In 2018, myself and around 20 other intrepid travellers, visited Western Mongolia, as part of a Scientific Exploration Society sponsored trip, led by John Blashford-Snell OBE. We undertook various archaeology, zoology and botany studies, as well as giving medical and dental aid to local communities. Here is my personal day by day diary of a remarkable journey, and a link to the full 50-minute video of our trip (link above)
Sat 7th JULY: Arrival in Ulaanbaatar.
Arrive in Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar after a relatively easy trip from Singapore, connecting in Beijing’s shiny airport.
I meet Jane and Bob in the minibus, they arrived the day before but had to return to the airport to retrieve their baggage which had got delayed. Feel relieved that mine is here safe and sound, especially given my previous experience of Air China. Bob is a giant American and has just done an expedition discovering dinosaur bones in the Gobi Desert. Woah, I’m actually sharing a minibus with a Dinosaur Hunter. Good start.
I check into the hotel, which is perfectly acceptable, fairly modern and clean. I say hello to John Blashford-Snell, our expedition leader, and meet some of the others. I’m sharing a room with Mark. He’s out when I enter the room, though the evidence of my roommate is scattered all around the room. I try to guess at what kind of character he is, possibly a bit of a risk taker since his wallet and other personal stuff is out in clear view
I have a freshen up and then set off to have a quick explore of the area around the hotel.
The main square it turns out is only ten minutes away and has some kind of festival in progress with many Gers (better known as Yurts, though no-one calls them that here) with photography and local crafts being displayed inside. I take a couple of photographs and head back to the hotel. By the time I get back, it’s already occupied by Mark who blearily greets me, having been woken up from his jet-lagged slumber. Seems like a good bloke. Let’s hope he doesn’t snore.
John does a briefing, outlining what to expect. After, a few of us video geeks stay back to discuss what we want to capture. That night we go or for our first meal together. They seem a good bunch and one thing I realise already from one night is that after 12 years of living abroad, I really miss the humour of English people.
After dinner and a few drinks, I hit the sack.
O shit. What the f**k is that god-awful noise. A deep resonant rumble, followed by spluttering, and then some weird whistling in-take of air. Feck. It’s Mark, snoring. Bastard.
Sunday 8th. Ulanbataar and Football
In the morning, we go for a quick tour around UB to a couple of temples, neither particularly remarkable (after spending so much time in SE Asia I’ve got a bit blasé about temples) and the Museum, which does a good job of explaining Mongolia’s history. The rain sets in around lunchtime so we return to the hotel for some nap time.
In the early evening, we walk over the neighbouring theatre to enjoy a few hours of Mongolian entertainment, including the unworldly sounding throat singing, perhaps the definitive signature sound of Mongolia
Tonight coincides with England playing in the world cup. At dinner we happily discover that the restaurant has a large screen, so we watch the first half there. Jack, the youngest of the groups, and JBS’s grandson, is a rabid England fan. We cram in a few beers, watch the first half, then peg it back to the hotel at half time. Conveniently there is a large marquee right in front of the hotel, and we watch the second half and a confident England beat Sweden. Watching the rest of the fixtures later in the trip may not be so easy.
Back to the hotel room. Earplugs firmly inserted. Pillow clamped around exposed upturned ear. Nope. Can still hear him snoring. Bastard.
Monday 9th. Khovt and the Buyant River
Today we fly the 2-3 hours to the Western city of Khovt, and there we board the various Russian trucks and 4WD’s that will provide much of the logistical transport for the rest of the trip. This being a predominantly British trip, the first stop we make is at a local supermarket where we stock up on 600 cans of beer, assorted whisky and some local vodka for good measure. God forbid we run dry.
That safely achieved we make our way South to the first camp site, first on reasonable roads, before turning off for the last km’s on rough gravel and rocky terrain. The camp site is beautiful. Two flowing rivers bisect our little camp area. A large rocky outcrop on the far bank of the Buyant river provides a dramatic backdrop, and numerous large birds of prey fly all around us. Magical. An area of lush green grass provides ample space for the 25 or so tents, plus the large kitchen tent, and other essential facilities. Now where the fuck is Mark pitching his tent so I can make sure I’m well away from it.
