Go Eat Give Artisan Box – Gifts That Give Back

For the first time, we are offering a curated artisan gift box for this holiday season! Go Eat Give has partnered with GlobeIn, an online marketplace that offers handcrafted products sourced from direct relationships with artisans as well as vetted partner organizations. By buying on GlobeIn, you are supporting artisans from around the world and in developing countries where, after agriculture, artisan goods are the second largest source of employment.

globeinHere is what I have handpicked for the Go Eat Give box…

DIRECT TRADE COFFEE FROM NICARAGUA

A socially responsible dark roast that’s as unique as it is complex. This Direct Trade blend of Nicaragua’s finest estate varietals offers an experience like no other.

Boca Java sources their Nicaraguan single origins coffees via Direct Trade relationship with a family-owned, environmentally-friendly coffee farm that was established in the late 1850’s.

PURE GROUND VANILLA FROM MADAGASCAR

Lafaza’s Pure Ground Vanilla contains only hand-selected Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans that have been sun-cured and dried to remove nearly all of the moisture in the pod. The beans are then ground to a fine powder and sealed for freshness. Its superior quality and unique flavor makes a convenient and delicious addition to baked goods, spice rubs, coffee, tea, specialty drinks, smoothies, dry mixes and can be used in many recipes as a substitute for vanilla beans or vanilla extract. With no preservatives or additives, this is an all-natural, organic and gluten-free product.

SPOON REST FROM PALESTINE

Add a splash of Middle Eastern flair to your countertop with this hand painted spoon rest from the Palestinian Territories. The ornate floral design is an aesthetic staple of Palestinian heritage.

Hebron is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, with archeological finds dating back some 5,000 years. Shards of ancient pottery may even bear floral patterns similar to the classic Palestinian design curling delicately across your new spoon rest. Nour Diba, whose skillful painter’s hand deftly tends to the design’s fine eddies and curves, is an employee of Hebron Glass, a family company of glass and ceramic handicraft employing 60 artisans.

ORGANIC LEMONGRASS LIP BALM FROM ZAMBIA

Ingredients: organic beeswax, organic coconut oil, organic sunflower oil, organic jojoba oil, lanolin, organic lemongrass oil, organic peppermint oil, organic rosemary oil, vitamin E.

As a company, Zambeezi is committed to providing the people of Africa’s pristine subtropical forests sources of income other than timber and strip mining, sources more sustainable for people and land alike.

KITCHEN TOWEL FROM TURKEY

This 100% cotton towel absorbs water faster than a regular towel, dries quickly, and folds up small–perfect for drying dishes in your kitchen. Plus, it has tassels!

Hatch, a rare female who has mastered the craft of weaving (traditionally done by men) is a member of Atlas, a growing organization of weaving families in Buldan. Membership with Atlas enables weavers to earn a living while keeping a deep cultural tradition alive and sharing it with the world—and with your kitchen!

HANDWOVEN BASKET FROM MEXICO

These decorative and whimsical baskets make beautiful home storage options, lending a pop of color and handcrafted warmth to children’s bedrooms, bathroom storage, kitchen countertops or as gift packaging for loved ones. Baskets measure 6″ diameter x 5″ tall.

For the people of the Mixteca region of Mexico, basket-weaving is a way of life that also sustains life. On the outskirts of Oaxaca City, Doña Martina Garcia and her group of eight artisan basket weavers produce roughly 700 baskets per month. For each artisan involved, basket-weaving means a stable monthly income used for building a house, starting a small business, or purchasing food and medicine.

Get the Go Eat Give curated artisan box for only $50 inclusive of shipping within U.S. through GlobeIn. It makes for a great hostess gift, a special treat for someone who likes to cook or travel, and the best part is, you will be supporting 6 families around the world by purchasing this box.

You can also gift someone a monthly subscription to GlobeIn, through which they will receive a new theme box each month! Subscriptions cost $35-40/ month.

Santa, Sleighs and Igloos in Finland

Do you believe in Santa Claus? What if I told you that the letters you address to “The North Pole” actually make it to a small town in Finland, where Santa and his helpers sit at their desks and read each and every letter? You probably won’t believe me, thinking it was a made up kids story. But really, it is actually true and I have seen it with my very own eyes!

I flew to a city called Ivalo, in northern Finland, located inside the Arctic Circle. Even in April, there was snow as far as my eyes could see. Reindeers appeared wandering around the alpine forests, as I took a 30-minute shuttle ride to Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Lapland.

