Mongolia (for those that didn't know).

Throughout the winter months competitions take place - especially around the period of Mongolian Lunar New Year - Tsagaan Sar. There are also matches sponsored by government organisations or private business to celebrate anniversaries (such as the anniversary of Chinggis Khan) or special occasions.

National Amusement Park

Don't we all need a roller coaster in our life? Or dodgem cars?

This is NOT up there (or anywhere close) with anything in western countries. But then, it was built for the local community and not international visitors. Visit with a Mongolian family and you'll get a very different experience.  The ferris wheel will give you a great view.

IMAX Cinema

Having been to the National Amuseument Park, walk up the road to the Shangri-La Centre and buy a ticket for the IMAX. I can hear you. It's an IMAX. You've been to many IMAX. Well, you've never been to one in the coldest capital in the world have you?!

Sky Bars

Have a cocktail at one of the sky bars in Ulaanbaatar. True, the winter pollution may hinder the view and not as panoramic as it could be. Still, don't they say that pollution makes for better sunsets?

Which one to choose from? The Central Tower, the Best Western Tuushin Hotel,  the Blue Sky Hotel, the Shangri-La...there's a cocktail for everyone.

And of course, you can finish off with a karaoke experience. You'll get your own private room and there are international songs in the songs directory. 

Retail Therapy

Take a walk around the Naran Tuul (Black Market) to the east of UB (please be extremely careful of pick-pockets). Here you can purchase everything from a can opener to a prayer wheel or even an entire ger. 

Or, for something more local visit the NWL (New Way Life) Mongolian Quilting Shop - the aim of NWL is to provide women with traditional handicraft skills to create an accessible and sustainable source of income.  You can also pick-up some hand crafted fair-trade goods (including cashmere) at Mary and Martha.

If you are interested in art I recommend that you also visit the Mongolian Artists Exhibition Hall as it operates an ongoing exhibit, a workshop and a shop.

And no, I haven't mentioned the museums or the art galleries or the shows at the Mongolian State Academic Theatre of Opera or Ballet or that you can comfortably visit Manshiir Khiid Monastery or Gorkhi-Terelj National Park or Tsonjin Boldog. You see, there really is a different experience possible for everyone. 

Unless I have mentioned otherwise, all images used throughout this post were taken either by EL guests or members of the EL team. This is the Mongolia you will also experience if you chose to travel with us. 

Thanks for listening as always. Jess

7 November 2016

In Search Of That More Local Experience...Travel Tips For Mongolia

A few hints, tips and suggestions (well, seven actually)  for getting just that little bit more out of your Mongolian experience! 

Right then. The World Travel Market London is currently taking place in London spread over three days. The focus is networking as well as discovering the latest industry opinion and trends.

One big focus is sustainability in travel. Another term would be local travel. And yes, it’s the core focus of the EL philosophy - supporting the local communities and environment through which we travel so that everyone benefits.

But what is local travel? Yes, it is a term now frequently used and found within the travel industry. It is also wide open to interpretation. For some it means living like a local but is that ever possible as a visitor when you’re not actually a local? When you don’t have the same stresses or worries and are not affected by the same local issues. 

But, local travel in my mind can mean something slightly different. It can also mean appreciating where you are on a more personal level. 

Here’s my list - still under construction hence why the odd number of 7. Just a few hints, tips and suggestions (well, seven actually)  for getting just that little bit more out of your experience! 

Of course, it's not the ultimate list - there's no mention of packing ear plugs or a sarong, or bringing extra physical cash or taking lots of photos. Nope. This is just a list that in my mind would help you to get a more local experience of Mongolia. 

And yes, there are a zillion other such lists (no, I haven't counted them all) filled with recommendations and suggestions. As I said, this is by no stretch of the imagination the 'ultimate list.'

Still, I hope it helps.

Get to know the destination prior to your arrival

Get to know the destination prior to your arrival. I think its important to read up on the destination and introduce yourself to its culture, traditions, religion and history. Fiction, travelogue or non-fiction - there's a book out there for everyone. However, for the non-readers there is always music or a film or documentary to watch.

Do not look for paninis, pizzas or pasta

Do not look for paninis, pizzas or pasta. Try somewhere local. It will be cheap so if you don't like it then you can move on to the paninis, pizzas or pasta. OK, so Mongolia is more famous for people's negative reaction towards the local cusine, but try to put it into context. Why do they eat what they eat? 

Use public transport

It allows you to be part of the local community for a brief while and you'll see the area from a more local perspective. True, in Mongolia a bus journey can mean 48 hours plus on non-existent roads so you may prefer to just hop on the bus in UB.

Risk a little embarrassment and try a few words of the local language

My drivers still laugh about when I asked for a kilo bag of rain instead of a kilo bag of rice. No, you don't need to be proficient but even the ensuing laughter helps towards breaking the language barrier. True, Mongolian is not the easiest of languages to master. As a warning, the travel writer Tim Severin did describe the Mongolian language as being like:

'two cats coughing and spitting at each other until one finally throws up ' 

Good luck! Anyway, moving on…

 Try to understand a little of the local culture and customs

Try to understand why they do what they do - it will help to create a more meaningful experience. 

Use the local or family-run accommodation

Yes, the Shangri-La will (probably) have a double memory foam mattress but is that really how you want to experience Mongolia?  By choosing a more local accommodation option you’ll help the local economy, and get a more intimate relationship with the destination and a better understanding of the way of life. And yes, it is possible to do without Wi-Fi and a power shower.

Slow down and look

Don't treat any walk as an exercise regime - that's best left for the gym when you get home.  Instead slow down and observe daily life. Sit in a park (hard in Mongolia admittedly with a lack of parks but swap the park for a community square). Slow your thoughts down and just observe. 

If you're interested in the EL philosophy then you can find out more on the Eternal Landscapes Who We Are section of my website. And rememberunless I have mentioned otherwise, all images used throughout this post were taken either by EL guests or members of the EL team. This is the Mongolia you will also experience if you chose to travel with us. 

Thanks for listening as always. Jess