There is one major bummer to this site though, as we all quickly discover. Mosquitos. And not just the odd one or two one might encounter back home. Nope. We are talking about thousands of them. Persistent buggers too. Word has obviously spread amongst them that some nice fresh blood was in town, and the little shits make the most of the banquet of flesh on offer. I notice that Yasmin, who started the trip off being perfectly presentable, now resembles some kind of blotchy tomato. I don’t fare much better. The mosquitoes also seem to be able to bite right through clothing which seems rather unfair. I lather myself with insect repellent, which gives some temporary relief, but does nothing to ease the itchiness of previous bites.
After lunch we go to ‘Nadaam’ near Khovd for the start of a three day Mongolia sports event. We arrive at a grass arena enclosed by a fence and wooden pavilions. It’s the day before the main event and the children are practising their dance routines. Elsewhere the archery competition has already started. We spend a few hours here, before heading back to camp, a few beers and the dreaded mosquitos.
After dinner, I head out with Nasta, our naturalist, to set Sherman traps and to spotlight for animals. The Sherman traps are small collapsible cages, baited with rice, and just big enough to capture small mammals. We set around 15 traps, and then spot some small Jerboa hopping around the dry river beds.
Finally, it’s back to the tent, 15 minutes of mosquito extermination, before a pretty solid night’s sleep.
Tues 10th Naadam Festival, Gay Wrestling, Caves and Shooting Stars
A couple of us get up early to go and retrieve the previous evenings Sherman traps. All but one are empty, but we do manage to capture one Siberian Jerboa, a delightful little creature, a bit like a miniature kangaroo with it’s overly developed hind legs.
Then after our usual breakfast, we head back to the Nadaam festival and take a seat in the pavilion. Today it’s crowded, and obviously quite a major festival, and the site is full of gers, cars, horses, children, Mongolian warriors, camels and other marvels.
After watching some of the dancing I get up and go off for a wander around the site. Everywhere there is something interesting to look at. Just the people are a wonder, dressed in colourful national costumes. As well as the military parades, school children dancing, and a contortionist (these seem to be popular in Mongolia) there are the major sports of wrestling, horse riding and archery. Archery takes place at the far end, with the men aiming at small surs (woollen or wooden blocks), stacked up into a low wall. Horse riding and other skills are paraded in the main arena.
The highlight for me though is the wrestling. Naadam is a celebration of Manly prowess and skills, in traditions stretching back to when Mongolian men ruled vast tracts of Central Asia and beyond. The wrestling though must surely rank as one of the gayest, homo erotic activities I’ve ever seen (and I spent 10 years working in London’s Soho). The guys wear tiny little satin brightly coloured briefs that even Tom Daley would reject. These are partnered with a sort of bolero jacket, but with just the sleeves in-tact. Many have a small rope tied around their waists. And to top all of this off, perched on top of their heads, is a decidedly phallic looking hat.
The wrestlers also seem to delight in sort of, well, touching each other, or at least the pantage area, as they prepare to enter the arena. Not that I would dare ask any of them whether their outfit was designed by Liberace, as despite appearances to the contrary, they are seriously beefy guys. No-one could doubt their strength either as they, um, grapple, each other on the sports field. Unfortunately, the brief demonstration of masculine strength, is immediately un-done by a sort of victory lap by the winner, that seems to be a representation of a flying bird, with arms outstretched and fluttering around in a camp and decidedly bonkers victory dance.
Naadam is one of the highlights of the trip. There really is nothing like it, and I feel privileged to have seen it, especially here in Khovd, with just the Mongolian’s and our little band of adventurers celebrating it
After all of this excitement, it’s time to drive out to the South East, and a cave area in the Baatar mountains, to review and document some remarkable Palaeolithic era rock paintings, depicting cattle, ibex, argali (giant sheep) and gazelle and one illustration that looks suspiciously like a kangaroo, but is probably a camel. Directed by Mongolian archaeologist Dr Munkhbayar we struggled through dust clouds rising from the floor to photograph and sketch these for his research. After a few hours of this, I’m relieved to escape the dusty caves, and get back out into the sunlight and fresh air.
Later, 5 or 6 of us, got out for an excursion out into the vastness of the countryside, to see some large circular tombs, around 20-30 metres wide. I get my drone up and take some high aerial footage of the perfectly circular mounds of stones, marking the last resting places of Mongolian princesses.
Back at camp, it’s time to settle into the emerging routine of washing, reviewing the photography and video of the day, and battling with the mosquitoes. I join some of the braver souls in shedding most of my clothes, and gingerly immersing myself in the bollock shrivelling waters of the Bayan river, which despite the cold, is a refreshing way to getting rid of the dust of the caves. Hopefully I will be re-united with my testicles at some point.
