Happy Easter! Here’s a Mongolian Hare…

“Tolai Hare, Mongolia” oil 16×12″ (price on request)

The tolai hare is the only rabbit/hare species found in Mongolia. They’re usually seen in rocky or semi-desert areas. My subject was one that I saw one evening at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I was positioned up in the rocks above the spring-fed stream waiting for argali sheep to show up when this hare hopped out from behind some rocks into plain view. What made it even better was there was a hoopoe perched on a rock not far away. Both species are very skittish and bolt at any movement. Here’s a couple of photos of hares I’ve seen during my trips to Mongolia.

Also at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu. You have to see them before they see you to have any chance of getting photos. Sometimes they wait until you’re so close that you’ve almost stepped on them and then they explode from right at your feet, which really boosts one’s heart rate!

During the 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition we were enroute to the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area to explore critically endangered Gobi bear habitat (saw tracks and scat but no bears, not surprising when the total population is currently estimated to be 40 of them). The Fergon van that carried our equipment was stopped by a blocked fuel line. We all got out of the SUV and poked around while that was attended to. I spotted this tolai hare right away and got some decent photos before it bounded off.

Watercolors From My 2016 Mongolia Trip

A local herder came by the ger camp I was staying at to help put up more gers and “parked” his horse right in front of mine. The horses are stoic about standing like this for hours at a time. He shifted around over the two hours I spent on this piece but always came back to this position. I had never done a watercolor of a live animal before, but he was a good model and once I got the drawing and shadow shapes down it was fun

The weather on this last trip often wasn’t conducive to sitting and painting since a watercolor can easily take an hour or more. We had snow, rain and wind on the Expedition. It was hot at Ikh Nart and rainy at Delger Camp. I mostly drew in my journal and I’ll share those with you next week. But I did get some watercolor time in and here’s the result…

This was our view from camp across an open plain when we were in the Great Gob A Strictly Protected Area. It was really hot so I sat in the shade of our dining tent

I was able to break free for a hour or two when we were visiting the Gachen Lama Monastery in Erdenesogt Soum after we came back north from the Gobi. It’s located in the central Hangai Mountains and is a totally different ecosystem. I’ve always loved seeing the stupas which overlook the river valley

As described in a previous post, I had purchased my own ger and lived in it for a week at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. These are some of the rock formations that I could see from nearby

My last stop was Delger Camp in the Hogno Han Nature Reserve. I had arranged to be dropped off in the wetland/dune area to paint and decided to start with the clouds moving over the mountains of the reserve. They kept getting closer and closer and the wind started to come up. It started to rain and I took cover under a tree. As the front moved over me there were loud rumbles of thunder. Fortunately the driver, who is the brother-in-law of the camp owner, had left a mobile phone with me, a first and something I’ve never worried about having since there’s usually no service in areas like this. I called and managed to get through to the camp owner who had the driver, who’d gone into the soum center for gas and was too far east to have seen the storm moving in, come back and get me as quickly as possible. Other than getting wet, I was fine. It was the end of my painting day, but I do have this not-quite-finished one as a memory.

Part 7: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition- The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project And Hustai National Park (our last stops)

An impressive stallion watches over his family group at Hustai National Park

All journeys come to an end and the Expedition concluded near Hustai National Park, one of three places in Mongolia where takhi/Przewalski’s horse have been reintroduced. Of course we went to see the horses, but our main mission was to spend time with the staff of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project.

Hustai also has a healthy population of endangered Siberian marmots

The second time we went out to see the horses we got quite an eyeful, four family groups in sight

I had been in contact with Greg Goodfellow, the project scientist, before I left for Mongolia in mid-May. We arranged for the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project to be featured by the Expedition. A mutually agreed upon statement was written which you can read here. It provides all the basic information on what the project mission and goals are.

From left to right: Oliver Hartman, Greg Goodfellow, Batbaatar Tumurbaatar and Kim Campbell Thornton

There was one pen full of bankhar puppies, as cute as puppies are anywhere

The project’s first step had been to go out into the countryside and find pure bankhar through DNA testing. There are a lot of mixed heritage dogs due to the Russians turning loose their German Shepherd guard dogs when they left Mongolia after the fall of the Soviet Union, plus other breeds and types have found their way into the country over time. But enough dogs were found to start a breeding program. These were temporary kennels that had just been set up since the project needed to relocate the dogs away from UB. The new permanent ones are in place now, but I don’t have any photos of them yet.

