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.

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 4: The Birds Of Boon Tsagaan Nuur And Art In The Field

Our campsite near the shore of Boon Tsagaan Nuur
Our campsite near the shore of Boon Tsagaan Nuur; the dark square to the left is our toilet enclosure

My last post about the Expedition, which you can read here was about the leg of our journey that took us to the Gobi lake, Boon Tsagaan Nuur. Today’s post is an album of the birds we saw and that I photographed. We also had time to get our paints out and do some location work.

There isn’t a good standard bird guide yet for Mongolia, although one is being prepared, so I sent a batch of photos to Axel Braunlich, who is probably the leading expert on birds in Mongolia. He was kind enough to take the time to identify them for me. If you are interested in birds, and Mongolia is one of the world’s hotspots for birding with 427 species (you can find a list here), I highly recommend Axel’s blog “Birding Mongolia”.

All of these species, except the bar-headed geese, which I had seen on the Tuul Gol (river) near Hustai National Park in early May of 2005 on my very first trip, and ruddy shelducks, were new to me.

As we arrived within sight of the lakeshore, we spotted bar-headed geese
As we arrived within sight of the lakeshore, we spotted bar-headed geese
These geese are famous for their migration route...over the Himalayas at altitudes approaching 30,000 ft, the same as an airliner.
These geese are famous for their migration route…over the Himalayas at altitudes approaching 30,000 ft, the same as an airliner. One can imagine them landing on Mt. Everest (28,000+ feet) and waving as a plane flies over.
Once down on the lakeshore we saw, at a tantalizing distance this large group of birds on a sand bar
Once down on the lakeshore we saw, at a tantalizing distance, this large group of birds on a sand bar. Unfortunately the ground between them and us was ultimately too soft and there were also flood-fed streams. Sharon and Odna did their best, but finally had to turn back. I was able to make out great cormorants, eurasian spoonbills, gulls and terns, plus some ruddy shelducks in the water. Yesterday, as I looked over my photos to make my choices for this post, I saw that there were at least sixteen grey herons out there also.
Wild greylag geese flew by at one point.
Wild greylag geese flew by at one point.
There was also a long-legged buzzard.
There was also a long-legged buzzard.

It was interesting and a little odd, since I live on the north coast of California, to see shorebirds in the middle of the Gobi.

Long-toed stint
Long-toed stint
Common sandpiper
Common sandpiper
Little-ringed plover
Little-ringed plover
Kentish plover
Kentish plover
Curlew sandpipers, juveniles
Curlew sandpipers, juveniles
Mongolian gull
Mongolian gull
Black-headed gull, juvenile
Black-headed gull, juvenile
Common tern
Common tern; adult and juvenile (who was begging for food to no avail)
White or eurasian spoonbills
White or eurasian spoonbills
Pied avocets
Pied avocets
Ruddy shelducks
Ruddy shelducks
Common shelducks
Common shelducks

We didn’t just birdwatch, but got out our painting and camera gear.

Magvadorj and Tugsoyun taking advantage of the afternoon light
Magvadorj and Tugsoyun taking advantage of the afternoon light
Little did I know until he was done that Magvandorj was doing a painting of me painting.
Little did I know until he was done that Magvandorj was doing a painting of me painting.
Tugsouyn's expressive interpretation of the scene
Tugsouyn’s expressive interpretation of the scene
Sharon and Odna enjoy the sunset
Sharon and Odna took a stroll down to the lake to enjoy the sunset
The next morning, which was, shall we say, a bit brisk, found Magvandorj up catching the morning light
The next morning, which was, shall we say, a bit brisk, found Magvandorj up catching the morning light.
Sunrise at Boon Tsagaan Nuur
Sunrise at Boon Tsagaan Nuur
A local dog showed up as we broke camp, hoping to find some food that had dropped to the ground.
A local dog showed up as we broke camp, hoping to find some food that had dropped to the ground. He’s the traditional herder’s dog, called a “bankhar” and is in his short summer coat.
Last photos of the lake before departure.
Last photos of the lake before departure.

