Category: Mongolia

The quest for adventure

“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts” – Yvon Chouinard.

Scott Gilbertson describes very eloquently why most people no longer experience real adventures when they travel. We plan everything, and we know what we are getting into because we’ve researched all details of our trip on Tripadvisor and guidebooks, or have asked a travel agent to arrange all details of our trips. Yet we call our trips to faraway places an “adventure”.

180 Degrees South is a great movie that follows Jeff Johnson on a trip to Patagonia. Along the way, lots goes wrong, but it doesn’t matter; the trip is a a great adventure. Along the way we are introduced to Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) and Doug Tompkins (co-founder of the Northface), and the ways they use their fortunes to save the environment.

My greatest adventures have been when things went wrong, like getting stuck in a river in Mongolia, running out of gas in the Gobi desert, or walking through the rainforest of New Guinea without water for 30 hours, or even getting stuck in snow storms in the far northwest of BC. None were planned, but they were all epic adventures in places that are not listed in the guidebooks or on Tripadvisor.

As Mark Twain said: “… throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Oh, and go places where there is no cell phone coverage or Internet, and which are not in the guidebook.

Are travel guides all bad?

The travel writing industry is abuzz over the upcoming release of Thomas Kohnstamm’s book detailing his life as a Lonely Planet travel writer. He supposedly plagiarized content, didn’t visit the places he was supposed to go to, slept with waitresses, etc., etc. In reality, it turns out that it wasn’t all that bad. In a recent interview, he takes back some of the things he said in earlier interviews. Of course, by then the main stream media had picked up on the juicy tidbits.

So, are travel guides, just that – guides, or are they bibles? I have used a lot of guidebooks in my travels, and spent a lot of time sending updates to Lonely Planet’s guides. As far as I am concerned, they are just rough guides. Stuff will be missing, out of date, or wrong, but that is the fun of it. But if you find errors, don’t whine about them. Instead, take the time to write the publishers, or post an entry on the publisher’s forums.

Do I buy guidebooks when I travel? Always.

Which ones? Depends on the destination. I always compare Rough Guides, LP, and Moon Handbooks. For North America, Moon often has more in-depth titles. For other countries, Rough Guides tend to be more in-depth, with better writing (more background info, especially about culture, and more opinionated), and they cover more out-of-the-way places. But Lonely Planet covers more establishments, has more practical information, and offers more titles. For example, there are no Rough Guides for Mongolia and Bhutan.

When I go to a country for an extended period of time, I buy several guidebooks. For example, in Bhutan, you need the Lonely Planet, as well as Francoise Pommaret’s Odyssey guide, and Bart Jordan’s Bhutan, a trekker’s guide. For Mongolia, get the Lonely Planet guide and the Bradt guide.

Are the LP guides to Bhutan and Mongolia any good? Both will invariably have some errors, but Michael Kohn (Mongolia) lived there for three years, and knows the country as well as anyone writing about it. Stan Armington (who wrote earlier editions of the Bhutan guide, as well as several of the LP Nepal guides) has been in Nepal since the early 70s, and was one of LP’s first authors. He as good as they come.

There were a couple of bibles out there, though. The ultimate travel guide is probably the Indonesia Handbook by Bill Dalton, founder of Moon Publications. Sadly, it is out of print, but it put all other Indonesia guides to shame. It truly was the travel bible to Indonesia. Even so, it had its share of errors, and Bill was the first to admit it when I met him in Jayapura, West Papua. Bill spent about 20 years researching every edition of his Handbook. No travel writer has spent so much time criss-crossing the country. But in the end, it even became to much work for him.

The other one was the Moon handbook to Tibet (also out of print). About three times as thick as any other Tibet guide, it truly went into great depth. It’s a shame that both are gone now.

Bootsnall top ten destinations for 2008

Bootsnall recently published its list of top destinations for independent travellers in 2008. The list is:

10 Buenos Aires, Argentina
9 Budapest, Hungary
8 Morocco
7 Chiang Mai, Thailand
6 Imet Gogo, Ethiopia
5 Queenstown, New Zealand
4 Palermo, Sicily
3 Petra, Jordan
2 Belize
1 Nepal

Interesting list, especially with Nepal number 1. I have seen some of the same on other lists, especially Argentina, Marocco and an eastern European destination. But I am a bit surprised at Nepal. I would have chosen a “newer” destination, such as Kyrgyzstan, or even Mongolia.

