30 March 2017

Spring In Mongolia

The infamous Nine Nines of Mongolia's winter have ended and spring  is on its way. What should you expect if you visit Mongolia in the spring?




Definitely sand in your sandwiches. 






Of the four distinct seasons in Mongolia, spring is notorious for its whims and unpredictable weather.  Mongolians say, 'like a spring sky' (хаврын тэнгэр шиг), in reference to moody behaviour. It is typically dry, arid and wind-blown but temperatures can also vary greatly from day to day. 

 But, don't let the challenging backdrop provided by the weather put you off. Just make sure to pack  a windproof jacket and a scarf to protect yourself from the dusty wind. Leave a little space for the thermals as well … as I always say, Mongolia is definitely not a pack-light destination.





The activities of the herding families changes quite markedly from season to season. Daily activity is largely dictated by the herd animals and the environmental conditions. For the (roughly) 150,000 herder households spread throughout the country, March and April  are some of the most industrious months of the year and one of the most fascinating times of year to experience Mongolia - especially with the newborn offspring and the cashmere harvest. 


* The Mongolian News Agency - Monstame is reporting that The Mongolian Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry has stated that Mongolia will receive 20 million newborn livestock in 2017.

Cashmere 


Cue photos of some very cute baby goats….







In Mongolia, cashmere is hand combed from each individual goat in the early spring - as the weather warms, the undercoat naturally begins to shed. 

Combing the hair (known as 'by hand allows the guard hairs to remain intact - these are the hairs that provide protection from the wind and rain.


You may not believe it, but even within the harsh environment of Mongolia, the goats produce some of the longest and finest cashmere fibres. 


Each Mongolian goat produces (on average) 250 to 300 grams of cashmere per year. After processing  (when the dirt and the coarser fibres are removed), the combings yield only around 50% of the original weight in cashmere. 


It's dirty hard work but it provides the herding families with a much needed injection of cash after a long and dormant winter. It's a labour-intensive job and its often a community affair with individual ger encampments helping each other.

Castration


Ouch! Herders castrate their young male livestock in the spring as a way of controlling breeding within their herds. It's basically used as a way to make sure that only the higher-quality animals are used for breeding. 

Known as khungulakh in Mongolian, there are specific traditions that are followed to make sure that they don't suffer unnecessarily. Castration is performed with a small scalpel with the herder finding the testes, making a small incision and then pulling first one and then the other testicle out. The herders boil the testicles and eat them as part of a soup/broth (there's a belief that if they're eaten quickly, then the animals will recover quickly). 



If you do chose to travel in the spring, you will gain a very real insight. Facilities will be limited - especially as most of the tourist accommodation does not open until June. You will be definitely be challenged at times. Things will not always happen on a perfect schedule and conditions will be very rugged - you will be required to step outside your circle of comfort. But, don’t let this put you off. Just accept that you will more than likely experience four seasons in one day and be prepared for change! It’s a time of year when you will see few (if any) other international travellers around. It really will be just you, the locals and the immense landscapes.





To see the style of  winter trip we offer, use this link to see our Mongolian  tours. Alternatively, just email me (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk) - I'm always happy to be of help and all advice is free with no sales pitch.  

And, 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.

Wherever the road takes you in 2017 - Sain Yavaarai - Journey Well 

24 March 2017

Celebrating Nauryz Festival in Mongolia

Kazakhs throughout Mongolia celebrated Nauryz on March 21st and 22nd 




The Kazakhs are Mongolia's largest ethnic group with around 150,000 residing in western Mongolia -  even though the region of western Mongolia is physically separated from Kazakhstan by a 47-60 km mountainous stretch of Chinese and Russian territory. The largest group of Kazakhs make their home in Bayan Ulgii Aimag with a smaller group in Khovd aimag. There are also smaller populations in Ulaanbaatar and its surrounding districts. The Kazakhs represent 3-4% of Mongolia's population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3 million people). 

