Rensina van den Heuvel, Thelma & Louise Club member and a veteran of road trips and travels in Mongolia, tells us exactly what to expect on a group overland tour of Mongolia, from dealing with breakdowns to making your travels there as environmentally friendly as possible.
Rensina, what is it about Mongolia that draws you back again and again?
“Mongolia has a wildness that will never be tamed. She commands respect; the climate is such that you have to understand your own limitations to travel there. I love the wide-open spaces, the strong, warm-hearted folks, the Mongolian food and the culture, which just gets stronger and stronger every time I go. I have also built up relationships and close friendships with families who I travel with and in the family camps where we stay.
There is also a strong matriarchal influence in Mongolia and gender equality that I have not experienced anywhere else in my travels. I feel a strong connection with the land and that huge Sapphire blue sky.”
What might my fellow travellers be like?
“Over the years, I have run plenty of trips in Mongolia. Some of the women who travelled with me have come through the T&L site after they read a story or saw a trip I wrote about.
See Rensina’s next trip to Mongolia: a 22-day cultural camping trip in 2021
It is often quite tricky to have a bunch of strangers from different parts of the world join up to travel together. There are almost always cultural differences and then there are the dynamics of personalities.
Because the Mongolian trips are so grass roots and we do a lot of camping, it takes a certain type of person who can cope with the conditions. As I am from Queensland, Australia, where it is warm, camping and spending huge amounts of time outdoors is a very natural and normal activity for me. I have to be aware that my ‘normal’ can be very challenging for other people. I try to write as much as I can on the information I send prospective travellers, about how rough it can be in Mongolia. And it is rough. Bumpy dirt tracks, sleeping in tents, very few hot showers, unpredictable weather, being piled into a Russian van with strangers; is enough to put most people, well out of their comfort zone.
But no matter how much I write to describe it; there is nothing like having your own experience. And though some of it is, undoubtedly, uncomfortable, it is tempered greatly by the beauty of the land, the culture, which is like no other, and the empowerment people feel when they “climb their own personal mountains: and go home with an experience that compares to nothing else.
“Nobody would trade the experience of Mongolia. That is the impact these trips have on people who have travelled with me in Mongolia. ”
We have had severe sandstorms, ice on the tents, breakdowns, bogged vehicles but we have also bonded as a group and pulled together and laughed, eaten good food and learned about one of the ancient cultures on Earth. You look back on the challenges, look at your photos and you feel good that you did this.
“Mongolia creates memories like no other country.”
How do you stay in touch with each other?
“The phone service is better in Mongolia than Australia! We ask travellers to bring a simple (basic) mobile phone for which they purchase a Mongolian sim card to use for the duration of the journey. This is the best way to enable us to stay in contact with each other, which is very important. I also take solar lamps and chargers and use every plug I can find and we get by.”
What happens if (when) you break down?
“We have Mongolian drivers and an experienced guide with us and they take care of any breakdowns. Upon saying that, due to the remoteness of Mongolia it is still possible to have to set up camp somewhere while we wait for another vehicle to arrive. We travel with loads of food, medical kit, tents, sleeping bags, water and all that we need in case of a breakdown.
Mongolian folks can usually fix anything and as the drivers own their own cars, they maintain them and have spare parts/tyres. Mongolians have huge networks of people to call upon for assistance when and if it is needed.”
How do you make your travels in Mongolia as sustainable as possible?
“Our footprint in Mongolia is as small as I can make it. We stay with the same nomadic families every time we go and I know the extra income for them is very welcome. The money we spend helps to support local people. I encourage my travellers to seek locally crafted Mongolian goods when they want to buy something to take home. (Irene Manley’s, Mary and Martha’s shop is a social enterprise business which supports hundreds of local folks, artisans and their families, directly and indirectly. It also supports many charities which are under Irene’s “umbrella”)
Yes, Mongolia is changing – rapidly! Mining money is a big factor, climate change is also. But tourism is still a fairly small industry as Mongolia’s lack of paved roads and coffee shops does not appeal to everyone. Thank the Goddess!”
“tourism is still a fairly small industry as Mongolia’s lack of paved roads and coffee shops does not appeal to everyone. Thank the Goddess!”
Here are 10 ways you can minimise your impact on Mongolia’s environment and way of life:
- Leave NO rubbish in the countryside! Not even a teabag!
- Stay in Mongolian-owned guesthouses and ger camps/nomadic families. (Do your research and don’t stay in a foreign-owned place.)
- Do not cut trees down for camp fires.
- Do not wash your clothes (or use soaps or detergents IN the rivers).
- Do not give out plastic junk, toys or well-meaning gifts to nomadic locals. If you really want to give something, warm, quality children’s clothes and woollen knitted hats/beanies are always welcomed. This helps the children and parents, enormously.
- If you use a well in the countryside, cover it properly after use.
- Learn about Mongolian protocols before entering gers (round tents, their homes).
- When buying at a store or market, DON’T try to barter or try to get people to lower the cost of their goods. This is NOT done in Mongolia. They are very honest people and it insults them.
- Be respectful. Mongolians are gentle, mostly Buddhists.
- Leave your expectations on the plane and keep an open mind to a new experience.
If you would like more information about Mongolia please feel free to email Rensina. She’s happy to assist and can give you contacts for an honest, experienced and reliable driver and guide (people she’s travelled with every year for the past eight trips) and also some locally owned and operated places to stay: firstname.lastname@example.org ; +61 48 7313 566
You can find out more about Rensina’s early adventures in Mongolia and Russia in her book, Russian Documents, Mongolian Dust. (“It feels like a lifetime ago since I wrote my first travel memoir. When I pick it up now, it brings a waterfall of memories and I still love the way I wrote it. It was not planned, I just took notes along the way from Australia and ended up with six big exercise books filled with stories. I captured it all, then came home and took a year to develop the story and self-publish it. It is a raw unedited account of the journey – both the physical journey and my own spiritual/emotional journey within it. Oh, I was so naive and sort of ‘travel innocent’ back then,” she says!)