Bulgan soum, Mongolia - This is a story about how political transformation, tourism and tomatoes created an oasis in the southernmost reaches of Mongolia's Gobi Desert. It begins at the end of the country's 70-year-long communist era with a man named Poli.
As a new democracy dawned in the early 1990s, Poli was nearing the end of many years in local government. His final assignment, as governor of an area called Bulgan soum in Mongolia's largest province, was the capstone of his career.
As governor, Poli had a unique perspective on the area's existing challenges — and its new opportunities. On first glance, he saw an isolated region with very few roads, extreme weather conditions and quickly deteriorating Soviet-era buildings. A longer look, however, revealed one of Mongolia's most striking landscapes: an area of the country with natural treasures like the Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs) and Yolin Am (Valley of the Eagles), a narrow canyon filled with year-round snow and ice. It also brought into plain view the fascinating culture of local nomad families — particularly camel herders — who were such a part of daily life that they went unnoticed by townspeople.
In short, Bulgan soum was filled with the natural beauty, traditional culture and potential for adventure that attracts world travelers to Mongolia's hinterlands. When his term as governor ended in 1997, Poli embarked on his plan to turn Bulgan soum into a tourist destination. He reached out to a variety of non-governmental organizations for insights and guidance, and found one in particular that shared his vision.
A helping hand
In 1997, Mercy Corps was researching possible programs and partnerships in the area around Bulgan soum, laying the groundwork for what would become the agency's Gobi Initiative. Poli offered his help in arranging meetings, learning the lay of the land and forging relationships. By the time the Gobi Initiative launched in 1999, he was already well-known and trusted by Mercy Corps staff. Poli's vision became an integral part of the strategy for the area.
The first part of that vision was improving the area's tourism infrastructure. And that meant taking lessons from Mongolia's nomad culture.
"The hotels in the area weren't so nice — they were cold and dirty, built mostly for bureaucrats," Poli explained. "We wanted to give travelers the authentic Mongolia ger experience with a cozy dwelling, a warm fire and hospitality."
Mercy Corps helped him get a loan to buy the materials and furnishings to outfit his first tourist ger, and also advised him on bookkeeping, marketing and other business management matters. The camp opened in 2001, as the first adventure tourism facilities in Bulgan soum. The first person to stay in the newly christened ger was a Mercy Corps representative from Dalanzadgad, the provincial capital.
Poli realized almost immediately that his instincts had been right.
"In the first year, we had almost 400 people stay the night in that one ger, which only has three beds," he said. "We're at a crossroads, so trekkers on their way to and from the soum's natural wonders found their way here. Business was so good that I was able to build and furnish a second ger by the next tourist season."
Today, Poli has five gers and provides accommodation for more than 800 travelers a year. At least 60 percent of them are Mongolians — which bodes well for sustainable growth — while most of the other other 40 percent hail from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Nearly all the reviews were stellar, but Poli kept hearing one suggestion for improvement.
"The food," he laughed. "Mongolian food is sometimes difficult for foreigners to stomach."
So he resolved to do something about that, too.
The desert's bounty
Here in Mongolia's southern reaches, the diet reflects the herding lifestyle: mutton soup with noodles, mutton dumplings, stewed mutton goulash, camel's milk cheese and milk tea. Occasionally, there are potatoes or onions added to the mix. It's an adventure to sample the nomad fare but, after days of trekking and exploring the desert, one craves the freshness and color of vegetables and fruit.
Poli simply had to tap into his experience to satisfy that need.
"While I was governor, I volunteered for an international ecological organization working in this part of the Gobi," he said. "I gained a lot of insight into working with people from other countries, and also learned a lot about dry-climate techniques for growing, processing and storing vegetables and fruit."
An American tourist who had spent a few nights here offered to loan 60 percent of the capital Poli needed to start an organic farm. With that, Poli built a greenhouse and a cellar. Since he was already busy with the tourist business and couldn't do all the work that his burgeoning enterprise required, he began to train and hire local citizens to help tend the organic gardens.
Today Poli grows more than 30 kinds of fruits and vegetables — including cabbage, peppers and several varieties of leafy greens — while receiving occasional advice from Mercy Corps' agriculture staff. He receives many of his seeds from people that have stayed in his ger camp — including folks from Europe, Mexico and the United States. A former Mercy Corps Mongolia country director even sends seeds from his new post in Indonesia.
Poli has used his ever-expanding organic farm to train families in the area how to start and manage their own gardens. Over the last couple of years, he's conducted eight such training sessions, free of charge. He has single-handedly diversified the economy of Bulgan soum and given families a reliable new way to earn money.
"Every household here knows how to grow, process and store their own vegetables — steaming, marinating, adding natural ingredients and canning," Poli explained.
And that's led to perhaps the most unlikely tourist attraction the Gobi Desert has ever seen.
Poli has found success in growing dozens of vegetable and fruit varieties here in the desert, but none have been nearly as successful as his tomatoes. He's currently growing four varieties of tomatoes, as well as trying to hybridize new kinds of tomatoes that are more unique and suitable for the local environment. His tomatoes have achieved numerous awards, including the overall best product in the entire province during a local trade fair.
He has brought others into this success: last year, Bulgan soum grew more than 160 tons of tomatoes, making it a major cash crop sold in markets as far away as Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator.
The tomatoes are so good — and famous within the country — that Poli started an annual tomato festival. This was its third year. The festival features not only fresh produce and food, but also contests including tomato juggling, extemporaneous poetry about tomatoes and tomato eating contest.
"This year, the winner was a woman who ate two pounds of tomatoes in less than a minute," Poli chuckled.
The growth of Poli's business and gardens would be remarkable anywhere — but particularly so in one of the world's most unforgiving environments. It's a testament to his commitment, enthusiasm and ability to bring people together.
"Mercy Corps has been paramount and pivotal to all my business pursuits," Poli said, "From the creation of this camp to the trainings I give local families. It's been more than 10 years of great collaboration."
The partnership between Poli and Mercy Corps is sheltering weary travelers, helping families harvest healthy vegetables and bringing economic opportunity to one of the world's harshest landscapes. It's proof that, when people pitch in to accomplish a goal, good ideas can flourish anywhere — even here in the Gobi Desert.