The 2015 WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 5: Dorgon Nuur

Khar Nuur
Khar Nuur

After our relaxing break on the shores of Khar Nuur, we headed south along the east side of the lake to the beginning of the channel that joined it to Dorgon Nuur. What is interesting about all this is that Khar Nuur is a freshwater lake and Dorgon Nuur is 4% saline. One map I have shows the area of salinity in pink instead of blue. It starts at the far northern point of the channel, but I have been able to find no documentation or explanation for it, other than a suggestion that maybe there are salt deposits in that area.

Like everywhere else in Mongolia, the herder’s horses run loose in the countryside when not be used. Visitors consistently write or post about seeing “wild horses”, assuming that they are the equivalent of American mustangs, which are feral domestic horses. Mongol horses are very independent-minded, aren’t approachable by strangers and can give their owners a good run for their money trying to catch them. But the takhi/Przewalski’s horse is the only surviving true wild horse.

Local Mongol horses.
Local Mongol horses

There were lots of birds…cranes, herons, cormorants, gulls, terns, plovers, to name what I saw just passing by.

Traveling along the channel
Traveling along the connecting channel we saw a pair of demoiselle cranes

When we started out the ground was covered with species of low and high grasses. As we went south, the vegetation became more sparse and obviously adapted to less rainfall. The mountain in the background with its top in the clouds is Jargalant Hairkhan Uul, again an upcoming destination.

Vegetation change
Vegetation change

The vegetation finally petered out and we were running on hard gravel. I didn’t know how well these mirages would photograph and was pleased with what I got.

Mirage
Mirage

The “road”, which at this point was the treadmarks of previous vehicles, led away from the water for awhile on what was becoming sandier ground, but still hard.

Hard ground
Sandy ground with Jargalant Hairkhan Uul in the background. The channel is mid-photo on the left.

A second group of horses eyed us as we drove by.

More horses
More horses

We passed this group, drove on a bit and then just as I saw the four horses in the distance (next photo below), the driver stopped and said “Saiga!”. And there they were…four of them, two females with calves running right past the horses, who just stood there watching them go by. I kept shooting until they disappeared into the dunes in the background. We drove on a bit and suddenly I thought to tell the driver to stop. I got out my GPS and took a reading of our location. I was expecting to look for saiga on the plain on the other side of the lake and also to the south, not here. Then I asked the driver, who grew up in the area, if he had ever seen them on the east side up along where the channel was and this far north and he said no. So on my to do list very soon now that I’m caught up on a bunch of work I’ve had to do, some of which had deadlines, is to consult with the saiga researchers I know about and see if I’ve recorded something new. Whatever I find out, I’ll post about it.

Four saiga antelope
Four saiga antelope

We finally reached the shores of Dorgon Nuur and I got this shot of wild greylag geese taking off.

Dorgon Nuur
Dorgon Nuur

We were driving south on the east side of the lake, which is quite large. It is almost 15 miles long and 12 miles wide. The photo below shows the view to the south where the lakeshore curves around to the west.

Dorgon Nuur
Dorgon Nuur

We had nice easy driving for a time on this grass “earth” road.

Grassy road
Grassy road

Then we came to the stretch that I’d been warned about, at which the shore became sand. My tour company person had told me that the southern part of the lake was known as the “Riviera of Mongolia” because it’s where the sand meets the water.

Sandy road
Sandy road

He had also told me that when the lake level was high the only way to go forward was to drive into the water and that it would be up to the driver to decide whether or not to go. If not, it meant a really long detour to get around this section. And, in fact, here we were, with the “road” having disappeared completely into the water. We stopped and the driver got out and went to reconnoiter the situation around the bend of the dune. Would we go on? Or have to go back?

Driver
Driver checking out the situation

And here’s why we couldn’t just cut inland a bit and go around…high dunes of loose sand. One could see that horses moved through and over them just fine. So passage around this part of the lake only became a problem when cars, vans and trucks came along.