Most people say they have never heard of Lapland, until I mention the “igloo hotel.” The iconic photo of a village dotted with glass igloos glowing against the twilight sky in wintery wonderland, has appeared across many social media posts. I had only dreamt of going there myself someday, and here I was.

igloo resort finlandThe shuttle dropped off the passengers at a log cabin used as the reception area. We fetched our keys and were told to use the sleighs kept outside to carry our luggage to our respective cabin rooms or igloos.

While it was snowing heavily outside and temperatures dipped under 30F (“unusually warm for this time of the year” they informed me), I dragged my wooden sleigh to my cabin.

laplandThere are three kinds of rooms at the resort. The first and most popular are the glass igloos, available in two sizes – sleeps 2 (with toilet, no shower) or 4 people (with shower and toilet). The igloos have limited space to store luggage and almost no privacy, since they are made entirely of glass. Though you have to walk through the snowy cold weather to get to the igloo, once inside, it is nice and toasty.

The second option is to get a log cabin. Here, you can get a very comfortable king size bed, kitchenette, breakfast area, as well as a personal sauna. Now, that’s luxury! For those who cannot decide between the igloo or the cabin, there is the Kelo Glass Igloo, which combines a cabin with an igloo, so you get the best of both worlds. Store your luggage in the cabin, enjoy a nice hot sauna, and sleep in the igloo at night.

kakslauttanen_kelo-glass_igloo_rgbPicture yourself lying in bed, looking at the sky, while the Aurora Lights dance around in their green, orange and red hues. That is the main reason to come here. In Lapland, you can see northern lights almost every night from August-April, in their full splendor. The resort also offers activities “Aurora Hunting” on snow mobiles or reindeer sleighs.

During the day, guests can enjoy winter sports such as cross country skiing, dog sledding, hiking, riding snow mobiles, and more.

dsc06915For lunch, there is always all-you-can-eat soup (two choices) and homemade breads. Dinner at the restaurant is also quite good. The menu features local ingredients and Lappish dishes, such as reindeer stew, Alaskan crab, grilled salmon, and stewed cloudberries.

reindeer & salmon

The resort is actually quite large and worth exploring for a few hours. First, you want to visit Santa’s house. Here, resident Mr and Mrs Claus live, meet guests and participate in activities through the season. The Celebration House is where Santa throws elaborate parties. It is also used for weddings and events. There are other small workshops, an ice chapel, and of course, the local wildlife. Couple of dozen reindeers live on the property.

Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is one of it’s kind. It was started by a visionary, Jussi Eiramo. While on vacation, he discovered this patch of beautiful area where he could camp and see the Northern Lights almost every night of the year. So, he opened a souvenir shop about 40 years ago, then made ice igloos for people to stay at, and later designed the first glass igloos using unique Finnish technology.

Today, Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is a bucket list destination for those who seek adventure, romance and off the beaten path travel. It is a place where families flock to in the winter to celebrate the holiday season, party with Santa, and enjoy the essence of the North Pole.

Where In The World Do You Want To Move To?

Last night, the immigration website for Canada crashed due to too much traffic. Apparently, that is the first country Americans think of moving to (almost every 4 years) especially during election time. Most of them do not end up making the jump across the border though.

This time it’s different. A lot of my friends started planning their move few months ago, getting disenchanted by everything happening in America – the quality of education & healthcare, lack of job growth, frequent shooting incidents, divided political system, etc. I am referring to people who are born and brought up in the U.S., not immigrants. Some are looking for a better place to live, some for adventure, and others just want to get away from the hatred they see around them.

So, has the thought of moving abroad crossed your mind? Do you know where you would like to go to?

Here are some criteria I would recommend considering when looking to move to a new country…

English Speaking – Language is no longer a barrier in today’s world, as many counties have English as their primary language, if not the language they do business in. These countries have 90% or more of the population English speaking – Ireland, Philippines, Caribbean (Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Bermuda, Trinidad), New Zealand, UK, Australia, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Malta. Source: Wikipedia.

Darker the green - more English speakers
Darker the green – more English speakers

Economy – Where in the world are all the jobs? According to projected nominal GDP, the top economies in 2021 will be China, the U.S., India, Japan, Germany, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, the U.K. and France.

Entrepreneurship – For millennials, this is an important factor as many choose to work for themselves in meaningful businesses. How entrepreneurial a country is based on how connected it is to the rest of the world, provides easy access to capital, skilled labor force, technological expertise, transparent business practices, well-developed infrastructure and well-developed legal framework. Germany, Japan, US, UK, Canada, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Singapore and Australia top the list.