Camp dinner, follows a routine of JBS and team members briefing us on the day’s exploits, followed by an overview of what’s in store for the following day. Dinner itself is always three courses, usually some kind of salad starter, followed by a main in which meat features heavily, and then some sweet desert. Very impressive how the kitchen staff manage to bang out over 30 meals from the back of a pretty modest sized Russian truck. After dinner, a few of us hang back to start to make inroads into the beer, Vodka and Whisky, a ritual to be repeated at regular intervals in the coming weeks.
Tonight, as I wander contentedly back to my canvass home, I’m awed by the Universe’s after dinner cosmic light show, the sinewy milky way snaking across the vast skyscape, studded by stars and the occasional streaking shooting star. I fetch my camera and take a few frames, capturing our camp, its lantern tents lying beneath a vast illuminated Universe.
Weds 11th. Yep it’s Grand National Day, Mongolian Style
Wake up and quickly remember I’m still in Mosquito central. Make the trek to the convenience tents which are teaming with the little fuckers. Some take their chance to have a grab a gourmet breakfast on my exposed soft buttocks. Had a quick wash using the bucket and tap attached to the front of the kitchen truck. Doused myself with the wonderfully smelling mosquito repellent.
We strike camp and board the vans for an hour or two drive to a horse festival. The horse festival turned out to be a highlight of the trip so far. It’s a big site with probably a couple of hundred cars and trucks parked either side of a wide fenced area, open at one side for the incoming horses and jockeys
It’s a wonderful day out for the Mongolians. Whole families are here, picnicking beside their vehicles. (It so resembles a UK point to point meeting in the UK, I’m half expecting to see a Pimms tent and a fleet of Range Rovers). The women, especially the elders, are decked out in their finest, colourful clothes, with the men also wearing traditional dress. I really loved it here. Everyone is in a great mood, and the local girls are looking pretty. I happily wonder around the event, doing my usual photography portrait routine of making eye contact, inanely grinning and then pointing to my camera. I’m granted some portrait poses around 80% of the time, a good hit rate, and end up with my favourite shots of the whole trip
The main riding event is an endurance horse race of various distances between 10 and 25k and the arrival of the race participant’s is heralded by a cloud of dust as the caravan of horses and 4wds approach the finish line. When they arrive, it’s apparent how tough this race has been. The horses are lean and sinewy, but continue to make fast progress towards the end line, urged on by their tenacious riders.
Thursday 12th. BAATAR HARVAN MOUNTAIN. Good bye Mosquitos. Never darken my tent flap again
Today we strike camp and head to our trucks to start the long drive to our next camp site, cramped up in the back of the Russian vans. We pause for an hour to look 1000 year old Petroglyphs carvings. The kitchen truck breaks down repeatedly, on this leg, delaying our itinerary, and to the consternation of JBS.
The long trip is worth it, and at around 5pm we arrive at the new camp. It’s wonderfully situated, in a beautiful valley, again by a mountain river, but tonight much higher at around 2700 metres. No mosquitos which after the blight of the insects of the last few days is a very welcome relief.
We are due to go out and set the camera traps tonight but there is a further delay as the camera traps we were due to set up at 3pm turned out to be in one of the vans that had returned to the stricken kitchen truck.
Finally, at about seven pm the van returns with the camera traps and three of us (me, Rob, Nasta and Jane for a brief period) set off to set the traps. The climb to the top of the mountain ridge is steep and long. I am gasping for breath. To my chagrin Rob, who is considerably older than me, seems to find the climb easier than me. My lungs are bursting and I need repeated stops to regain my breath. Bit of a tough ask to go from zero feet to 3k meters and do a tough climb with no acclimatisation.
We reach the top and trek along the ridge and find a couple of places to plant the cameras. By the time we place the second one the light is fading fast and as we locate a route for a descent it is almost dark.
The descent down a very steep, long scree slope by head lamp is by turns exhilarating and scary. I half expect the entire scree slope to slide down the hill, taking me with it. We finally reach the bottom at almost 10pm. We walk across the small stream and approaching or camp the dinner tent is illuminated against an inky sky, and the diners within resemble Da Vinci’s last supper.
Friday 13th. BAATAR HARVAN. YEE HA. IT’s HORSE TIME
Up nice and early today, and no mosquitoes to worry about. It’s a really beautiful sunny morning today, so I head off down to the mountain stream for a quick wash. Really nothing like getting bollock naked and having a good splash about in freezing water to start the day.
