When most people think of Mongolia they don’t think of a rubbish clean-up. It’s not in the highlights suggested by Lonely Planet or Wanderlust. Still, this is what we do for our Mongolia annual National Park community clean-up that we arrange and fund annually – donning gloves, picking up sacks, and getting on with it.
Tour companies frequently sell Mongolia as being a pristine untouched wilderness. Unfortunately, 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.
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.
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 the volcano 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 Areas (IBA) in Mongolia (designated by Bird Life International) and part of the East Asian Australasian Flyway protecting migratory water birds. It was also included in the list of the Ramsar Convention of Wetland Protection in 1997. There are populations of Siberian Marmots on the open steppe and Grey Wolves (mainly in the larch-dominated coniferous forest in the mountains) – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolias-terkhiin-tsagaan-nuur-national-park/
Why Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park?
Because of these guys – Batbold and Jargaa – two 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 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 featured on the itineraries of most tour companies operating in Mongolia. This level of tourism, with an excessive concentration during peak season and unrestricted camping, has created social, cultural as well environmental impacts. Poor waste management, soil erosion in certain areas due to a concentration of tourism activities, and water pollution due to poor sanitation facilities have all led to the degradation of the natural environment over several years.
Discarded rubbish is a major issue for the local rural communities as many of them lack the funds and resources to collect and manage the rubbish. On one of our trekking experiences in 2013, we were shocked by the amount of discarded rubbish and, having spoken to Batbold and Jargaa, we decided to facilitate a trial clean-up in 2014 at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur and then to repeat it every year including through the pandemic stopping for a break in 2022 before starting again in 2023. As you can see, it is a long-term local event.
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 as well as by Altan Ochir – the director of the Tariat district – and the joint effort was planned.
It is still warmly welcomed and our 2023 team all received local district medals from the district governor as well as a thank you certificate.
Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park’s landscapes offer valuable pastures for herding families with the availability of grass and water sources essential for the well-being of their livestock. For many herding families, their way of life is a source of cultural pride and identity. They have an intrinsic connection to the land and a vested interest in maintaining the health of the ecosystem, as it directly impacts their livelihoods. This is why we also invite local herders in the area to join us. And at the request of the district governor, we also include unemployed locals with everyone receiving a small financial incentive. We are also joined by the protected area rangers. We obtain the local town (15-ton) rubbish truck and pay 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, 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 the 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 also take part.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes