Fields of Dreams and Stars
By Wendy Plump
Photography Courtesy of Nomadic Expeditions
In a dramatic re-interpretation of the notion “If you build it, they will come,” New Jersey resident and contractor Jalsa Urubshurow built a base for his adventure expedition company in Mongolia. He chose the South Gobi Province on the edge of the Gobi Desert—where the Altai Mountains rim the horizon—and put up forty Ger, the traditional felt yurts of Mongolia’s indigenous nomadic tribes. He designed the main lodge in the style of an ancient temple. He quarried local stone and installed local staffers – herders, guides, cooks – because he wanted authenticity in a world greatly in need of it, and, if truth be told, because he demanded the most breathtaking gateway for those visiting his beloved Mongolia, the home of his Kalmyk ancestors.
Today, the Three Camel Lodge is one of the world’s top hotels, frequented by archaeologists, filmmakers, National Geographic photographers, Buddhist scholars, luxury travelers, and, Urubshurow is quick to add, “tech-free enthusiasts.” In the summer, 700 wild horses come to drink at the lake nearby. In the winter, an ice pack builds to 100 feet high within walking distance, and you can hike on it. At any time of year, the skies are smeared with more stars than human beings are likely to witness than at any other point on the planet.
“My goal was to create luxury travel to Mongolia,” says Urubshurow. “It’s more than a three-star hotel. It’s a five-billion-star hotel.”
It is also the base for his firm, Nomadic Expeditions, which runs guided luxury trips to Mongolia and eight other distant countries, including Myanmar and Bhutan. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Nomadic Expeditions has the distinction of taking clients to some of the world’s last truly wild spaces. Urubshurow describes Mongolia as having “more horses than people,” and a culture that has changed little since the last Ice Age.
“Mongolia encompasses a vast territory, with four major mountain ranges, some of them up to 15,000 feet high,” he says from an airport in Mongolia. “We can still drive 1,500 miles across this country and not see a fence. The eastern grasslands of Mongolia are nine times the size of the Serengeti. I like to tell Texans it’s twice the size of Texas, with just three million people. And 30 percent of them still live a nomadic existence. It’s probably the most sparsely populated country in the world.
“There is no land ownership out in the country,” Urubshurow adds. “It’s all free range. The families have been grazing the same valleys for five generations. We have an astrophysicist who comes in the summers and gives a 3-D presentation during the day, and then at night we’ll go out into the Gobi and look at some of the darkest skies in the world. I think people will see a code of hospitality in Mongolia unseen in any other place.”
Exotica seems to be all of a piece for Urubshurow, the founder of one of the region’s most successful construction businesses, All-Tech, based in Monroe Township. He was raised in a Howell Township community of Kalmyk Buddhist refugees who escaped Mongolia and its punishing Communist influences in the 1950s to set up an enclave here in New Jersey. Many of his neighbors were carpenters and builders, so the profession was a natural choice. Urubshurow grew up speaking Mongolian and hearing his father tell stories of his homeland. He founded Nomadic Expeditions to help open up Mongolia to travelers after its peaceful transition to democracy in 1990.
Urubshurow, who lives in Brielle, also stewards the country’s ancient sport of hunting with Golden Eagles. He founded the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii Province in Western Mongolia in 1999, now a popular draw for travelers and indigenous peoples alike. The festival commences each October and draws Kazakh tribesmen who compete with their magnificent eagles in tests of speed, agility, and accuracy. And while Nomadic Expeditions kept its distance for the first few years, it now leads trips to the festival and the nearby Hatuugyn Mountain archaeological site, which has one of the country’s best collections of ancient petroglyphs.
“In 1998 I went to meet these Kazakhs. Eagle hunting had largely disappeared under the Communists. But for the Kazakhs here, it survived in the farthest-western part of the country. It almost touches Kazakhstan,” says Urubshurow. “We had a few vodkas sitting around with the three elders of the community and I had one of my guides with me. I came up with the idea of having a festival to celebrate this. We’ll be celebrating the 18th year of the festival in October.”
The beauty of the sport and the relationship between eagles and their handlers is celebrated in the lush documentary, The Eagle Huntress, about 13-year-old Aisholpan, a young Kazakh who trains as the first female in 12 generations to become an eagle huntress. Released in 2016, the film was nominated for a BAFTA Film Award. Urubshurow appears briefly in the film. “It was my four seconds of fame,” he says.
About 1,000 clients from all over the world sign on for Nomadic Expeditions trips each year.
“Our clients are sophisticated and well-traveled individuals of all ages who seek authentic adventures that offer a blend of history and cultural interaction,” says Nancy DePalma, Nomadic’s marketing and communications manager.
The company has 15 full-time staffers in Mongolia, and an additional 50 consultants in Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, China, Siberia, Sri Lanka, and India. They are slotted in as need dictates. Simply reading the titles of the excursions can slake travel fantasies for months on end: “In Search of Dragons and Eagles,” “From Yak to Kayak,” “Ultimate Gobi,” “Adventure Trekking in the Altai Mountains,” and “Winter Festivals of Mongolia.” Clients visit the forests of the Maraat Valley, trek through the Tavan Belchir Gorge, visit Uuld and Kazakh families and the Turkic stone men, visit the Great White Lake of the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, and visit northern Jargalant to survey the ruins of the Ariin Huree Monastery.
Trips fall into several categories, including active adventures like trekking to Everest Base Camp or hiking through the habitat of the elusive Snow Leopard; cultural or archaeological journeys; tailored trips; quick escapes; and family travel, with trips to the Gobi Desert to see where dinosaur eggs were unearthed just a few decades ago, or to ride horses and camels across the grasslands.
One popular 12-day itinerary, for example, starts with clients spinning the prayer wheel at the Gandan Monastery, which Urubshurow calls the “seat of Buddhism”; extends into a national park that is the home of the last remaining species of wild horse; leads to an excursion investigating petroglyphs on a mountaintop in the Havsgait Valley; then hiking through the Gobi’s “singing sands” region; a visit to a local nomadic family’s Ger to help with chores, “if you wish”; and ends with a performance of Mongolian dance and traditional “throat singing” in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
Urubshurow is quick to credit his staff for the success of the company. They truly know the region, he says, and have considerably more to offer than logistical management. For example, Undraa Buyannemekh, president of Nomadic Expeditions, earned her bachelor’s degree from Urals State University in Russia and holds a master’s in international relations from California State University, Sacramento. Director of Operations Sanjay Saxena is the son of a brigadier general in the Indian Army, has lived all over India, and traveled extensively in the Himalayas as a mountaineer and climber since the age of 15. One of the guides was born in Mongolia and is a former nomadic herder. Another has been working 15 years in the Mongolian tourism industry and leads trips focused on paleontology and archaeology.
Asked which of the varied trips he most prefers, Urubshurow says he simply likes “really getting out into nature,” and that any of the trips qualify as his favorite in that regard.
“You can’t avoid seeing the beauty here. You have an opportunity to go back in time. We tell people who maybe have read about Mongolia or heard things about it that it’s better to see it once than to hear about it a thousand times,” says Urubshurow. “Then, of course, once they come, they realize it’s better to see it 1,000 times than to see it once.”
For a brochure or more information on Nomadic Expeditions and its adventure excursions, contact the company at 800.998.6634 or visit the website at www.nomadicexpeditions.com.