A bankhar, the traditional guard and livestock guardian dog of the Mongols.

Bankhar are a “landrace”, not a breed, which means they developed their traits through adaptation to the environment they live in, not human selection. The ones I’ve encountered over the years, the “ger dogs”, have always been highly aggressive when we’ve approached a ger in a vehicle or when we’re leaving. And that’s their job. Usually they’re ok once we’ve been in their owner’s ger, but sometimes I’ve seen the dogs held even when we leave. So it was a surprise to see these calm dogs who made eye contact and sought an interaction even with strangers. Still, no fingers through the wire.

Batbaatar, one of the staff who is trained as a wildlife biologist, brought out one of the big male bankhar so we could get photos without the wire in the way. He’s a pretty serious-looking dog

10a. bankhar.jpg
But not always. He’s starting to shed out his winter coat so looks a bit moth-eaten

One of the puppies got loose and dashed around, but was “captured” and returned to his pen

Batbaatar showing how the dogs are weighed as Oliver shoots some video and Greg Goodfellow looks on

These pups are all destined to be sent to various herder’s to be livestock guardian dogs. This female caught my eye. Something about her that I really liked. Greg promised to update me on her story. And it turns out that she and another pup got to their new home down in the Gobi and promptly escaped. Fortunately both were recaptured. They were taken back to UB to be placed in a new home. I’ll update her story when I can

The project ger, set up not far from the dogs. Oliver is doing a filmed interview with Greg

Hustai National Park is a beautiful place and only two hours from Ulaanbaatar

“Hustai” means “birch” in Mongolia. The park is in the mountain-steppe ecosystem and, at higher elevations there are areas of birch forest like the one ahead

The second day of our visit we went with Greg and Baagii as they visited two herder families who have project dogs. There is a protocol, a work in progress as new information and knowledge is gained, for how the recipients are to get the dogs to stay with the livestock 24/7. Most herders have only had ger dogs. The livestock guardian function pretty much died out during socialist times due to collectivization and many being killed. Herders also started to use lethal methods of predator control like poison. So what the project is actually doing is not introducing a new thing, but reviving an old traditional use of the dogs.

Two of the project pups following their owner. They’d been at the ger so Greg wanted to see how they would do with livestock

One of the pups, nine months old and personality plus, but what would he do?

It took some coaxing and direction, also the tossing of some stones to signal that he was to go to the livestock and not stay with the humans, but he did what he was supposed to do

This is what the project people want, a dog that stays with the sheep and goats, relaxed but keeping watch

The herder who the project was working with rode up and consented to be interviewed by Oliver and Kim, with Batana translating, a job he did for us a number of times and very well. Mongols are not sentimental about animals so it was interesting to see the open affection the man showed towards the pup

We took our leave and drove off to the second ger. The herder was in town with his wife, who was having a baby, so a friend filled in. Both pups were at the ger and looked to be in good shape.

I had made arrangements in advance for a special late lunch, khorhog, the “real” Mongolian BBQ. Greg was happy to set it up since the purchase of a sheep by visitors is something that supports the local community and it turned out that our “supplier” was also someone who had project dogs.

Khorhog- mutton, in this case, roasted in a metal container with hot rocks. It was delicious!

The valley of the Tuul Gol, which also flows through Ulaanbaatar. Hustai National Park is to the left

From left to right: Batbaatar Tumurbaatar, Susan Fox, Oliver Hartman, Kim Campbell Thornton, Greg Goodfellow (photo by our most excellent guide, Batana)

We had plans to go horse riding and takhi watching on our last day, but the weather had other ideas. A very strong front moved in overnight with heavy wind and rain. In the morning it was pouring and blowing. Batana called in to see what the forecast was, which was that the storm would continue through the day and beyond. It was pretty miserable. We’d had more than our fair share of wind and rain on the Expedition. With no prospect of clearing in sight, our guide and drivers said we needed to pack it up and head back into town and I agreed. Another driver had been sent out, so we and all our gear went into the two Land Cruisers as quickly as possible. Puugii, our van driver, and Soyoloo, our cook, stayed behind to take down and pack everything else. So we all said our goodbyes and parted. Nomadic Journeys arranged for us to stay at the Bayangol Hotel at no cost to us, a consideration that was greatly appreciated. So in we came from three adventurous weeks in the field to hot showers and soft beds, the 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition at its end.

