Mongolia adventure trekking vacation & Naadam Festival

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2019: 28 Jun
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Responsible tourism

Responsible tourism: Mongolia adventure trekking vacation & Naadam Festival

Environment

Always a tricky one this. We can promise you the world but how do we prove it? 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 Northern Mountains and Sacred Lakes itinerary where we can show real evidence of our practise.

Our itineraries and departures

Our philosophy is to have a limited amount of departures for each of our itineraries. Our Northern Mountains and Sacred Lakes experience only has one departure per year. Also, we do not concentrate specifically on one area.
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 specific area, it also means that we help to support communities that might not otherwise benefit from the tourism industry.

Yes we visit areas such as Lake Khovsgol where tourism has become more concentrated in Mongolia and also considered a guidebook highlight but the rest of the trip focuses on rural communities where local members such as Bambakh are keen to work with and learn from international visitors.

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 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.

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 such as your homestay with Bambakh at the end of the trek. We are not an overwhelming presence - on the local communities or the local environment.

Waste

The disposal of rubbish is a major issue in Mongolia - especially with plastic. As part of our responsible tourism ethos I 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.

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.

Camping

During this experience you will at certain locations camp in tents. When we camp, where possible, we use only existing campsites, keep them small and, if required, we always ask permission of local families or park rangers. We carry all litter with us until we can dispose of it in a responsible manner, removing any litter left by others (to the best of our ability). We ensure that we leave our campsites in a better condition than we found them. Always.

(We also finance our own two-day rubbish collection in a national park in Mongolia. Arranged through the local community and protected area rangers, we have been arranging this since 2014.)

And in 2016, we went one better. We made our own toilet tent (using materials bought locally in Ulaanbataar). It's only a small step but it helps manage our overall environmental impact. It's only a small step but it again goes towards helping to manage our overall environmental impact. As part of your trip our trip assistants give a briefing at the start of the experience about 'toilet paper ethics' - how and where to dispose of it correctly.

Community

Horses

Welfare of the horses is important to us. The horses are owned by Bambakh - a herder we know well - we have worked with him for 8 years now. We use Russian saddles as the horses are used to this style of saddle and are comfortable with them.

Taking A Road Trip

A majority of visitors who visit Khovsgol fly north to Murun - the provincial capital of Khovsgol Province. However, most of the guests know and understand the philosophy behind our 'road trips' - that flying from place to place gives you no context of location, no real experience of the country or the lives of the people in-between. That’s why the start of our Northern Mountains and Sacred Lakes trip focuses on traveling across country - it slows you down and gives you time to experience the ‘places in between’, the places and communities not actually mentioned in the guidebooks.

Cultural Impact

Our 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 use ger accommodation provided by the Mongolian families such as Davisuren at Amarbayasgalant Monastery. 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 Khatgal. 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.

City Nomads Folding Bike

Each of the tour vehicles we send out have a city nomads folding bike. We provide this service for free. Why? It allows our guests to explore further into each region but without relying further on the EL vehicle. It also allows for informal interaction between the local community and our guests as we let the locals use the bikes as well.

Although we are reliant on 4x4 vehicles for the main section of the tour (after all, this is Mongolia!), in the city center we do use public transport rather than private mini-vans for our city tours.

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.

We Source Locally

Yes, our tents 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. 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.

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 Eagle Festival which you will experience on this trip.  Many westerners would understandably argue that the fairly newly introduced Eagle Festival is not an authentic Kazakh or Mongolia 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.

Trekking

For all of our treks we use local herders for the logistics - to act as trek guides and also to provide the pack animals. We go directly to the families rather than using an agency or a local guesthouse as this means the individual herding families benefit from the full payment. For our Northern Mountains and Sacred Lakes trip, we work with Bambakh and his family. We are very aware that they herders and real people with real lives to lead and their livestock work must come first. This means we make sure that the departure date of the trekking itinerary fits in with their own schedule. At no point do we ask the families to change their way of life for our/your own benefit. We also publish our ‘trekking guidelines’ so our guests know what to expect in advance from their trekking experience.

Also, accompanying you may well be the son or daughter of your trek guide. Why? One of our way of supporting the local families we work with is by allowing them to bring their sons or daughters as helpers on the treks. It helps to create a space where traditional Mongolian knowledge can be passed from older to younger generations, as it always has been. This helps keep it alive, in a real, breathing way for the future. Younger Mongolians come with their fathers or brothers and start off learning to load horses and getting to know the routes, water sources, place names and the stories of the land. You become part of this. See it as a modern-day apprenticeship that allows for traditions to be kept alive.

1 Reviews of Mongolia adventure trekking vacation & Naadam Festival

4 out of 5 stars
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Reviewed on 23 Aug 2013 by

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


The ENTIRE trip was outstanding and amazing... the expertise of the guide, the enthusiasm for the country, the love of the country was thrilling.

The NAADAM festival (which was what enticed me to going on this trip was even MORE than I had imagined

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


Let Jess (the tour operator) guide you as to what you are most interested in seeing/experiencing. She is just so knowledge I had her plan a trip for my grandson and myself that I felt would be a great introduction to a marvelous country and SHE DID IT.. I feel he probably would return here when he is older
and show his friends this terrific area...

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


It definitely helped local people as all the support staff Jess uses are Locals.... The hotel, driver and additional guides are local people No big hotel chains, tour buses etc... LOCAL: LOCAL LOCAL yet extremely competent
and they also know their country quite well

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


EXCEPTIONAL I would not say I was reborn but I would say that I certainly learned alot.. I was on this trip with my 14-1/2 year old grandson and this was a most eye opening experience for him...

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