I’ve been quite nervous about the horse riding, mainly as I’ve had too much time to think about it. It’s not helped by having watched the video from the 2015 expedition it shows wild horses being rounded up, being broken in right then and there, and dire warnings by the horse mistress about them not wanting to be patted or stroked. Consequently, I now imagine them to be the devil horses of the apocalypse, ready to bolt or rear up at the slightest provocation
I needn’t have worried. The reality turns out to be that, while yes, you do have to be careful around them, no sudden movements, or doing anything daft, they are actually, very well behaved
After mounting and getting used to each other found the horse easy to control and responsive. The stirrups are a bit small but perfectly ok, and I’m glad I didn’t bother with bringing my own, or riding boots. After a few hours riding, I begin to remember why I like riding, and happy memories of days spent horse riding in Dorset come flooding back.
My horse seems pretty responsive, with a bit of bum wriggling, and a little kick, he picks up the pace pretty quickly. The groomsmen are a good bunch. We have Vascar with us for most of the trip, and he’s good company. He calls me the White Prince, and I’m totally down with that.
The horse and I begin to bond after a few hours and now I know he’s not going to bolt I start to push him a bit more. He does need a lot of input though, if I sit in a neutral position he slows to a very slow gait, and usually in an anti-clockwise direction. I name him AC, though his real name, or one of the many names I hear the Mongolian’s call him, is Hirsch.
Returning to camp and dismounting I feel my ass for any signs of damage. Surprisingly, I seem to have born up rather well. The saddle is pretty comfortable, plus I’m cannily wearing padded cycling shorts, both of which have saved my nethers. We’ve managed to see a good range of Mongolian wildlife, including the Lammergeier vulture, kestrel, black kite, Ravens, golden eagles, ground squirrel and of course, Marmots.
Before dinner, we return to the mountain to set last two camera traps that we didn’t have time to set last night. This time Rob opts out, so it’s the fantastic Heather (army bomb disposal captain and all round great lass), Turbish and Nasta. Bit of a hassle raising climb to the top again, up a mixture of scree and very loose rock. I displaced a big chunk of rock which narrowly missed Turbish below me. We get to a mid-level ridge with some signs of snow leopard. With the two camera traps deployed we return to camp down a steep scree slope, the quickest way down, though not necessarily the safest. Though it probably looked worse from the ground, some of the camp saw our apparent hair-raising descent, including JBS, who decreed no further descents down the scree should be made on the trip. A Scree decree if you like.
Later that night, there was an evening presentation from Nasta on the majestic but furtive snow leopard. I’d love to see one of course, but we’d need to be exceptionally lucky. After one or two beers, went to bed shattered. Managed to sleep well tonight as it’s warmer with a lot of cloud cover, though my slumber is disturbed in the small hours by the sound of torrential rain, which doesn’t bode well for the riding tomorrow.
SAT 14th. BAATAR HARVAN and the start of our Zoology
As feared, a very rainy start to the morning so no delightful washing by the stream today. As usual the breakfast is excellent, with boiled eggs, muesli, bread, coffee, usually some local biscuits or pastries, with the occasional surprise omelette or pancake on some days. Maybe I’m not going to lose any weight on this trip after all.
The group is now split into three teams that will largely remain the same for the remainder of the trip; Zoology, Botany and Archaeology. I opt for Zoology, as being a country lad at heart, it offers the best opportunity to get out into the wilds and spot some local nature. I also largely dissed the archaeology at least initially, as it bored me senseless at school, but as I later discover, that group may have had the most interesting time of all the three groups.
Our Zoology group is led by Paul, like JBS a retired colonel, and a very sensible kind of a chap. In reality though, it’s really the groomsmen and Nasta that call the shots. The groomsmen all seem to know the terrain all the way through the horse riding portion of the expedition, despite eventually being a fair way from their original homes. I guess that’s part of the Mongolian nomadic DNA. Nasta is a talented naturalist, with a keen eye, able to spot birds and animals at impossible distances, and so much so, that even when he points things of interest out, I struggle to sometimes see them, even with binoculars.
Today’s horse riding clocks up around a 23k round trip. Despite the ominous rain clouds for most of the day, it stayed largely dry, but chilling at around 10c, and cold enough for us to encounter a strong hail storm in the afternoon. AC, my horse, does pretty well, but like his rider, he starts to fade a bit towards the end. The horses are hardy, but small, and not used to carrying 80+kg (on a good day) Englishmen. So, towards the end of the day, I hop off, and lead him on foot for the last 5k.
