Altai Community Garden Project
As a way of saying thank you to the local people of Altai village, where our Altai rides are based, we have started a community vegetable garden project. When we asked what we could do to help the village, the people told us 'help us grow veges'. We like to think that bringing people to the area has benefits through the money we spend in the local economy. However it doesn't benefit most people directly, so this is our way of making sure more of the community benefits from our visits.
We are contributing 5% of the price of all Altai trips toward financing the project.
The benefits in terms of improved nutrition, particularly for children, will be great. People are aware of the need to eat vegetables, but the closest source is the provincial capital, Ulgii, a four hour drive away. And many people do not have the money to buy vegetables even if they could get there. Our vision is to work with the local people to create a sustainable source of vegetables grown locally, by the people, for those most in need.
The biggest challenge is the climate. No sooner have the snows of winter cleared, than the chill of autumn is back. The growing season is very short, but on the bright side there is plenty of sun. Water is not a serious problem, as a reliable stream flows past the village. However irrigation is still required in order to get the water on to the garden, as rainfall is very low. Mulching will help with moisture loss.
Lack of local knowledge is also a problem, with no history of vegetable growing in the area. In the wider region there are a handful of other vegetable-growing initiatives, so we are making the most of their knowledge, rather than re-inventing the wheel. The 'soil' is mainly stones and sand, devoid of organic matter, partly as a result of many generations of dung-collecting for fuel (the nearest trees are far up in the mountains, where we ride). One of the first steps, and a long term challenge, is to begin to improve the soil through composting. Animal dung is freely available, but burning it is a competing use. A solution to this may be provided by planting trees.
There are no naturally growing trees near Altai village, but a lot of heating fuel is needed over the long cold winter. This leads to two problems, first the collecting of dung which removes nutrients from the soil, and second, the logging of trees in the National Park. As well as vegetables, we hope to also plant trees, such as the tsaagan khurdan ('fast white') tree, which can be used for both fuel and animal fodder (by coppicing, rather than felling), and shelter.
We intend to post reports here about the project's progress, from first 'turning of the sod', to the first plantings, through to harvest (hopefully!). Also the problems encountered and overcome, and profiles of the local families benefitting from the project. The vegetables which will be planted this spring include potatoes, carrots, onions, and chatsargana (a wild medicinal plant unique to Mongolia). The first season will be one of 'plant it and see', to find what grows well, and what doesn't.
For the project to have a long-term future we need to ensure that appropriate techniques are used. There is no point using artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, when these are expensive and difficult to obtain (and damaging in the long term). We are also aware of the dangers of inappropriate development. We have no wish to change the traditional lifestyle of the people, which has worked fine for centuries, but merely to improve people's lives in a small way.
This project may also go some way to assuaging our guilt at encouraging you to fly half-way around the world, and so contribute to global warming!
John trained as an agricultural scientist in a past life (and is a keen vege grower in New Zealand in the off-season), but the harsh climate of Mongolia is a far cry from New Zealand's benign growing environment. So we welcome input from anyone who has any expertise, or just good ideas, about growing vegetables in difficult climates.
Who We Are
Zavkhan Trekking is a partnership between John Williamson and Samantha Brown from New Zealand, and Mongolians Jenya Boikov and Otgonchimeg (Ogi) Burneebataar, with help from many local people in Zavkhan and the Altai. John and Sam are based in New Zealand in the off-season, while Jenya and Ogi live in Ulaanbaatar.
John first came to Mongolia in 2000, bought a horse and spent 6 months riding through this amazing country. During his travels he met Jenya, who is passionate about his native land. They decided it was only fair that other people should also get to experience this ‘last frontier’ of international travel. We ran our first trip to Mongolia in 2004 by convincing a group of friends and acquaintances to join us on an exploratory trip. A great time was had by all, and Zavkhan Trekking was born. John now helps guide trips each year. He is a Member of The Long Riders' Guild, the world's first international association of equestrian explorers and long distance travellers.
“John is as you imagine a Kiwi trip leader to be - laidback, relaxed, got the Health and Safety stuff covered but in a nice unnoticeable way rather than an uptight bureaucratic British way!” (Sue, the UK)
Sam is a very experienced horse rider and organiser extraodinaire. She learnt her horse skills at Kowhai Riding School, and often despairs at John's refusal to ride ‘properly’ (in Mongolia it‘s all about getting the horse to do what you want, not whether you are sitting up straight, elbows in...). Sam keeps things running while John's off guiding trips and helps guide in Mongolia when she is not too busy working in wildlife research back home in New Zealand.
Jenya has spent many years working in the developing Mongolian tourism industry. He is a wonderful bridge between our western culture and that of the local nomads, with a wealth of knowledge about nomadic culture and traditions, including shamanism. Ogi joined us more recently and manages the office in Ulaanbaatar, no easy matter given the capital's dire bureaucracy . The newest addition to the team is little Hasar, born to Jenya and Ogi at the end of the 2009 season. He will no doubt be an accomplished rider by the time you read this, as is the way in Mongolia.
