Bolormaa “Bobby” was born, raised and educated in Mongolia during the Socialist era. Socialism used to have quinquennial plans for any branches of the public sector: agriculture and economy at large, healthcare and education system as well as any type of construction. That essentially means life was simple and pre-organised from start to finish by the Government itself. That is the reason why most of people’s biography is virtually identical: born in an ordinary family, went to school, enrolled the University, graduated from it, sent by the Government to work within the public sector somewhere, then married to another ordinary citizen, given an apartment from the employer, started a family and worked hard until retirement. They got by that way for many generations, and they had to if they wanted to advance through the simple social ladder offered by the Socialist system. Luckily for her future career, during Bobby’s youth, Socialism went to an end but people, at first, did not know exactly how to cope without their government’s instructions. In her case, however, she followed the very same fixed path until marriage came along with two wonderful children.
Aman Khuur Trails: When did you start organising tours and what was the main reason to get you going, apart from the financial motivation, of course?
Bobby: Actually, the tourism business idea comes from my husband, not from me. I used to work myself for Int’l Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, hence I didn’t need to focus on or get involved in my husband’s business. He started it in 2000 and things grew quickly from the beginning. I was lucky enough that my husband could not manage to do all of them alone as he became way too busy. The Trans-Siberian Railway was just opened in Mongolia by that time. So, I had got gradually involved in his business, but initially just to help. Later, however, I became the main person responsible for the tours. Many tourists, especially backpackers, travelled to Mongolia from Russia to eventually go to China. This new system gave me the chance to literally hit the jackpot: you can find my name on the first edition of the Trans-Siberian Handbook as its editor was highly appreciative of Bobby’s assistance to complete it. That means I have started the tourism business almost at the same time when the Trans-Siberian Railway got up and running in Mongolia. All the travellers kept encouraging my hard work and my honesty, so here I am still being motivated by their appreciation. Now I can proudly say to anyone that I have been actively running this business for the past 21 years.
Aman Khuur Trails: What is the most difficult part of the whole process and the most rewarding one?
Bobby: I have never got depressed by my customers or given hard time. We still openly talk face to face and understand each other. Of course, there might be a problem from time to time, but we can always find a good solution for my customers’ benefit. Mongolia has this proverb: “You will not face any problem if you do nothing”. Every problem or, even, mistake is a lesson to improve my life and my business. The difficult part always comes with my competitors. I simply don’t like to be defeated by them. Moreover, if I am sure that I did nothing wrong, then I just ignore them. The most rewarding one? I cannot explain it in just one sentence. When my customers say THANKS and HUG ME – this is the rewarding moment. Especially, when my customers come back to me a few years later – that’s the most rewarding moment indeed.
Aman Khuur Trails: In your opinion, what really attracts travellers to Mongolia? And why would you visit Mongolia, if you were one of them?
Bobby: Mongolia’s nature is the real attraction, the real deal. Most of travellers sees maybe just 10/20% of the whole Mongolian beauty. There are so many beautiful places they haven’t seen yet. They surely need more time to see all of them and come back. Keep in mind Mongolia is 8 times bigger than France and 2,150 times bigger than Singapore! And the second reason is the nomadic life. They have some amazing life secrets. Nomadic people can predict the weather without forecast, they can live healthily without doctors’ check-ups, they can educate their children without school, they can preserve their culture orally without any written record, they can respect and save the nature without any project or fund.
Aman Khuur Trails: Talk us through one of the most challenging tours you have experienced, the setbacks and complications you bumped into and how you managed to ultimately sort your plan out.