We manage to rack up another respectable list of the local fauna, including a White winged snow Finch, seven ibexes (distantly on top of a mountain) and two snow cock, a hare and of course the usual marmots and ground squirrels.
Pleasantly tied, I have a short nap when I get back to base, and try to after the chilly ride. The local Mongolian crew rig up a shower stall, complete with a plastic solar water container. By the time I got to it, the water was far from hot (the kitchen had boiled some water earlier on in the afternoon but the girls nabbed most of it), but it was much less cold than doing a wash in the stream. Good to scrub off the smell of horse.
In the evening briefing, where each group presents their activities for the day, there was an air excitement. The botany team may have found a new species of flower, a variant of Teraximum, a small kind of dandelion. The archaeology team were also pretty amped. At noon, they had stopped to look at a large tomb. A most impressive sight in itself, but then Duke, one of the translators, spotted a partially covered rock which turned out to be a large and previously un-known deer stones, with another one immediately adjacent to it.
Sun 15th BAATAR HARVAN Mountains
Got up early. Had a leisurely trip to the convenience tents, still surprisingly fresh, then went to the stream for an exhilarating wash. Then breakfast. At 8am climbed up to retrieve the four camera traps with Heather and Nasta. It’s a magnificent view up on the ridge, and the early morning climb a great way to start to the day. This time, conscious of JBS’s edict, we elect to take a much safer, more gradual descent back to the camp.
Today’s horse riding is a little easier going, we head out along the mountain foothills, following the side of a river. There is some commotion from one of the other teams, as the botany lady, a Mongolian, had a horse tread heavily on her foot.
At lunch, we turn away from the valley and head up into the mountains, spotting a diverse variety of birds of prey and small mammals. The scenery is, of course, stunning, and the drone shots from this area are amongst the most epic and dazzling of any of the trip.
By now, we’re all very confident on the horses. After lunch we continued on a fairly easy ride over a couple of peaks before descending down a steep slope, and back to the softer grass verges alongside the river. Here we allow the horses their heads, and canter most of the way back to the camp.
Mon 16th. The longest horse riding day evs
We saddle up after another satisfying breakfast. Today’s ride is a long one. 30k long horse ride starting along a river valley and continuing across a spectacular 10k wide flat steppe. Thunder rumbles ominously above the distant mountains and threatens rain on our caravan of over 30 horses, but despite the storm moving all around us, we manage to escape a drenching.
After traversing the plain we stop for lunch and a nap. The afternoon ride is harder going, both for me as saddle soreness and numb feet set in, and of course for the horse. After an hour or two of climbing over rocky terrain, I take pity on AC, my horse, dismount and lead him up the hill. The team re-groups on a windswept exposed ridge, gathering strength and adjusting saddles and girths, for the final 5k of the ride, traversing across two mountains before the welcome site of the distant camp (the motorized vehicles had arrived earlier) comes into view. It’s a dramatic site, with our little camp set amongst the vastness of the valley, surrounded by low mountains, and a salt water lake.
After getting our tents up, Amanda shouts that the shower tent is up. I seize my chance and towel in hand grab my first hot shower of the trip. Glorious. Good to get in there first before the women, who with their in-ordinate amount of time in the shower, usually drain all the hot water.
During the evening briefing, the local Dentist who’s been busy at a nearby community, tells us she treated another 40 people and performed many extractions. One poor person had three teeth taken out. Apparently, it’s impossible to do metal fillings out in the field, so the only viable solution for a rotten tooth is extracted. I begin to notice that in fact, yes, many of the older adults have 1 or 2 teeth missing.
After dinner, I go out to see if we can take some long exposure shots of the night sky. Sadly, it’s really cold tonight, and not too conducive to spending a lot of time outside faffing around with cameras
Tues 17th. Bayanzurkh
Up early for the usual morning routine. We’re moving today which means packing up the contents of the tents, sleeping bags, bedding, ruck sack and then the tent itself. Then a good breakfast (omelettes today).
At around 9 30 we saddle up our horses today it’s another 25k to the next camp. It’s a grey and rainy start to the day. I’m wondering if I put enough layers on. It’s so hard to tell what the changeable weather and temperature will be. It can vary between 10 and 15 degrees depending on whether the sun is out or not.
The ride is easier with less mountains but varied. Rocky plains give way to marshy grassland and provide lots of opportunities for some exhilarating galloping. As we get nearer to our camp a small cluster of gers comes into view and some very interesting deer stones. Lots of stone tombs litter the lush valley.