Dune next to where we were stopped
Dune next to where we were stopped

The driver came back, made a “going for it” gesture and off we went. I took the photo below through the windshield. The tires on my side seemed to stay a little on the wet sand. No way did the driver want the wheels in the loose stuff higher up. Getting stuck doing this would have meant a long, long delay. No roadside assistance in Mongolia unless someone stopped. And we hadn’t seen another vehicle all day. This was clearly a “road less traveled” and then some.

Around the dune
Around the dune

We made it around the dune and picked up the road again, which was on sand, but not too soft.

Around the corner
Around the corner

We came upon a pair of whooper swans and stopped so I could get some photos of them.

Whooper swans
Whooper swans

And then we came to another, even longer, stretch of dunes that came right down to the water. Once again the driver got out to see what was ahead. Took a look, came back to the car, got in and off we went.

Another recon
Another recon

This time I set my Nikon D750 for video. I’d been having some problems with the lens, so this is a little out of focus, but it gives the feeling of what road travel is like in a way that still photos can’t.

Now we could see that there was a grassy edge the rest of the way.

Clear sailing ahead
Clear sailing ahead

We finally arrived at the curved south end of the lake. No more sand. This was rock and gravel. And a beach!

At the south end of the lake
At the south end of the lake

With camels!

Bactrian camels
Bactrian camels

The beach is a weekend destination for local people who live in Chandmani, the soum center (county seat) an hour or two away.

Local people
Local people camping out and swimming in the lake

We headed farther off down the beach (Love using the word “beach” in a post about Mongolia and am enjoying it while I can!) and picked a spot to set up the tents. It was quite windy, but not cold.

Our campsite
Our campsite

The surrounding scenery was great. And then, to end an adventurous (for me, anyway) day, we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.

Sunset, Dorgon Nuur
Sunset, Dorgon Nuur

The next morning brought calm weather and hordes (the only word in Mongolian that has made it into English, along with a version of “hooray”) of mosquitos. We packed up as quickly as possible and headed on west and then south to look for critically endangered saiga antelope. And that will be the subject of the next Expedition post.

 

 

 

 

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 4: Khomyn Tal to Khar Nuur; On the Road Again

What's over that hill?
What’s over that hill?

This post won’t show any great sights. Some of that is coming up. But it does give an idea of what travel between destinations is like, what’s out there along the road is interesting in its own way and almost always things that most visitors either don’t see or pass by. I love just rolling along on the earth roads through the enroute days, grabbing shots from the car as we go, doing a quick sketch or two when we stop for lunch. I never find it boring, no matter what the landscape is. Something nifty, cool or interesting shows up every day. It’s a kind of vacation for me….nothing really to do, the driver knows where we’re headed, knows to stop for wildlife and I can just relax into simply being in Mongolia, where the journey really will be the destination if you let it.

We had left Khomyn Tal and headed southwest towards a small lake the driver knew about and then would go on to Khar Us Nuur National Park. We were in an area I’d never been to before, so when we started up this gentle rise (above photo and also previous post), I had no idea what I’d see. And here’s the view, looking across a steppe area to the lake, a line of dunes and the mountains in the park beyond. It was a beautiful day and not too hot. “Bag” means “small” in Mongolian and “nuur” means “lake”, so Baga Nuur=Small Lake, which it was.

Baga Nuur
Baga Nuur

On our way there we passed a some people getting out of the sun in a jury-rigged shelter, something I hadn’t seen before.

Local herders
Local herders

The lake was big enough that I couldn’t get any shots of all of it, even when we parked on the top of a dune to get an overview. There were a lot of shorebirds in a few spots.

Baga Nuur
Baga Nuur
Baga Nuur
Baga Nuur

We continued north towards Khar Nuur (Black Lake), one of the two large lakes on the east side of the park. There were gers and livestock scattered around. This photo kind of sums up Mongolia today…horses on a picket line ready to ride and and a car. I have no patience at all with westerners who moan and go on about how the traditional way of life of the quaint and picturesque herders has been “spoiled” by modern things like, oh, mobile phones, solar panels, satellite dishes, etc., any and all of which they may have themselves.