Safety – Families with kids are looking to bring up their kids in a safe environment, with “gun free zones” and a relatively peaceful population. Finland, Qatar, UAE, Iceland, Austria, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore are rated as the safest places to live in the world. Source: WEF

Education – Again, if you have kids, you want them to be able to receive a good quality education within the public school system. Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland spend the most money on education as a percentage of their gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

Cost of Living – Clearly, you want to move to a place that is affordable. Perhaps you want to buy a home or maintain the same lifestyle. South and Central America have a good lifestyle/ cost balance and especially appeal to retiring Americans, while Scandinavia is the most expensive place to live. Note: cost of living is not the same as quality of life. Source: NUMBEO

Most expensive place is marked by Orange - Medium is Yellow - Cheapest is Green
Scale shows most expensive places to live in Red

Adventure – Research shows that a chance to break away from the normal rhythms of daily life reduces stress and improves health and well-being. Brazil, Italy, Spain, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Costa Rica, Portugal and Mexico top the list of countries that offer enough opportunities to explore. Source: U.S. News

Quality of Life – Each year, there are Best Places to Live rankings posted. Often times, you will find some of the same countries listed over and over again. Canada, Australia and 7 European countries including Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom and Luxembourg are rated in the top 10. Source: U.S. News

Environment and pollution is a big factor for me. Here is a chart showing where you can still find clean air on planet Earth.

map-view-pollution
Green – good, Red – bad

What is the single most important factor you would look for in your new home country? Leave a comment below...

5 Reasons Why I Could Live in the Philippines

What did I like most about the Philippines? Well, a lot of things! Beautiful beaches, quiet islands, fresh fruits, friendly people, to name a few. Each day, I thought about what it would be like to live here and thought about the five most compelling reasons I would want to move to the Philippines.

Mangoes Grow Year Round – Mangoes, undoubtedly, are my favorite fruit. I have been known to eat a lot (record 15 in one sitting)! Growing up in India, I use to anxiously wait for summers when mangoes were available. In the Philippines, there is no one season for growing mangoes. The tropical weather allows good quality production year-round. As a result, you can get fresh mango juice, fruit, yogurt, desserts and anything else you can think of. Dried mangoes from Cebu are world famous and even available in grocery stores across the US.

Coconuts Are Everywhere – Philippines is the largest producer of coconuts in the world. It is a spectacular sight from an airplane to see rolling hills full of coconut trees on many of the islands. Whether you are driving, walking or visiting a home, there’s a pretty good chance you can find a fresh sweet coconut readily available. Coconut water is good for circulation, blood circulation, skin, provides energy, healthy for the heart and helps with weight loss. Where else in the world can you find a superfood for only $0.20?

coconuts in philippinesFilipinos Have The Fountain of Youth – Well, not a fountain as such, but most Filipino look at least 10-20 years younger than they actually are. I asked a few people I met about the reason for their young appearance, and they replied that it was staying happy, always smiling and not stressing too much. “You must exercise your face muscles a lot” one lady told me. In fact, all of the Filipinos I met were very friendly and smiling all the time.

philippines travel

Freshness in Seafood is Redefined – I have turned into a pescetarian over the years and when I walk into a restaurant, my eyes go straight to the seafood section of the menu. In the Philippines, many of the restaurants would display your choices of fish, lobster, crab, shrimp, sea shells, etc. (live in tanks or on ice). You simply pick out what you want and how much of it, and the chef does the rest. I ate the biggest king crab of my life (at 4 pounds), which was still alive when I placed my order.

seafood in manilaBudget Friendly Spas – Self care in the Philippines is a priority. Every mall, hotel and street corner has a spa, and most of them are no frills but offer really good service. Skilled professionals can do deep tissue, Swedish, or a local version of head to toe massage, leaving you totally relaxed. At $20 a massage, you can definitely afford to hit the spa a few times a week.

philippines spasPhilippines is an English speaking country. Even in the most remote places, people speak very good English, which makes it relatively easy to get around and interact with the locals. Other factors that make Philippines an attract place to live include – affordable cost of living, ease of finding domestic help, and year-round tropical weather. There’s also option to live in the bustling western capital of Manila with beautiful waterfront high risers, golf courses, international restaurants, and some of the biggest malls in the world; or at some of the isolated islands where you can enjoy quiet beaches, surf, swim, snorkel, and karaoke with the islanders at night.

