By Mark Jorgensen, Retired ABDSP Superintendent
After a grueling 15 hours in the air we gazed through scattered monsoonal clouds onto the illuminated sands of the Gobi Desert. Vast desert was interrupted only by the tiny white dots of Mongolian gers miles below and a lacework of dirt tracks left by livestock and herders.
Ranger Steve Bier and retired District Superintendent, Dr. Mike Wells, and I became excited, after what seemed like days of travel, to look down upon a land which we have come to know and love. Mike, Steve and I were joined for the first few days of our trip by longtime ABF members and donors, Callie Mack and Phil Roullard, who came to enjoy their own private tour of Mongolia with a former tour guide of ours, Oso. Roullard and Mack joined us at Ikh Nart to enjoy the park and to see the fruits of their donations towards the Ikh Nart Rangers, which they’ve generously supported since their first trip there several years ago. We all felt as though we were coming home, a place where friends are welcoming, the wildlife plentiful, and Anza-Borrego’s Sister Park, Ikh Nart, has grown from an idea on paper to a large functioning nature reserve protected by dedicated rangers and staff. During the years as Sister Parks our group and ABF members have donated two motorcycles for ranger patrols, numerous laptops, GPS units, binoculars, spotting scopes, digital cameras, ranger uniforms, uniform patches, park boundary signs, school supplies, winter clothing, backpacks, and first aid supplies. Since being patrolled by the nomad rangers, the two biggest threats, poaching and illegal mining, have been almost completely curtailed. Ikh Nart is in good hands and we are proud of the Ikh Nart Rangers.
We were met at Chinngis Khan International Airport in Mongolia’s capital. We had arrived for our three week visit to spend time with our ranger colleagues at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, to tour one of Mongolia’s premier national parks- Hustai National Park, and to venture into the sands of the Gobi at Arburb Sands Ger Camp. Our trip into the countryside began with an all-day ride on a 1950’s era train to the eastern Gobi town of Darlanjargalan, the jumping off point for our Sister Park and from there it is a bumpy 50 miles in a Russian van to reach the Ikh Nart Research Camp.
Our long-time friend and director of Ikh Nart, Sukh Amgalanbaatar (Amgaa) met us with a driver and a cook and would be with us for the full eleven days we’d spend at our Sister Park. Amgaa has visited Anza-Borrego three times and has been one of the main reasons our sister park agreement has been a success. We arrived near sunset and ate a dinner of goat, rice, and tomatoes as we watched the western sky turn bright orange near 9pm. The sun set over the steppes and across an endless rift valley and looked as it does setting over the ocean.
The next eleven days were ours to enjoy, touring the 175,000 acre park, joining the ranger staff for updates and training, and meeting local nomads and their families, most of them friends from our ten years of partnership. Ranger Steve and Amgaa gathered the ranger staff for a half day seminar and brainstorming session on park interpretation, the art of “interpreting” the natural and cultural resources of Ikh Nart to the people. Tourists visit Ikh Nart Nature Reserve from two distinct origins, one group are local or city Mongolians, and the other originates from places such as South Korea, Japan, Europe, Russia, United States, New Zealand and Australia. Steve pointed out the goals of setting up programs to help inform and engage visitors by way of interpretive centers, informative panels in key locations in the park, printed materials such as brochures and a park newspaper, school programs, guided tours, and face to face encounters between park staff and tourists.
Our days were filled with adventures, hikes, vehicle tours, and exploration. We visited many archaeological sites throughout the park and documented several with Ikh Nart’s new drone, with which we were able to take aerial photographs of three ancient grave sites and an old Buddhist temple. These sites had been meticulously documented on the ground by the EarthWatch Archaeological teams led by Anza-Borrego’s own Dr. Joan Schneider and Robin Connors.
We visited a wolf den we had visited on previous trips to Ikh Nart and noted many active nests of Asia’s largest vulture, the cinereous or black vulture. Amgaa, State Inspector Anand, and our driver Ultma drove us far to the south end of Ikh Nart, some forty miles from our research camp to a newly discovered hibernation den found to be used in winter by the two species of snakes known in Ikh Nart, one the Central Asian viper, and the other, a non-venomous snake known as Pallis’s coluber. The deep cave, known in science as a hibernaculum, is located atop a pyramid shaped hill, and is formed by water which drains from the peak, down into the limestone strata, to a depth of about sixty feet. Imagine being the first who entered the hibernaculum to discover scores of wintering snakes in the bottom of the cave. Winter temperatures in eastern Mongolia often reach -50 degrees Celsius, so reptiles must find a wintering site where the temperature remains above freezing.
