Interview with John Williams of Zavkhan Trekking in Mongolia
How did the company begin?
I first went to Mongolia in 2000, bought a horse, and rode across the country for four months. It was a dream I'd always had, and I fell in love with the country. I'm not sure where the idea came from, but I suspect it was from a book I had as a child, with pictures of the nomadic horsemen of Central Asia. After talking about it for years, I eventually had to do it!
We ran a riding trip with a group of friends in 2004, and then our first commercial trip in 2006. So 2015 will be our 10th year.
For the first few years my (now) wife Sam and I both guided trips in Mongolia while based in London in the off-season. Now we are based in New Zealand, where I manage the business and guide some of the trips. Sam works in wildlife ecology but keeps her hand in, with a trip to Mongolia every so often. Sam learnt to ride 'properly' at Kowhai Riding School in NZ, whereas I learnt in Mongolia, so we sometimes disagree about correct riding technique.
|John Williamson with local organiser and "super-woman" Amangul. |
Tell us about your staff on the ground in Mongolia?
We have two local teams, one in Zavkhan and one in the Altai Mountains. We employ people from the area where we ride, since they are best placed to show visitors their region and culture, rather than from Ulaanbaatar. Each team consists of a pool of translator/guides, horse wranglers, cooks and drivers. They are genuine locals who go back to nomadic herding, or have other jobs, when they are not working for us, since our holiday season is so short (4-5 months, during the summer). Many of them have been with us from the start, so the relationships we have built up over the years are key to the success of our rides.
We usually have a western Trip Leader along (often me), to help bridge the cultural gap between our guests and local team. The gap is not large — Mongolian culture is friendly and welcoming, and we all laugh at the same things.
|The Mongolian horses are hardy and well natured. |
What are the Mongolian horses like?
The horses we use are owned by our wranglers. Mongolian families typically have large herds of horses, so we have plenty to choose from. However we have our favourites, and select them based on the experience of the riders on each trip. For the less experienced we have calm horses such as The Pit (as in bottomless — he just loves to eat) and The Pig (due to his barrel shape, not his nature). For the more experienced riders we have spirited steeds such Ginger Ninja, The Black Reaper, and Rocket. Like most Mongolian horses, they are lovely natured, but are keen to gallop at any opportunity. Mongolians don't name their horses, so we encourage our riders to come up with a name once they have decided on their character, for horses that haven't yet acquired a name.
What's your philosophy for these riding holidays?
Our aim is for our guests to experience Mongolia's beautiful landscapes and fascinating culture in the most authentic way possible, travelling by horse. We specifically ride in the least developed regions of the country, where there is no tourism infrastructure, and the local culture is at its best. And where our contribution to the local economy is most needed. Unlike traditional tours, we describe our treks as 'non-itinerised'. We don't herd people from point A to point B, following the same old route each time. We like to keep a sense of true adventure and explore as we ride.
What makes your trips unique? Everyone loves the horses and riding of course — how could you not, when you have vast areas of perfect riding country, with no fences, or gates, or even roads most of the time. But the thing that makes our trips unique is experiencing the local nomadic culture. That is what has the biggest impact on people. With the relationships we have built up, and the remoteness of the areas we ride in, we give our guests the rare opportunity to experience an exotic culture in a completely 'non-touristy' and safe way.
How does the trip stack up ethically? I'm thinking about the local people and environment?
We do wrestle with the unavoidable fact that we encourage people to fly from all around the world to visit Mongolia. So we make sure our trips are of benefit to the local people and environment. We provide our guests with a guide to being an ethical traveller in Mongolia, and how they can help us to be an ethical company. Minimising out impacts on the environment while in Mongolia is important to us travelling by horse rather than 4WD is a good start. As is contributing to the local economy of the areas we ride in, mainly through employment.
|Zavkhan trips are aimed at being of benefit to the local community such as this Mongolian family that hosted the group in their yurt. |
During a ride with Zavkhan Trekking you will be travelling and living with our colourful team of local staff, who are only too happy to take you to meet their nomadic friends and family. But be warned, cultural interaction works both ways - they will be as interested in your culture as you are in theirs. Come prepared to swap stories and sing traditional songs from your country, as we sit around the evening camp fire!