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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ok, well, most people won’t get excited about seeing animal poop, but in the interests of science and completeness, here it is.
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)
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.
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.
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.
And we hadn’t even gotten to the Strictly Protected Area yet…
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.
There were a number of shorebirds…plovers and a redshanks, but I couldn’t get close enough for decent photos.
We left the lake driving south around the east shore, a route that I had not been on before, which was great!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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….
First it was rain, then kilometer by kilometer it turned to snow. And then blowing snow.
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.
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.
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.