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  • Writer's pictureAva Kabouchy

Mongolia Travel: Venture Off the Beaten Path in Western Mongolia

"Better to see something once than

to hear about it a thousand times"

Asian proverb quoted by a young Kazakh traveler.

“People need to know that Mongolia is much more than just Genghis Kahn,” said the young Kazakh student from Western Mongolia sitting next to me during the long, 28-hour return bus trip from Ulgii to Ulaanbaatar.  “My country has so much more to offer than just its Mongol history, and I want people to see that,” Ulpan Shynbolat told me all with a hint of pride in her voice. 

Mongolia travel guides
On the right, Ulpan Shynbolat and her classmate, Janarbek Jambio. Both students talked about opening a tour agency to spread the word about their Kazakh culture and history. (photo by Ava Kabouchy)

Already a speaker of Kazakh and English, Ulpan was on her way to Ulaanbaatar to participate in a Russian language competition.  When we weren’t speaking or resting, Ulpan was reading Le Père Goriot, a well-known piece of French literature, translated into Russian.

Western Mongolia's Rising Popularity: What's Driving the Surge in Mongolia Travel

Eagle hunters and Mongolia travel
One of the eagle hunters displaying the beauty of his eagle as he prepares for the competition as best hunter (photo by Ava Kabouchy)

Demonstrating eagle hunting is a highlight of each year’s festival, which seven other travelers and I had come to see.  The festival attracts many local people and more and more tourists according to Bahu Etang, who said that last year, only five foreign tourists were at the festival, but that fifty were present the same day that we were there.  How this increasing tourism might impact the nomadic lifestyle Western Mongolia is a subject Bahu discussed with me at length.

From Horseback to School to Head Guide: A Local's Perspective on Mongolia Travel

Bahu grew up in the countryside, riding a horse to primary school each day, and upon graduating from university in Ulaanbaatar, he started working as a guide for his uncle’s company, Altai Expeditions, in 2009 and is now the head guide.  Bahu remembers when tourists came to Mongolia in the 1980s in search of adventure, more as explorers than as tourists.  Infrastructure was poor at the time, and the overland trip from Ulaanbaatar and Ulgii, a distance of 1689 kms/1050 miles, took five days. 

“That was real adventure travel,” explained Bahu, and now those who prefer luxury, can take VIP tours, often organized by companies for employees as a way of team-building.  Although such tours bring in revenue, Bahu feels that such visits to western Mongolia do nothing more than give VIP visitors a glimpse of what life in his remote country is really like.

Bahu, however, is pragmatic and talked about the positives of the increasing number of tourists coming to experience Kazakh culture and all it has to offer. “Tourism provides jobs – guides, drivers, cooks, and managers.  Many city and local restaurants make money from tourism, too.”

Bahu added that local people on the migration routes also earn money by making meals for the tourists and by helping where needed, doing arduous work such as gathering snow into plastic-covered burlap bags for tea-making and dishwashing.  Because of his income and that of his wife, Lina, they and their young daughter will be taking a vacation in Kazakhstan in May, something neither his or nor her parents could have done.  When asked whether he would like to have his own travel company someday, Bahu answered, “No, I like being outside too much.  I couldn’t sit in front of a computer all day.”

Other Kazakhs with whom I spoke also spoke positively of the increasing number of tourists. Nobikopur Altinbek, a speaker of Kazakh and Russian and former classmate of Bahu, explained that as a driver and all-around helper with the spring migration for Altai Expeditions, he earns more in ten days than he did in thirty days at his former job at a supermarket – “and it’s a lot more enjoyable,” he added. 

Mongolia Travel Adventures: Five Days of Migrating Livestock

An owner of three hundred sheep, one hundred goats, fifteen yaks and three camels, Marat Togaai, forty-three years old, married, and the father of four boys, led us in the migration of his livestock to the spring grass, an annual trip made by the Kazakh nomads. 

Herds in Mongolia travel
The herd crossing the Mongolian steppes lookng for grass (photo by Ava Kabouchy)

This was the first time that Marat had tourists assist him with the migration and he laughed when I asked him if we helped or hindered him.  “You made a few mistakes,” he said, but he did not specify what those mistakes were.  Marat added that last year he only had two helpers and that this year our group of eight made the migration much easier. 

Marat in Mongolia travel
Marat and his camels carrying supplies for the migration (photo by Ava Kabouchy)

With the money earned from having us with him and giving us an experience we will always remember, he will be able to buy food for the animals and eventually, he hopes, to provide a warmer winter home for his family.  This is not trickle-down economics.  This is grassroots economics that can help make possible what Marat wants in his life and in the life of his family.

A Desire to Make Nomadic Culture Known

“Most people are nomadic in their hearts,” Marat said to me when I asked him what he wants to share about Mongolia with the world, “and I want more people to join our nomadic life, to share how we cook and eat, our life in summer and in winter, to know about our culture and traditions.”  The nomadic lifestyle is the only one that Marat has known, and his sense of place and pride in his culture was evident as he spoke. 