Bobby: There are many stories. However, I will tell you the most challenging one. A group of six people were on the seven-day Gobi trip. On day 2, a Korean girl went missing. She was hosted by a nomadic family and wanted to go to the “toilet” outside. But she got lost within a short distance and wandered off in a completely different direction. We thought she would come back soon and waited but we couldn’t find her until sunset. The group members were all French or German. Three days passed by; we still couldn’t find her. Can you imagine the state I was in? I couldn’t sleep and eat. Unfortunately, I had to report it to the State Emergency Office, Province Emergency Office, Korean Embassy, Central Intelligence Agency and Mongolian Tourism Board. I was called in to all of them to be interviewed. Central Intelligence Agency tried to find her location through her phone signal. But she left her pullover, phone and everything at the host family: no chance to track her down. Korean Embassy rang her family and made them aware of the situation. Her mother called me and just cried. State Emergency officers told me there was not a single case of a missing person found alive after three days in the wild, especially with a stormy weather in the middle of nowhere: it was “moody” April – Mongolian April has an extremely bad climate. In addition, that area had and still has lynxes and wolves, which would have been attracted to that tiny weak girl. Emergency Office sent a rescue team: ten cars, eight motorcycles, forty soldiers and other volunteers, plus my driver, a host and a translator. After three days of searching, the rescue team received an order to stop it. However, my driver and host refused to give in. Suddenly, a herder man, who rode a motorcycle, popped out from a distance. There she was: our missing girl behind him, laughing at something we did not understand. It was her and she was alive! We stopped the tour there and came back to our guesthouse UB. We had a big party, of course. Strange thing was everywhere in the streets people could recognise her and kept saying: “missing tourist found”. She told us she would not dare talk about that experience to her friends but, when she flew back to Korea, all of them already knew her story: she already became a TV star in Mongolia and in Korea, later I realised. She was lost and walked bravely for the whole day and night. It was cold and snowing – she had only a T-shirt on – and decided not to stop, otherwise she would freeze. Luckily, a herder man spotted her with his binoculars while he was watching his camels from the hill. Countrymen are like Sherlock Holmes here: he knew immediately she was a lost tourist and that she already walked at least a whole day, according to her bloody shoes and messy hair. And he took her immediately in his ger and fed her. After three days of bad weather, he set off to took the girl to the police and met the rescue team on the way.
Aman Khuur Trails: With the long experience you have, you must have been receiving numerous feedbacks from any sort of traveller from all over the world. Is there any particularly positive one that does stand out? A feedback that has truly gratified your hard work and it is still imprinted in your mind?
Bobby: Oh, there is plenty of about our company’s services. Individuals write sweet feedbacks and articles on important websites such as Hostelworld.com, Hostelbookers.com, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, HorseBackRiding… etc. Besides, my company name was highly recommended and mentioned on the following world-famous newspapers and magazines, as a result of our honest and hard work:
- 2003 New York Times Newspaper, USA (05 Oct, 2003).
- 2005 National Geography magazine, USA (Sept, 2005).
- 2006 Washington Post newspaper, USA (06 Aug, 2006).
- 2006 Travel gazette on Washington Post newspaper, USA (08 Oct, 2006).
- 2006 Merlian – Mongolei magazine by www.merlian.de, Germany.
- 2007 Levende Historie magazine, www.levendehistorie.no, Norway (February, 2007).
- 2008 Travel, Washington Post newspaper, USA (26 Oct, 2008).
- 2009 VSD Premier Week End magazine, by www.vsd.fr, French (17 Mar, 2009).
- 2015 Almundo magazine, marcopolo, www.almundo.com, Argentina (Apr, 2015).
- 2016 Siberia & Shamanism, a book by Tulga Ozan, www.dunyadegismeden.com, Turkey.
- 2017 Business Mirror newspaper https://businessmirror.com.ph/voyage-to-the-gobi-desert/, by Joshua Berida. Philippine (03 Dec, 2017).
- 2018 Sunday Bulletin “Unforgettable Journey to the Gobi Desert and Back”, a book by Joshua Berida, Philippine (15 April, 2018) https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2018/04/15/an-unforgettable-journey-to-the-gobi-desert-and-back/.
- 2018 “Travel Now Here in the Philippines” magazine pp54-57. Camping in Mongolia, by Joshua Berida, Philippine (08 May, 2018).
- Lonely Planet Travel Guidebook, Mongolia (since the first edition until the current one).
Aman Khuur Trails: Mongolian hospitality amongst the nomads and beyond: tell us more about it. Why is it something so renowned and important?
Bobby: I think it is because of our way of life and our territory – Mongolia has less population and land in surplus. There was no living system organised in neighbourhoods in the past. A single family lived in the middle of nowhere. If they had guests – guests visited very rarely – the family truly respected them, begged them to stay and relax and move on the next day to their destination. The guests were important because they brought and shared pieces of information. The hospitality has, so to speak, become part of Mongolian tradition.
