Mongolia tour, winter landscapes and Khovsgol ice festival

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Responsible tourism

Responsible tourism: Mongolia tour, winter landscapes and Khovsgol ice festival

Environment

Responsible, sustainable or ethical travel - in recent years, it has developed many labels and is now a widely-used selling tool in the tourism industry. But, what does it mean? Although there is no real clear definition, it has to be more than ensuring that we collect all of our rubbish, asking before taking a photograph or being aware of the cultural norms. That’s what we should be automatically doing anyway.

Below are some of the elements of my responsible travel philosophy for our Khovsgol On Ice itinerary where we can show real evidence of our practise.

Domestic Flights

Difficult one this. This itinerary includes two domestic flights which adds significantly to your carbon footprint (which will be big enough having flown to Mongolia!). As part of our company philosophy I support local projects that between them provide greater opportunities and benefits for local communities within Mongolia.

We make a financial donation to individual projects that we work with - as well as other forms of support throughout the year (see below!). No. It doesn’t help with your carbon footprint but you can book knowing we’re aware of the impact this has and that we’re trying to do something positive about it. Every little helps surely?!

As an example, we work with a family conservation project based in Mongolia’s middle Gobi. We and our guests have now planted over 115 of our own trees which represents around 3% of the total number of trees planted at the project. A single young tree can absorb 26 pounds of CO2 per year so we’re (very) slowly doing out bit towards managing carbon emissions as well as making a positive impact towards desertification.

Waste

The disposal of rubbish is a major issue in Mongolia - especially with plastic. As part of our responsible tourism ethos we pay a local Mongolian NGO (Mongolian Quilting Centre) to make fabric tote bags for our guests which we hand out for free as a welcome pack at the start of each trip. This is a souvenir for our guests but it also helps to support the project and helps us to cut down on the waste we produce. As part of your Mongolia experience with us you will also receive such a tote bag.

Also, you can book knowing that we finance our own two-day rubbish collection at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park in Mongolia. Arranged through the local community and protected area rangers, we have been organising this annual event since 2014.

Group Size

Unlike a majority of the larger tour companies, where small group travel can mean being in a group of up to 12-18 people, when we say small group travel this is what we mean. Our group size on this trip has been kept small - a maximum of six. This means that experiences during this itinerary become more personal and authentic for you - especially your stay with Bambakh and his family. We are not an overwhelming presence - on the local communities or the local environment.

Our itineraries and departures

My philosophy is to have a limited amount of departures for each of our itineraries and we do not concentrate specifically on one area throughout the year.

Mongolia is a country of incredibly diverse yet fragile ecosystems. By limiting our presence in certain areas, we help to preserve and protect and help to avoid the area changing environmentally due to repeated and extended exposure to tourism.

Wherever we visit, supporting local is at the heart of what we do and at the center of each experience we offer. By not focusing on one area or trying to offer alternative experiences in the region, it also means that we help to support communities that might not otherwise benefit from the tourism industry.

Our trips also focus on 21st Century Mongolia - yes, 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 - the eagles hunter’s you will stay with will have mobile phones. It doesn’t mean their way of life is dying out - just that it’s adapting. The people we work with are ‘real’ people. Not tourism professionals. You’ll meet people from Ulaanbaatar, you’ll meet herders, you’ll meet Mongolians that live in the provincial centers as well as the smaller town and rural communities. They are all Mongolians. Take time out to meet them.

Water

First up, we do not provide bottled drinking water as apart from in the capital city, there is just no way to recycle the bottles. Instead, we take fresh drinking water from local water supply points. We provide two 20 litre water containers and provide a Lifesaver carbon filter and an Adventurer Steripen in each vehicle.

Also, for a majority of all of our trips we do not use the typical tourist ger camps that often have very bad eco-credentials. Instead, we use a mix of accommodation and use the locally provided town shower houses. This is where a majority of Mongolia's rural population come to shower. They are small business enterprises operated for the local communities and a great way to support local, meet the locals and do as the locals do themselves. It also helps us to manage our own environmental footprint.

