Even though I only spent two days there last year, Baga Gazriin Chuluu was a place that I really looked forward to visiting again.
One of the best experiences was visiting the ger of Yanjmaa, who had made boortz soup from scratch for us and served me a bowl of the best yogurt I’d ever had. Would she still be around? Although she had relocated her ger, the answer was “yes” and we had another lovely visit, but also learned something disturbing about the wildlife of the reserve.
There was a zud in Mongolia this past winter, which is a combination of a dry summer and a very severe winter. It was a national disaster that was occurring the same time as the quake in Haiti, so there was very little media coverage until early in 2010. The last estimate I read said that around 10 million head of livestock died.
Yanjmaa told us that no argali or ibex had been seen in Baga Gazriin Chuluu since February. Before then, she had gone out one morning, and to her surprise, found a large ibex billy in with her domestic goats. He was very weak, so she managed to get him into her ger and onto her bed, hobbling him when he started to thrash around.
Having been a vet before she retired, she tried to treat him by offering him cold water and a medicinal plant, shavag, which contains lots of vitamins. Finally, she moved him back out to the goat enclosure, where he died.
Our first thought was that the argali and ibex had all died, like the ibex, but later on that day, it occurred to me that wild animals sense what is going on in their world and that it was more likely they had all simply left as the weather became extremely severe. In some parts of Mongolia, the temperatures dropped to -50F.
Talking with the reserve ranger, Batsaikhan, the next day, we confirmed that the ibex and argali were gone, around 160 animals total. Khatnaa had told me that he had seen 10+ argali about 20 km east of Arburd Sands, which is about a four hour drive north of Baga Gazriin Chuluu, on July 5, a week earlier. This was outside their normal, known range and preferred habitat.
That evening, Batsaikhan came by our camp to give us really good news. A group of visitors had reported seeing a group of argali just within the reserve! Perhaps they and the ibex will all, or mostly, come back to Baga Gazriin Chuluu now that the weather is good. I hope so.
On our way to find Yanjmaa, we had passed through an area that had a number of vulture nests, one of which was on a cliff near the road with a fledgling cinereous vulture in it. I got some good photos from down below, but Khatnaa climbed up behind the nest and came back with some amazing images. We went back the next day and this time I climbed up with him and found myself just slightly above the nest, about 8 meters away. What a photo op!
He/she knew we were there, but never showed any stress. The adult had taken off as soon as we got out of the car, so I felt comfortable staying for awhile and taking almost 100 photos.
Later that afternoon, we took a side trip out of the reserve to visit a local monastery, Delgeriin Choiriin Khiid. It was one of the many, many monasteries destroyed in the late 1930s, but is now being rebuilt. There are 15 lamas in residence. I was allowed to take photos in the interior of one temple, which is in a large ger.
The next morning we departed for the fabled Gobi.