Continuing on with our series, I’ve always thought it would be fun to do a trip that would start either in the north or south and travel through all six major ecosystems in Mongolia, which run roughly parallel to each other in bands going from east to west.
Here is a map that shows them very well. It’s from a booklet, “Mongolia’s Wild Heritage: Biological diversity, protected areas and conservation in the land of Chingis Khan”, that was published in 1999. It was a cooperative effort between the Ministry of Nature and Environment, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, the Mongolian Biodiversity Project and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. I don’t know if it’s still available, but if you are interested, drop me a note and I’ll see what I can do.
Starting in the north:
1. High Mountain– I haven’t been up into the mountains yet, but I did get the above photo of Jargalant Hairhan, which is part of the western Altai Mountains. The high mountains make up about 5% of Mongolia’s land. The climate is extreme. There are still some glaciers in the Altai Mountains. Animals that can be found there include argali, snow leopard, ibex, Altai snowcock and two species of ptarmigan. The photo was taken during my 2006 trip to Khomiin Tal on our way back to Hovd.
2. Taiga– the southermost part of the vast world-circling boreal forest, or taiga, extends into northern Mongolia. It covers about 5% of Mongolia’s land area. The weather is also extreme with more rain and lower temperatures than most of the country. The most common species of tree is Siberian larch. Animal species include reindeer, wolves, wolverine, lynx, Eurasian river otters, stone capercaillie and three species of owl. This is the famous Turtle Rock, which I photographed in Gorki-Terelj National Park in May of 2005. It was snowing.
3. Mountain Forest Steppe- As the name indicates, this is a transition zone between the mountain forests and the grasslands of the steppes. It accounts for about 25% of the country’s land area. The mountains are of a lower elevation and include wide river valleys. Most of the population of Mongolia lives in this zone. Animal species include roe deer, elk (marel), wolf, red fox, Eurasian badger, Pallas’ cat, wild boar, great bustard, black kite and darian partridge. The image above was taken from Mt. Baits in Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve in July of 2009, looking north into the Kherlen River valley and on to the mountains.
4. Steppe– This is the landscape that most foreigners envision when they think of Mongolia. The famous grasslands cover about 20% of the country. The largest remaining area in Central Asia of this ecosystem is in eastern Mongolia. The climate runs from hot in the summer to cold in the winter, but not as extreme as the zones to the north and south. It provides much of the main grazing land for the herders’ livestock. Animal species include Mongolian gazelle, wolf, corsac fox, Siberian marmot, tolai hare, demoiselle crane, steppe eagle and saker falcon. The photo was taken en route between Ulaanbaatar and a ger camp at Arburd Sands in July of 2009.
5. Desert Steppe- This is the transition zone between the grasslands and the Gobi (which means “desert” in Mongolian). It accounts for over 20% of the land area. Drought is frequent, along with strong winds and dust storms. Many herders live in this ecosystem, however. Animal species include takhi (Przewalski’s horse-reintroduced), khulan or wild ass, saiga antelope, marbled polecat, Mongolian hamster, houbara bustard, lammergeier and cinereous vulture. The image was taken at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in September of 2008.
6. Desert- The Gobi is one of the most famous deserts in the world, but, contrary to common belief, very little of it is sand. It’s mostly gravel and small rock and as you can see, there is vegetation. It accounts for around 25% of the land area. Where there are springs, families have truck gardens and it is well-known that the best and sweetest vegetables in the country come from the Gobi. The weather is, once again, extreme, climbing to well over 100F in summer and dropping to -40F in the winter. Animal species include wild bactrian camel (very endangered), Gobi bear (critically endangered; maybe 30 left), khulan, saiga antelope, argali, Pallas’ sandgrouse, saxaul sparrow and desert warbler. I took this picture in September of 2006. The red rock formations in the distance are the Flaming Cliffs, where the first fossil dinosaur eggs were found.
All this, in a country that is about twice the size of Texas!