Part 2: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition-South Into The Gobi


1. BTN goats and ger
Evening light at Boon Tsagaan Nuur

I’ve said for many years that in Mongolia, more than in most places, the journey really is the destination. It’s something most visitors miss with the usual emphasis tour companies have of going from sight to sight on paved roads. Eleven trips in twelve years and I’ve never been bored and have never slept while rolling. It takes time, effort and money for me to go to Mongolia every year and I don’t want to miss a minute of the limited time I have in the countryside. So while this week’s post doesn’t have a lot of incident or excitement, it will give you a chance to see a little of what’s “in between” on the road day to day, this time in the Gobi.

We hadn’t realized it when we set up camp at Boon Tsagaan Nuur, a remote lake in the Gobi, but we were not far from a herder’s ger (see above photo). A short walk towards the lake revealed it settled behind a dune. We found the goats and sheep to be entertaining, but could also see that they had grazed the grass down to the ground in the entire area except for one section that was fenced off, something one sees all too often these days.

1a. spotted goat
Loved the markings and color of this spotted cashmere goat.
3. BTN mt., lake, sheep
After breakfast we picked our way to the lakeshore through wet ground to do some birdwatching. The lake was rough with white caps and backed by a snowy mountain, Dund Argalant Nuruu. It was cold and windy.
2. BTN ruddy shelducks
A pair of ruddy shelducks flew over. That’s the lake at the bottom of the photo.
4. BTN great cormorants
There was also a flock of great cormorants.
5. Black-headed gulls
Black-headed gulls.

There were a number of shorebirds…plovers and a redshanks, but I couldn’t get close enough for decent photos.

6. BT me at lake
Did I say it was cold?

We left the lake driving south around the east shore, a route that I had not been on before, which was great!

7. BTN lake and ger
The lake was a deep indigo blue with white caps from the wind. This ger with a solar panel was the last one we saw for awhile.
8. snowy mt.
As we headed south it got warmer. There was an minor cognitive disconnect between driving through the warm Gobi and seeing heavy snow on the mountains from the front we’d driven through farther north two days earlier.
9. road shot, rocks
We started to climb through the first of a number of rugged passes. Grabbed this shot through the windshield of the Land Cruiser.
10. road shot, rocks
There were some impressive rock formations along the way.
11. apricot tree in bloom
And then we entered a stretch with quite a bit of vegetation, including flowering shrubs. I think this is a wild apricot. I’m usually in Mongolia later in the year when the fruits have already formed, so am not sure. But the pink flowers made quite a contrast with the edgy roughness of the rocks.
12. van, soyoloo
Our Russian fergon support van with our great cook. Soyoloo, waving from the passenger side. Fergons aren’t the most comfortable ride, but they will get you there. No electronics, all mechanical, with the engine between the front seats, which means it can be accessed without getting out of the car, highly desireable when it’s -30F  or 90F outside. And they can be fixed by the drivers, who know them inside out and backward, on the road.
13. gers, mt.
I always try to get photos of gers in the landscape, maybe THE quintessential Mongolian  countryside scene.
14. ger dogs
Also part of the landscape, ger dogs chasing one’s vehicle as a send-off after a visit. The traditional greeting upon approaching a herder’s ger is “nokhoi ga”….”Hold the dog!”. I never, ever, ever get out of the car or van until told to do so by the driver or guide since they can be highly aggressive and are not vaccinated against rabies or anything else.
15. van, lunch stop
View from one of our lunch stops. Blue sky, fluffy clouds, open space that goes on for hundreds of kilometers.
16. lunch stop, herders
But deserted? Not at all. While Soyoloo and our guide, Batana, got everyone’s lunch boxes out of the cooler, this motorbike rolled up, the family either coming or going from the soum center or maybe visiting family or friends.
17. camels!
We spot the first camels! These are domestic bactrian camels. It was great for Kim and Oliver since it was the first time on the trip, but I never tire of seeing camels.
18. horses, mts.
Same with the horses, especially with a backdrop like this.
19. soum center, water
We rolled into a small soum center to get water from the local well. This one was quite a set-up with a permanent building and a window through which one paid.
20. camel and snow
More camels. My “ship of the desert” shot. Three days since the snow storm and these higher southern mountains were still blanketed.
21. mt. pass
We had to get south through a range of mountains to our south to reach our next destination, the soum center of Bayantooroi. The driver started to  look for a camping spot, but then we noticed possible rain clouds coming up behind us. We needed to get out and down to the plain asap since you can see that the road follows the same path run-off from a rain storm would take.
22. saxaul
We did make it down to the upland area and out of the mountains. While the rain ended up missing us to the east, it was very, very windy that night. The next day was calm and we found ourselves in an area with saxaul trees.
23. lunch spot
Our lunch stop was at a large out cropping which had a “terrace” that we climbed up to and where we sat to eat. Nice view looking back the way we’d come.
24. Bayantooroi
The day’s destination, Bayantooroi, where the headquarters of the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area is located. We had to go there, quite a bit out of our way, to get a border permit since we were going to be within 50km of the Chinese border. In the background, on the left, is Eej Hairkhan Uul, the sacred mother mountain. On the first WildArt Mongolia Expedition in 2013, we spent two nights camping at the base of the mountain, doing a day hike up onto it. You can read about that wonderful day here.
25. solar panels
Many westerners have this idea of Mongolia of a somewhat backward, poverty-stricken place and while incomes are low by western standards and there are poor people as is true anywhere, the country is also absolutely up to date in many ways, including an increasing use of alternate energy sources like wind and solar. Bayantooroi is a long way from any major town (I think the aimag center of Altai might be the closest and at least a two day drive, judging from the road atlas I’m consulting) and look at this big solar array that has been installed.
26. basketball
Basketball is quite popular in Mongolia. Every soum center seems to have at least one basket set up somewhere. Bayantooroi has a full two-basket court which some local girls and boys were using.
27. Batana, motorbike kid
Our guide and drivers handled not only getting the border permit, but also arranging for a ranger to take us into the strictly protected area. He lived quite a way out of town, so we had to wait for him to come in to plan the next day’s travel. In the meantime, Batana chatted with another local family getting more information. There’s only so much one can do from Ulaanbaatar. Final contacts and arrangements often have to be made once one is in the field.
28. truck
Everything settled, we now had to backtrack over three hours to where we would turn south into the protected area. The only “traffic” we saw all day.
29. sunset
We reached the pre-arranged location and set up camp for the night. The next day the ranger would come to our camp, impossible to miss in its open location on the upland plain, and lead the way to our destination. In the meantime we all enjoyed this gorgeous sunset.

Next week we’ll travel far, far south, deep into the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area, one of the most remote locations in Mongolia. No towns, no herder families, no mobile phone service. I could hardly wait!

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