I want to personally thank everyone who made the Expedition possible. First, the staff of Nomadic Journeys, who arranges these very “custom” trips for me every year, particularly Jan Wigsten, one of the owners, who listens to my ideas and plans, offers input and advice and, with the staff, makes my Mongolia travel dreams come true. And we don’t go anywhere without a solid, professional field crew: our super drivers Erdenebat and Puugii,, Soyoloo our wonderful cook and our guide Batana, who rose to every challenge. And Kim and Oliver who, no matter the conditions, and they were challenging at times in a variety of ways, could not have been better traveling companions. I loved being able to share some of “my” Mongolia with them both.

Final notes: Kim Campbell Thornton has written an excellent article on the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project. You can read it here.

Oliver Hartman is a filmmaker and also a member of the Explorers Club. His company is called “Jungles in Paris”. You can check it out here.

Nomadic Journeys has made all my in-country travel arrangements in Mongolia since my second trip in 2006 (2o16 was trip no. 11). You can find out more about them and their special brand of sustainable, ecologically and culturally responsible travel here.

To learn more about takhi and Hustai National Park, go here.

The website of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project is here.



Part 6: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition- Erdenesogt & Gachen Lama Khiid, Enroute to Hustai Nuruu

Bronze Age graves overlooking the river

We camped within walking distance of a Bronze Age grave complex that the local people call the “Chess Stones”. I first saw them in 2014 on another trip to Erdenesogt because my driver, Erdenbat, our Land Cruiser driver for the Expedition, had been my driver then and knew about them. I did a few drawings in my journal and didn’t think about seeing them again, but here we were.

 There is one deer stone and others with decorative motifs carved into them

The big change from the previous stop was the addition of these plaques, one in Mongolian and one in English, mounted on a granite base. The “real” name for the stones and burials is “Shatar Chuluu”. It was interesting to experience the complex just as something that was out there on the landscape and the second time as something that had this official recognition

We set up camp in this grassy area and I noticed all these little dirt lines, many quite straight and forming interesting patterns, like miniature Nazca lines

That evening Kim produced, to my utter surprise, a bag of marshmallows that she’d brought all the way from California! A fire was quickly set going in the stove. The Mongols, as near as I could tell, had never seen them before. But as soon as Oliver found a piece of wood thin enough to use, Erdenebat saw exactly what was needed, found a length of heavy wire and formed it into a roasting rod

Kim demonstrating the fine art of roasting marshmallows, while Oliver waits with the wire holder. The three of us Americans discussed our various preferred ways of cooking them. I like to do it pretty quickly, but without charring them black

Erdenebat took a turn as Puugii looks on. Soyoloo joined us and everyone had at least one or two. It was a really fun surprise after the long haul from the Gobi

The “Nazca lines” mystery was solved the next morning. We’d set up camp right in the middle of a very large colony of Brandt’s voles. About hamster size and very fluffy, we could just sit in front of the dining tent and watch their antics

Which turned X-rated, causing Kim to call out at them “Get a room!”

A few popped out of the ground just a few feet from where I was sitting. This is not cropped

The presence of so many possible menu items drew a variety of raptors, including this black kite. I also photographed a saker falcon, an upland buzzard and a booted eagle, all circling around our campsite

During the day a dog showed up

Then a second one. I figured they had a home ger somewhere in the area, but they more or less moved in with us while we were there. First time in all my camping trips that we had our own temporary “ger dogs”

A local herder’s horses came and went past the camp a couple of times, something I always enjoy

We had made arrangments on a first trip into town to interview the head lama for a short video piece Oliver wanted to do. I’m usually in and out of soum centers, there just long enough to get gas, do any required shopping and then leave. But this time we’d go back and spend most of the day and I would get to see my favorite monastery, Gachen Lama Khiid, again.

Beautiful evening light

It turned out that we were in Erdenesogt on an “auspicious day”, which meant that there would a service with the monks chanting sutras all day long. The head lama of the monastery made time for Oliver’s interview, which we really appreciated

He explained the history of the monastery, which was built in 1901. Around the Buddha on the main altar of the old temple, seen above, were cases containing objects and artifacts that had been saved from destruction in 1937 when nine of the ten temples were destroyed, leaving only the one we were in

He gave us a tour of the old temple, pointing out one painting, the tall one on the left next to the doorway, which had been painted by a Mongolian artist. All the others were done by Chinese artists. His father had been the head lama also and we could tell he was very proud to have inherited the job. After the tour was over he had us to him home for lunch, a real treat! Erdensogt Soum, it turns out, is well-known for its tsagaan idee…white food or dairy.

While Oliver shot video and Kim stayed to watch the service, I took my watercolors and walked down towards the river (photo by Batana Batu)

This is the scene I was looking at…

Looking back towards the monastery. The old temple is on the right and the new one on the left. When I first came there in 2010 there was no wall around the perimeter

There was also a new gate being built which opens towards the town

It turned out that the monastery wasn’t the only sight in town. The lama also took us to the local museum. Small, but with a lot very interesting things like vintage  garments, a hand carved wood chess set and a very large old movie projector. The horse hair standards in the back would be brought to the local stadium for the annual naadam festival or other special occasions

We finally said our goodbyes and headed back to camp with one stop up on a hillside for photos of the monastery and town in their beautiful riverside setting in the Hangai Mountains

We all hiked up onto the hilltops to the south of camp to watch the sun go down. That’s Soyoloo enjoying our last evening there

Before leaving the area we drove back to the Bronze Age Shatar Chuluu stones so that I could see the lions. And there they were

Close-up of lion with barrow tomb in the background

Breaking camp. “Our ger dogs” hung around until we drove off then trotted off towards the river. I last saw them approaching a ger, so knew that’s where they really lived

We’d experienced a hellacious rain and wind storm the night before, as violent as anything I’d experienced in ten years of travel in the Mongolian countryside. I wondered what the river would be like and of course it was running quite high. But our trusty Land Cruiser made it just fine. The van stalled out 2/3s of the way across, but Puugii got it going and also made it just fine. Ahead in the photo is Bayanhongor.

Summertime on the road in Mongolia. Love it!

I’ve had Soyoloo as the cook a number of times but this was the first time I’d seen her heat up water for lunchtime ramen noodles in a pot on a cooktop placed on the top of the van’s engine compartment.

Summertime on the road in Mongolia! Uh oh. That was a very dark looming front ahead. Would it mean it was raining where we would be stopping to camp? As it turned out, no, we went into the rain and wind and came out the other side, but it had clearly gone through the place where we finally stopped for the night.

The old and new… one man on his horse and the other on a motorbike.

Visiting beside the Tuul Gol (river)

The end of another day on the road in Mongolia

Next week is the final stop for this year’s Expedition…the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project, located near Hustai National Park and that means takhi too.

Part 5: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition: Enroute North to Erdenesogt Soum

1. departure haze
Departure from Great Gobi A, looking north on a hazy day

Our time in Great Gobi A at an end, we packed up and headed back north the way we’d come. The fuel level in the Land Cruiser was low so the first order of business was to get to a soum center, Bayan-Ondor, to fill up. We also had lunch there. Soyoloo, our cook, went into a cafe and arranged for us to use a table and to get a thermos of milk tea. This worked out very nicely.

Once again I’ve included a fair number of photos to show our route in case it might be of interest to someone else doing research about going there.

2. road north
Heading north

3. mts. and camels
The areas of haze created interesting atmospheric perspective

4. leaving GGA
The boundary sign we passed going into Great Gobi A. I hope to see it again sometime on another trip there.

5. livestock
Not far north of the SPA boundary, we started to see livestock. There was a fairly large herd of goats in the distance. You can see that we are now in an area of more red soil than gravel.

6. gers
We came upon this line of gers with no one around, as far as we could tell, since we didn’t stop. No dogs or any of the things outside that one sees at herder’s gers

7. bags on grid
However, there was this cleared area which had been divided into a grid and bags of something laying within each square

8. gazelles
A little farther on and back into a shrubby area we suddenly spotted two gazelles! I was barely able to get a few grab shots from the car and then they were gone.

9. arachnid
We stopped for some reason that I can’t recall now and someone saw this arachnid. She was over an inch long. No idea of the species.

10. road north
We drove through the afternoon back through the basin and range topography

11. wildflowers
On another short stop I photographed a couple of wildflowers. From the shape of the flowers I think this one is a member of the pea family

12. mountain
We finally had the mountain in view which had been totally covered in snow when we saw it on our way south

13. Bayan-Ondor
Bayan-Ondor, where we got gas for the vehicles and had lunch

15. family
 The man probably was bringing his or his wife’s mother into town to shop and maybe visit with friends

16. ovoo
Then we were on our way to our next stop, Amarbuyant Monastery, which had been destroyed in the late 1930s as had been so many, but was supposed to be undergoing restoration. The Dalai Lama had been there and this stupa was built in his honor.

17. herder and daughter
But we were on a very “local road” and Erdenbat had never been this way, so when we saw a herder and a little girl sitting up on rock keeping an eye on their livestock we stopped to ask directions. We were quite charmed by the two of them as a father out with his daughter,  who he clearly had great affection for. She was very self-possessed, not an uncommon thing to see in Mongolian country kids

18. leading the way
The herder decided that the best thing was to show us the way, so off we went with him in the lead

19. earth road
We finally reached a point where we could apparently go the rest of the way on our own, so we gave them each a gift as a thank you and went on our way through some pretty rugged terrain

20. well
We came upon a well and stopped for Kim and Oliver to see how they work. This one is typical in that a very large commercial tire has been split lengthwise to form the trough, a great reuse of something that would otherwise be thrown away

21. khiid
We came up over a rise and there before us was Amurbuyant Khiid…what was left of it. It had been a major commercial caravan route and a hive of activity. That all ended in 1937 when the Mongolian communist government destroyed it and hundreds of other monasteries in the country to break the political and social power of the lamas

21. old walls
Wall sections like these are pretty much all that is left

22. censor
There were a very few artifacts to see like this incense burner, which would have been outside of one of the temples

22a. temple-stupa
There has been some rebuilding and there are monks and students in residence again. But it felt like rather a sad, isolated place. We asked for and were given a tour of the two temples, but not with much enthusiasm or welcome

I started to feel uneasy not long after we started to visit the second temple. Wasn’t sure why. There was a stillness I found unsettling and not just that it was quiet. We were shown a couple of large panels in the main temple that listed all the people who had donated to the restoration, along with the amounts they had given. It added up to millions and millions of tugrik. The surviving old temple was in poor condition and visible repairs were cheaply done, although the interior wood framing and supports looked sturdy and good. The new temple, in the shape of a ger, also had a feeling of being built quickly and cheaply. The ceiling was made square panels a little like the acoustic tiles one sees in America. Some were askew and some seemed worse for wear. In both cases, it felt like no one had noticed and no one cared. The tower for, I assumed, calling the monks to prayer, looked to be in pretty bad shape. A new long, low building, had been constructed (visible in the front of the photo of the complex above). There was also a good array of solar panels to provide power. Our young student tour guides walked us past the newish long living quarters building on our way out, answering some last questions, and a very unfriendly male voice ordered them back inside. The closest school was 60km away and the boys only attended one week a month. The rest of their time was at the monastery taking classes in Buddhist practice. And so we left. We had been given permission to camp somewhere in the vicinity and we drove around looking for a spot. I became more and more uncomfortable and stressed, to the point that I finally had to say that I needed to leave now, right now. Something felt bad and wrong there and I needed to get away from it. It was so very odd and I was clearly the only one who felt it, or at least no one else said anything. Have never had anything like this happen on any of my travels to any place before. But leave we did and found a spot on an open plain to the north with a great view. As sometimes happens a local herder and his wife showed up on their motorbike to check us out and have a visit. We went to their ger the next day.