It wasn’t easy to leave this wonderful place. But, by golly, through flooded rivers and streams and a long detour, we got there and were able to have the best parts of the day, afternoon, evening and morning, when the light was the best for painting and photography and the birds were active. Now it was time to head west and farther west with the Gobi Altai Mountains paralleling us to the south. At some point we would turn south and cross over them through….snow leopard territory!

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 3: Arburd Sands to Boon Tsagaan Nuur

Arburd Sands sunset. With camels.
Arburd Sands sunset. With camels.

After a wonderful stay at Arburd Sands and Bayan-Onjuul Soum, it was time for the Expedition to start in earnest. Our first destination was Boon Tsagaan Nuur, a lake deep in the Gobi that is known for the excellence of its birdwatching opportunities, both in the number of birds and variety of species.

We headed west across country to join up with the main southern east-west road, parts of which are now tarmac. We hadn’t traveled for long when we came upon a herder’s ger just in time to see them milking their mares.

Milking mares
Milking the mares. The foals are tied to a picket line so that their mothers won’t go far and held near the mare so that she will release her milk. Enough is left for the foal to get a good meal. This process is repeated every two hours, 24 hours a day for weeks or months. One result is the famous fermented mare’s milk “airag”, which to me tastes like fizzy yogurt. I like it a lot.
Sharon takes a photo of Tugs-Oyun, who is riding in the other van
Sharon takes a photo of Tugs-Oyun, who is riding in the other van. We all loved her spiffy yellow glasses.
Getting water
Getting water from a local well with the assistance of a young local. An adult had entrusted the keys and the job to him, which he carried off in style.
Camping near Arveyheer
Camping near Arvayheer
Sharon shows Magvandorj how she photographs flowers close-up
Sharon shows Magvandorj how she photographs flowers close-up
En route to  Bayanhongor
En route to Bayanhongor
Ovoo en route to Bayanhongor
Ovoo en route to Bayanhongor
When we arrived at the place to get our water barrel refilled in Bayanhongor, we found that this young boy and his horse-drawn water cart was there ahead of us. A little bribe of candy and he was happy to post for us.
When we arrived at the place to get our water barrel refilled in Bayanhongor, we found that this young boy and his horse-drawn water cart was there ahead of us. A small gift of candy and he was happy to pose for photos. Many of the residential areas of the city are ger districts with no running water. People fetch it themselves, pushing or pulling a wheeled metal frame that holds a water barrel. Or they can have someone with a horse cart deliver it to them.
South down out of Bayanhongor, which is located at the southern base of the Hangai Mountains. We traveled down out of the uplands, passing a lot of interesting rock formations, but no gers.
Driving south out of Bayanhongor, which is located at the base of the Hangai Mountains, we traveled through a long stretch of  uplands, passing a lot of interesting rock formations, but no gers and relatively few livestock.
Reaching the Gobi, we saw the occasional ger. There was rain across a wide swath of the horizon.
Reaching the Gobi, we saw the occasional ger. There was rain across a wide swath of the horizon. As you can see, the Gobi is gravel, not sand, although there are isolated dune complexes.
We came to the soum center of Baatsagaan, located not far from Boon Tsagaan Nuur. No petrol available and I think at this point the drivers found out what was ahead of us...
We came to the soum center of Baatsagaan, located not far from Boon Tsagaan Nuur. No petrol available and I think at this point the drivers found out what was ahead of us…
A lot of rain in the Hangai Mountains had poured down into the Gobi creating temporary rivers and streams. This was between us and the lake.
A lot of rain in the Hangai Mountains had poured down into the Gobi creating temporary rivers and streams. This was between us and the lake. So close, yet so far, since neither of our drivers could find a spot they felt confident taking the vans across. Now what?
Batmaa, the driver of the van I was in, grew up in this part of Mongolia and knows it well. He led the way north for quite a distance and then west. We passed really narrow spots like this and I wondered why we didn't just zip across.
Batmaa, the driver of the van I was in, grew up in this part of Mongolia and knows it well. He led the way north for quite a distance and then west. We passed really narrow spots like this and I wondered why we didn’t just zip across. But I learned many trips ago that things are often not as they appear to a non-Mongol and that we were going far out of our way for a reason. I had my suspicions though….
So tempting....
So benign looking and so tempting….
And then we came to this...
And then we came to this, clearly an established and well-organized operation of some kind.
And, of course the answer was that Batmaa had brought us to the ford.
And of course the answer was that Batmaa had brought us to the ford. I would guess the only one for many, many miles around, judging from the number of tractors, gers, and vehicles waiting to cross.
And we got a preview of what was in store for us.
We got a preview of what was in store for us.
Uh...
Uh. Oh.
oh
Through the deepest part.
Piece of cake, right?
Piece of cake, right?
Now it was our turn. Here's comes "our" tractor.
Now it was our turn. Here’s comes “our” tractor.
Last minute directions/instructions. Sharon and I made sure all our gear was up off the floor, just in case.
Last minute directions/instructions. Sharon and I made sure all our gear was up off the floor, just in case.
Here we go.
Here we go.
Mid-stream.
Mid-stream.
On the other side. Whew.
On the other side. Whew.
Our hero.
Our hero.
On to the south and east in the setting sun.
On to the south and then east in the setting sun.
We drove on east, hoping to get back the lake, but finally gave it up and set up camp in the dark with a stiff wind blowing. Here we are the next morning.
We drove on and on, hoping to get back to the lake, but finally gave it up and set up camp in the dark with a stiff cold wind blowing. Here we are the next morning. Not too bad for just picking a spot at random. That is part of the Gobi Altai Mountain range to the south of us.
Catching up on my journal. Did I say it had been windy?
Catching up on my journal. Did I say it had been windy?
Packing up.
Packing up. The pump sprayer was for both washing our hands and, with an enclosure set up around it, our shower. It worked great and one could get hair and body washed with only a half liter of water, important now that we were going to be traveling through countryside where places to get water were at least a day apart.
At last! Boon Tsagaan Nuur!
At last! Boon Tsagaan Nuur!
A last stop so that our drivers could consult with local herders.
A final stop so that our drivers could consult with local herders. Solar panels and satellite dishes are very common sights now at herder’s gers, along with motorbikes, mobile phones and small flat panel tvs. But this is still a tough environment to live in and only the knowledgeable and smart thrive.
We drove along the north side of the lake back to the east end, where the birds would be.
We drove along the north side of the lake back to the east end, where the birds would be.
The classic landscape of Mongolia....
The classic landscape of Mongolia….
We hadn't even gotten to the lake yet, having come to a series of two streams we needed to cross when we spotted bar-headed geese!
We hadn’t even gotten to the lake yet, having come to a series of interlaced streams we needed to cross, when we spotted bar-headed geese!
We hadn't even gotten to the lake yet, having come to a series of two streams we needed to cross when we spotted bar-headed geese!
This species is famous for its ability to migrate from Central Asia to India. Over the Himalayas. At close to 30,000 ft. Which is the height an airliner can fly. Got some great photos from which there will be paintings.
At last we reached the lakeshore.
One more river to cross. Our van stalled out in the middle, but Batmaa got it started again and we made it across.
Our cook, Soyoloo, and guide, Tseegii, walking down to the lake.
Our cook, Soyoloo, and guide, Tseegii, walking down to the lake.
We had only meant to stop this close to the lake for lunch, but decided to camp overnight.
We had only meant to stop this close to the lake for lunch, but decided to camp overnight. The mosquitos weren’t bad at all, just annoying for a relatively short time.
The "I was here" photo. And was I ever glad to be.
The “I was here” photo. And was I ever glad to be. You’ll find out why in the next installment.