 

The Best Summer Scenery From Armenia (Photo Blog)

Though Armenia is a small country (141st largest in the world), it has a lot of diverse landscapes. From snow capped mountains and alpine lakes, to dry deserts and lush green valleys, there are lots of micro climates within Armenia. Our Go Eat Give photographer, Amanda Villa-Lobos took over ten thousand pictures while traveling around the country last month. Here are our top 10 scenic views for you to enjoy…

caucus mountains
Volcanic regions in the Lesser Caucasus mountains and Armenian highlands.
Mount Ararat
Mount Ararat is the highest peak in Armenia. Parts of it are located in Turkey and Georgia.
Tatev monastery Armenia
Tatev monastery stands against a beautiful backdrop in the southern part of the country bordering with Iran.
canyon in Armenia
Canyoning, rock climbing and hiking can be enjoyed all over the country.
Lake Sevan
Lake Sevan is a nice place to relax, swim and eat fresh catch such as crayfish and whitefish.
Lake Sevan Armenia
Get an aerial view of the area while paragliding over lake Sevan.
novak-monastery
The canyon where Novak monastery is situation looks something like Utah.
wings of Tatev
Aerial view of the valley from Wings of Tatev, the longest non-stop double track cable car in the world.
tombstones
Khachkar at historic cemeteries, or Armenian cross-stones, give lots of good information about daily life.
marmashen-monastery
Marmashen Monastery 10th-century Armenian monastic complex consisting of 5 churches.

Has this inspired you to travel to Armenia? Read more blog posts from our visit.

~ Photos by Go Eat Give photographer, Amanda Villa-Lobos.

Flying Qatar Airways Business Class

Honestly, I am jealous of my friends in the corporate world who get to jet set when they fly for work. They relax in their flatbed seats while sipping on a glass of champagne served in real crystal glass, while I am squeezed in the economy middle seat for up to 30 hours at a time. As a freelance travel writer, I have to more then often cover my own airfare when going on assignment, which is every month. Usually, I am scrambling for cheap fares, using my miles, or negotiating with airlines for discounts.

Not using your airline vouchers or miles? Donate to Go Eat Give so we can bring you more informative stories from around the world. 

So when I had the opportunity of traveling Business Class on Qatar Airways (QA), I grabbed it!

qatar airways

I booked a round trip flight from Atlanta, GA to Yerevan, Armenia, both of which are new hubs for QA. In May 2016, a launch party featured a private concert by American singer and actress Jennifer Lopez at Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre, which enraged Atlanta-based Delta Airlines. Grow up Delta! Read more about their reaction to it.

The online booking process was easy. QatarAirways.com website gives several options of flights for each day and shows a calendar of low fares through the week. You can pick any combination of flights based on schedules and prices.

Checking in at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airport was strange as the attendant at QA counter did not know recognize the city Yerevan, or the country Armenia. He said he worked with the airlines, but perhaps a geography lesson wasn’t included in the training.

I got access to The Club At ATL lounge at Atlanta airport, which is a far cry from any VIP lounges I have seen before. It was crowded, the wifi was slow, and there was hardly anything to eat at the buffet table.

Once I boarded the plane, things got a lot better. An attendant escorted me from the entrance of the flight to my seat and helped me stow my carry on bag. Soon, the cabin attendant addressed me by my name and made polite conversation about my journey. I got a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice right away and was feeling relaxed already.

qatar airways

I was on the 777-200 airplane which featured fully flat horizontal beds in a 2-2-2 configuration. The maroon (official color: Qatari red) leather seats were equipped with massage functions and I had over 6 feet of legroom! Sorry coach people. I had the biggest individual flat screen TV screen I have seen on board (estimating 17 inches) which was programmed with over 3,000 hours of entertainment in 30 languages through the award-winning Oryx One system. Some of the flights also have WiFi but neither of my legs (Atlanta-Doha-Yerevan) did.

qatar airways

Next they brought out amenities – A Giorgio Armani toiletries bag with a perfume and lotion, cozy PJ set (in my size) which contained a long sleeve shirt and pants, along with slippers, fluffy pillow and comforter. Once I changed into my lounging clothes, the attendant asked to make my bed for the night. She flattened the seat to 180 degrees, laid out bedspreads and tucked in the comforter, a left a chocolate flight on my pillow. I felt like I was getting a turndown service at a hotel.

qatar airways

QA business class features a Dine On Demand style of dining, meaning passengers can order whatever food and drinks they want whenever they feel like it. The drink menu had a great selection of wines and champagnes from around the world. One could chose from Australian Shiraz, Spanish Mencia, French Bordeaux, Tawny Port, as well as spirits, cocktails and teas.