(via Besthike)

Solar eclipse in northern Canada

A total solar eclipse will hit northern Nunavut early in the morning on August 1. Map of the eclipse’s path. It should be pretty as the eclipse will start just after sunrise. Total eclipses are rare enough (they occur about once per 12-18 months) and they have a tendency of appearing in remote parts of the globe. See this map of solar eclipses until 2025. The next time a total eclipse returns to Canada is on April 8, 2024. Everythying you wanted to know about the eclipse is here.

So it is worth travelling to Nunavut to see this one. Only one slight problem: it is so expensive to get there, that from Vancouver it would be cheaper to travel to China or even Bayan Olgii in western Mongolia to watch the eclipse there. And the chances of getting clear skies are much better in Mongolia and China (map).

Grise fiord is the only Canadian town in the path of the eclipse. To get there, you first fly to Iqaluit via Ottawa or Montreal, then onwards to Resolute, and from there to Grise Fiord. Total cost: probably well over $4000 (!). From Resolute to Grise Fiord alone is about $1000 return. The list price from Iqaluit to Resolute alone is $2200. It’s difficult to promote tourism in this area when it is so hard to get there.

To get to Bayan Olgii, you take a non-stop flight to Beijing, another one hour flight to Ulaanbaatar, and then an interior flight to Olgii. Probably less than $1500 or so return. You could also watch the eclipse in northern China, just one flight and a bit of overland travel away. You’d just have to get well away from Beijing and its pollution. The southern Gobi would be a good place to watch.

Maps for Garmin GPS

Garmin eTrex Vista HCXGPS has come a long way since I first saw someone use a unit in 1992 on the crater rim of the Mt. Bromo volcano in Java, Indonesia. By 1995, we had a Garmin 45 while exploring a previously unvisited alpine valley near Koropun, New Guinea. At the time, the average error was still 30-100m, and the unit took a long time to lock onto 8 satellites simultaneously. But it worked, and showed us exactly how far we were from a friend’s house with cold beer.

I recently retired my trusted Garmin 12, which took me on an epic drive through the southeastern Gobi desert of Mongolia. It was a great unit, but lacked built-in maps. As a result I always knew where I was, but it was hard to pinpoint the location on a map. For the Gobi trip, I hooked up the unit to a laptop running scanned 1:100,000 Russian maps on OziExplorer. That worked very well, and allowed us to navigate through one of the most deserted parts of the Gobi without trouble (other than many flat tires!). The unit worked well, except in the forest. Not exactly a problem in the Gobi, but certainly an issue when trying to map hiking trails in the dense forests of Bhutan.

I now have a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx, which has mapping abilities. It allows you to upload any vector-based maps. The Garmin Mapsource 1:50,000 maps for Canada work well, but don’t have everything one wants on them. Bring in CGPSMapper, software that allows users to create their own Garmin maps from any vector-based data. It includes a map database, where users have uploaded their maps. Cool.

I find that even with a mapping GPS you need paper maps to get an overview, but you should have a map (and a compass!) with you anytime anyway in case the GPS dies on you.

One huge advantage of the new crop of GPSs is that they are much more sensitive, so they even pick up signals inside a house, or better yet, in the forest.

I don’t see detailed maps of Mongolia yet, though, so next time I drive through the Gobi (I’d love to visit the far southwest next time!), I’ll go the laptop route again. Still unbeatable compared to anything else out there.

Visiting reindeer herders in northern Mongolia

The Tsaatan reindeer herders are a small nomadic group that live in a valley west of lake Hovsgol in northern Mongolia. they have become a popular off-the-beaten track destination in recent years. But as with so many indigenous people, the tourism didn’t necessarily help them. Now an NGO, the Itgel Foundation is trying to ensure that revenue from tourism actually stays in the community, and that the area is not overrun by tourists. A noble grassroots initiative, that could certianly be copied elsewhere as well.