True. It’s not the most eye-catching of subject titles. It’s difficult to try and ‘jazz’ it up. But, that’s what this post is about – our annual community national park clean up – arranged and funded by EL.
OK. When most people think of Mongolia they don’t think of a rubbish clean-up. It’s not in the top ten highlights suggested by Lonely Planet or Wanderlust. Still, this is what we do – donning gloves, picking up sacks and getting on with it.
What’s it all about?!
Mongolia is frequently sold by tour companies as being a pristine untouched wilderness. It’s not. But, with Mongolia’s scenic beauty and wilderness experience being key points behind why people visit Mongolia, preservation of these values is a prerequisite for responsible travel here in Mongolia. Much of Mongolia’s tourism sector, in fact, depends in the long term on the preservation of the country’s cultural and physical landscapes.
Unfortunately in Mongolia (as with elsewhere in the world), there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of rubbish that is discarded. A majority of our clients commented on it so Turuu and I decided to do something about it…..and make it part of our philosophy and a feature of the EL calendar.
Since 2014, Turuu and I have arranged for members of the Tariat community to spend two days clearing the north-shore (and surrounding area including the Khorg volcano) of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park located within the central Khangai Mountains.
Why Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park?
Because of these guys – Batbold and Jargaa (pictured here with their grandson Anand – who deserves a blog post all of his own). Some of the kindest and warmest people you could ever hope to meet.
We picked Terkhiin Tsaagaan Nuur initially due to the strength of our contacts there. We wanted a community involvement and Jargaa and Batbold (our hosts at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur and owners of Surtiin Tulga Eco Camp) are at the centre of their local community.
Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is popular with Mongolian families making the most of the five-day annual Naadam holiday. It is also features on the itineraries of most of Mongolia’s tour companies. And rubbish, human waste, and the impact of camp fires have degraded the environment over the course of several years as visitor numbers have increased. Discarded rubbish is a major issue for the local rural communities as many of them lack the funds and resources to collect the rubbish.
That’s the basic combination that inspired Turuu and me to arrange and facilitate a trial clean-up in 2014 at the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park and then to repeat it in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 & 2021 (we didn’t let a pandemic stop us!). As you can see, it is a long-term local event.
A natural highlight of Mongolia, White Lake National Park encompasses an area of wild nature – volcanic craters, rugged mountains, river valleys and rolling steppe.
This large freshwater lake (formed by the damming of the Chuluut River from the lava flow from Khorg Uul – radiocarbon dated at about 4930 years ago) has 10 tributary rivers and over 6000 hectares of wetlands of international importance. The numerous bays and peninsulas on the northern shore are home to Bar Headed Geese, Ruddy Shellducks and Northern Lapwings. It is one of 70 Important Bird Area’s (IBA) in Mongolia and part of the East Asian Australasian Flyway protecting migratory water birds. There are also populations of Siberian Marmots on the open steppe and Grey Wolves (mainly in the larch dominated coniferous forest in the mountains).
Back in 2014, our suggestion of two days dedicated to cleaning up waste was welcomed by the administration of the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park back as well as Altan Ochir (below) – the director of the Tariat district – and the joint effort was planned. It is still warmly welcomed.
With each year, we pay a small financial incentive to each person involved – including unemployed locals and herders who make their home in the area who volunteer to come and join us. We are also joined by the protected area rangers. We obtain the local town (15-ton) rubbish truck and paid for the fuel and the driver. We provide a cooked lunch on both days as well as urns of tea. AND! Between us, we continue to fill the rubbish truck.
Over the years we have battled through all weather conditions – including snow, thunder and lightning and a massive hail storm that drenched us within seconds. The end of clean-up parties have become legendary – sorry, the vodka is typically flowing so we have no photos.
The end result. There is absolutely no way to make a 15-ton truck full of rubbish look like an exciting image. Still, here it is from 2018:
In 2019, we still filled the 15-ton truck but we noticed something. By far the biggest offenders were wet wipes, sanitary items and hygiene products. Our wilderness areas (and our wilderness experiences) are being spoilt by encountering soiled hygiene products left behind by others. Putting them under a rock, or shoving them down a tree root hole does not count as disposing of them responsibly. From our 2019 clean-up, we were motivated to create our ‘Be A Changemaker’ Sustainable Tourism Strategy.’ We continue to believe that tourism can be a powerful force for good. But, that needs those of us in the travel and tourism industry to take responsibility to ensure that we focus on our environmental impact as well as providing sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Now is the time for change and that’s why we created our Sustainable Tourism Strategy.
However, in 2020 & 2021 we didn’t let a pandemic stop us and we still arranged our annual clean-up although we used a smaller rubbish truck as tourism to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park (both domestic and international) had been limited due to Covid. However, there were still plenty (way too many) plastic bottles.
It is well documented that tourism is a major contributor to the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic discarded every year, most of which cannot be recycled. It’s like a toxic tide and we need to continue the focus on using less single-use plastic and moving towards environmentally sustainable products.
Individuals can play an important part – focusing on minimising their plastic footprint including when they travel. Even if we can’t fully eradicate all use of single-use plastic we believe with small steps we can make a difference and that’s why we’ve created our Mini Plastic Free Mongolia Challenge for our guests – focusing on five simple steps. Each step focuses on one plastic product and includes what EL is doing to help our guests minimise their plastic footprint as well as how our guests can help us. Here are the five steps of our Mini Plastic Free Mongolia Challenge. Members of our EL team will also be taking part.
So is our annual clean-up a success? Yes. Areas we typically focused on are now clean are free of rubbish so we are able to focus on collecting old rubbish from other areas. Yes, we still fill al 15-ton truck but this still represents success! We’re proud that the local community is taking charge and working on improving the environmental impact of visitors to the area.
Small steps but all in the right direction we hope. For more information on the work we do within local communities as part of our responsible tourism Mongolia philosophy.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes