Growing up spending her summers with nomadic grandparents in Mongolia, where collecting the cow dung they used for the fuel each night was her favorite chore, Undraa Buyannemekh has come a long way from her roots and yet remains true to them.
Undraa is now based in New Jersey, and the President of Nomadic Expeditions and Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, the only property of its kind where guests of the luxury eco-lodge stay in authentic ‘gers’ and learn about the nomadic way of life and customs. Employees of the lodge are all Mongolian, many of whom grew up as nomads, in a country where even today almost a third of the population still ride horses as their primary mode of transportation.
Sustainability is more than a founding principle, it guides every decision in operating Three Camel Lodge. Such is the commitment to the land, the wildlife, culture, and traditions, that the property is completely staffed by native Mongolians, mostly women, and Undraa, who was educated in Russia and the United States, see responsible tourism as a way forward that also elevates Mongolia's past. Here’s herstory:
How did you get into hospitality?
Just by chance, but like many things in life, I feel like I’ve come full circle. Growing up, I spent the summers with my grandparents who were nomadic herders in a province not far from the Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia. In the winters I lived with my parents in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. My father worked for the Ministry of Education, and my academic goals took me to Russia and to the United States.
After getting my graduate degree in International Relations in California, I planned to work for an NGO but I happened across Nomadic Expeditions, a leader of cultural adventures to Mongolia, India, Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan, and developers of Three Camel Lodge. It was inspirational to find a company with values similar to that of a non-profit, leading sustainable tourism development for Mongolia, and I felt lucky to be able to use my native language and promote my homeland.
How long have you been working at the Three Camel Lodge?
I joined Nomadic Expeditions and Three Camel Lodge in 2005. My work involves promoting and sharing the wonderful natural and cultural experiences and explorations we offer to our travelers in Mongolia—and using our tourism profits to further our commitment to helping conserve Mongolia’s wildlands, preserve our rich cultural heritage and help our local communities, which include nomadic families in the Gobi where our lodge is situated.
I've grown with the company and in 2015, I became President of Nomadic Expeditions and Three Camel Lodge. I feel fortunate to work with our dedicated staff, all of whom are 100% Mongolian, to advance and strengthen our interdependent business and sustainability goals.
But wait, how did you end up living in New Jersey from Mongolia?
Nomadic Expeditions Founder and CEO, Jalsa Urubshurow, is a Mongolian American with a deep passion for his ancestral homeland, so the tour company and lodge always had a U.S. office in New Jersey.
Now, actually, I am somewhat nomadic myself! In normal times (pre-COVID) I travel back and forth to Mongolia about six times a year and stay for several weeks. When I am in Mongolia, I travel between our Ulaanbaatar office and the Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi desert. I also spend considerable time in other regions of Mongolia working with our team on conservation projects, such as our falconry project in Western Mongolia, and exploring new experiences for our guests. But the Gobi and the Three Camel Lodge always feel like home every time I return. When I am in New Jersey, I live near our offices in Cranberry, which is just outside of Princeton.
What is Mongolia like and what is a woman’s role in nomadic life?
The landscape is vast, Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Nestled between China and Russia, is cold in winter, but sunny enjoying over 250 days of sunshine per year and with stunning landscape ranging from the Gobi desert to lush forests and lakes. Traditionally, the people are nomadic herders, Mongolian women have always played an important role and managed the home and finances while men took care of the animals. The Mongolian queens ruled the vast Mongol Empire during the thirteenth century, and I would recommend a book called “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens” by Jack Weatherboard to learn more.
What can guests of Three Camel Lodge expect?
A traditional experience but more luxurious, we have 40 ‘gers’, these are like yurts or tents, spacious with sitting areas, large bathrooms and they are heated. There is a main lodge, whose roof is built like a Buddhist temple, without nails, where guests can relax and enjoy meals.
Activities for guests center around learning about Mongolian traditions, culture, and food. We have several nomadic families around the lodge, we have wells for watering their animals, thousands of animals come every day to drink. It is very beautiful and peaceful. Guests interact with the families to learn about their way of life. Daily adventures include camel expeditions, exploring local villages, and seeing the incredible landscape of the Gobi.
What is the food like?
Traditional Mongolian foods are hearty—mutton and beef; milk from sheep, cows, and goats; as well as flour from buckwheat, wheat, and oats—simply prepared stewed or stone roasted barbecue, Asian-style dumplings, and stews cooked in a traditional hotpot.
Our chef, Munkhtsetseg Nasanbat, actually started as a dishwasher and has worked her way up and trained with chefs in China, Russia, the Philippines, and the United States. She's deft at both Mongolian cuisine and Western-style dishes and can cater to any type of gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian diet. The wonderful thing is that most vegetables and fruit are harvested from organic farms in the nearby village of Bulgan. Dairy products are purchased from local nomadic families and pasteurized on-site, made into yogurt and cheese, in traditional ways. The Mongolian livestock roams free and feast on a wide variety of grasses, so using local food not only assures the best quality, but it also provides this remote region with opportunities for economic growth through responsible tourism.
The lodge has 20 full-time staff, are they still nomadic? How many of those are women?
The lodge is seasonal, normally open from May to October. During the time when the lodge is closed, some of our staff remain and work during the winter months, and some work out of our Ulaanbaatar office. Our employees are not nomadic herders themselves, but many of them come from nomadic families. Out of 20 employees, 11 are women and six of the women are department managers.
What are some of the efforts that make Three Camel Lodge sustainable?
We are really proud of our programs that promote sustainable travel embrace the local culture and drive the local economy. Some examples:
Our Cooking for Conservation program protects rare snow leopards by encouraging local nomads to trade traps used to capture the elusive animal in exchange for a set of new cooking pots – a highly valued item in Mongolia’s remote regions. To date, more than 400 illegal traps have successfully been exchanged and removed from use.
We are the first lodge in Mongolia to successfully eliminate all single-use plastic water bottles, and we provide our guests with a stylish reusable metal bottle that can be refilled throughout the property at our purified water stations. Every day, we pursue our goal of becoming completely plastic-free.
In a region without formal recycling systems, we have developed our own comprehensive management program that diverts lodge waste from landfills - including paper, bottles, and cans, and organic matter, the latter of which we compost on-site for re-use in our organic greenhouse.
Nearly 100% of the lodge lighting, including all the lighting in our guest rooms, is solar-powered, and we use only LED lights.
We actively reduce our carbon footprint by sourcing over 50% of our lodge supplies, services, and ingredients within 50 miles, supplemented by organic produce grown in our onsite greenhouse.
Since 2008, we have proudly supported local students studying traditional Mongolian music and dance at the Gobi’s Hanhongor School, and we regularly share their talents with our guests through private lodge performances. In addition to donating supplies and musical instruments to the school, in 2018 we sent ten students and two teachers to Ankara, Turkey to perform at the International Children’s Music Festival and share Mongolia’s cultural heritage on a global stage. In partnership with the Arts Council of Mongolia, we also launched a scholarship program to fully sponsor talented local students who wish to continue studying music and performing arts at the university level.
When will Mongolia reopen?
Plans are in place to open for this summer on June 1, and we can not wait to welcome back guests!
How can readers find out more?
Three Camel Lodge is one of the founding member properties of Beyond Green, a global portfolio of hotels, resorts, and lodges that exemplify sustainability leadership, which was launched earlier this year by Preferred Hotels & Resorts. We are honored to be part of Beyond Green, which selects properties based on their commitment to delivering on the three pillars of sustainable tourism: environmentally friendly practices that go beyond the basics; protection of natural and cultural heritage; and contribution to the social and economic wellbeing of local communities. Each Beyond Green property is vetted according to more than 50 sustainability indicators that align with global sustainable tourism standards and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.