Before dinner, I walk across the valley to a small festival of local people having a three-day celebration. As soon as the children notice me I’m surrounded. It’s hard to isolate them to get some good shots but I manage with allot of hand gestures to get some good portraits before the children crowd around again. Often, the best way to photograph people is to just get out there on your own without the distraction of other people. I’d like to have got some shots of the adults, but with all of the exuberant children around, it proves impossible.
Weds 18th. Archaeology and bad acting, BULL AND KNIFE ATTACKS AT THE MEDICAL CLINIC
Filming day. Mission today from JBS was to film the archaeology team doing their thing (measuring, sketching, dousing) around the two major deer stones we saw coming into camp. The morning is glorious with clear blue skies and a warm sun.
Once we reach the deer stones, JBS wants a shot of the approaching horses coming up to the deer stones as if discovering it for the first time. Cue some very dodgy acting as the team feign surprise as if coming across the deer stones for the first time, but the overall shot looks good. I then do a couple of interviews, first with JBS and then with the archaeologist and Duke the translator.
The next video segment is to be of the archaeology team measuring the near-by tomb. Martin and Mark, who are surveying the tomb, are at logger heads on which measuring process to use and how to explain it. It’s a completely pointless debate anyway as no-one is going to be the slightest bit interested in the measuring methodology. As it’s quite entertaining seeing them bicker, I bugger off and let them carry on.
After 15 minutes of them arguing and things getting a bit heated I intervene tell them what to say and set-up the shot with both Ros, Mark and Martin giving a brief overview of the tomb, and what the teams role is in surveying and documenting it.
After a couple more pieces of filming, including the very knowledgeable John talking about his dousing. This would have a really interesting film segment if I’d remembered to switch the record button on.
After all the filming, we return to camp for a nice bit of relaxation in the sun, then a full lunch. In the afternoon, a few of us trot out for a quick recce up the valley, which is littered with tombs amongst the lush grass. The marshy terrain with numerous streams and small rivers make for an interesting ride, especially on the way back when I even get AC to do a jump across a small river.
Coming back to camp I have a few hours free so grab a hot (yes hot) from the stand-up shower and then do a bit of washing. I hum and ha about what to do next. I’m waiting for Nasta as we were supposed to be going out and laying camera traps, but he’s already an hour late.
I decide to walk down to the health clinic. Good decision. Not only do I get a lift on the back of a motorbike but on arriving at the clinic there is still a sizeable queue of people waiting. It’s a fascinating experience with all manner of ailments, including one man who’s been stabbed by a man the night before, a young boy with a large abscess on his cheek and another older man who’d been attacked by a bull.
I’m allowed to stay on the treatment room and capture some good footage of the various ailments and injuries including watching the young boy having his abscess lanced. The latter is not for the faint hearted, as it essentially involves squeezing a giant zit which looks like it could explore any moment.
We get back to camp for dinner and a thank-you speech from the local governor for the teams medical and dentistry efforts. The dentist apparently saw another 40 or so people and in total over the three or four seasons had extracted 140 teeth in total.
It rains hard in the evening but we lower the dining tent flaps and have a convivial time drinking vodka and Martin gets his whisky out for a few drams. I do my usual scrounging of menthol cigarettes off Duke, one of the translators.
Around midnight I turn in and do the usual shuffle of getting the sleeping bag, liner, and juggling the blanket on top, in an effort trap some warmth, in what is going to be another cold night.
Thursday 19th. Goodbye horses
Today is an easier day, partly to save the horses who have a long ride home later in the night, and partly so we can get back time for a group photo in the afternoon.
I lead the botany team today, which really just amounts to making sure they leave on time and get back to camp by 3 30. I think some people got a bit annoyed with them for not being back on time a few times, and various other minor infractions. We go up to the top of a nearby ridge at about 3050 meters dismounting about two-thirds of the way up. The team go about their botany business, photographing and noting the various flora down in a species list.
It’s very exposed and windy, but I take a couple of the team to the shelter on the lee side of the ridge for a video interview reviewing their activities during the week and a team photo.
We get back to camp early, the sun is out but the wind makes it bitterly cold. At 5 we assemble for a team photo, worth all the expedition participants, the groomsmen and the kitchen staff.
Then it’s time for the horses to return the 50k journey back to their home. The groomsmen have a big job on their hands to round up almost 30 horses with just 5 men. As soon as they have one small herd corralled another group name to break free and skittishly scatter to the nearby valley. Eventually, the skill of the horsemen prevails and even the most excitable of the animals gradually yield to their will.
It comes time to say goodbye to our friendly, tough and skilled groomsmen. I’m particularly sad to see Vascar go. He’s been funny, constantly in good humour, and on the watch for loose saddles and girths the entire time we’ve been riding. Managed to avoid any uncomfortable Brokeback Mountain scenarios too which is a bonus.
Hugs, kisses and gifts are exchanged and finally, the men and their horses make for the horizon and the start of their long overnight journey.
Later wrapping myself up in as many layers as I can muster we settle on for the evening in the food tent for food, beer and vodka until midnight.
Friday 20th. Where are those bloody antelopes?
After another night of on and off sleep, but more off than on, I get up for an early 6 am start, as we’re due to go and collect the camera traps, that Nasta placed solo a few nights before. Already the sun is climbing fast, the mountain shadows rapidly receding across the valley. After being cold, there really is nothing like feeling the soft warming rays of early morning sunshine.
I meet Heather, who volunteers for everything, and so, of course, is quite naturally is also up for this morning, at the food tent. We go and rouse Nasta who has overslept. We then have a good morning walk, up to the ridge to collect the traps. The valley below looks glorious bathed in sunlight and off-set against an already azure blue sky
Back at base we strike camp, easier now with so much practice, and set out the next part of our journey
Six hours later, and a few pit stops to change wheels on various trucks and vans in our convoy, we cross a large desert area and make camp on a dusty gravel area. The hardness of the ground and the wind makes erecting the tents hard going, with many a bent tent peg. Once done, there’s time for a quick cup of tea before heading out in the vans and fan out across the desert in search of the Saigo. Our quarry is a rather odd looking antelope, with a peculiar snub nosed snout. There are reputedly less than 4000 left in Mongolia now, one of only two counties in the world (the other is nearby Kazakhstan) to host substantial herds.
Out on the plain, with binoculars at the ready, we scan the terrain for any sightings of the reclusive antelope. They prove very hard to spot. Our companion Jeep is headed by JBS, Turbish (local zoology professor) and Nasta (naturalist), and they manage to spot at least one Saigai. They radio the position to us, but despite much eye straining, we can’t spot it. Back at camp most of the others claim to have seen them, but usually at a distance of at least a kilometre and then only briefly before the antelope make a speedy exit stage left.
We’re due to go out for another attempt tomorrow, so hopefully, we’ll get better luck.
Saturday 21stt. One more chance to see the Sagai and the return to Khovd
It’s an early start today as we get into the Jeep’s at 6 am and once again drive out into the desert. We repeat the same procedure as the night before which is to fan in several trucks and maximise the area covered. But luck is seemingly against our van, as once again we come away without even a sniff of an antelope, while all of the other teams manage to spot at least one, and some see whole herds. Ah, well. Maybe next time.
Back at the camp it’s time for breakfast, and then the familiar ritual of striking camp and then the long drive back to Hovd. It dawns on me today just how few days are left. I’m so happy out in the wild open countryside, and with this happy bunch of people, that I feel the first pang of expedition withdrawal symptoms that I know is to come.
It’s a long drive back to Khovd. The hotel is a complete dump, and our room doesn’t even have curtains. Mark, who I’m sharing with again, manages to completely take the bathroom basin off its hinges as he uses it to heave his not inconsiderable bulk up from the low toilet. Still, it’s nice to have a hot shower and to flop on a proper bed. Tonight, the drinking starts early, and goes on into the wee small hours, with karaoke and even a short excursion to a local nightclub, for about 30 mins of dancing before it closes
Sunday 22nd Am I going to die in the arms of Mark?
We get up pretty early, and after breakfast make our way to the airport
The flight to Ulaanbaatar turns out to be pretty choppy as the flight path takes it through a thunderstorm. The twin prop plane makes some pretty dramatic and heart-stopping turns and altitude drops as it makes it’s faltering progress thought the turbulence. A flash of lightning, just a few hundred metres on starboard side adds to the drama. I’m sitting next to Mark. I ponder what would happen if the plane went into a terminal dive. Like, would we hold hands or embrace each other as we crashed into oblivion? Before I can explore that scenario , mercifully, we are through the worst of the storm, and blood returns to my white knuckles.
We get back to Ulaanbaatar at around 10pm, and check back into the same hotel, which after the privations of the last few weeks now feels like the ultimate in luxury. Most of the team assemble in the downstairs restaurant for some pizza and cold beers before hitting the hay.