22b. herder ger
Our “neighbors”, a kilometer or two from where we were camped

As we pulled up the woman came out. She was holding her hand which was wrapped in a plastic bag. We could see instantly that it was terribly swollen, a bite of some kind. I gave her a half-dozen or so ibuprophen for the pain, emphasing that she should take no more than three at a time. Her husband was going to take her to the soum center hospital, probably more of a clinic. It turned out after some chat and a translation from our guide, Batana, that the woman had gotten down on the floor of the ger, reached under a bed to get something and felt a sting. At that point all the Mongols decided that it had been a scorpion. Her life wasn’t in danger, but she definitely needed to see a doctor. They left and we were on our way a short time later after getting water from their well.

22a. mountain
Ikh Bogd Nuruu from the south. Orog Nuur (Lake) is on the other side

23. ovoo
We now drove towards Ikh Bogd Nuruu and worked our way around the south end of the mountain, passing this ovoo on the way

24. road sign
A road sign!

25. mt. south side
We drove back along the north side of the mountain, passing large herds of animals. The hope had been to camp in the area or by the lake but the presence of many herders and their dogs made that unsafe, so we had to settle for stopping a few times for photos

26. lake, herder
And what a photo opp!

27. stupa
After working our way through some extremely rough ground, we arrived at an overlook for Orog Nuur. It was a big deal for me to see the lake again since I had camped there on the south shore in 2010 on my very first tent camping trip in Mongolia. It was also the first time I’d traveled with Soyoloo. So it was special for both of us since it’s pretty remote

We continued on and found a sheltered spot not far from a soum center. It was quite windy, as it had been for a lot of the Expedition. The drivers and guide went into town to get gas and buy snacks.

28. vultures
The next morning, not far from the soum center we came upon this flock of eurasian black vultures and I got a lot of really good reference photos

29. Horses
And it’s always nice to see a herd of horses on the way

30. herder chasing horse
One mare and her foal had other ideas, though, and the owner was still trying to catch up and turn them back when we went out of sight

31. child
Turned out that it was International Children’s Day, which is a very big deal in Mongolia, with celebrations in every town. Lots of the children are all dressed up and as cute as can be

32. girl on bike
There was a fenced area that was obviously for community gatherings and this day it was all for the children

33. road ovoo sign
In the far distance were the mountains we were heading for. And, look, a second road sign!

34. bayanhongor
Closing the loop, we arrived back in Bayahongor, which had been our jumping off point for the journey south. We stopped in town and did some final grocery shopping

35. Erdenesogt
Then we did what I had originally planned to do when we were there before…travel north up the river valley into the Hangai Mountains to Erdenesogt, which is in the far background

We drove up to a high point with an ovoo and wonderful view of the river valley, then backtracked a short way to a special spot where we set up camp for a few days. And that will be next week’s story.

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.

Part 3: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition- Into The Great Gobi A SPA

1. ranger leading
The ranger leading us south

The adventure really began on May 26, the morning  that the Great Gobi A ranger, Bilgee, led us south to the Strictly Protected Area. No gers, no herders, no livestock, just Gobi for as far as we could see. But even in this forbidding looking landscape, spring flowers were blooming.

2. yellow flowers
Gobi wildflower (species unknown)

3. road and mts.
Our destination was beyond those far mountains.

4. flat tire
The Land Cruiser had a flat tire, so we took the opportunity to wander about.

5. Kim and camel bones
Not far off the road were the remains of a camel, which Kim is checking out.

6. white pan
Tire replaced, we drove on, crossing this area of white sandy soil that probably has water in it during the rare times that it rains.

The van had been having some overheating problems earlier. stopping a few times to cool down. It was quite hot in the middle of the day, even though it was only May. During one our stops to wait for them we saw a tolai hare.