Language and religion are just two markers that make the Kazakhs of Mongolia culturally and ethnically different from Mongolians. Kazakh is the dominant language in Bayan Ulgii although Mongolian is the official language of government and business. Local schools teach in either Mongolian or Kazakh. The Kazakh population is predominantly Muslim (whereas the rest of Mongolia is predominantly a Buddhist country). Mongolian Kazakhs have created a cross-border community, continuing to maintain social ties and kin relationships on both sides of the border in both Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

On March 21st and 22nd, Mongolia's Kazakhs celebrated Nauryz. It translates into 'new day' and falls on March 21st - considered the first day of the spring equinox. It is considered a New Year celebration about renewal and spring. Nauryz is not only a state holiday for Kazakhs in Mongolia, it is celebrated in all countries of Central Asia, as well as Georgia, India, Iran, China, Turkey and others. In 2009, Nauryz was included in the (bit of a mouthful) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. 




Our final Hunting With Eagles itinerary began on March 15th - with the group of four arriving from different directions (road and air) into Ulgii. From there we headed to the winter home of four of the Kazakh eagle hunters we work with - including Bashakhan, Sailaukhan and Babiolat. 


Hospitality is a key ingredient in the Kazakh culture. As Kazakh culture dictates, they were warm and generous hosts. Besbarmak was cooked for us at least three times - a delicious dish consisting of boiled horse or mutton (it really is delicious). This is is one of the most popular Kazakh dishes and is also called 'five fingers' because of the way it is eaten - using your hands. Traditionally, the chunks of boiled meat are cut and served by the host in order of the guests’ importance. 

We also feasted on Nauryz koje - a soup specially prepared for Nauryz. Kazakhs believe that you should eat as much of this soup as possible for your year to be prosperous. We certainly tried. Again, it is delicious -  a nutritional rich soup that is cooked from 7 ingredients: meat, water, flour, butter, millet (could be replaced with rice or corn), salt and milk. Each component of the dish symbolizes one of the seven life beginnings: growth, luck, happiness, wealth, health, wisdom and auspiciousness. 

The trip finished with us spending Nauryz at the home of our Kazakh translator together with her family. As well as spending time at the home of Jako's relatives, we also headed to Ulgii Square where we joined in with the local concert and parade.










So. That's your introduction. I'm now working on our winter 2017/18 itineraries but to see the style of  winter trip we offer, use this link to our Mongolian winter tours. Alternatively, just email me (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk) - I'm always happy to be of help and all advice is free with no sales pitch. 

And, 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.

Wherever the road takes you in 2017 - Sain Yavaarai - Journey Well


9 March 2017

Photo Diary - A Month In The Life Of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia

Here's a brief glimpse into what we have been up to in the past month



Dog Sledding - Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

This is a trip where nature dominates - from the wolf tracks our group camp come across in the snow to the sound of the ice moving on the frozen Tuul and Terelj Rivers.  Yes, the word adventure is fashionable and overused in the tourism industry but this really was a true adventure - living together with the team of dogs, meeting families that make their home in the area, the feeling of freedom. And all were  deeply affected by the solitude and space. 







Mongolia's Tsagaan Sar - Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year - known as Tsagaan Sar - White Month - is one of the most important and traditional of celebrations in Mongolia and offers travellers a personal insight into local life in Mongolia.

From Terelj we continued to travel - swapping the mountain forest steppe for the middle Gobi as we headed to the small rural community of Erdenedalai - home to a majority of the EL team. 

Tsagaan Sar is an extended family celebration and during our time in Erdenedalai, we were the guests of different family members of the EL team - including Turuu’s parents.


We also experienced ‘Bituun’ the day before New Year, we  observed sunrise on New Year’s Day, and then we spent ‘New Year’ (Shiniin Negen)  observing the traditional rituals on probably what is considered the most important day in the Mongolian calendar. 






Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park

The Gobi Desert formed a spectacular backdrop to the rest of our adventures. The Gobi principally spans six of Mongolia’s aimags (provinces) and our Gobi trip took in two of them - Middle (Dudgobi) and Southern (Omnogobi). Mongolians say they have at least 33 different types of desert - with the types frequently varying depending on water supply, minerals and location. For certain it is huge open expanse of extremes. Granite and limestone rock formations, vast gravel plains, sand dunes, 2800m mountains, gorges and canyons and Saxaul forest -  we experienced the variety and diversity of the Gobi.

Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park 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.


It is home to 3000 - 8000 BC petroglyphs … the famous Ice Gorge (Vulture's Gorge) - Yolyn Am … and acts as a weekend getaway for the local population … ice waterfall sledging anyone?!



Thousand Camel Festival

This festival was first initiated in 1997 and is organised by  a local NGO and the Governor's Office of Onmogobi Province to help protect the Bactrian camel and the essential role it plays in the lives of the nomadic herders in the region. It is a celebration of the way of life in the harsh Gobi and a chance for the local herders to come together as a community at what can be quite an isolating time of year.


It was a fantastic local event  that featured various contests including camel races, camel polo competitions and even a camel beauty pageant (although the criteria for the winning camel was never clearly announced or explained). There was also a traditional ankle bone (knuckle bone) shooting competition as well as a camel relay race including everything from picking up ankle bones at speed on the back of a camel to how quickly can you load up two camels with a full size ger. The local school also put on a brilliant music and dance performance.






And where next? Here's a clue …western Mongolia.




Why not join us on one of our Mongolian winter tours. I will be confirming our winter 2017/18 experiences shortly. Alternatively, just email me (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk) - I'm always happy to be of help and all advice is free with no sales pitch. 

And, 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.



Wherever the road takes you in 2017 - Sain Yavaarai - Journey Well


5 March 2017

Mongolia's Thousand Camel Festival

Taking place on March 6th and 7th, this is Mongolia's only festival dedicated to the Bactrian camel



Put the date in your diary. It is a yearly event - falling on the same date each year. It takes place in Bulgan Soum - a district of Mongolia's Omnogobi Province.




Mongolia's livestock are known in Mongolia as the tavan hoshuu mal - the five snouts and Bactrian camels (two humps!) form one of the five snouts. The camel festival was first initiated in 1997 and is organised by  a local NGO and the Governor's Office of Onmogobi Province to help protect the Bactrian camel and the essential role it plays in the lives of the nomadic herders in the region. It is a celebration of the way of life in the harsh Gobi and a chance for the local herders to come together as a community at what can be quite an isolating time of year.

It’s an entertaining two days of events that feature various contests including camel races, camel polo competitions even a camel beauty pageant (although the criteria for the winning camel is never clearly announced or explained). There is also a traditional ankle bone (knuckle bone) shooting competition although this is minus camels!



As with most Mongolian festivals it includes a concert of traditional music and dance.

We're heading there today - to stay three nights with a local herding family part of a local Ankh San Cooperative -  - a herder cooperative engaged in small-scale vegetable growing and sustainable tourism. 

If you're considering visiting, don’t get caught up in notions of authenticity - the Camel Festival features  a lot of local involvement. The festival draws local Mongolian spectators as well as westerners and the locals are always more enthusiastic.  





True, late winter in Mongolia is not for everyone (especially if you like to 'travel light'). But, for those who choose to travel at this time of year,  Mongolia produces a stunning natural show.  

Travelling in the winter in Mongolia you will feel that you have the country to yourself. I'll put this into perspective. Mongolia (18th largest country in the world, second largest landlocked country after Kazakhstan) received … 393,000 international visitors in 2015 (World Bank). And, most of those arrived in the summer. (If you need a comparison, Kazakhstan received 4,560,000 visitors).

So. Pack those thermals. And the fleece sleeping bag liner. And the wool socks. And the hat, scarf and gloves. And the down jacket. And come and visit and be beguiled by the beauty and colour and atmosphere and celebration. I look forward to seeing you there!