Fall in the mountains of northern Mongolia is spectacular. I was staying at the Nomadic Journeys Jalman Meadows ger camp for a few days in September, 2012 and turned out to have timed my trip perfectly for the fall color display. The camp is up on a bluff overlooking the river valley. I spent quite a bit of time wandering along the banks, sketching the scenery and some local yaks who had come to drink and graze. There were also quite a few local herder’s horses wandering about. It was very peaceful and quiet.
The travel season is almost upon us. I’ve got my plane tickets for my July departure to Mongolia. For anyone else thinking about or planning to go there, I thought I’d offer one list a week for six weeks, of six “themes” for things to see, with six suggestions. I’ll start with the one that’s probably nearest and dearest to my heart – wildlife viewing destinations. I’ve been to all of them at least once.
1. For horse-lovers, Hustai National Park is a must if you are going to Mongolia. It is one of three places where tahki (Przewalski’s horse) have been reintroduced and is only about two hours west of Ulaanbaatar, mostly on tarmac road. You may also see marel (a species of elk), Mongolian gazelle, marmots and a variety of birds, such as demoiselle cranes, golden eagles, saker falcon, and black storks. There is a permanent ger camp that is open year around. The main building has a pleasant dining hall. There are three large concrete “gers”. One houses a gift shop, one has displays about the park and another is where presentations about the park are given by staff scientists. You can explore the park by vehicle, on foot or horseback. When I was last there in the fall of 2008, there were 15 harems of over 200 horses.
2.Bird-watchers should consider traveling out to western Mongolia to go to Khar Us Nuur (Black Water Lake) National Park. Khar Us Nuur is the second largest freshwater lake (15,800 sq km) in Mongolia . The Khovd river flows into it, creating a large marsh/wetland that is home to the largest remaining reed beds in Central Asia. The lake provides habitat for wild ducks, cormorants, egrets, geese, wood grouse, partridges, the rare relict gull and also the herring gull. May and late August are the best birding times. Another freshwater lake, Khar Nuur (Black Lake), which is connected to Khar Us Nuur via a short river called Chono Kharaikh, hosts the migratory and globally threatened dalamatian pelican. Direct access to the lakeshore is limited due to the reedbeds, but there is open shoreline near the soum center (county seat) on the north shore and an observation tower on the east side. As far as lodging, I can’t make any recommendations since I was rough camping when I was there, but I’m sure there’s something in or near Hovd, the main town. From Ulaanbaatar, flying to Hovd is the only practical way to get there since it’s about a thousand miles west of the capital.
3. The legendary Gobi is home to Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, created partly as a refuge for an endangered population of wild bactrian camels. They are in a remote and inaccessible (except for researchers) part of the park, however. There are also snow leopards and argali, which visitors should not expect to spot. What there is a good chance of seeing are Siberian ibex, pika, two species of gazelle, steppe eagles, golden eagles, lammergier or bearded vultures, black vultures and a variety of smaller birds. I stayed at Nomadic Journeys’ Dungenee eco-ger camp, which is taken down at the end of each season, leaving almost no trace. The kitchen and dining “room” are in connected gers. The setting is terrific, on an upland that has the park’s mountains in one direction and the Gobi stretching out in the other. To get there from Ulaanbaatar one either drives south on the main road, which is an earth road and takes, I think, two days, or flies into Dalanzadgad, which takes about two hours.
4.A relatively new park, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve is only a couple of hours east of Ulaanbaatar, mostly on tarmac road. There are two main wildlife attractions here: around 100 argali mountain sheep, which live on Mt. Baits and a wetland area with endangered white-napped cranes, along with a variety of other birds like cinereous vultures, demoiselle cranes, black storks, whooper swans, ducks and terns. The permanent ger camp has a lodge which houses a dining hall and bathroom facilities. There are many activities to choose from besides wildlife watching, including boating, archery, yak cart and horse riding, hiking and homestays with herder families, all of which provide employment for local people. This was the first stop on my Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition in July of 2009.
5. I knew nothing about Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve when I arranged to go there as part of my July 2009 Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition other than it had argali. I was only there for two days, but they were two of the most memorable days I’ve had in four trips to Mongolia. The reserve is home to about 60 argali, which are more tolerant of people and vehicles than the ones I’ve seen elsewhere, along with Siberian ibex, cinereous vultures, columbia rock doves and other birds. The rocky uplands cover a smaller area than Ikh Nart (no.6 below), and are easy to get around in on foot or by vehicle. There is a ger camp tucked up against one of the rock formations with an amazing view down the valley. A concrete “ger” serves as the dining hall and has a covered patio area. There is a toilet/shower block, for which the water is heated by solar power. Baga Gazriin Chuluu is about a six hour drive on an earth road southwest of Ulaanbaatar.
6. And last, but certainly not least, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, my destination when I first went to Mongolia on an Earthwatch project in spring of 2005. Ikh Nart may be the best all-around place to see wildlife in the country. There are argali mountain sheep, Siberian ibex, corsac fox, red fox, tolai hare, cinereous vultures, golden eagles, black kites, kestrels and many other birds. Nomadic Journeys also has an eco-ger camp here, Red Rocks, and offers guided and unguided trips. It is a great place to hike. There are fabulous rock formations, some of which have Tibetan inscriptions carved on them. You will need a GPS since, while there are some dirt tracks, there are no marked trails. This was the third stop on my Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition in July of 2009. Ikh Nart is a seven hour train ride or a five to six hour drive south and slightly east, mostly on tarmac, from Ulaanbaatar.
There are more photos in other posts on this blog. Look under “Mongolia” on the blog roll at the right or do a name search.
Two of the things I like best about traveling to Mongolia are staying in a ger and visiting people in their gers (“ger” means “home” in Mongolian).
Actress Julia Roberts was hosted by a family of horse trainers during the filming of an episode of the PBS series “Nature” called “The Wild Horses of Mongolia” (which isn’t what it was about, although there was a little takhi footage from Hustai National Park included). At the end, she’s sitting in a ger filled with Mongolians, looking into the camera with this big grin, saying something to the effect of “I’m sitting here in this ger and I don’t understand a word of what these people are saying, but I’m as happy and content as I’ve ever been in my life.”
Yup, she nailed it. I feel the same way. There’s something about the quality of space created by a ger that is very special. I’ve been in clean ones, dirty ones, sat on stools, beds and the floor, seen beautifully furnished ones and ones with next to nothing in them and I get the same content feeling in all of them. Hand me a bowl of suutei tsai (milk tea) or airag (fermented mare’s milk) and some aruul (dried yogurt) or tsotsgii (cream) and I’m a happy camper (and a cheap date too, I guess, although my husband would probably beg to differ). Anyway, here are some of my favorite images of gers from my four trips to Mongolia.
First, ger camps:
In 2005, I got to visit a ger factory and see how they are made:
Then we went to the Black Market where you can buy anything ger; from individual parts to the whole thing.
The research camp at Khomiin Tal (takhi reintroduction site) in western Mongolia is spectacularly sited in a river valley:
My first experience of staying in a ger was during my first trip to Mongolia on an Earthwatch project “Mongolian Argali” (now called “Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe”; highly recommended) in the spring of 2005. The camp is much bigger now; seven gers, two containers and a volleyball court: