Edit Blog Post
Published: August 13th 2017
After having such an amazing time working on a volcano in Nicaragua last year I thought I’d check out what other expeditions were on offer from the same volunteer charity, Earthwatch. After a perusal of all the exciting locations I decided I fancied a trip to the wilds of Mongolia, well why not.
What did I know about Mongolia? Not a lot, mostly Genghis Khan (actually it’s Chinggis), horses and Gers (Yurt is the Russian name for them, I’ve re-educated myself to get it right!). I was also told about something called ‘Mongolian Death Worms’ as well, however I think my leg was being pulled a bit on that one. I signed up for a trip called ‘Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe’, got a visa, booked some flights, packed my rucksack and headed off into the unknown.
With no direct flights to Ulaanbataar (henceforth to be known as UB) I decided to go via Beijing and make use of the Chinese visa I was still in possession of from last year. On the way out, I had a quick stop over in Beijing then caught a flight to UB. Heading north from Beijing for about an hour and a
In the centre of UB, recently renamed after Mongolia's favourite son
half, it struck me that most of the journey was over what looked like desert and where I was headed was going to be a bit toasty. As the plane came into land I spotted many white circles on the ground, suddenly realising that they were gers and they were everywhere.
I arrived in UB the day before the expedition officially started and so was expecting to have to get myself from Chinggis Khaan airport into the city but to my delight as I entered the arrivals hall there was someone there waiting to pick me up, a very good start to the trip. UB is quite a sprawling city these days housing just under half of the three million population of Mongolia. The centre is a mix of Soviet classical style buildings and modern skyscrapers, notably the Blue Sky Tower dominates the downtown area. My guesthouse was tucked away in a small square close to the centre of town and after checking in I took a walk around town to get my bearings.
My first stop was the vast Chinggis Square in the heart of UB. It’s an imposing square, surrounded by lots of Soviet style building
The man himself
You can't escape Chinggis..
and a huge statue of Chinggis at one end. After the recent political situation in the UK I was looking forward to getting away from it all but as I entered the square I realised I’d walked straight into the middle of the Mongolian general election. Still it made for an interesting experience and I enjoyed watching the locals flag waving around the square. I wandered around for a bit longer but then jet lag got the better of me and I headed back for a much needed nap.
Later that evening the other volunteers going on the expedition arrived, last year there had been about ten but this year it turned out we were only three. The rest of the group was going to be made up of staff and others associated with Denver Zoo in the USA and then Mongolian research students.
The next morning after a good night’s rest, myself and the other volunteers (Angela and Cassidy) had a free day before we met the rest of the team for dinner so we headed out for some breakfast Mongolian style. After some tasty breakfast dumplings, we found ourselves at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral
Old and new
The National Academic Drama Theatre dwarfed by modern towers. Sadly it was closed due to the election when we wanted to visit.
who were celebrating their 25th
anniversary (religion wasn’t really allowed under Communism).
To celebrate they were having a mini-festival which included some Mongolian dancing and lots of wrestling (called Bökh). Apparently wrestling is part of the ‘Three Manly Skills’ along with horse riding and archery and is still very popular in Mongolian. Guidebooks advise you not to join in if you are asked for a wrestle, luckily, it’s not a skill required for us females so we didn’t have to join in. However, a visiting guy from Hong Kong wasn’t quite so lucky as his group volunteered (forced) him to have a go. He looked a bit unsure but gave it a good go and managed to survive with only minimal blood loss. It was great fun to watch, I’m not sure UK Health and Safety would approve of the young boys throwing each other around on the gravel but they certainly were having a great time. After some more delicious dumplings for lunch, we headed back to the guesthouse for a rest. It turns out in UB most of the cars are second hand Hybrid cars and anyone is available to be your taxi for the right price
The Blue Sky Tower
Dominates the UB skyline, apparently the toilets in the bar at the top of the tower are worth a visit, I didn't get a chance myself.
although the traffic in the city can be pretty bad, it seems like quite a good system. That evening we had dinner with the staff from Denver Zoo and then prepared for our big trip south the next morning.
We were up early and headed off to UB station to catch the train south on the Trans-Mongolian line. Although it was daytime we still had the luxury of a sleeper carriage which is one of my most favourite ways to travel. We were heading seven or so hours south to Shevi Gobi where we would alight the train and drive off into the wilds of the Gobi Steppe. As we left UB the train passed through the ‘Ger Districts’ of the city, many fenced off plots each with a Ger. The scenery soon changed from the rolling grasslands around UB to more barren, desert like conditions. The train passed through many small stations each staffed by a guard in a jaunty red hat. As the hours passed, the temperature rose, mobile phone reception ceased and we finally arrived at our stop pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
We loaded up into the 4x4s and drove another hour
After the mess of UK politics in the last year I was looking forward to getting away from it all, only to arrive just in time for the Mongolian elections. Nice flags though.
or so to the place we would call home for the next ten days, Ihk Nart nature reserve. The official description is “The Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve (Ikh Nart) is a nature reserve located in the Dornogobi Aimag or East Gobi Province of Mongolia. Established in 1996, Ikh Nart covers an area of about 66,000 hectares of grassland and semi-desert steppe environments and harbours one of the last remaining populations of Argali Sheep.”
Arriving in camp was very exciting, we were staying at the permanent scientific camp they have established in the nature reserve. The camp sits in a small valley surrounded on both sides by layers of brown rocks which resemble many things but the most fitting description I heard was they were like stacks of pancakes.
The first task was being assigned accommodation, I was in in ger 2 along with the other two volunteers and extra ger-mate Lauren, who was the non-scientist of the group and here to discuss crafts with the local ladies. We then had a tour of the camp and were introduced to the pony poo compositing toilets, solar showers, the spring and most importantly, the kitchen ger, source of many
Traditional Mongolian dancing
Involving balancing bowls on their heads, smashing.
delicious meals to come. Before dinner a few of us climbed ‘Camel rock’ above camp to enjoy the sunset and views over camp, it was most certainly a very special place to be.
After a very comfortable first night in the ger, the first morning in camp was spent being briefed on the research we were going to assist in and some tips on survival in the Mongolian Steppe. It was very hot, over 30C most of the time so clearly drinking lots of water was on the cards. The altitude was over 1000m as well, so it paid to keep your hat on when walking around in the intense sun. We also learned a few tips of ger etiquette, some examples are you are never meant to walk between the two posts in the centre of the ger as that is where the hearth should be and this is very special for Mongolians, also you should sleep with your head facing the door in case of marauding hordes.
My first research task was to help in trying to find pika and mark pika nests. Pika, for those of you unfamiliar with them (as I was), are small,
It seems wrestling is rather popular in Mongolia for all ages, I can't see this catching on for UK kids, the poor darlings are far too delicate.
furry mammals who hang around the Mongolian Steppe. They are a bit like small rabbits but with round ears and this was to be the first of many pika hunts on the trip. They have very distinct nests which are easy to find as they cleverly collect and distribute small rocks around the entrances to their nests. The work mostly involved walking with a GPS and marking when you came across a nest, the difficulty being deciding if the nest was active or not. Most of the nests seem to be inactive and the pika remained elusive for many days, but it was a great way to enjoy the steppe and get a hike in. After a few hours of pika hunting we headed back to camp and on the horizon it looked as if a dust storm was heading our way, this lead to a frenzy of activity by the students to close up the gers and make them dust proof. We would get used to this activity every time the wind got up or the rain started, they all very proficient in ger maintenance.
Most evenings after dinner, volunteers were requested to help set up the small
Time for the big boys to fight
They are tough these Mongolians, but they do like to give each other a cheeky pat on the bum if they win.
mammal traps. This was a fun activity as we would drive out to a couple of locations at dusk, set up 100 metal Sherman traps in the hope to catch a sample of mammals and tag them. With a big group of us going each evening it never took long but it was amazing to go and see the steppe at dusk and driving around in the 4x4s was always great fun as you would spot camels, antelopes and Argali sheep wandering around. The small mammal research is part of a long-term study and repeated over many years to give a good indication of the mammal population and if it is changing year by year.
As the traps are left over night and are also made of metal, we had to get out at dawn to check them and shut them off so no animals got stuck in them during the heat of the day. A 6am start was the norm for anyone wanting to help check the traps to ensure the animals are checked and tagged. Each person would check a row of ten traps and if you had an animal you would up-end it and then we
Ulaanbaatar means 'Red Hero'. For all you fellow redheads out there, you can now describe yourself in Mongolian.
would go from catch to catch to measure the animals. Most of the catches were hamsters of varying types and boy, they are SO cute!! Also, we had a few jerboas which have crazy long back legs and then a few gerbils, each one was weighed, measured, tagged and then released. Once our work was done it was back to camp for a tasty breakfast although I didn’t take to the local yoghurt, way too sour for me.