In 2017 we started working with Water-To-Go. Our travelers are now able to purchase a Water-To-Go reusable filtered water bottle and receive a 15% discount. From each purchase an additional 15% is donated towards the Mongolian well-project run by CAMDA (Cambridge Mongolia Development Appeal) that we support. This NGO directly supports Mongolia’s herders.

Community

Low Season Travel

This is part of our series of low season experiences. We are based in Mongolia and unlike most companies we live there as well. This means we have a in-depth knowledge of the country and can offer immersive experiences using our own local knowledge and that of the local people and communities we work in partnership with. Promoting low season in Mongolia helps to create economic stability within the Mongolian tourism sector. Along with mining and agriculture, tourism is one of the main sources of income for the country, and with a peak tourist season of barely three months, many Mongolians struggle to make ends meet. While some guides are teachers or university students working through the summer vacations, many others involved in tourism – particularly the drivers – have little other work. Huge numbers of drivers are required in July and August, and there is simply not enough work for the rest of the year to keep them all employed. In addition, winter is a costly time in Mongolia. Families will need to buy serious clothing, as well as food and coal, which is expensive. Hosting visitors for a few weeks can really ease the stresses of winter, and takes the pressure off earning a year’s worth of money in the short summer season. For our low season experiences we have had made by hand traditional goat skin blankets. We also provide you with your own hand made full length goat skin del (traditional Mongolian coat) and a pair of Mongolian felt boots. Not only does this help to keep you warm but it allows knowledge and traditional skills to be kept alive as well.

Ulaanbaatar

You’ll start off in Mongolia’s capital city. Read a guidebook or a travel forum and frequently Ulaanbaatar is overlooked. But, it's home to roughly 45% of Mongolia's population and this alone means that it should be experienced. We don't offer a tour of museums or souvenir shops but a day spent walking through the local areas of the city. What’s it like to live there? What kind of communities exist? What are the challenges? My aim is that you experience all aspects of Mongolian culture - rather than just those highlighted by guidebooks.

A majority of Ulaanbaatar's 1.4 million (ish) population live in the ger districts that surround the central downtown - approximately 60% of the population actually. There are few safe community spaces within the ger districts - especially community spaces where children can play. But, Nogoon Nuur (Green Lake) is bucking this trend. Nogoon Nuur is now a thriving community space made possible by a committed individual, Ulzii, who since 2012 has been working to restore Nogoon Nuur and develop a public park.

I love this community area immensely and we now include a visit on our free city walking tour - making a donation per EL guest per visit. On our family trips, we arrange and fund for the visiting children to purchase and donate reading books to the Nogoon Nuur community space.

Festival

From my perspective, non-Mongolians often get very caught up in notions of authenticity when it comes to Mongolian events including festivals such as the Ice Festival which you will experience on this trip.  Many westerners would understandably argue that the fairly newly introduced Ice Festival is not an authentic Kazakh or Mongolian festival, as opposed to a Naadam (the traditional sports festival), and dismiss it.  However, all traditions were invented and these festivals are a really positive way to encourage local and cottage industries in Mongolia. These rural festivals are a celebration of local community, networking and collaboration to ensure a better future for the region and its herding community.

Cultural Impact

My company is not a ‘world specialist’; we concentrate on the country we know and love – Mongolia. We research, design and operate each itinerary ourselves and do not source our itineraries from other agents.

Supporting local is at the heart of what we do. Part of this philosophy is that we used ger accommodation provided by the Mongolian families such as the Aibolat family at Sagsai. However, at no point have we ever rocked up and demanded accommodation. Our relationships with the families we work with are genuine - forged over time and with plenty of tea.

Families offer ger accommodation to help supplement their income. Most are small rural businesses providing extra accommodation. Some accommodation is offered by herders, some is offered by ‘retired’ herders who no longer migrate, some by families that live in small town communities and some by families that own small ger camp businesses. By using this form of accommodation it provides you with a more genuine insight in to the real way of life in Mongolia and it benefits the local communities through which we are traveling.

