Part 4: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition- the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area

1. oasis entrance
Entrance road to the Shar Uuls oasis

There are a lot of photos in this post (and the previous one of our trip here from the soum center), partly because when I was online before my departure researching the Great Gobi A SPA there was very little available, either in images or information. Very few people go there (or to any of the Strictly Protected Areas for that matter), mostly researchers and sometimes filmmakers who want to film the wild bactrian camels or the bears. In fact, a lot of the images to be found in a Google search for “Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area” are from this blog and most of those are from Takhiin Tal, which is actually in Great Gobi B. So I’m hoping that this post might be of use to someone else who is planning to go to Great Gobi A. It’s also what I felt would best tell the story of our time at this remote but compelling place.

2. Shar Uls oasis
Into the oasis. Quite a lot of water present. Spring-fed areas like these are the only natural sources of water in the reserve and all the wildlife depend on them.
3. khulan tracks
Bilgee, the ranger, took us on an evening hike to see the two feeding stations set up for the bears. As we walked down the road he pointed out things we would have missed or not been able to identify if we’d been on our own, like these tracks of khulan, Mongolian wild ass.
4. khulan dung
Khulan dung
5. bear tracks
But then we hit the jackpot…mazaalai tracks! And pretty fresh.
6. bear tracks
The low evening light was perfect for getting good photos.
7. bear tracks, people
We all took pictures of the evidence of the presence of the rarest bear in the world.

Bilgee explained to us that the bear’s favorite food, wild rhubarb, had already sprouted and grown faster than usual. So the bears had dispersed from the areas of the feeding stations for the year. I was happy to know that their natural food supply was in good shape, but it did reduce further our chances of seeing any. The Expedition was timed with the hope of catching the bears after they had emerged from hibernation and were using the feeding stations and before their main food was readily available, which would cause them to scatter out over a wide area.

8. ranger and scenery
We came out of the wooded stretch of the oasis and into the open.
9. bear dung
We came upon Gobi bear scat as we walked.

Ok, well, most people won’t get excited about seeing animal poop, but in the interests of science and completeness, here it is.

10. grass and hills
View of the valley floor
11. water channel, station
Stream which ran through the valley, edged with reeds. One doesn’t expect to encounter such rich greens in the middle of a place known for its aridity, but where there’s water…
12. looking back
Looking back down the valley
13. feeding station
The first feeding station we checked out
14. camera
Bilgee checks the motion camera; no images
17. pellets
The feed pellets. The bears really spread them around on the ground
15. Me in GG A
We took turns taking photos of each other in this special place
16. bear track
Bilgee spotted another bear print
18. feeder and people
We also hiked over to the second feeder
18. 2nd station
It was a fair distance from the first one. It was great to be able to hike around  on such a beautiful evening!
20. rocks late light
The light was really great
21. shortcut that wasn't
I followed Bilgee into these reeds as he tried to cut across to another trail back. The ground was dry, but I suddenly went into a hole up past my knee and had to work a bit to get myself out. We gave up on the “shortcut” and went back to the trail we’d come in on
22. oasis ahead
I just loved the light, the colors and the shapes. This would be great place to come paint en plein air. It’s just a long five day drive to get to…
24. ranger and stream
Back out we went, following the stream
25. flowers
It being spring, there were a number of flowering plants
26. spring
Bilgee suddenly took a left turn and disappeared. We followed up behind him and found ourselves at a sacred spring (most springs seem to be considered sacred in Mongolia, for obvious reasons, especially in such an arid land as the Gobi)
27. Kim drinks
The water is coming from within that dark hole that Kim is in front of, having a drink. Our cook, Soyoloo, is touching some of the khadag wrapped around the tree branch.

So, yes, we drank the water. In the United States it’s extremely unwise to drink from streams, rivers and even springs in some cases. I’ve learned that in Mongolia there is no giardia present in the water, which is the problem in the US. But rivers and streams can still be contaminated by livestock. On a case by case basis, I will drink from springs there and once have drunk from a river. It was explained to me by the Mongols I was traveling with that the water had to be swiftly flowing over rocks for them to drink it, so I went ahead and had some. It was delicious! (If anyone reading this has additional information or corrections, please leave a comment)

28. cup
A previous visitor left this quite appropriate offering.
29. argali horn
There was also, to my surprise, a very old and worn argali sheep horn
30. sunset trees
While we waited for the car to come pick us up, the last glowing light of the day turned these old elms trees golden orange
31. sunset old tree
If I ever go back and have the time, I will paint this wonderful old tree
32. shower
Back at camp, the drivers had set up the gravity feed shower. First one we’d had since leaving Ulaanbaatar almost a week before. The low humidity in Mongolia, around 10%, makes it more bearable than in a more humid climate, but it sure felt good
33. long-legged buzzard
The next day I got some good photos of this long-legged buzzard flying over
35. steppe ribbon racer 1
And then it was snake time again! Another steppe ribbon racer. It first showed up coming towards me as I sat reading in front of the dining tent. I thought it was going to move through it, but it made a right turn and headed towards the “ger” and up onto the roof.
35. snake
It came down on the other side of the doorway into this bush
36. snake
Then it moved along on a bank almost at eye level to me. By this time most of the people in camp were following it along
37. Steppe ribbon racer
It came to another shrub and stopped, clearly trying its best to be invisible. Deciding that it had been followed enough and having gotten a few dozen photos, at this point I left it be
38. Feeding station view
Behind the camp there was a 1km trail that led up over the hills to this place where one could sit and look out over the valley where the feeding stations were located. This is where we tried to see the bears but, alas, none came
39. Oliver waiting
Oliver watching the feeding station across the valley, the second one we went to on our evening hike
40. breaking camp
Breaking camp. Looking toward the hills where the trail to the overlook is

So, no, we didn’t see any Gobi bears, but it was exciting to see their tracks (and scat). It would have taken quite a stroke of good fortune, given their rarity and the fact that they had already dispersed for the summer, and I knew the chance was small when I planned the Expedition. However the chance was zero if we didn’t go at all and with wildlife you never know. You start by showing up and then seeing what happens. But we experienced their habitat, got to camp in it and explore it and learned a lot firsthand about how they live, something very few people will ever be able to do.

Next week we head back north to a very different destination and ecosystem.

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