Let me introduce you to Dakhar.
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 Kazakh. He was also a Kazakh eagle hunter. Was? He doesn’t want to be retired. It’s just the ache in his bones due to arthritis has forced him to retire as getting on and off the horse becomes more difficult although he still herds the livestock that his family own 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 to research 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 can 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, to help collect dung or wood, to learn how to make felt, to go 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 for the families to ‘get on with it.’
And 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 with are not a tourist installation or an entertainment source – 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 by not dictating to the families what the plan is makes for a more respectful experience. I do think that slow lane tourism (as I have decided to call it) works well 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.