In 1990, Jalsa Urubshurow was invited to Mongolia by the first, post-democratic prime minister Dashiin Byambasüren. As a Mongolian who was raised in the United States, Urubshurow clutched onto his heritage through the Mongolian community he lived in, yet nothing could have prepared him for the cultural reveal he experienced on this first trip. “I was truly in awe of the fact that I was seeing so many Mongolian faces, something that was so rare for me,” Urubshurow shares.
This strong and sudden resonation to his homeland quickly became an incentive for Urubshurow to promote the country as a travel destination. He immediately focused on educational institutions and non-profit organizations to appeal to western travelers, and formed the North America Mongolia BusinessCouncil, as the first western business council dedicated to promoting trade and relations between Mongolia and North America.
“I always knew that it could become a luxury destination if we could increase the level of service and quality and infrastructure there,” says Urubshurow. “It’s kind of a paradox, though, because part of what makes Mongolia is its lack of infrastructure and these wide-open spaces. Being one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, that quiet and that spaciousness is a draw. There aren’t many places where 30 percent of the population of three million still lives a pastoral nomadic existence.”
So, in 1996, Urubshurow used the paradox to his advantage when he founded Nomadic Expeditions as the first, private, guide-training program in the country, with a vision of creating a luxury ecolodge, therefore, presenting travelers with the best of Mongolia, without altering its authenticity. As Urubshurow fostered the quality of service in the hospitality industry through Nomadic Expeditions, he opened his first property, Three Camel Lodge, in the Gobi Desert.
Photos courtesy of Robert Michael Poole
“The Lodge was built following environmentally, and culturally-sustainable, development guidelines, making use of renewable energy from wind and solar power,” explains Urubshurow on the requirement that responsible travel remain at the forefront of his promotions. “We’ve planted over 22,000 indigenous trees in the Gobi Desert and we’re planting another 4,000 to 5,000 this year in Orkhon Valley.”
From this initial lodge, Urubshurow and Nomadic Expeditions now takes travelers throughout Mongolia, and beyond, to Siberia, Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal to explore spiritual lands in an eco luxurious way.
We caught up with Urubshurow to understand more about Nomadic Expeditions’ initiatives, as well as his involvement in Mongolian culture and sustainable development in the past twenty years.
Describe the thoughts and feelings upon your first trip to Mongolia. What did that moment mean to you?
It was an amazing thing to see. Having grown up in the first Mongolian community in America, it was an incredible feeling because obviously there were so few of us in the United States, to see a whole country of your people, I was in awe.
After several days in the capital, I was crazy to go to the countryside. When I did, that was where I spent some days with herders and nomads and talked to them. With my western dialect, it was a bit hard to understand, but it was clearly the same language I grew up with and I got by. But it was just amazing to see these people living the way they did with their ancient customs, eating and drinking the same meals my parents prepared for me as a child growing up. With all the stories I had been told, returning to my ancestral birthplace was like stepping into a memory.
How do you pass on the culture and stories you heard growing up from your father to the son you now have?
Oh, he’s heard the stories. It’s just a process of osmosis like any other oral history. That’s what the Mongolians were famous for, but it’s not just reserved for my immediate family. Even the young great people we have at the Three Camel Lodge, I share the stories and fairy tales–sometimes they overlap–with them, and they’re the same stories that were told for centuries and passed on by word of mouth.
How quickly after you explored Mongolia for the first time did you conceive of Nomadic Expeditions?
In 1990 I agreed to help Mongolia promote travel from the western world. I began my first thrust with a focus on educational institutions and non-profit organizations. I thought that was the best bet to try to bring travelers to Mongolia. I started approaching them upon my return to the United States just before the start of 1991. I also formed what became the North America Mongolia Business Council, the first western business council dedicated to promoting trade and relations between Mongolia and North America.