Aman Khuur Trails: Mongolia is, in fact, a land of nomadic people traditionally, people with remarkable human endurance and a greatly enviable spirituality. You know them well as you also collaborate with them. Give us your thoughts about these extraordinary people and how they cope with hostile territory and weather and, why not, modern times?
Bobby: Mongolians are the people who live the closest to Nature. We get up early and make fresh tea to give the first share of it to the Sky/Heaven. When we do so, we always say good wishes. Mongolians are religious people. This is how we start our morning for these actions and believes make our life peaceful.
And you can say that nomadic people can talk to Nature which gives us lots of signs and signals about the weather and the surroundings. Once you are experienced in the nomadic life, you should get to know those signs and be ready to accept them. I will tell you here about some interesting signs:
– A spider staying in the middle of its own net or a dog lying with its truffle tucked in mean that the weather gets cold soon.
– A calf jumping and running means that the weather gets hot.
– A magpie chirping near home is a guest coming,
– Rain coming every night, not in daytime is a premonition of flooding,
– Moon with a double circle outside means cold weather is coming,
– Mice gathering lots of grass is a cold winter coming.
Besides, the nomadic people use natural plants and flowers as a natural remedies and medicine. They know how to use every single plant and what it might cure. Unfortunately, people nowadays, especially the new generations, do not learn these things.
Aman Khuur Trails: A topic that makes more than one person uncomfortable talking about is politics That is why we would like to ask you just a quick one with not much of a digging into it. Mongolia pre and post Soviet Union: what has it changed in your country since its collapse in the late eighties? Where does Mongolia stand today?
Bobby: This is just my opinion. There were many advantages being in the Soviet Union: everyone helped each other, there was no greed, hospitals and education were free, no need to pay for them. The streets were clean, the environment in general was much cleaner than today – because we cleaned up outside every Saturday; there was respect for the elders and the customs, there was no illiteracy and the crime was almost non-existent, apart for minor offences such as burglary, for instance. However, there are many good changes since the system collapsed: we have been free to travel abroad, create our own private businesses, study or live wherever we want to and free to learn any foreign language. Honestly, I wouldn’t say that Mongolia has developed perfectly since the system had collapsed. It’s already been 30 years since we’ve chosen the liberal system. Corruption is at the highest in the world ranking, unfortunately. There is not a single sector that is operating properly. So, maybe we are still standing at the bottom of the development. Greedy people rule the country and wise people are ignored.
Aman Khuur Trails: Your guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar: you mentioned it earlier. When did you open it? Is it a “caravanserai” for all kinds of people, especially young ones, in transit or something else? What still impresses you about your guests?
Bobby: We opened the guesthouse on the 19th of May 2000. The main purpose to have our own guesthouse was not exactly to turn it into a “caravanserai”. Our purpose straight away was to run a tourism business and organise tours in the countryside and the wilderness. Backpacker tours were just introduced in Mongolia back then. So, it was easy for us to offer our services to them but sometimes they booked a tour but didn’t show up. We realized that they were “stolen” or “persuaded” in the streets by strangers that offered dodgy deals. So, we decided to open the guesthouse to keep our guests closer to us and in good hands. Tourists respect our regulations and rules, they listen to me carefully and teach me English… most of them become my siblings at the end of their travel.
Aman Khuur Trails: We have finally come to the conclusion. Ulaanbaatar, the capital city where around 44% of the whole Mongolian population lives as nature appears to be quite rough in your country. Can you give us pros and cons of this quirky metropolis, once a Buddhist monastic centre?
Bobby: Ulaanbaatar has dramatically expanded and changed but to the worse. There are many new buildings, I mean just mass-produced blocks. There is nothing pleasant to see such as gardens, fountains, proper architectural design. Those blocks are “filled up” by countrymen who have no idea about the culture of the city. The traffic is awful because they buy the cheapest and rubbish cars and do not adhere to the road traffic. There is always a big conflict between country people and city people. They are so disrespectful: they litter in the street, let the tap water running and just leave home, they park their car in the middle of the road. But they are nonetheless employed in the public sector – I don’t know how. OK, maybe now you understand why Mongolia is not developing. I am tired to talk about them already…