The food menu offered a good selection of vegetarian and regional choices.   I had a fresh salad of butternut squash and goat cheese on a bed of arugula; a flavorful paneer tikka masala with herbed rice and lentils; and individual size carrot cake and chocolate tart for dessert. Just before we arrived in Doha, I ordered my breakfast – kadak cardamom chai, kippered salmon with capers, muffin and croissant. The sun shone in from the large windows as I sipped on my strong hot tea and read the morning news.

qatar airways

Another thing I really liked about my QA flight was the attention to the bathrooms. During the 15-hour long service, the toilet was always clean and well equipped with toothbrushes and hand lotion. One of the attendants made sure to clean the toilet after every single use.

If you have a 4 hours or more layover in Doha, Qatar Airways offers free city tours. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to avail this opportunity. The airport does have a hotel, art displays, spa, lots of shopping and dining, as well as VIP lounges.

Doha

Qatar Airways is commitment to giving back to the community. You will see some of their projects featured during the in-flight entertainment and  announcements are made on board asking for contributions. Read more about QA social projects here

Would I fly QA again? Absolutely! In my opinion, QA delivers a lot more than it’s counterparts when it comes to seat comfort, food and entertainment, making it an overall much better flight experience. And the best part is, you would probably end up paying a lot less for a business class ticket on Qatar Airways versus some of the US-based airlines.

Qatar Airways is the national carrier of the State of Qatar. Launched in 1997, QA flys to over 150 destinations worldwide. It was named Airline of the Year by Skytrax in 2015 and Business Class of the Year by Skytrax in 2014.

10 Things I Learned About Armenia

I have a confession to make. Until recently I didn’t know much about this tiny country the size of Maryland. I have only 3 friends from Armenia. I did go to an Armenian restaurant once while I was in Russia and have visited the Armenian quarters in Jerusalem. That is pretty much all my exposure to Armenian food and culture, until now.

Fortunately, I was invited by TATON and USAID on a media trip to Armenia, for 10 days. Here are some of the things I learned…

  1. Armenia is located in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia. It was not always landlocked. The current day landmass is actually 1/10 of what it use to be at it’s peak.
  2. The history of Armenia dates back to early civilization. One of the caves we visited had the world’s earliest known leather shoe, skit, and wine-producing facility dating back to 4000 BC. Noah’s Ark is said to have landed on the peak of Mount Ararat (then Armenia, now Turkey) during the biblical flood.
  3. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a nation in 301 AD, though Christianity was practiced before that. There are over 3,000 churches and monasteries in the country, making it the highest per capita Christian monuments in a small area of land. Incidentally, many modern Armenians are not religious.

    armenia
    Monastery of Tatev in southern Armenia
  4. For a country its size, Armenia has the most varied landscapes. You can find snow year round on top of its highest peaks, mountainous terrains, colorful valleys, deep gorges, and one of the largest alpine lakes in the world. While Yerevan is a bustling modern city, scantly populated villages across the country are mostly rural.

    armenia6
    Preparing to go paragliding over Lake Sevan
  5. Armenia is bordered on the north and east by Georgia and Azerbaijan, and on the south and west by Iran and Turkey. Thought its political relations with its neighbors have not been so good in the past, it is still a peaceful and safe place to travel.

    armenia7
    A fraction of our dinner table in Armenia
  6. The food scene in Armenia is amazing! The cuisine has influences of it’s neighboring cultures and different parts of Armenia have regionalized dishes. Every meal is a festive occasion where families and friends come together over piles of plates of fresh salads, cheese, bread, meat and fruit. My mouth salivated as I saw picture perfect fruits and nuts at the farmers market in Yerevan. They taste as good as they look!

    armenia3
    Fresh fruits at GUM market in Yerevan
  7. The wines are great too. It seems everyone in Armenia makes their wine and harvests their own honey. The wine making tradition has been going on for 6k years and no special records have been kept of it. You can buy 1 liter of homemade wine for 1000 Drams (less than $2). There are also excellent wineries around the country that are gaining popularity in the international scene.

    armenia2
    Wine tasting at Vozkavaz winery
  8. The people in Armenia are extremely friendly. If you meet someone for the first time, they will invite you to dine with them and give you small presents. This happened to me at multiple occassions. My American friends who live there safely hitchhike around the country as a mode of transport. There is practically no crime, though gender divides give rise to domestic violence.

    armenia5
    Amanda with her adopted Armenian grandparents
  9. Armenia as a travel destination is affordable and not overcrowded with tourists. Hostels in Yerevan can be found for as little as $10/ night, and even the most expensive hotels are $100+. High end restaurants cost $10-30 per meal, while delicious local fast food like shawarma goes for $2-4. Bus and subways can easily be accessed for $0.20/ ride while taxis are also very cheap. I never paid more than $5 for a ride inside the city.
  10. I also learned more details about the Armenian genocide, beyond what is talked about in the West. While I had some prior knowledge about the historical events, I came to learn that the impact of these events is still felt today. Many Armenian families mourn their lost family members and are not able to overcome their grief, leading to deep depression that ultimately interferes in daily work and life. One of the locals told me that if the world comes forward and acknowledges that what happened in Armenia in the 19-20th centuries was a genocide, they might be able to get some closure.