Monday 23rd. Talking of hay, Ahh. What a lovely meadow
At about 9 30am we board the trucks and 4wd’s, and head south to the Khustein province which is about 2-3 hour’s drive from UB. It’s an extensive national park of low hills and large expanses of lush grass. Our camp site, which is some way into the park, is already up by the time we arrive, and the tents are set amongst a grass meadow, almost a foot high, and full of flowers. It’s also crawling with grasshoppers and other insects. Many of these seem to have found them into my tent.
That afternoon we set off for a walk up the valley away from the camp. We see lots of birds of prey including ravens and hobbies. After setting four more camera traps we return back to camp. It’s nice to be out in the countryside again, especially as it’s both warm here, and without the blight of mosquitoes.
Tuesday 24th. Yep, it’s Burns night
We get up early at six and load up into our wagons and head out into the National Park in search for the Przewalski horses. These wild horses originally roamed Mongolia but became largely extinct but luckily a viable breeding stock had been built up in various zoos across the world and a successful re-introduction program saw the horses roam again in Mongolia. In Khustain there are now approximately 350.
We have a very productive morning and manage to see around 57 horses. They are a distinctive breed, pale coated, stocky, with thick necks, and short Mohican like manes. Not the most beautiful of horses, but they do have a kind of sturdy nobility about them. This group were predominantly male and looked extremely well fed with a lot of food to eat. Not sure I would like to be a Przewalski horse. They all seem to be intent on being the alpha male and are a feisty bunch with the male’s constantly play fighting and, rolling on the ground just a few metres from us.
After returning to camp and breakfast I have a few free hours so take a stroll up over of the small valleys then take a shower from a hut adjacent to our site, do a bit laundry and get some drone shots of the camp.
A couple of us had not really seen inside the Gers, so Martin, Bridget, Roz and Mark, take an excursion out across the park for a couple of hours. We see plenty of wildlife along the way including marmots, and a flock of vultures. We spend an enjoyable half an hour in a Ger chatting to one of the park rangers, drinking warm milk, eating some kind of biscuit, fermented cheese and snorting a bit of snuff, as is the custom here.
It’s JSB’s traditional ended of tour Burns night, something that’s been bubbling away as a topic of conversation for a lot of the trip. Before the evening kicks off properly I manage to grab Yasmin and Fran, and film a short segment of them talking about the medical clinics they’d conducted over the previous weeks. They are somewhat reluctant at first but are both great.
Burns night turns out to be slot of fun. Speeches, the toasts to the lads and lasses and the traditional serving of haggis.
Much whisky and assorted other drink is consumed, and there is alot of singing, with the Mongolians performing traditional songs, Mark singing a Welsh number and Jane performs a folk song. As midnight approaches the core team of me, Martin, Yas, Fran, Jack and Mark are left, as we search for every last drop of alcohol, scrounge cigarettes off the Mongolians, use the tent pole for some improvised pole dancing, and listen to Leftfield and Jack’s techno house.
Later, I wander into the meadow and lie down contentedly to watch the night sky and day dream. I quickly fall asleep almost immediately, the beautiful wilderness of the countryside, and the softness of the meadow leading to a contented slumber.
My blissful state is abruptly curtailed however by Jack and Martin who discover my prone body, who drunkenly rouse me with Jack capturing my disorientation on his iPhone. The young scally has partially demolished my tent and the three of its lurch around probably waking half of the site, and definitely waking nearby John, whose tent Jack repeatedly tried to jump over as well as trying to film him mumbling away. Finally, I fall into my tent and pass out.
Wednesday 25th. Goodbyes are the hardest
Everyone is a bit jaded this morning, me especially, with the effects of the evening before. It’s time to pack up the camp one final time, load into the vans and make the three-hour trip back to UB. Our van does not quite make it, breaking down just as we are getting into central UB.
Back at the same hotel I get a little bit of rest, do some shopping, then shower and make my way down to the bar for the final briefing. The usual faces are all here. I’ve come to really love this strange and wonderful bunch of people. After JBS says a few words we bundle into the vans for a final and very good Mongolian dinner.
Thursday 26th. The End. For now
I wake tired but with a warm glow. Now it’s time for the hard reality of this being the end of our extraordinary trip and the end, for now, for the wonderful comradery.
After breakfast, it’s time for final goodbyes and embraces, some held more tightly than others, and we head to the airport and the journey back to our homes.
All photography Matt Whittingham, unless otherwise stated