Our next task was some work to try and help with soil and water conservation in the valley around the camp. Over the time the camp has been in the valley quite a few of the springs nearby have dried up and when the rains come a lot of soil washes away. We were tasked with building two types of rock structures to slow down water flow and help build up sediment to help encourage plant growth, very noble I’m sure you will agree! In the heat we would only do the building for a couple of hours but it was quite strenuous work. We had to scout around for suitable rocks then build them up into small dams or structures
Thomas the Tank Engine's Russian cousin?
A rather impressive engine at UB station.
known as ‘Zuni Bowls’. Flat rocks are best for these structures and we soon used up all the available ones in the vicinity. Working together we quickly build lots of different structures once the rains came we could immediately see how effective they are as sediment would build up and green shoots appeared overnight.
After all the hard work we had lunch and a rest them headed out in the cars that afternoon for a bit of pika hunting and vulture tracking. The vulture work was similar to being on safari, it was a relaxing affair as you were driven around to various nests to see if the vultures had chicks. If an adult bird is in the nest then there is usually a chick in there. They generally get a bit of bad press but they are quite doting parents, if they have a chick then one parent stays there all the time. We arrived at one empty nest and climbed up to it and actually got to stand in it, they are huge, I couldn’t believe the size of them. I grew quite fond of vultures during my time in camp, they are quite amazing as they
Our train to Ikh Nart
Catch the train north, you end up in Russia, head south, it's China. Not a train you want to fall asleep on and miss your stop.
can fly as high as commercial jets and the research performed in Ikh Nart has found that the young birds have recently started fly to South Korea for the summer which was previously unknown.
That evening we were given an impromptu wrestling tournament from the students, it turns out Mongolians are quite competitive and can turn any task into a competition, so if you want to get Mongolians to do something, say it is a competition!
The next morning it was small mammals before breakfast then we headed out to go and find some Saker falcon fledglings so they could be tagged before they got too good at flying. This has to be one of the most hilarious moments of the trip, before we knew what was going on, the cars would stop abruptly, the students would jump out of the cars and run off into the distance after the young birds. We enjoyed this from the comfort of the cars but it was hilarious to watch them running about, they are so quick and with a bit of coordination manage to catch the birds. I decided this would be another activity to add to my newly forming
Suburbia Mongolian style
The capital is surrounded by many 'Ger districts' where people live in their gers in a fenced off bit of land.
idea of an exercise regime, my ‘Mongolian Boots Camp’. Flat rock collecting, falcon chasing, pika hunting, all these activities are much better exercise than any class I’ve attending back home.
Once again, when the falcons were caught, they were weighed, measured, tagged and released back into the wild. Sadly a lot of Saker falcon chicks are taken by people so it was great they got to tag them before found by the bad guys. Later that afternoon we visited a small cave used by monks to hide from the communists and also had a walk around some amazing rock formations, at this point I was starting to see many different shapes in the rocks, I think I was getting some Mongolian madness..
My next outing the following day was with a team going to monitor kestrel nests. This was going to be a full day’s hike so I was looking forward to the day. We set out from camp after breakfast and headed over the hill into the wild. Hiking is fantastic there as there is so much wildlife around, herds of horses are everywhere as are camels, gazelles, ibex and the Argali sheep, not to mention all
I was starting to get a sense of isolation in Mongolia
the different species of birds. What else is apparent is the huge amount of poo and skeletons there are to be found on the steppe. We live in such sanitised surroundings normally, it is a bit of a shock how many dead things are out there, let alone the amount of droppings left by all the animals, you soon get used to poo everywhere!
We arrived at our location, set up camp under a shady tree then climbed up to check the kestrel nest and see how many chicks were in it. The first chick out of the nest was cute and fluffy, then we got the rest of them out and realised the first one was clearly the runt of the litter. We all got a little concerned for the small chick, named him Eugene and made sure he got placed on the top when we put him back to he could get his share of food, never get emotionally attached to wildlife, I still fear for little Eugene…
After we had measured the chicks we set the traps (humane) to try and catch their parents, once set there was a lot of waiting but as soon
Choir station (pronuched more like 'chore' than 'choir' I think).