Wildlife viewing is a popular activity at Ikh Nart and it is in fact one of the most reliable places on Earth to observe the largest wild sheep in the world, the argali, an Old World relative of our desert bighorn sheep. Argali and the Siberian ibex, a member of the goat family, are often spotted from our research camp. It’s a tradition for our group to have dinner and sit outside of our gers to watch for ibex, argali sheep and cinereous vultures on the steep rocky ridges surrounding our camp. We often comment that “It’s a tough life” or “No one said this was going to be easy.”
After eleven days of our productive visit at Ikh Nart we caught the midnight train back to Ulaan Baatar and began the second leg of our journey to visit Hustai National Park, home of the famous wild horse of Central Asia, the Przewalski’s horse. We hired a driver and booked a ger camp through our longtime friends at Nomadic Journeys in the capital. We arrived in the afternoon and after a lunch, siesta and visit to the park’s visitor center we headed out for some wildlife viewing. The first evening produced 108 Przewalski sightings, and dozens of red deer, an elk species genetically very close to our Rocky Mountain elk. Fat marmots were out by the score, a large rodent which has been reduced by over 90% in Mongolia due to its pelt and meat being in high demand in both Mongolia and China. Day Two of our three day visit gave us amazing views of Przewalski’s, Mongolian gazelle, marmots, and 330 elk, likely half of the entire population known in Hustai Park. The eyes of Ranger Bier can spot animals so far away most people can’t even find them after he points them out! Hustai is maintained as a National Park and is staffed by rangers, biologists, tour guides, and a staff which runs the camp and restaurant. Revenue from tourism helps run the park, but in our minds, much more revenue could be generated, especially from international visits who arrive by the busloads.
Our last few days of our Mongolian journey would be spent with long-time friends, Badrakh and Densmaa, owners of the Arburd Sands Ger Camp, a couple hundred miles south of Ulaan Baatar. I first met these folks in 2004 on my first trip to Mongolia with my brother, Steve. We rented a couple of gers, hiked and rode Bactrian camels and Mongolian horses and enjoyed the excellent gourmet food and hospitality of Arburd Sands. Our cook works in the capital during the winter and spring, but has been hired to run the kitchen at Arburd Sands during the tourist season from May to mid-September. Badrakh invited us to join him and Densmaa for a wildlife viewing expedition south of camp to a range of mountains held sacred by Mongols. The mountains are so sacred their name is not spoken aloud. Many graves and petroglyphs are found throughout the mountain range, several of which we visited. Our goal for the day trip was to find argali, elk, and ibex, and find them we did. We made about a dozen stops to scan for wildlife and on all but one we spotted animals, sometimes all three species in the same stop. By the end of the day we observed more than 100 cinereous and griffon vultures scavenging large animals, over 100 elk, and dozens of argali and ibex. A couple massive argali rams surprised us when, during the mid-day heat they bolted from the shade of a low cliff and ran elegantly across the steppes.
So came the end of our three weeks in Mongolia. This was the third visit for Ranger Steve, the sixth for Mike Wells, and the tenth trip for me. The hospitality we enjoy throughout Mongolia would be hard to match anywhere in the world. The peacefulness experienced in the countryside is unparalleled due to the expansive steppes, the big blue sky, and vastness of this country the size of Alaska. We visited wild lands, parks set aside for wildlife, nomads, and tourists, we shared meals in nomad gers, helped gather horses for milking, rode camels across unspoiled dunes, joined in Mongolian goat BBQs, and worked with our ranger partners to help secure the future of our Sister Park in the Gobi Desert. We departed the land we’ve fallen in love with, knowing we have gained so much more than we’ve given. In a world torn by strife, warfare, refugees, and hunger, we have found Mongolia to be peaceful, restoring to the soul, wild, home to a million nomads, and to us, our second home. As we lifted off from the airport at Ulaan Baatar we scanned the steppes far below and watched as the distant gers became mere white dots, not knowing when we might return to the land of the big blue sky.