ABF's 2014 Trip to Mongolia: Land of Blue Sky

Guest Blogger, Photographer, and ABF Supporter Phil Roullard (and Callie Mack!)

When ABF advertised this past summer’s trip to Mongolia as the trip of a lifetime, they weren't kidding.

This year’s trip was our third with ABF, and although the itinerary was essentially the same during our first and second trips, each trip has been unique. 2014’s itinerary included areas entirely new to us, and we just couldn’t resist!

The trip started with a very long 11-hour flight to Beijing. In Beijing it’s always somewhat of a mad dash to get through the correct immigration queue and connect with our flight to Mongolia. After passing through immigration, we relaxed in the terminal before our flight to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.  While looking around me, I noticed that for the first time, I could actually see the other side of the airport! Instead of the usual thick grey smog, Beijing was boasting a beautiful blue sky the day we arrived.

After the 2-hour flight to Ulaanbaatar, we were greeted by our guide/interpreter Aggie at the terminal and quickly whisked away to the very comfortable Bayangol Hotel. The afternoon was spent visiting the historic and exquisitely ornate Bogd Khan Winter Palace in Ulaanbaatar. Bogd Khan was spared destruction by the Soviets and Communist government when they occupied Mongolia from 1920 to 1990; almost all of the Buddhist temples in Mongolia were destroyed during this time. After Bogd Khan Palace, we visited the giant golden Buddha statue near Zaisen Hill. 

We had an early wake-up call the next morning to catch our flight to Dalangadzad in southernmost Mongolia. We were greeted in the miniscule airport by a life-size replica head of a Tyrannosaurus rex bursting through one of the walls. Out of context, this may seem strange, but this area of the South Gobi Desert is home to the Flaming Cliffs, of dinosaur fossil fame. 

Aggie bundled all of us into two sturdy vintage Russian vans for the trip to our ger camp near the Flaming Cliffs. These beautiful red-rock natural formations were the site of several expeditions led by Roy Chapman Andrews in the early 1920s. Andrews excavated numerous entire dinosaur skeletons and was the first paleontologist to unearth dinosaur eggs. All of his dinosaur booty was transported back to the American Museum of Natural History (his sponsor) in New York City. The Mongolians now prohibit excavations at the Flaming Cliffs; however, the cliffs afford some very beautiful photographic opportunities as well as easy and enjoyable hiking.

Leaving the Flaming Cliffs behind, we literally bumped and bounced, over sometimes barely visible dirt tracks, to Yolen Am (Vulture Canyon). The canyon, with sheer walls hundreds of feet high, is home to ibex, pica and cinereous vultures, as well as some of the most beautiful wildflowers I have seen. The canyon’s walls are so deep that ice is found year-round in the shadiest areas.

For me, our trip’s most memorable moment occurred deep in Yolen Am. I was photographing some very distant ibex high up on the precipitous canyon walls. I was suddenly surrounded by a Mongolian family who were very curious about what we were seeing. Two very elderly women, bent with age, could not see the ibex very well, even with the loan of our best binoculars. But when I enlarged one of the ibex images on my camera’s viewscreen so that they could see the animal, the women were enthralled, and the family was very appreciative for the opportunity to get a close-up view. I don't speak Mongolian, and the family members did not speak English, but no matter - we all understood how much we enjoyed seeing such a beautiful creature. 

From Yolen Am, we drove down a dry riverbed (a Mongolian-style interstate) to see the Khongor Els sand dunes. The Khongor Els are truly spectacular - the highest dune is a little over 1,100 feet in elevation. Some of us had an opportunity to ride camels into the dunes, and we all enjoyed a ger visit with the family that owned the camels (complete with the traditional hospitality of fermented mare’s milk and dried cheese curds- yum!).

Keeping our adventure moving, we flew north to Ulaanbaatar and boarded a small bus headed for Hustai National Park, home of the famous Przewalski's horses. These are the only true wild horses left in the world. Seeing this species at the San Diego Safari Park in Escondido doesn’t compare to seeing them in the wild. It was like being in a real-time nature video. The next day, we took a beautiful seven-mile, flower-filled hike from Hustai ger camp to Moilt camp. Hiking over the rolling verdant hills filled with wildflowers, several species of butterflies, beetles, spiders and birds was exhilarating.  Intermittent showers occurred during the hike, but it wasn’t cold, and the rain meant that butterflies and other insects stayed quiet for photos. Upon arriving at Moilt ger camp, we grabbed some lunch and were driven back to Hustai in a park ranger’s van. Driving around for a while on an impromptu patrol, we were happy to see that the ranger’s presence routed a possible marmot poacher. 

From Hustai, it was back to Ulaanbaatar and another night at the Bayangol Hotel. Next day, we drove by bus to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Reserve and to Red Rock Ger Camp. Ikh Nart Reserve is a sister park to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park through a cooperative agreement started by former ABDSP superintendent Mark Jorgensen.  

While we were at Red Rock, we visited the research camp at Ikh Nart to meet some of the student researchers in residence. We were invited by Dave Kinney, a retired veterinarian from the Denver Zoo, to accompany him and researchers from India, Mongolia and South Korea to observe the capture and tagging of a young cinereous vulture. The same size as our California condors, these huge birds have a very impressive wing span and build enormous nests on cliff faces and in Siberian elm trees.

Red Rock Ger Camp also offered camel riding, hiking and visiting the ruins of an old Buddhist monastery destroyed by the Communist government many decades ago. During our stay there, we experienced the most unusual and hair-raising adventure of our trip. 

A violent thunderstorm moved through the reserve one night. We’d fallen asleep to the sound of thunder, rain and high winds.  Around 1AM, the noise of the wind increased dramatically, sounding like a train pounding through the camp.  As I was lying in bed, I kept wondering just how much wind pressure our ger could take. Now, the ger was actually vibrating up and down! Suddenly one of the ger’s support poles (radiating from the center like the spokes of a wheel) dropped and bounced off Callie’s head. Too lightweight to cause any harm, Callie considered it an obvious wake- up call to flee the ger immediately. Over the roar of the fierce wind, she shouted "Phil, we need to get out of here now!".  The rest of the supporting poles were clattering down behind us as we fought the wind’s pressure to open the door. Once outside, we were blasted by wind, rain and dirt.  Barely taking the time to put on pants and robes, several of us started going to the other gers to check on the rest of the group. Fortunately, everyone was fine and the wonderful ger camp staff got us into another intact ger.  Amped up and un able to sleep due to all the excitement, we went back outside and used our solar LED lights to help the camp staff, who were reassembling some gers and taking down the few badly damaged ones.  Awake until 4:30AM, we then managed a couple of hours of sleep. The unflappable camp staff, who stayed up all night working, had breakfast ready for our group at 7AM. 

The next day, returning to Ulaanbaatar by bus, I could think of nothing that could compare to the excitement we had at Red Rock ger camp. It was truly a demonstration of the awesome and unstoppable powers of Nature.  Once we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, we made one last trip to the state department store to purchase Mongolian crafts and souvenirs.   After spending our last night at the Bayangol Hotel, it was time to return to the airport and say a fond farewell to Mongolia, Land of the Blue Sky.