One of the bigger stations on the Trans-Mongolian Railway. We were allowed 10 minutes to stretch our legs.
as one got caught, the students ran at top speed and climbed up to release the birds, definitely another activity to add to my Mongolian Boot Camp, speed climbing. After the usual processing we released the birds with the hope that poor Eugene would get plenty of food to make him strong.
We had a bit of a hike home which took us up through Viper Valley (luckily we didn’t spot any) but by this point the weather had finally deteriorated and the much needed rains had started. We were all rather overjoyed at this as it had been so hot for days however we suddenly realised there was a bit of lightning heading our way and this is not what you want on the steppe. Our guides were very experienced though and took our rucksacks, pointed at a rocky outcrop in the distance and yelled ‘run!’ at us and off we went at top speed to safety. We sat out the storm then made it back to a warm welcome at camp, it certainly makes you realise that you can’t mess around too much in this environment, thankfully we were being guided by experts.
That evening preparations
Time to get off - Shevi Gobi train station (stop #22)
We met our transport while the train kept on rolling south to China.
were being made for the Khorkhog the next day, sadly this meant for one creature a not very pleasant ending. A Khorkhog is a traditional way of cooking meat inside a container with hot stones and water thus we needed some meat and a goat was selected to give its life. As most people in camp were trained biologists there was a very matter of fact attitude to death of the goat, circle of life etc and so most people (including me) opted to watch the act. It’s never a pleasant thing to watch but as we were all going to eat it, most people witnessed the event. Of course the Mongolians don’t waste any part of the animal and care is taken to ensure the process is quick and painless as possible, I’ll spare you the details here but if you want to know, just ask..
We were now half way through camp time and had earned Saturday afternoon off. After a morning pika survey we still hadn’t spotted any, I was starting to think they weren’t real. After lunch it was time for a bit of tourist activity and we got to visit a ger of one
Welcome to Ikh Nart
Since I only learned about 5 words of Mongolia (2 of them a bit rude) I'm afraid I can't translate this for you.
of the local families. It was the ger they live in in summer, decorated with beautifully coloured furniture and fabrics. We were also given some traditional snacks made from goat’s milk, I can’t say I was much of a fan, all a bit sour for my tastes but I guess it is what you are used to. Then in camp we were treated to a visit by some local women who are trying to build up a craft business. They demonstrated the process of making felt by hand and I purchased some rather comfy slippers from them, then it was Khorkhog time and I have to say it was delicious, we all thanked the goat who gave it’s life for us.
Our day wasn’t quite finished yet, since it was Saturday night that meant it was disco night! Yes really, disco night in the Gobi Steppe, who’d have thought it. The disco was in a small holiday/health camp on the outskirts of the nature reserve. It was rather a bleak place with rows of huts, old Russian railway carriages and small health springs, but every Saturday night is party night and I think the DJ enjoyed himself so much
Homely or horrific?
Camp decor seemed to consist of lots of dead things. This once was an Argali sheep before it was vulture food.
he probably would have carried even if no one else came. It was good fun but a bit odd for us Westerners as they do a lot of waltzing in the disco, it took some getting used to!
It was back to work the following morning, this time I helped out with Vegetation work, not the most glamorous of the tasks but just as important, we soon got familiar with many of the local plants, Stipa Gobica, Artemisia and randomly; onions. The day was very hot and we managed to count plants until mid-afternoon but had to go back for some shade but dinner that night was a treat of Mongolian steamed dumplings, called ‘Buuz’, delicious.
The next few days were the familiar routine of small mammals, pika, kestrels, dam building and camp life. I was starting to feel very much at home in camp, it was an amazing place to be and I loved being there. Towards the end of the second week the weather started to cool and we had one night of thunderstorms which were very welcome although gers can be a bit leaky. Still it gave us a chance to see if our stone
Ihk Nart Scientific Research Camp
If you want to get away from it all, this is a pretty good option.
dams were working and it appeared they were doing the trick, they were helping to stop the soil erosion in the valley.
There were two last areas of research left to try, bat monitoring and Argali sheep tracking. For the bats we needed to wait for suitable conditions and then set up a fine net over the camp watering hole and waited patiently with a bat detector for the night’s catch. The detector allows you to identify the species by detecting the frequency of their call, clever stuff. Once caught we took down the details and released them, they are quite cute but have very sharp teeth!
