Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keep on Running

Twelve of us travelled to the southern Gobi for the Gobi Marathon, four of us were entering the Half Marathon. It is a stunning journey across the changing desert landscapes, Dalanzadgad is 550 kilometres south of Ulaannaatar. We camped out the first night, cooking to a canopy of brilliant milky way and shooting stars.


On the saturday we travelled onto Dalanzadgad, our visit coincided with the annual market day and Gobi Festival organised by Mercy Corps.

The race was great: 5 entered the full marathon, 15 the half. Some had travelled from Germany, France and Macau just to enter the race; others were westerners living in Ulaanbaatar and there was one mongolian entrant, a tour guide with one of tour companies. The course was across desert tracks, mainly stones on a sandy base, then at 10 kilometres there was a 2.5 km climb up a sand dune, and at 19 kilometres a 1.5 kilometres ascent to the top of the Flamimg Cliffs, where the first dinosaur eggs were discovered in the 1920. The red sandstone cliffs the backdrop to an amazing finishing line.


team vso

Team VSO managed a respectable 3rd, 4th and 5th place.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chinggis was here

Dadal in the north of Hentii aimag, close to the Russian border, is the birth place of Chinggis Khan. Tourism is developing and I travelled there at the invitation of the aimag governor. Our trip started with a drive along one of the best roads in Mongolia to Ondorkhaan, the aimag capital. I interviewed the heads of policy and environment and tourism, met the governor. 

Aimag capitals typically have a population of 30,000 to 50,000, a central square and park, municipal buildings, old communist era apartment blocks, new apartments, much waste ground and large ger district on the edge of town. The condition of aimag government buildings reflects the affluence of the aimag, and the monuments reflect local issue. In eastern Mongolia war memorials are to the war against Japan in the 1930s and of course in Hentii there are monuments to Chinggis

Dadal is 200 km north of Ondorkhaan and we travelled in a two car convey, the governor’s land cruiser leading, the Mercy Corps vehicle following. At the entrance to Berh soum we were greeted by the newly elected soum governor, smartly dressed in a new suit. Our car pulled alongside his and we were offered traditional greeting of cream and then vodka, after the toast the two governers walked away to discuss some business matters. A family group of demoiselle cranes fed 100 metres away. 

Our next stop was for breakfast, meat cut from the bone, gherkins, potato and carrot washed down with beer. Lunch was at soum were we were joined by soum government officials.
We reached Dadal at the end of the afternoon, having stopped at the bridge over the Onon river. The Onon river is one of the headwaters to the Amur river, the twelth longest river in the world which eventually flows into the sea in China. The Onon is one of the least developed rivers with no settlements few bridges, a natural wild river.

At Dadal we were greeted by various officials and taken around the sites: a spring from which Chinggis drank; a hill overlooking his birth place, a couple of ger camps and the still being built protected area office. Many Mongolians belief they will gain strength from places associated with strong people, and from holy places especially mountains and ancient trees. Such places are decorated with stone cairns and blue flags. The first Mongolian gold medal winner at the 2008 Olympics had visited here before travelling to Bejing .

We spent the night at ger camp in a stunningly beautiful location on a terrace overlooking the Onon river. It was opened this year, owned by a director of one of the mobile phone companies and visitors mainly came for hunting and fishing. Yet this beautiful camp raised some questions about the future of tourism here in Dadal and in Mongolia. The Onon river is recognised as globally one of most natural river systems in the world, the wwf project has signed an agreement with soum officials not to build close to the river, yet here was a camp close to the shore with petrol outboard motors and hunting. Who should determine the future of tourism development here? Obviously it should be Mongolians, but can the benefits be shared equably so that local communities gain? Should the rich, whether Mongolians or rich tourists effectively develop exclusive use? How much influence should international conservation have in the development of one of great wildernesses in the world? Are the local institutions robust enough to manage all these demands?

The excellent evening meal was accompanied with shimin arkhii, a clear vodka distilled from fermented horse milk, one of the most disgusting drinks I have ever tasted. Then deputy governor a young guy probably about 30 agreed to sing. He stood up with a glass of vodka in his hand, his voice filled the room, powerful and tuneful , the songs were about Khentii aimag and the Buriat and Mongolian people working together.

Then a night of vivid dreams  and as I drifted back to sleep I heard the rain on the roof, it was still raining in the morning and I did not climb the hill before leaving as I had hoped. Leaving Dadal we were escorted by the Head of the Border Army, we were just 50 km from the Russian border. At the edge of the town we stopped, army chief got folding chairs out and we sat down and toasted with vodka.

The journey back to Ondorkhan was uneventful but the trip had been amongst the most memorable. The northern landscape was stunning and travelling with the aimag governor gave an insight into local government. Unfortunately the journey was based on a misunderstanding by the governor, he is very keen for Mercy Corps to work in Hentii aimag and he thought I had influence.