In Praise Of The Slow Travel Movement – Making A Connection In Mongolia

Mongolia’s #Хог Bucket Challenge Campaign
September 3, 2015
Mongolian dairy products
Tsagaan Idee – Mongolian Dairy Products
October 29, 2015
Mongolian dirt road

Slow Travel Mongolia

The slow movement is not necessarily about doing things slowly. It’s more about finding the right speed with which to do something and how you approach that something. The slow movement might be more well known because of the Slow Food movement that originated in Italy as a response to a fast food chain opening in Rome but there is also a slow travel movement where, rather than tick-list or bucket-list travel, the focus is on localism and social interaction including making connections with people, places, and culture. 

The concept of slow travel can apply as much to an impromptu afternoon in a city as to a two-week trip. It’s more a mindset rather than an exact list of dos and don’ts but the essential idea behind slow travel or slow tourism is about finding a balance. It’s about a form of tourism that educates and has an emotional impact while remaining sustainable for local communities and the environment. It’s about a form of travel that is intentional, immersive, connected, and conscious.

 Do what the locals do, not only what the guidebooks say

Slow travel is about having the courage not to always go the way of the crowd. Popular wisdom may suggest that a first visit to any country must include the ‘must-see’ spots. But all places in Mongolia whether city, town, or rural areas form part of the country and its culture and communities. 

 


As an example of slow travel in Mongolia, let me introduce you to Dakhar.

Dakhar - Kazakh herder at Tsambagarav National Park in western Mongolia

 

It’s the journey, not the destination

Slow travel is not just about being excited about where you’re going but being just as excited by how you get there, the people you meet, the sights you see, and keeping yourself open to the experiences you may have along the way. Mongolia really is a country where you start to understand the saying ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ and where you start to value travel for its own sake. Mongolia is an ideal canvas for those who enjoy slow tourism although you should be prepared for the frustrations and challenges that come with navigating through a country that still has limited infrastructure.

 

Dakhar makes his home within the Tsambagarav Uul National Park standing high above the provincial borders of Khovd and Bayan-Olgii Aimag in western Mongolia and forming part of the Mongol Altai Mountain Range. The 4208m peak that the national park is named after is a snow-capped mountain surrounded by wild open valleys.

Dakhar is a Mongol Kazakh. He was also a Kazakh eagle hunter. Was? He didn’t want to stop hunting with his eagle but arthritis has forced him to retire because getting on and off the horse becomes more difficult although he still herds the family’s livestock together with his son and daughter-in-law. He loves the freedom of his way of life.

Turuu and I went to Tsambagarav specifically with the goal of researching the area in relation to offering trekking experiences. But, having (fortuitously) met Dakhar and after spending three nights with him and his family, we ended up not worrying about what the competition would be offering and how EL could compete.

When we arrived and after the initial hospitality, we were asked what was our plan. This is typically when as a tour operator, we should provide our list of demands. However, it didn’t start well. We asked Dakhar about trekking routes (as offered by other companies) and he said yes, it is possible but from his perspective, it was a very Western activity being transplanted into the Mongolian culture. So then we asked about guests joining in with the daily activities – the miking of the animals, helping collect dung or wood, learning how to make felt, to going on horseback with the herder to visit his herd. And Dakhar said yes, of course, guests can join in but that they have to understand that herders have a different attitude to time.  (Also, from my own experience, frequently, once the initial curiosity of the family is satisfied, guests are sent on their way to allow the families to ‘get on with it.’)

These are the reasons why I now typically leave the additional days of a homestay or experience in our trip itineraries including Tsambagarav as a blank. There’s nothing pre-planned. What our potential guests will read is ‘We leave the plan entirely flexible and in the hands of your host as this leads to a more organic and natural Mongolian (or Kazakh!) type of experience.’ It’s a more balanced approach – one that benefits both sides.

True, it’s not good for the bucket list as you don’t know what the day will bring.  But I think it’s about time as visitors we forget the comparisons. Forget the ego-driven tourism. Forget the social media account. After all, the rural families we work in long-term local community partnership with are not tourist installations or entertainment sources – we are dealing with real people living their lives. Just like us, Mongolians are under a lot of pressure including making ends meet, their workload, and the daily stresses involved. Sometimes, no matter how warm and welcoming they are, they just want to get on with the job themselves without a lot of ‘faff.’ Or they’re tired or pissed off or hungry and they just want time out.

I think sometimes tour operators and visitors alike are scared of empty time – maybe it’s a case of feeling it’s a wasted opportunity or that expectations aren’t being met. It’s something I’m still battling with. After all, we’re a business in a tough competitive environment and how you word the itinerary might be the deciding factor in winning or losing business. But I do think that not dictating to the families what the plan is makes for a more respectful experience. I do think that slow travel tourism works well in Mongolia and has a part in the sustainability of travel.

And no, we still don’t have a trekking itinerary for Tsambagarav. What we do have though is a genuine friendship with Dakhar and also the reassurance that if someone wanted to get on a horse and find their inner Chinggis Khan for a few days, then with his knowledge we can provide that experience. And until that happens, we always have a companionable silence under the immensity of Tsambagarav.


Sunset over Buir Nuur in Dornod Aimag - Mongolia's eastern most province.

Café Culture

Yes, Ulaanbaatar has an excellent selection of museums. However, it also has an excellent variety of cafes as well. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending time savouring the café culture. Sitting in a café, you become part of the cityscape and not merely a passing observer. Ditch the iPhones and tablets though. Just look and observe and enjoy your coffee.  Spending time in local shops and markets can also provide a great way of engaging with the local community at the right level.

Go Local

Even if you only have a few days, you can still get an insight into the local community. Choose to explore the local markets and shops. Choose accommodation and eating options that are appropriate to the area where you’re travelling. Yes, that western-owned tourist ger camp may have reliable Wi-Fi and flush toilets but does it help you to engage with the local communities through which you’re passing at the right level?

Savour the unexpected

It won’t all go according to plan. It can’t. Mongolia is the size of Western Europe with a basic (although steadily improving) infrastructure. It’s challenging for the locals and will challenge you as well. Instead of getting worked up about the lack of a hot shower or the fact that WI-Fi isn’t working,  just relax and go with the flow.

 

All of our Mongolia trips qualify as slow travel experiences. And for each experience we offer we do all our own research, drive the distances, speak to the local communities, build the contacts, design, and then run the experience. We do not source our itineraries from other agents. There are no ‘big groups’, ‘must-sees’, or ‘all-inclusive packages.’ Nor are there tight schedules, highlights or tick it off the list travel.  Travelling with us in Mongolia will teach you to embrace the enjoyment that comes from making connections with people, places, and cultures. Mongolia is definitely a country well suited to the slow travel movement. 

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