“Ogi and Jennya were charming, and had a great knowledge of their country and history, it was nice to hear from them about it.” (Charlotte, the Netherlands).
We have a core team of local people we work with in Zavkhan and the Altai. At busy times in the herding calendar, they may need to help their families, so the make-up of the team changes for each trip. We employ people from the areas we ride in for a number of reasons. They know the best places to ride and can take us to meet their friends and families who are herding in the region. The wages we pay go in to the local economy where it is needed most, not just back to Ulaanbaatar.
“The staff were absolutely fantastic. They really made the trips for us – the horses were very well looked after and I think that we all learnt a lot about the Mongolian language and culture from them. The whole group bonded extremely well.” Joanne, UK.
In many respects, the translator has one of the most demanding jobs in the team. A good translator is able to break down the barriers between our very different cultures to let you enter the world of the local nomads. They must be familiar with countryside life so they can discuss what is going on around us when we visit families - and steer us through the mine-field of cultural etiquette. For those who are interested, they should ideally be able to discuss the current political situation and history of Mongolia with you around the campfire.
That's why we are extremely lucky to have Ulzii, Mandakh and Kulshaat in the team, all educated local women who are as comfortable discussing the finer points of Mongolia's economy in excellent English, as they are milking a yak - a very rare combination. When not working with us in the summer, Ulzii works with World Vision, and Mandakh works with a German development organisation, both in Zavkhan. Kulshaat works with our Altai team, and while she may look sweet and innocent, she has a wicked sense of humour - if she offers you a handful of berries to try, check they're not goat droppings!
“I liked it that the staff were all Mongolian and they were genuine. No slick tourist guys. It was nice to get to know them a little bit. And it was nice that Mandakh could teach us some Mongolian and about the Mongolian way of life.” Stefanie, the Netherlands.
The wranglers are responsible for looking after the horses, watering them and staking them out at night. They saddle the horses, but you are welcome to help once you work out the local techniques. They also have a responsibility to make sure you are riding in a safe manner. Our main guys in Zavkhan are Tsoj, Dondov and Adya. If you are up for some fast riding, Adya is always keen. At 21 years old, it's all about speed, and if you are lucky he will let you ride his own horse - the Mongolian equivalent of a Ferrari. His father Dondov keeps things under control and is more than happy to meander along enjoying the scenery.
In the Altai we have Hatran, Muaitkhan and Inkarbek. They have been riding since before they could walk, and know the mountain trails like the back of their hand. They are great singers and will be expecting to hear you sing traditional folk songs from your own country...
“The wranglers were the most impressive people! I held a lot of respect for them. They handled the horses with love and i found them very easy to get along with, at times i found myself thinking we could actually understand each other.” Larna, Australia.
Ganbaa and Toroo have been driving the back-roads of Zavkhan for ever. They are consumate mechanics, able to fix anything along the way. A vital skill in remote areas where we often see no other vehicles for days. They have a pair of trusty Russian 'furgons', which will go anywhere but are very simple to maintain and fix. Japanese 4WD's might be great for the pot-holed streets of Ulaanbaatar, but they are definitely not appropriate for our travels. If they break down out in the countryside, it's all over.
“The furgons were not half as uncomfortable as I had expected them to be – Tooro and Ganbaa deserve medals – wonderful drivers and wonderful company too.” Agnes, France.
Adilkhan is our main driver in the Altai, with his Russian jeep. The region is so far from Ulaanbaatar that finding spare parts is a challenge; it's amazing what you can do with a bag of random nuts and bolts and some duct tape. Sudden snow storms which block the mountain passes are all part of driving in the Altai.
In the Altai we are very fortunate to work with Amangul, or 'super-woman' as we call her. She is our local organiser and seems to know everyone. Her hospitality is boundless. She can turn her hand to anything, whether it's fixing an engine, milking a horse, or cooking up another tasty batch of borzig (a sort of Mongolian donut).
“Amangul is such a credit to the team, with her local contacts and knowledge, but also her friendly and welcoming nature, these made the trip so much more special.” Karen, UK.
Ian Robinson has been with Zavkhan Trekking for several years now, helping our local staff lead trips. He first came to Mongolia in 1992 as one of the first individual travelers to be allowed into the country. He spent seven months there and crossed the country alone on Mongolian horses. His book 'Gantsara, alone across Mongolia' tells the full story.
Ian has also crossed Tibet alone on horseback, he wrote a book on that too 'You Must Die Once' and he's also ridden in Afghanistan, 'Tea with the Taliban'. Ian is a member of the Long Riders Guild and he became a member of the Royal Geographic Society in 2007.
When not in Mongolia Ian lives in Kobe, Japan where he spends his time teaching English and drinking sake!
Check out his website: www.theedgeofthemap.net/
"Ian was such a good rider and coordinated everything really well. It was kind of like having your mum along, if your mum dressed like a cowboy!" Anna, Tsambagarav, 2013
Jen Buttery joined the team in 2009. Originally from the US, she spent several years living in Russia, then Kyrgyzstan, and most recently on the high seas. As nomadic as any Mongolian. She is a very experienced horsewoman and rides like a local, which immediately earns her the respect of the Mongolians.
“Jen was really the perfect trip leader – my only worry before going on the trip was that it was an ‘organized’ group tour. I had visions of being corralled like cattle and constantly directed. Not so with Jen. She was present and attentive at all times but never overbearing – kind and open minded. She can’t sing for sh*t but neither could we…simply perfect.” Agnes, France 2009.
Jen's most recent project was to sail single-handed across the Atlantic and up to the frozen North beyond the arctic circle with her ketch Paikea. The aim was to raise funds for the tall ship Spirit of Massachusetts that she sails in the off-season. Read about her adventures in her blog http://www.heysailorsailor.blogspot.com/.
Katy joined us for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, leading trips in Zavkhan and the Altai.
Katy is a lifelong rider and a Mongoliaphile since riding the inaugural Mongol Derby in 2009, an event she now organises for the Adventurists. She has represented her country both as a dressage rider (3 European Dressage Championships as a Junior) and an endurance rider (English Novice for the Home International) and is currently competing in both disciplines. She spent 5 months leading horse safaris for Heart of Africa Safaris on the Nyika Plateau in Malawi.
Like many of us, Katy has been bitten by the Mongolia-bug; she is looking forward to sharing her love of the country and the horses with our riders on this season's trips.
What We Do
Zavkhan Trekking aims to provide an 'authentic', hands-on experience of Mongolia. We travel well off the tourist trail and into remote areas, so you will need to 'rough it' when necessary. There are no hotels with hot showers and flushing toilets, but we provide a level of service to look forward to after a hard day of riding.
We camp under the stars and cook over an open fire every night. But that doesn't mean you will be eating endless boiled mutton; our campfire cuisine extends to Thai curries, risottos and vegetarian meals. We always aim to get to a well-watered campsite at the end of each day, where you can wash and perhaps swim. Along the way there will be opportunities to fish, look for wildlife, meet the locals, or just relax and enjoy the view.
We will have a support vehicle with us while riding, (except when using pack animals) but while it finds its own way, we can be off following horse-only trails, meeting up for lunch or at the end of the day. The support vehicle allows a degree of comfort that is just not possible with packhorses, and makes sense for other reasons, which you can read about here.
Our 'non-itinerised' style of trip has proven a hit, getting away from the 'tomorrow we will go here and do this, the next day we go there and do that...'. Running trips this way offers great opportunity to experience the unexpected, and allows for plenty of input from you as a member of the group. It does make it more difficult for us, but we think the rewards are worth it!
Ethical Policy : Tourism The Right Way
Read our full Ethical Policy here: Ethical_Policy_2013.pdf
1. The people
The area of Mongolia we operate in currently has no tourism, so we believe it is a good opportunity to make sure any tourism development benefits the local community, with as little negative impact on the their traditional culture as possible.
We currently use guides and wranglers from the local area (rather than from Ulaanbaatar), so they know the best routes to follow, the area's history, and the local people. A difficulty with the Mongolian culture is that people are extremely hospitable to passing strangers, but don't expect anything in return (and can be quite offended at the idea of payment). Obviously we would all like to see these people benefit from our presence.
We are establishing a network of nomadic families that we can stop and visit along the way, enjoying their great hospitality and stocking up on provisions if they have a surplus, while offering fair recompense in return in a more formalised way. Discussions with the local people suggest that this approach might work. It will be a case of working closely with the nomadic herders so we get their input. In future we hope to give more back to the local community, and to contribute to improving the national park we ride in (beginning with putting up a sign so everyone knows it's actually a national park...).
2. The Environment
We will also be trying to minimise our environmental impacts. Unfortunately our single biggest environmental impact is the flight to Mongolia, because of the contribution to global warming. It’s difficult to avoid unless you’ve got the time to travel by train.
Carbon off-setting may provide some of the answer. In its simplest form, trees are planted which take up the carbon emitted during your flight, as they grow. There are several organisations that will plant trees or do other good deeds on your behalf, such as The CarbonNeutral Company . These sites allow you to calculate your carbon emissions, and find out what it will cost to be ‘carbon neutral’.
The trouble is that by the time your trees are mature in 50 or 100 years time and have off-set the carbon emitted now, it may well be too late. We are looking into other options, and would welcome suggestions. Once we decide on the best option we will either organise it on your behalf, or if you prefer we can leave it up to you to do the right thing.
So these are our good intentions! We hope you will offer your own views on doing things the 'right' way once you've seen the potential.