Part 1- The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition

1.WAME group shot
2016 WildArt Mongolia participants and staff, from left to right: Erdenebat (driver), Oliver Hartman (Explorers Club Fellow, filmmaker), Susan Fox (Expedition leader, Explorers Club Fellow), Soyoloo (cook), Kim Campbell Thornton (journalist and author), Puugii (driver). Photo by Batana, our guide. Behind us is our Russian fergon van support vehicle

We left Ulaanbaatar on Sunday, May 15. heading far south to the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area, a five day drive. Our main goal was to try to see Gobi bear, a subspecies of brown bear/Ursus arctus gobiensis, which is critically endangered (IUCN Red List). Population estimates range from a low of 28 (the number researchers have counted) to as high as 60 (an estimate based on extrapolation of captured and counted bears. It was highly unlikely that we would succeed, but it was still more than worth the trip to see their habitat and learn about what is being done to conserve them. Wild bactrian camels (Critically endangered, IUCN Red List) also live in that part of Mongolia, along with a variety of other wildlife.

2. demoiselle cranes
Demoiselle cranes
3. lunchtime horses
We stopped at an area with sand dunes for lunch, enjoying watching some of the local horses wander by

Our route took us west and then south. Along the way we saw a large flock of demoiselle cranes, which are quite common in Mongolia and always a delight. Once we were on the road our guide Batana asked if we could stop at his aunt and uncle’s ger to deliver a new ger cover to them. This was great because I knew it would, right away, give Kim and Oliver a chance to visit a herder’s ger and experience Mongolian hospitality.

4. Batana's aunt and uncle's ger
The home of Batana’s aunt and uncle, which was quite near the main road
5. goats and sheep
They have a lot of sheep and cashmere goats
6. Mongolian hospitality
We were treated to classic Mongolian dairy foods (tsagaan idee/white food)

Continuing on we came to the race horse memorial south of Arvaykheer. I’d been to it before, but was more than happy to stop there again. It was late afternoon and was pretty windy.

7. race horse memorial
A must-see if you’re heading south towards Bayanhongor. A quintessential bit of Mongolian culture. Last time I was there, a wedding party showed up to have their photos taken and apparently just relax and visit with friends and family.
8. race horse statues
Bronze portrait statues of famous race horses.

The original plan had been to camp near by, but the location was an open plain and the wind was really starting to pick up. We drove on looking for a more sheltered spot, which took awhile. The idea was to get out of the worst of the wind, but not be so close to a slope that if it rained we’d have to worry about run-off. The problem was finally solved, camp was set up, we had dinner and it was off to bed. On what was one of the coldest nights I’ve experienced in eleven years of travel in Mongolia. Ah, spring in Mongolia….

10. Kim and scenery
Kim bundled up the next morning, as were we all.
9. road and rain
Heading right into this storm front, driving southwest. Rain on the windshield.

First it was rain, then kilometer by kilometer it turned to snow. And then blowing snow.

11. horses and snow
Horses walking through a dusting of snow.
12. snow and van
As we went up in elevation, visibility went down.
13. ger in snow
As we drove on  I grabbed this shot of a ger. Believe it nor not, the owners were toasty warm inside. Felt is a good insulator and once the stove is really going it absorbs the heat and releases it back into the space.
14. snowy road
Finally we came through the other side of the front and it stopped snowing.
15. Bayanhongor
By the time we could see Bayanhongor, there was no snow on the ground, but the Hangai Mountains behind the city were covered.

We went into the city for gas and groceries. Plan A had been to go north up the river valley to Erdenesogt and spend a night there,  visiting  Gachen Lama Khiid (monastery) in the morning, but there was no way we would be able to get there in current conditions. We’d go there on our return instead and so turned south towards the Gobi.

16. the road south
For me, my trips in Mongolia have always begun once we leave the paved roads and are on the earth roads. Here we are, heading south towards Boon Tsagaan Nuur.
17. fording a puddle
We got the feeling that it had been raining heavily in this area…
18. Mpngol horseman
Ah, Mongolia.

We drove on through the day, bearing southwest. Snow-covered Dund Argalant Nuruu appeared in the distance and then we got our first glimpse of the lake Boon Tsagaan Nuur.

19. road to BTN
Boon Tsagaan Nuur in the distance with small guest cabins near the shore.
20. BTN campsite
The ground was too wet to set up near the lakeshore, but we found a pleasant grassy area farther back. The weather, though overcast, wasn’t cold and there wasn’t much wind, a change from the previous day much appreciated.
21. Dudn Argalant Nuruu
As the clouds rolled through we were treated to this beautiful shifting light on the mountain.

Next week we’ll explore a bit of the lakeshore, get in some birdwatching and be entertained by local livestock before heading west to get a required permit for our destination.

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