7. Tolai hare
Tolai hare. He sat for a few photos and then ran up the hill and behind the rocks.

8. wild bactrian camels
Driving out onto yet another plain between the mountain ranges,  our driver suddenly stopped. Wild bactrian camels! They crossed the road right in front of us, running from left to right. We stopped, got out and I took many photos as I could of this critically endangered species that few people ever see. It is estimated that there are 900  of them. I counted about 16 in this herd. This is with my normal lens showing how far away they were. You can just see them in front of the cloud of dust to the left of the road.

9. camels
I got out my Nikon D750 with the 80-400mm lens and kept shooting as they ran past.

10. camels
This close-up is cropped in from one of the zoom images. Amazingly they had stopped running and were warily standing.

11. photographing camels
 Our Land Cruiser driver, Erdenebat, had a point and shoot camera with a good zoom lens on it, so he got some pretty special photos as a souvenir of the Expedition. It was an exciting encounter for all of us!

And we hadn’t even gotten to the Strictly Protected Area yet…

12. GGA group shot
Kim Campbell Thorton, myself, the ranger Bilgee and Oliver Hartman at the entrance to the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area. Photo by our guide, Batana

13. looking back north
I took this shot standing near the sign looking back the way we’d come, distant mountains still with snow on them from the storm we’d driven through a few days earlier.

14.  our destination
And now looking south to where we were going. Oliver had mounted a GoPro camera on the hood of the Land Cruiser. This was good fast earth road, as you can see.

15. our destination
The route we took led through a succession of basins and ranges. Our destination lies ahead.

16. van overheat
We’d gotten fairly far out ahead of the van and stopped to wait for them to catch up. And waited. And waited. After about twenty minutes, knowing there was an overheating issue, Erdenebat, the driver, decided that we had to go back. When we got to the van it was clear that something was wrong. The driver’s seat had been removed so that the engine compartment, which is in between the seats, could be accessed.

17. steppe ribbon racer
While the van was being worked on, I walked around and came upon this snake, a steppe ribbon racer.

32. snake
It disappeared under a shrub. I saw that there was a hole and kept watch. Sure enough, the snake reappeared, looking like a little periscope.

19. snake hole
The snake’s “home” is under the shrub in the foreground. Quite a habitat.

20. agama
I also saw this Mongolian agama lizard. They’re pretty common. Although the basic markings and that red spot stay the same. I’ve seen a number of color variations, adapted to their surroundings. All in all it was a pretty good wildlife day.

21. fuel pump
It turned out that the van had overheated yet again and the cause was a blocked fuel pump. The photo shows Erdenebat blowing it clear of the gunk that was blocking it. Our guide, Batana, explained that the insides of the tanks of the trucks that deliver petrol to the soum centers are really dirty and that that dirt and crud is emptied along with the fuel into the tanks at the petrol stations, where it then ends up a vehicle’s gas tank. This is apparently a well-known problem that people in Mongolia have to deal with all the time.

22. van heading south
Fuel pump cleaned out, the van was fine and we were on our way again.

23. road through draw
As we drove through the final range of mountains before the one we were heading for, we followed this wide flat draw

24. motorbike mts.
We came out of the draw into another basin and saw our destination before us.

25. oasis
On the right, at the base of the mountain, is the Shar Khuls oasis. There are no rivers in this part of the Gobi. The only water comes from springs, or wells dug by researchers.

27; oasis
And here we were, driving right into the oasis, which had water running in the road in a number of places. The lush greenery after a long day in the desert was a pleasant sight.

28. ovoo
Coming back out of the oasis we stopped at this ovoo and circled it three times.

29. heading towards campsite
Straight ahead is where we would camp, nestled in a sheltered spot at the base of those hills.

33. campsite
We set up in the same location that the bear researchers use. It turned out that we missed them by just a few days. The big tent, called a maikhan, was for dining and hanging out. Oliver is getting ready to leave for a ride with Bilgee, the ranger.

30. fanger interview
The only permanent structure was a “ger” built into a berm on one side of the camping area. It had a wood roof and plastered walls and was the coolest place to be, literally, during the heat of the day. Our cook, Soyoloo, used it as her kitchen. Oliver, with Batana’s help, interviewed Bilgee about his life and work, the reserve and the bears.

31. bear sign
So, here we were, camped in the habitat of the world’s most critically endangered bear.

Next week: what did we see?


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!

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.