Women’s Adventure Expo first came in touch with Eternal Landscapes’ owner, Jessica Brooks, when her love of wild swimming brought her and her fellow cold-water swimmer’s attention to one of the speakers at the WAEXPO conference back in 2017. Since then Jess – and her dynamic team of Mongolian women – have continued her mission to promote a pioneering travel approach. One that benefits the Mongolian people as well as her clients, leading to a more positive and personal style of experience for all concerned.
In this post we teamed up with Jess again for our MMiEEP (Managing Menstruation in Extreme Environments Project) in an eye-opening interview.
So, Jess, having lived in Mongolia can you tell us a bit about what makes Mongolia an extreme environment?
It’s size and climate mainly.
It is the 18th largest country in the world – the size of Western Europe. However, it is one of the least densely populated countries with a population of only 3 million. That results in a lack of infrastructure.
Waste disposal (and collection) is an issue (only a low percentage of accommodation in Mongolia is connected to a sewerage system. The rest of the urban population and a majority of the rural population use long drop toilets). Also, few families have access to running water. However, each small community does typically have a shower house. Operated as private businesses, water is typically heated by a coal boiler or solar. Each shower house has private cubicles where locals can come and take a private hot shower. We use these on all our trips.
On top of that it is one of the highest countries in the world – 80% is over 1000m with an average altitude of 1580m above sea level. The high central Asian mountain ranges protect the country against the humid air masses creating an extreme continental climate with a temperature range to suit. Mongolian weather is known for its sharp fluctuations with warm, short summers and long, dry and frigid winters. However, it frequently experiences four seasons in one day.
A far cry from the Devonshire coast. Did you find it challenging to handle menstruation in your initial move?
I went straight into running 21-day adventure style camping tours and during the trip had my period. Not only was I running the trip with four male Mongolian drivers and 18 tourists (half of which were male), it was also my first time in Mongolia and I didn’t know what to expect. I had little privacy and little opportunity to wash (I was running the trip for a UK based adventure company. I was using trip notes from previous tour guide. It wasn’t until my third tour in Mongolia that we started adapting the trip and using the town shower houses). Also, I had no way of knowing what sanitary items were available in rural Mongolia. But I adapted to the way of travel and by the time I had my second period (again on a camping trip) I knew what to expect.
Were you aware of any cultural attitudes surrounding the topic?
I didn’t pick up on anything in those first trips but that’s probably because I was in survival mode. New country, new style of trips, new team and culture to get to know.
On your website you mentioned living in a dormitory in Ulaanbaatar during the early stages of setting up Eternal Landscapes. What was that experience like?
It was in a budget backpackers. The dorm room had 6 – 8 beds (depending on my budget). As is common, the bathrooms are shared. It had to be done as we started EL on a wing and a prayer and had no cash to spare. I only found it difficult when I needed an early night or if I needed some quiet time. But at least there were toilets and showers – yes, there were queues but if you made the effort to get up early then you had time to enjoy a hot shower without anyone banging on the door!
You work with an all-female team, meaning that I presume you’ve come to know them well over the years. What is their treatment of menstruation? Is there taboo surrounding it?
One of the biggest challenges is faced by young adolescent girls – especially those in rural areas that go to rural schools and have to stay in boarding dormitories. Only a low percentage of accommodation in Mongolia is connected to a sewerage system. The rest of the urban population and a majority of the rural population, use long drop toilets.
Challenges faced by adolescent school girls include limited water for cleaning, open pit latrine toilets resulting in lack of privacy (one side is for girls and one for boys), limited access to sanitary items (especially to girls from remote herding families). School attendance can also be lower for adolescent girls during their menstruation period. There does seem to be a lack of knowledge and education in certain areas.
What might also interesting to know is that during the previous dzud (cyclical severe weather event unique to Mongolia) the UNFPA handed out their trademark dignity or hygiene kits to women and girls from Mongolia’s herder communities that had been badly impacted by the crisis. A dzud typically causes mass livestock death and creates severe hardship for herding families in the impacted area. In such conditions in Mongolia, the UNFPA has customised a dignity kit that is distributed to affected communities through Mongolia by the Mongolian National Emergency Management Agency.
Despite these challenges when it comes to feminine hygiene, Eternal Landscapes is one of few tourism companies that provide clear guidelines pre-departure that address any issues surrounding sanitary products or ways to handle menstruation to ensure an easy transition into Mongolian life.
Brooks admits, Mongolia can challenge as much as it beguiles. But be prepared to face the same irritations and frustrations as the locals do and you will fall in love with the immensity that is Mongolia.
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