Local herders
Local herders

We came upon this enclosure with the family engaged in shearing their sheep. The driver spoke with one of the men, who was shirtless and had the deepest tan I’ve ever seen, clearly someone who’d spent their life outdoors. I try to be discrete when photographing people, so stayed in the car and got just a few shots.

Sheep-shearing
Sheep-shearing

As we approached the lake we encountered this stretch of soft sand and dunes that had to be crossed. That’s the “road” in the photo. I had been told about this and remembered it from going to Khomyn Tal in 2006. Last year, when my tour company person and I were planning the Expedition route it had meant that the trip would have to use Russian fergon vans. It turned out that the Land Cruiser drivers out west can handle it, but sitting next to my driver I could see the specialized observation and skill set that was needed. It’s this kind of experience, repeated in different parts of the country with different drivers over the years, that has taught me what I know to be true about road travel in Mongolia.

Onward through the sand
Onward through the sand

We finally came to the spot where the southern end of the lake joins a south-flowing channel that connects with another lake, Dorgon Nuur.

Khar Nuur
Khar Nuur

Through my guide I had told the driver about my 2006 trip and mentioned camping on the shore at the site of a large log bridge that was partly collapsed. And there it was…

The broken bridge
The broken bridge

I did not walk out on it, but the driver and guide did. There was another car with some people on the other side. Being from the area, the driver knew them, so they had a visit while I took photos.  I have no idea why the bridge has never been repaired or replaced. Not having it means that people have to to quite a long way around to get to the area between the east and western lakes where Chandmani, the soum center is located. Here’s what the same bridge looked like at sunrise in 2006. I think you can see why I’ve wanted to go back again and have more time to explore than just two days. That’s Jargalant Hairkhan Uul in the background and there will be a LOT more about that mountain in future posts.

Log bridge in 2006
Log bridge in 2006

We drove back north to the Khar Nuur shore proper. The driver stopped and asked if we should camp here. Yes, yes, yes!

Will this do?
Will this do?

Here’s our campsite. My tent’s in the foreground on the left. It wasn’t too hot and there weren’t too many mosquitos. I could walk barefoot in the grass. We all bathed and waded in the lake, washed our hair and did laundry. It was a refreshing break from the heat and “mozzies” at Khomyn Tal.

Khar Nuur campsite
Khar Nuur campsite

There was a very nice sunset to watch and one could see that it was raining to the west. Summer is the rainy season in Mongolia and since the quality of the grass it produces affects how well the livestock will do in surviving the winter, I’m always happy to see rain and never think poorly of it even when it goes on for, oh, say, 16+ hours (that was later on after the Expedition).

Sunset
Sunset

Mongols don’t generally eat breakfast (the guides do if they’re with a group and sometimes the drivers), but I needed something in the morning. This trip was different because before we left Hovd, instead of a cook having purchased all the food before leaving UB or a town shop en route, the driver, guide and I did the grocery shopping together in the big Nomin Supermarket, which was really fun. The guide and I even chose a couple of bottles of wine and we made sure there were plenty of snacks, yogurt and canned fruit. The driver, who was also the cook, made sure there were plenty of dinner supplies like dried meat (boortz) and noodles for “soup”. The cost for all the food for three people for two weeks was about $100. We’d done the same when Turuu was with us, so I now had a pretty good idea of what everyone liked and what was needed. I was quite happy to find this box of German muesli, which is basically what I eat on weekdays at home. “Cyy” is milk. There were also lots of different kinds of fruit juices available and we had what was needed for morning coffee, so I was set.

Cereal and milk
Cereal and milk

The next “episode” will be another day on the road, but one of the more adventurous days of the entire Expedition. Stay tuned….

 

 

The 3rd WildArt Mongolia Expedition/Explorers Club Flag Expedition Has Returned!

At Khomyn Tal with Flag 179 and takhi/Przewalski's horses in the background.
At Khomyn Tal with Flag 179 and takhi/Przewalski’s horses in the background

I’m back in Ulaanbaatar, tired after three weeks in the field (resting today at a comfortable hotel, the Bayangol) but very, very pleased with the Expedition and its results. There will be a series of posts on all aspects of the 3rd WildArt Mongolia Expedition once I’m home, but for now I’ll share some favorite images with you. Consider these the appetizer…

In chronological order:

Hokh Serkiin Nuruu and Kazakh horsemen
Hokh Serkiin Nuruu Nature Reserve and some of the Kazakh horsemen who were hired to find and drive the argali
Hokh Serkiin Nuruu Nature Reserve; argali capture site with nets
Hokh Serkiin Nuruu Nature Reserve; argali capture site with nets ready to unroll and set up
Countryside scene enroute from Hokh Serkhiin Nuruu to Hovd
Countryside scene enroute from Hokh Serkhiin Nuruu to Hovd
Khar Us Nuur reedbeds; we stopped here for lunch
Khar Us Nuur reedbeds; we stopped here for lunch
Turuu wading at the "beach" on the east shore of Khar Us Nuur; he's a student I met last year who is quite a good artist and he came along on the first two weeks of the Expedition at my invitation
Turuu wading at the “beach” on the east shore of Khar Us Nuur; he’s a student I met last year who is quite a good artist and he came along on the first two weeks of the Expedition at my invitation
Maikhan Nature Reserve campsite with aspens
Maikhan Nature Reserve campsite with aspens
Jargalant Hairhan Uul in Khar Us Nuur National Park campsite in valley; ovoo is across from a sacred spring
Jargalant Hairhan Uul (in Khar Us Nuur National Park) campsite in valley; ovoo is across from a sacred spring
Khomyn Tal and takhi
Khomyn Tal and takhi
Khomyn Tal takhi
Khomyn Tal takhi; I saw all 53 horses over three days
Khar Nuur campsite
Khar Nuur campsite
Khur Nuur moonrise over Jargalant Hairhan Uul
Khar Nuur moonrise over Jargalant Hairhan Uul
Dorgon Nuur at sunset
Dorgon Nuur at sunset
Viewpoint in Khar Us Nuur National Park from which one can see three sacred mountains, including Hokh Serkiin Nuruu
Viewpoint in Khar Us Nuur National Park from which one can see three sacred mountains, including Hokh Serkiin Nuruu
Chandmani street scene; we went into the soum center to buy groceries and other supplies
Chandmani street scene; we went into the soum center to buy groceries and other supplies
Statue in Chandmani dating from socialist times
Statue in Chandmani dating from socialist times
A woman named Tsendayush who I met in one of the shops
A woman named Tsendayush who I met in one of the shops (photo by Narankhuu Sukhbat)
The second valley on Jargalant Hairkhan Uul that we camped in; the mountain is snow leopard habitat with currently 37 cats
The second valley on Jargalant Hairkhan Uul that we camped in; the mountain, which has many peaks, is snow leopard habitat with a currently estimated population of 37 cats; this image was taken of the slopes above a winter livestock shelter
Two camels came past our camp on Jargalant Hairkhan Uul while I was sketching
Two camels came past our camp on Jargalant Hairkhan Uul while I was sketching
Drawing the rock falls in the stream that runs through the second valley
Drawing the rock falls in the stream that runs through the second valley (photo by Narankhuu Sukhbat)

And to give credit where credit is due…no one does a trip like this alone. Those of us who travel deep into the countryside of Mongolia have to rely on our guides and drivers to get us there and back again. To mine, show below, a heartfelt “bayarlalaa”.

My guide and driver who made the Expedition possible: Narankhuu Sukhbat and Damdin Birvaa
My guide and driver: Narankhuu Sukhbat and Damdin Birvaa (photo by Turuu)

Thank you also to Jan Wigsten and the staff at Nomadic Journeys, who have provided all my travel resources and logistics since 2006.