That gave me the opportunity to start to promote Mongolia as a travel destination. I always knew that it could become a luxury destination if we could increase the level of service and quality and infrastructure there. It’s kind of a paradox, though, because part of what makes Mongolia is its lack of infrastructure and these wide-open spaces. Being one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, that quiet and that spaciousness is a draw. There aren’t many places where 30 percent of the population of three million still lives a pastoral nomadic existence.
And, it took that whole year to get going and our first journey was a paleontological expedition with the Museum of the Rockies. It was led by esteemed paleontologist Jack Horner in 1992.
How has Nomadic Expeditions evolved in the past 20+ years?
Trying to create a higher level of service, we created Nomadic Expeditions Mongolia, in 1996, a vertically-integrated operation, and we started the first private guide-training program in the country. In the late nineties, I started to envision what would become the Three Camel Lodge, our sustainable luxury ecolodge in the Gobi Desert. That plan came to fruition in 2002, when we opened the doors of the Lodge to scientists, filmmakers, and luxury-minded travelers. My intent was to promote Mongolia as a luxury destination. Obviously it also attracts budget travelers, and there’s a niche for that, but my focus was delivering a luxury experience. We’ve tried to deliver on that in all aspects, and, at the same time, we have a real commitment to authenticity.
What made you choose to expand Nomadic Expeditions to destinations such as Bhutan, Siberia and Nepal?
There was a combination of contiguity and a shared cultural and spiritual history. Take neighboring Siberia, where the Soviet Mongolia population is actually higher than in the entire country of Mongolia. I look at Bhutan, Tibet, and Nepal and the spiritual link that exists there. Bhutan and Mongolia are probably the only true democratic nations with free and open elections where Buddhism is a rich part of their ancient history and culture. Even the word dalai lama is actually Mongolian.
Tell me about some of the sustainable practices you’ve implemented at Nomadic Expeditions? Why is this important to you?
The opening of the Three Camel Lodge really paved the way for our sustainable tourism efforts in Mongolia. It was the first ger camp in Mongolia to sign a contract with the National Park and local government to protect the surrounding area of 160 kilometers from poaching and any other activity detrimental to the environment.
Our core business and our core values are one and the same: respect for the land, its people, and their cherished traditions. That’s the center of everything we do. Without all of that, we have nothing.
Can you tell me more about your work at the Bodhi Tree Foundation?
When I was involved with the Bodhi Tree Foundation, I supported them in protecting wildlife and the environment, preserving cultural treasures, and having a positive impact on communities, the same basic tenets we operate under at Nomadic Expeditions.
As a company, we’ve supported a lot of wonderful charities and we continue to do so. Over our 25-year history in business, we’ve donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities and organizations in need. We’ve helped organizations like Tibet House, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Children’s Tumor Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund. We’ve donated trips for auction. We’ve planted over 22,000 indigenous trees in the Gobi Desert. I’m also quite proud of our snow leopard conservation efforts with the Mongolian Office of the World Wildlife Fund.
This winter, when there were severe conditions that can cause starvation for herds because of the lack of grazing and the snow and cold, Nomadic Expeditions donated 10 tons of feed in Karakorum, where we have our satellite zero-impact lodge and another 37 tons of feed in the Gobi region to help keep those animals alive.
What’s next for Nomadic Expeditions? Any new destinations on the horizon?
A long-time friend, Sanjay Saxena, the CEO and founder of Destination Himalaya, joined us in January of 2017. A pioneer in travel to places like Bhutan and Nepal, Sanjay allows us to continue to share the same kind of unforgettable luxury travel experiences we offer in Mongolia in these new locales. That’s a recent development we’re proud of and a very big part of our future.
We live by an old saying, one I heard many times as a young boy: “It’s better to see it once than hear of it a thousand times.” I had certainly heard about Mongolia more than a thousand times and I was starved for knowledge about my ancestry and where I came from. That’s the very feeling I had when I first traveled to Mongolia. Sharing the treasures I discovered there means the world to me and I plan to continue doing so for a long time.
Cover photo courtesy of Michael Kleinberg