More about my experiences with Armenian food, sights and culture on my next blog….

What to Expect at the Mongolian Dinner Table

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is a huge country with vast open grasslands, mountains and deserts. Harsh cold winters and gusty winds make it difficult to grow much here. Therefore, the nomadic Mongol diet relies mostly on animal products, such as meat, cheese, yogurt and milk.

So what to expect to eat as you travel through Mongolia?

The capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB) is comparable to any metropolis in Central Asia. Here you will find all sorts of restaurants, cafes, bars and grocery stores. There are traditional Mongolian places, as well as tourist-friendly international restaurants serving American, Russian, Irish, Japanese, and Italian food. Korean cuisine is perhaps the most popular as many Korean tourists visit Mongolia (it is an easy 3 hour direct flight from Seoul). I even found a few Indian/ Hazara restaurants in UB.

Indian food in Mongolia

A visit to the State Department Grocery Store in UB gives a good perspective on the produce that is imported from abroad. There is generally a small section of fresh organic Mongolian produce, which is more expensive than it’s Chinese counterpart. The variety of fruits and vegetables is plentiful, though not as appealing as I am use to. Think overripe bananas, pale red apples, softening grapes. Isles of sausages and cheese from Russia can easily be found. There are plenty of packages food though – cookies, chocolates, nuts, chips – practically everything you can think of. The cooked food section boasts kimchi, fried snacks and noodles, favoring the spicy tastebuds of the locals.

Outside of UB, there are supermarkets selling all of needed essentials. In some of the smaller towns that I visited, the amount of produce diminished significantly. Here street vendors could be found selling freshly harvested green onions, peaches and watermelon.

While staying at luxury tourist ger camps, we were served three meals daily. Breakfast typically consisted of an assortment of bakery items (bread, cakes, pancakes, waffles), cheese, yogurt, cereal, tea, canned fruits and eggs made to order. I don’t think Mongols are very good bakers as most of the cakes were very dry and flavorless. Some of the places only had instant coffee.

breakfast at ger camps

Lunches were generally picnic style as we were out sightseeing at remote areas. The hotel would pack a lunch box – wraps, salads, sandwiches, noodles, etc. that we carried with us.

picnic lunch in Gobi desert

Sometimes we went to traditional Mongolian restaurants, which I really enjoyed. At the 13th Century National Park, we sat on the floor, watched live performances, while eating delicious Khuushuur stuffed with ground beef (and a vegetarian version for me). This is also the most popular thing to eat (like a hot dog) at the Naadam festival.

Modern Nomads in UB is always packed with visitors who want to try traditional Mongolian dishes in the city. Buckets of grilled meats (Khorkhog) along with chilled beer is the perfect campground treat. Strangely they had chewing gum listed as a snack on the menu!

It is important to note that the Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat (beef, horse, goat, sheep, yak, marmot and camel) as it helps retain fat and heat during the long winters. Though vegetarians wouldn’t have survived here in the past, today there are many meat-free options for those traveling through the country.

mongolian bbq

When we were out visiting nomadic camps, we were offered hot milk tea known as Süütei Tsai (made from horse, camel or cow milk), along with local fried cookies, Boortsog and dried cheese, Aaruul. It is customary to accept the offerings from your hosts, even if you are not hungry.

mongolian snacks at Naadam

At dinner, we enjoyed international dishes, such as fresh salad with tomatoes, olives and cheese at Dream Terelj Lodge; pizza at Peace Pub Restaurant; grilled chicken or fish with roasted potatoes or french fries at Dream Gobi Ger Lodge.

All the restaurants served alcohol, beer and wine; vodka being the most popular drink. There are many Mongolian brewed vodkas (many of them named Chinggis) and they are actually very good.

I discovered that there are no Mongolian dessert except for sweet dried fermented cheese, but with the international influence, bakeries have popped up in the city. One that I frequented was Caffe Bene that served gelato, cakes, coffee and juices, and Grand Khaan Irish Pub for drinks and desserts.

