Mongolia wilderness trek in the Altai Mountains

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Responsible tourism

Responsible tourism: Mongolia wilderness trek in the Altai Mountains

Environment

Always a tricky one this. We can promise you the world but how do we prove it? Responsible, sustainable or ethical travel - in recent years, it has developed many labels and is now a widely-used selling tool in the tourism industry. But, what does it mean? Although there is no real clear definition, it has to be more than ensuring that we collect all of our rubbish, asking before taking a photograph or being aware of the cultural norms. That’s what we should be automatically doing anyway.

Below are some of the elements of my responsible travel philosophy for our Hidden Altai itinerary where we can show real evidence of our practise.

Domestic Flights.

Difficult one this. This itinerary includes a return domestic flight which adds significantly to your carbon footprint (which will be big enough having flown to Mongolia!). As part of my company philosophy I support local projects that between them provide greater opportunities and benefits for local communities within Mongolia.

We make a financial donation to individual projects that we work with - as well as other forms of support throughout the year (see below). No. It doesn’t help with your carbon footprint but you can book knowing I’m aware of the impact is has and that we’re trying to do something positive about it. Every little helps surely?!

We do also work with a family conservation project. We and our guests have now planted over 108 of our own trees which represents around 3% of the total number of trees planted at the project. A single young tree can absorb 26 pounds of CO2 per year so we’re (very) slowly doing out bit towards managing Carbon emissions.

Waste

The disposal of rubbish is a major issue in Mongolia - especially with plastic. As part of my Responsible Travel ethos I pay a local Mongolian NGO (Mongolian Quilting Centre) to make fabric tote bags for our guests which we hand out for free as a welcome pack at the start of each trip. This is a souvenir for our guests but it also helps to support the project and helps us to cut down on the waste we produce. As part of your Altai and Eagles experience, you will also receive such a tote bag.

Also, you can book knowing that we finance our own three-day rubbish collection in a national park in Mongolia. Arranged through the local community and protected area rangers, we have been arranging this for the previous three years.

Group Size

Unlike a majority of the larger tour companies, where small group travel can mean being in a group of up to 12-18 people, when I say small group travel this is what I mean. Our group size on this trip has been kept small - a maximum of six. This means that experiences during this itinerary become more personal and authentic for you - especially your stay with the Kazakh families such as the Sailaukhan or Baibolat family. We are not an overwhelming presence - on the local communities or the local environment.

Camping

During this experience you will at certain locations camp in tents. When we camp, where possible, we use only existing campsites, keep them small and, if required, we always ask permission of local families or park rangers. We carry all litter with us until we can dispose of it in a responsible manner, removing any litter left by others (to the best of our ability). We ensure that we leave our campsites in a better condition than we found them. Always.

Our itineraries and departures

My philosophy is to have a limited amount of departures for each of our itineraries. We also do not concentrate specifically on one area throughout the year.

Mongolia is a country of incredibly diverse yet fragile ecosystems. By limiting our presence in certain areas, we help to preserve and protect and help to avoid the area changing environmentally due to repeated and extended exposure to tourism.

Yes we visit areas such as Lake Khovsgol and Gorkhi Terelj where tourism has become more concentrated in Mongolia but we also offer itineraries that stretch to areas that are not necessarily considered ‘highlights’ by other tour companies or the guidebooks such as the community of Bugat on this trip. Wherever we visit, supporting local is at the heart of what we do and at the centre of each experience we offer. By not focusing on one area, it also means that we help to support communities that might not otherwise benefit from the tourism industry.

Our trips also focus on 21st Century Mongolia - yes, you’ll get to experience the traditional way of life but at the same time gain an overview as what it means to be Mongolian in 21st Century Mongolia - the eagles hunter’s you will stay with will have mobile phones. It doesn’t mean their way of life is dying out - just that it’s adapting. The people we work with are ‘real’ people. Not tourism professionals. You’ll meet people from Ulaanbaatar, you’ll meet herders, you’ll meet Mongolians that live in the provincial centres as well as the smaller town and rural communities. They are all Mongolians. Take time out to meet them.

Community

Trekking

For all of our treks we use local herders for the logistics - to act as trek guides and also to provide the pack animals. We go directly to the families rather than using an agency or a local guesthouse as this means the individual herding families benefit from the full payment. For our Hidden Altai trip, we work with the Bashakhan and Imbekbaatar families located in the Altai. We are very aware that the herders are real people with real lives to lead and their livestock work must come first. This means we make sure that the departure date of the trekking itinerary fits in with their own schedule. At no point do we ask the families to change their way of life for our/your own benefit. We also publish our ‘trekking guidelines’ so our guests know what to expect in advance from their trekking experience.

Ulaanbaatar

You’ll start off in Mongolia’s capital city. Read a guidebook or a travel forum and frequently Ulaanbaatar is overlooked. But, it's home to roughly 45% of Mongolia's population and this alone means that it should be experienced. We don't offer a tour of museums or souvenir shops but a day spent walking through the local areas of the city. What’s it like to live there? What kind of communities exist? What are the challenges? My aim is that you experience all aspects of Mongolian culture - rather than just those highlighted by guidebooks.

Cultural Impact

My small company is not a ‘world specialist’; we concentrate on the country we know and love – Mongolia. We research, design and operate each itinerary ourselves and do not source our itineraries from other agents.

Supporting locals is at the heart of what we do. Part of this philosophy is that we use ger accommodation provided by the Mongolian families. At no point have we ever rocked up and demanded accommodation. Our relationships with the families we work with are genuine - forged over time and with plenty of tea.

Families offer ger accommodation to help supplement their income. Most are small rural businesses providing extra accommodation. Some accommodation is offered by herders, some is offered by ‘retired’ herders who no longer migrate, some by families that live in small town communities and some by families that own small ger camp businesses. By using this form of accommodation it provides you with a more genuine insight in to the real way of life in Mongolia and it benefits the local communities through which we are travelling.

However, these are real people with real lives to lead and at no point do we ask the families to change their way of life for our/your own benefit or comfort. If they don’t have a shower, neither will you! (Don’t panic!…see below!). We ask our guests to try and embrace (!) and enjoy any differences that they come across in Mongolia. Experiencing the differences is all part of any trip and makes it a more authentic and positive holiday for you and a more respectful and enjoyable experience for the locals as well.

One example of this is our use of the local town shower houses. Very few families have access to running water from a tap. We do as the locals do and use the local town shower houses such as the one in Ulgii. They’re a great way to meet members of the local community but it also means we do not put too much pressure on local resources. In the words of author Jack Weatherford in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – ‘Compared to the difficulty of daily life for the herders, living permanently in those areas, ours were only the smallest of irritations.’

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