For the Argali work, all that was required was to walk 5km transects and note down any sheep on the way, so basically a good hike with lots of wildlife spotting on the way, it was lots of fun. Time in camp was drawing to a close too quickly and before we knew it we were preparing to catch the train back to UB. I really didn’t want to go.
However, before we had to leave we finally got to see an elusive pika, one was caught in one of
Welcome to Ger 2
My home for the next 10 days, note the turned up sides, that's ger air conditioning.
the Sherman traps (despite everyone saying they never go in them) and so the students brought it to camp to show the rest of us, they are rather cute and I was very pleased I got to see one before I left the steppe.
Last day in camp and the students packed up and left for the long drive back to UB, we were catching the train that night and so hung around a few hours longer. While waiting we ended up helping with making the dumplings for dinner. This time it was the fried dumplings; Khuushuur. It turned into a dumpling crimping competition and I am pleased to say my dumplings were judged to be the best, yet another string to my bow…
Sadly we said goodbye to camp and headed back to catch the night train to UB, we had a few hours to kill in the local town and so went for a drink at the local Karaoke bar, the Mongolians seem very fond of karaoke which is no bad thing in my book. Then we jumped on the sleeper train north and woke up next morning in UB.
It was odd to be
The ger doors and furniture are all decorated in the traditional orange with very beautiful designs
back in a city, no one wanted to turn on their phones or look at the news, it was a refreshing change to be offline for a couple of weeks, a rare occurrence in this day and age. Our time as group together wasn’t yet over and we had a trip to a cashmere outlet and were meant to go to see a dance show but as the General Election that was held when I arrived was a draw, they were holding another one and so the theatre was closed and there was a three day ban on alcohol in the city!
That evening we had a final dinner together as a group, a tasty Mongolian BBQ. It was odd to see the students in their city clothes, then it was a sad goodbye but we made them promise to look after poor little Eugene for us.
The group was breaking up in dribs and drabs, some people were heading off to do some more travel, a few of us had a couple more days in UB before we headed home. I had one more thing I needed to accomplish before I left Mongolia and that was to
take a ride on a Mongolian horse. Myself and one of my new friends, Laurie, went on a day trip to achieve my dream. We had a couple of other stops on our itinerary, then it was pony time.
We headed north to the beautiful Gorkhi-Terelj National Park outside UB, a very popular park for people wanting to escape the city. The park is absolutely stunning and quite different to Ikh Nart, much more Alpine and mountainous, they even have yaks. Our first stop of the day was to climb up to the pretty Terelj Buddhist monastery, a bit of a hike but worth it for the views down the valley. After the monastery we drove to find out mounts, we only opted for an hour’s ride but being a bit out of practice that was enough for me. Mongolian horses are rather small and being rather small myself that suits me just fine, I’ve fallen off bigger horses and it’s a long way down. We rode along a river bed, in and out of the water, it was great fun and in such a lovely place, I was really enjoying it. I was starting to get quite comfortable
on my horse by the end, making me wish we were going for a longer ride after all.
Our last stop of the day was the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue, a rather spectacular 40ft gleaming statue standing tall over the area where it is said Chinggis found a golden whip. You are able to climb up inside the statue and gaze over the surrounding lands, Chinggis would have loved it.
And so my time in Mongolia was drawing to a close, on my last morning a few of us visited the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery in the centre of UB before heading to the airport and catching a flight to Beijing. I treated myself to some dumplings at the airport and bid my goodbyes to a wonderful country. I had one day to kill in Beijing, I booked into a nice hotel and adjusted back to modern life. Beijing has changed quite a lot since my first visit and as I have done most of the sites already I opted for a relaxing day. It was incredibly hot though, so I didn’t manage much more than a stroll to look at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I did
manage a conversation in Chinese with a local, so I was pleased at that, then I ate nice food and rested, well I think I had earned a day being lazy.
It was an amazing trip, it was great to work with people so enthusiastic about what they do and where they are. The work they do is fantastic and hopefully my efforts helped them a bit, I enjoyed it anyway. And I’d especially like to thank my ger mates for making it such fun and for all their spider removal help, for that I can’t thank them enough!
Tot: 4.022s; Tpl: 0.081s; cc: 30; qc: 111; dbt: 0.0742s; 3; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.7mb