Baibolat Bugibarj and his wife Alpam have lived in Sumdairah Khudikoik region, about an hour from Ulgii on unpaved roads through spectacular scenery, all their lives and are neighbors to Bahu’s parents.  Baibolat is one of the eagle hunters of the region and one morning, he showed us his eagle and how well it is trained, not an easy feat.

Highlights of Mongolia travel
Baibolat Bugibarj, one of the hosts of the group, has been an eagle hunter for many years and makes his living by raising and selling hourses and their milk. (photo by Ava Kabouchy)

Tourism as a Way to Preserve Nomadic Culture

Both Baibolat and Alpam have very positive feelings about tourism not only for the added income into the region but also for helping to preserve the Kazakh way of life and in particular, eagle hunting.  “Without the tourists,” Baibolat said, “our Kazakh culture would  end.”  Bahu expressed the same opinion as Baibolat – that tourists are helping to preserve a way of life, though Bahu, pragmatic once again, voiced concern that in ten or twenty years, the current generation of eagle hunters will have aged and no longer be able to train and demonstrate the skills of their eagles. 

“After high school, young people do not want to be nomads and the nomadic way of life will be lost,” Bahu added.  He did, however, express optimism that some young eagle hunters, such as the young girl and boy who were among the ‘seasoned’ hunters we saw at the Bayan-Ulgii festival. 

Only twelve years old, the young girl won the contest as best eagle huntress last year and pride, not jealousy, was the feeling of the other hunters towards her. 

Whether other young people will follow the example of this young girl and boy and keep this tradition alive is a question Bahu is not yet able to answer.

The Push for Responsible Tourism

Self-proclaimed travel addict and fellow photographer from Perpignan, France, Julien Beraha, happened upon Kazakh culture when he was traveling on the Siberian Express between Moscow and Beijing and got off the train in Mongolia.  In true Kazakh form, Julien was immersed into Kazakh culture by the local people and experienced how much the people wanted to share their culture with him. 

He assisted Marat in the migration last year and with the help of Altai Expeditions, Julien arranged our recent trip which, in all ways, was organized as responsible tourism – respecting the local culture, its environment, and perhaps most importantly, its community, being fully immersed in our surroundings with no attempt or need to change what we were experiencing.  We became part of the life of the Kazakhs even if only for a brief time.

Mongolia and the Hopes of its Youth

My young traveling friend in the bus, Ulpan, even at her youthful age, expressed some concern about over-tourism as Mongolia and in particular, concern about Kazakh culture, which has become more known in recent years.  “If tourists want to see Mongolia, they should be responsible for themselves and respectful towards the country,” she said, “without responsibility, it won’t be tourism.  “Tourists should experience nomadic life and learn from it.” 

Ulpan plans to have her own travel agency one day, one that focuses on responsible  tourism, one that preserves nature, not destroys it, as she explained.  Her goal is to share the country which she loves and of which she is so rightfully proud.

Ulpan and I have stayed connected.  She did win the Russian language competition, coming in first and receiving a gold medal.  Turkish and French are the next languages on her list.

Time to Say Goodbye

Indeed, my young Kazakh friend on the bus was right.  Mongolia is much more than the history of the Mongol Empire and Genghis Kahn.  Mongolia is eternal blue sky and unspoiled culture and landscapes; dumplings made and shared with warmth and kindness; stark, breathtaking landscapes; the warmth of sleeping in yurts; herding sheep, goats, and yaks. 

Altai Mountain in snow cover in Mongolia travel
Final look at the snow-covered Altai Mountains (photo by Ava Kabouchy)

And, finally, Mongolia is vodka toasts where each of us spoke to our new friends, no longer just our guides, or cooks, or drivers, or hosts.  We spoke to Marat and Aigerim with the help of Baku’s translating, of the warmth of our experience in a country not overtaken by tourism, but instead real and unspoiled.  “Come back next year,” Marat said.  Few eyes were dry during those vodka toasts and shared words as we said goodbye.


Author Bio: Ava Kabouchy is an American living in France.  Now doing freelance writing and photography, Ava has traveled and worked abroad extensively, most recently as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Saudi Arabia.  She has authored travel articles on France, Saudi Arabia, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the United States, and Iceland, as well as a book for young readers on her adventures in Saudi Arabia.

1 commentaire

Ivan Somlai
Ivan Somlai
20 avr.

Bayan Ölgii is one of the most interesting Aimags of Mongolia. With a combination of unique, majority Kazakh culture intervowen with Tuva, Uriankhai and other ethnic groups, the area is exemplary in demonstrating harmonious coexistence of these rich cultures. The nearby alpine snow peaks overlooking vast fields and eclectic historical spots, amidst a welcoming citizenry make this an indispensable area to visit. But I do empahsize that with increased tourism this region could fall into the same "overtourism" trap as many other famous locations around the world unless detailed, monitored plans are implemented. If of interest, the Centre mondial d’excellence pour les destinations (CED) can assist in such efforts.

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