Read Mongolian Cuisine Is a Carnivore’s Dream Come True on MilesAway blog.

Why Mongolia’s Naadam Festival Should be on Your Bucket List

When I first read about the Naadam Festival in Mongolia a few years ago, I was fascinated by it, and added it to my bucket list. The annual sporting event takes place on July 11-13 and can be termed the ancient Olympics of Asia. The festival is registered with the Intangible Heritage Fund of UNESCO. It measures courage, strength, daring, horsemanship and marksmanship of the nomadic people and warriors.

THE SCENE

Though the games take place over only three days, the entire country is on holiday for almost a week. Festivities start with a parade of uniformed guards, attended by the president and VIP’s at the Genghis Khan square. The same afternoon, there is a traditional costume parade and musical concert.

Fair Food at the Festival/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Fair Food at the Festival/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos

On day one, nine horse tails, representing the nine tribes of the Mongols, are transported from Sukhbaatar Square to the Stadium to open the Naadam festivities. At these opening and closing ceremonies, there are impressive parades of mounted cavalry, athletes and monks. Kids perform drills and thousands of people gather to watch.

Opening Ceremony at the Stadium in UB/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Opening Ceremony at the Stadium in UB/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos

Outside at the stadium it looks like a fair. There are shops selling trinkets and food stalls as far as you can see. Mares milk, horse meat, candy floss, meat kebabs…and most importantly, the traditional Naadam treat, Khuushuur, are enjoyed by fans.

THE SPORTS

Mongolia has three national sports that come from the warrior history of Mongolia, known as Danshig games. At the Naadam festival, you can also see men gathered in a tent playing ankle bone shooting. Crowds cheer on as players carefully strategize with their fingers and shoot shagai or sheep anklebones into a wooden cupboard that acts like a target.

WRESTLING
The first noticeable thing about the wrestlers are their costumes – bright red and blue underwear and a top that looks like a reverse bra with sleeves. It is believed this is designed such that women cannot disguise themselves and participate (it actually happened once which led to the design of the current uniform).
Wrestling match / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Wrestling match / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
When the wrestlers enter the field, they do an eagle dance, flapping their arms like an eagle, then they crouch down and slap their thighs on the front and back. It’s to show their strength and power. The goal of this sport is to get your opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body between the knees and the shoulders. There are no rules – you can even tug on his underwear!  The winner of a match also does a victory eagle dance at the end of the match, which lasts 9-10 rounds.
HORCERACING
Children in Mongolia start riding horses as young as 4 years old and the competitors in the Naadam horserace are only 6-12 years of age. They have to ride 10-30 kilometers (depending on the age of the horses) in the countryside. As many as 1000 horses compete in the competition all over the country. The kids ride solo, on dirt fields, at high speeds. It is a true test of skill and endurance starting at a young age!
Twins Races/ / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Twins Races/ photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
There is also a fun matching competition, where identical horses and riders go in sync. The crowds decide the best in class by clapping and cheering. The winners receive a medal, money, and sometimes dinner (live goat).
ARCHERY
Contestants use compound bows made with sinew, wood, horn and bamboo, and strung with bull tendon. Men shoot 40 arrows made from willow branches and griffin vulture feathers from a distance of 75 meters, and women deliver 20 arrows from 60 meters at a target.
Archery Competition/ / photo by Amanda Villa Lobos
Archery Competition/ / photo by Sucheta Rawal
In accordance with ancient custom, several men stand on either side of the target singing a folk song to cheer the contestants and then use hand signals to indicate the results.
WHERE TO WATCH 
It is not easy to watch the entire festival as it is spread around different venues. Tickets to the main event at the stadium in Ulaanbaatar sell out months in advance. Here you can watch the opening and closing ceremonies, parades and wrestling. It can get hot and crowded while sitting out in the sun all day.
Archery competition takes place at a separate venue located near the stadium, but for horse racing you need to go to the countryside (1-2 hours drive). Families gather at the start and end points of the race, making a day long picnic out of it. Here they eat, drink, shop, play, fly kites, and watch the race on a big screen in the lawn.
Another option to watch all the events at the same venue is by going to one of the privately held Naadam festivities, such as the one at Mongol Nomadic Tourist Camp, or the Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi Desert. Voyage Unique Mongolie tours organize transportation, lodging and visits to all of the Naadam activities, as well as sightseeing all over Mongolia.