However, these are real people with real lives to lead and at no point do we ask the families to change their way of life for our/your own benefit or comfort. If they don’t have a shower, neither will you! (Don’t panic!…see below!). We ask our guests to try and embrace (!) and enjoy any differences that they come across in Mongolia. Experiencing the differences is all part of any trip and makes it a more authentic and positive vacation for you and a more respectful and enjoyable experience for the locals as well.

One example of this is our use of the local town shower houses. Very few families have access to running water from a tap. We do as the locals do and use the local town shower houses such as the one in Ulgii. They’re a great way to meet members of the local community but it also means we do not put too much pressure on local resources. In the words of author Jack Weatherford in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – ‘Compared to the difficulty of daily life for the herders, living permanently in those areas, ours were only the smallest of irritations.’

We have even written our own guide to the culture and traditions of Mongolia - researched over the 13 plus years I have lived and worked in Mongolia. You receive this guide on your arrival into Mongolia as a way of preparing you for your experience.

Photography

We have a photography philosophy that we employ on all our trips. At the back of every ger is the family khoimor – the family altar. Very few families have a camera. Some have cameras on their phones but no way to print off the images and therefore few families have photographs. I have a rule that if you promise a photo then you must send the photo. I make it easy for you - email the image of the photo to me once you get home and I will print if off and will make sure the photos are delivered. Look in the gers of the eagle hunter Bambakh and you’ll see a great image of him and his horse that we presented to him last year!

Keeping it Local

Yes, the tents for our camping trips are from a UK manufacturer but everything else is sourced in Mongolia and as much as possible, made in Mongolia. Where possible, we don’t just buy from a shop but we source the material ourselves from the markets in Ulaanbaatar and then have each product made to our specifications through local family businesses. Supporting local is a major part of who we are and we make a constant effort to support local businesses. We only use Mongolian owned accommodation, we buy Mongolian produce for the meals on the tour including ‘stocking-up’ in the smaller towns that we pass through so they benefit from our custom. We also use locally owned restaurants both in UB and in the countryside. We encourage you to support traditional crafts by buying direct from local artisans who you'll meet en-route as well as purchasing products from the projects we support. We try to put money and support back into the local communities, strengthening local businesses, families, and individuals that represent all spectrums of Mongolian life.

Training school for Mongolian women

As a female, it is important to me to use my skills and influence to improve the prospects for other women. We don’t source the best guides that work the tourism circuit and that already have guaranteed work with other companies. Instead, we provide training and development opportunities to Mongolian women that other companies won't take as they don't fit the stereotype or have the professional qualifications.

Our female Mongolian trip assistants are dynamic women who are searching for an opportunity to train and develop and we provide that long-term opportunity.
You’ll travel with someone who sincerely loves their home country, loves their job and genuinely care about you as our guests.For us, this is a long-term investment and we invite you to part of this philosophy. We’re proud to be able to provide a starting block to women in Mongolia.

1 Reviews of Mongolia tour, winter landscapes and Khovsgol ice festival

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Reviewed on 13 Mar 2016 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your vacation?


The amazing location of the ice festival on the huge frozen lake. People dashing around on horse sleighs. I particularly enjoyed being among local people enjoying the ice sculptures, and spending time with a family in Hartgal. Also, the herds of horses, yaks, cattle and sheep and goats roaming freely all over the countryside. The Deer Stones near Muron were so interesting.

2. What tips would you give other travelers booking this vacation?


Jess is so helpful and responds to any queries about the trips. I felt confident about booking this tour and well informed about my trip. Let her know what your particular interests are and she will do her best to meet those needs.
The weather was cold but if you are dressed appropriately (good headwear, socks and gloves make a difference) it doesn't impact - and the vehicle was always warm when we were traveling around.

3. Did you feel that your vacation benefited local people, reduced environmental impacts or supported conservation?


Yes, we ate local food as much as possible in the cold environment. We had a local guide for the Khovsgol Ice Festival and used local amenities such as the bath house. We stayed with a host family in a countryside ger in the Gorkli-Terelj National Park.

4. Finally, how would you rate your vacation overall?


Mongolia is a stunning location to visit. The trip assistants shared their love for their country with us and made it a very memorable experience.

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