10 Things I Love About Mongolia

Mongolia was one of the countries that I was fascinated to travel to, but didn’t know much about. In my imagination, I had pictured a vast barren desert with nomadic culture. Though some of that was true, I discovered a lot more in Mongolia during my one-week visit. Here are some of the most beautiful things that took me by surprise…

Lush Green Landscapes – Yes there is a big desert covering a big chunk of the country, but there are also forests with trees, and lush grasslands. The rainy summer season and the rivers help irrigate the area. In winter, most of the country is covered in snow. Note: Ulaanbaatar (UB) is the coldest capital in the world, having a January average of -20 °C (minimum reaching -45 °C).

Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Free Roaming Animals – During my long drives through the countryside, I saw hundreds of yaks, sheep, goat, cows, horses and camels roaming around on their own. Because Mongolia still preserves it’s nomadic culture, many families keep a herd of animals, and keep moving to different locations for better grazing access. Note: The Mongolian diet is rich in meat and animal products (such as milk, cheese, yogurt) as this is the only source of food in many areas. 

Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Cute Kids – The children in Mongolia have a blend of Chinese, Persian and Russian looks. They are chubby and adorable! The kids who grow up in the countryside learn survival skills at an early age. They ride horses, milk animals, collect firewood and build gers.

Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Sleeping in Gers – While I am not a big fan of camping, I enjoyed staying at the luxury ger camps – Dream Terelj Lodge and Dream Gobi Lodge. Can you imagine waking up to this view? Here I was able to experience a nomadic home which is constructed using minimum equipment (felt, poles, lattice, cloth, ties). There is a door and an opening on the roof which is uncovered to let the light in. My ger also came with a fan, heater, lights and a private attached bath. Did you know? It takes about 2 hours for a family to construct a ger and only half hour to dissemble it.

Traditional Costumes – The Mongolian national costume is a robelike garment called a deel. It is worn with a thin silk sash several yards long tightly wound around the waist. Attached to the sash are essential objects such as the eating set, tinder pouch, snuff bottle, and tobacco and pipe pouches. Female attires are adorned with ornaments and jewelry. There are different kinds of hats and boots, depending on which part of the country they belong to. Travel Tip: There is a costume parade at the opening ceremony day before the annual Naadam festival in July. This is a good opportunity to see families from all over the country dressed in the traditional clothes. Tourists are encouraged to dress up too!

Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Sucheta Rawal
Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Winding Back The Clock –  Mongolia’s ancient culture is well persevered at the 13th Century National Park (located 2 hours outside UB). Here visitors can eat traditional food, visit old gers where Shamans practiced religion and Chinggis Khaan’s teacher lived, learn to write in Mongolian script, and play a horse headed fiddle.

Vastness of the Gobi Desert – The Gobi desert is the coldest desert in the world and home to many important cities along the Silk Road. It is said to be high energy place, covered with fossils as old as 100,000 years. Bayanzag aka Flaming Cliffs is a location where the highest concentration of dinosaur bones and eggs have been found. Travel Tip: Travel through the vast region of Gobi can take several days as there are no roads or signs; there are few flights which can be affected by weather conditions; the region shuts down in winters; and there are not many places to stop and ask for directions! 

Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Warm Hospitality – My hosts for this trip were Voyage Unique Mongolie. Khishigjargal and her husband, Dorjpurev took us around the entire time, giving us a very personal experience showing us their country. It felt like we were on a holiday with the family. We sang songs and ate candy during long drives, and stopped to have picnics in breathtaking sceneries. No matter where we went, we experienced the same level of polite and warm hospitality. Even when language was a challenge, the employees at hotels and restaurants would make a sincere effort to address our needs the best they could.

Drinking tea at a nomad's home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Drinking tea at a nomad’s home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Modern Mongolian Music and Dance – The traditional Mongolian dance is bielgee, which is performed by both men and women. Rhythmic movements, fast beats and expressive gestures that represent daily life, are simply captivating. Mongolian musicians are especially talented using deep throat singing, and several local instruments, such as the horse head fiddle, drum and gong. These days, techno and rap are being integrated, creating fun modern tunes. Travel Tip: Watch a traditional concert by the band Tumen Ekh ensemble at National Recreation Center in UB.

Naadam Festival – The annual festival celebrates the ancient sports of Mongolia – horseback riding, archery and wrestling. The entire country goes on holiday while families dress up, go for picnics and cheer the contestants. The main competitions take place at the stadium in UB, but events are also spread out. One of the most fascinating aspects of the festival is to see 5-12 year old kids race horses for up to 10 kilometers. They ride solo, at very high speeds, through the countryside! The winner receives a medal, money and bragging rights.

Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos