Mongolia: The Great Asian Wilderness

Mongolia lies in the heart of Asia, sandwiched between Russia and China. It is a country shaped by a harsh climate, with soaring temperatures in the summer that plummet to well below freezing during the winter, when nearly 70% of the birds migrate elsewhere. However, this tour is timed for early summer, when the most pleasant conditions occur, and once migrants have returned to breed. Mongolia is a culturally rich, Buddhist country, with the rare combination of being largely devoid of people, being packed with dramatic landscapes (involving rugged mountains, stark deserts, and riparian forests), and is home to a discrete selection of birds and mammals, many of which are tough to find elsewhere. If birding and looking for wildlife within remote wilderness areas, while surrounded by stunning scenery within a country whose culture remains largely in tact suits you, then this is an ideal tour. We will experience the culture firsthand, by spending many nights within traditional camps, known as Mongolian “gers” or “yurts”, which have been modified for tourists.


This 20-day tour takes in the very best of of Mongolian birding, amongst the targets will be the impressive Altai Snowcock, Spotted Capercaillie, Daurian Partridge, White-naped and Demoiselle Cranes, Cinereous, Bearded and Himalayan Vultures, Saker and Amur Falcons, Upland Buzzard, Oriental Plover, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Siberian Rubythroat, Henderson’s Ground Jay, Kozlov’s Accentor, Grey-necked and Godlewski’s Buntings.

But the absolute number one highlight and most unique feature of this itinerary is our visit to explore the extraordinary wilderness of the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area which encompasses a total of 53,000 sq. km. and is one of the most remote and fascinating areas of one of Earth’ last great wildernesses. Our number one target will be seeking out critically endangered animals, like wild Bactrian Camels. And if we are extremely, extremely lucky maybe Gobi bears (there are only 30 left on Earth and we would need much luck to find one). The reserve is selected as one of the International Biosphere Reserves by the United Nations. Immersing ourselves in the stunning scenery of the Gobi desert, we will discover many interesting mammals including the Rabbit-eared Jerboa and other species of jerboas, hedgehogs, pikas, hamsters, gerbils. The place is really a wilderness which has not
been studied well enough.

Demoiselle Cranes occur close to the Mongolian capital
Demoiselle Cranes occur close to the Mongolian capital (Mongolica Travel)

Day 1: Arrival in Ulaanbaatar. After arrival in the capital of Mongolia, we shall transfer to our hotel. The night will be spent in the city, which is steeped in rich Buddhist culture. There is no birding planned for today.

Day 2: Ulaanbaatar to the Gorkhi-Terelj NP. This morning we will enjoy our first birding in the morning. Ulaanbaatar is located in northern Mongolia, lying in the valley floor of the Tuul River. The poplars and willows that line the river will be one of our first birding stops, where we will be on the lookout for the handsome White-crowned Penduline-Tit, striking Azure Tit and Azure-winged Magpie, the endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting, and beautiful Long-tailed Rosefinch. Nearby marshland may also yield a Black Stork or the elegant Demoiselle Crane. In the mid-morning we drive directly to the to the Gorkhi-Terelj NP, which is located on the southern margin of the Siberian boreal forest belt where we find picturesque mountains with beautiful forested valleys. We will check in to our tourist ger camp and do light birding nearby, searching for Olive-backed Pipit, Siberian Rubythroat, Willow Tit, Taiga Flycatcher, Common Rosefinch, Yellow-browed Warbler, Chinese Bush Warbler, and Pine Bunting, and possibly Eurasian Sparrowhawk. Overnight at the Ger camp.

White-crowned Penduline-Tit can be found near the capital
White-crowned Penduline-Tit can be found near the capital (Mongolica Travel)

Days 3-4: Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. The nearby forests are rich in songbirds. One of the rare specialties of these southernmost boreal forests is the Black-billed Capercaillie. Although this is a good area for the species, it is always tricky, and quite a bit of hiking is likely to be required to search for it. In spring songbirds are highly vocal, and conspicuous, having recently returned from their far off wintering grounds. Among the most highly-prized, will be Red-throated Thrush, Red-flanked Bluetail, Pine Bunting, and the spectacular Siberian Rubythroat. Other possibilities include Chinese Bush-Warbler, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, and, at night, the striking Ural Owl. In the riparian larch forest, we will watch for Oriental and Common cuckoos, Eurasian Hoopoe, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Willow Tit, Siberian Rubythroat, Dusky, Greenish and Yellow-browed warblers, Taiga Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, and Eastern Buzzard. Mammals include Red Squirrel, Siberian Chipmunk, Long-tailed Souslik, and Daurian Pika. In the afternoon we will bird near the campsite looking for for Blyth’s Pipit, Richard’s Pipit, Isabelline Wheatear, Northern Wheatear, Daurian Jackdaw, and Red-billed Chough. Overnight in a tourist ger camp near birding site.

Day 5: Gorkhi-Terelj NP to Yolyn Am (Gobi Altai Mountains). After driving back from Gorkhi Terelj we will take a short flight to Gurvan Saikhan Airport near Dalanzadgad, capital of Umnugobi Province. Our crew meets you at the airport and then drives straight to the reserved tourist ger camp near the beautiful mountain gorge Yolyn Am. Following lunch at the ger camp, we will drive to the mountain gorge and enjoy another exciting bird walk along the gorge. Yolyn Am can be translated as the Valley of the Vultures, and refers to one of the most striking of the residents here, the bone-smashing Lammergeier. Mongolia, and the Altai Mountains, in which this area is located, are at the crossroads of Russia and China, and some of the bird names reflect this; during these days we will be searching for the local Koslov’s Accentor and Godlewski’s and Gray-necked Buntings, Mongolian Accentors, and Mongolian Finch. A monotypic family, Wallcreeper, also occurs in the area, and breeds on the jagged cliffs. Other interesting birds in the valley are Chukar, Himalayan Vulture and Saker Falcon, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, Common Rosefinch, Twite, White-winged Snowfinch, Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Isabelline Shrike, Northern House Martin, Eurasian Crag Martin, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, and possibly Barred Warbler. Altai Snowcock occur here, but are rarely seen these days, and our best chances are later on the trip. In the evening we will return to the ger camp and eat dinner. Star gazing is beautiful at night. Overnight in a tourist ger camp.

Wallcreeper may provide offers a new family for some
Wallcreeper may provide offers a new family for some (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Khongoryn Els. After breakfast, we drive to the famous Khongoryn Els, which is a beautiful singing sand dune adjacent a high mountain the endless desert steppe with scattered camels and maybe Goitered Gazelle, a kodak moment. In the steppe, we should encounter Long-legged Buzzard, Desert Wheatear, and mammals. On the scorched Gobi, we will find reptiles like Tuva toad-head agama and Mongolian racerunner. At the dinner time, we will arrive at our tourist ger camp. The remainder of the day is free to relax following the drive.

Days 7-9: Saxaul Forest and Gobi exploration. We slowly make our way across the Gobi, as romantic as it is remote. We will sneak by Saxaul patches looking for Saxaul Sparrow, Steppe grey Shrike, Desert Wheatear, Asian Desert Warbler, and the magical Pallas’ Sandgrouse. In areas with dunes we expect to find the strange Henderson’s Ground-Jay, Crested Lark and more. Our number one rule in this region will be ‘drive less and explore more’. That’s why we spend three days to reach the Great Gobi and explore the one-of-a-kind oases and the absolutely superb desert and high mountains. Oases are the best places to capture the good photos of the Gobi animals and birds as they are the only water source within about 100 km radius. We will visit the country’s first dedicated Nature Reserve for Snow Leopard and this is the world’s largest continuous protected snow leopard habitats. Although in summer the ‘Grey Ghost’ has moved to higher altitudes and we would be very lucky to see one, we will keep scanning and maybe, get lucky. We will also visit the headquarters of the Snow Leopard Trust which aims to protect this endangered cat through community-based conservation projects, and get acquainted with the team and their works. We will be sleeping in A-frame tents for this section of the trip as there are no permanent structures out here, but our well-kitted team of Mongolian outfitters will look after us on this, our most interesting part of the adventure.

Most people would be happy with just one Pallas's Sandgrouse!
Most people would be happy with just one Pallas's Sandgrouse! (Mongolica Travel)

Days 10-13: Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area. Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area provides habitat to many endangered species such as the Siberian Ibex, Argali sheep, Gobi bear and Wild Bactrian camel. We are one of the few companies offering an excursion to this incredible and amazing wildlife area. This SPA was included in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 1990 as one of the largest biosphere reserves in the world (5.3 million hectares). The main targets in this land will be to find, see and photograph possibly Wild Bactrian camel, Asiatic wild ass, Goitered gazelle, and maybe if we are extremely lucky, Snow leopard. In this wilderness, we will stay in tented camps visiting oases, wastes and mountains. We will also do night-drives in this area to look for and find the myriad of small mammals available here including hamsters and the comical and mega: Rabbit-eared Jerboa.

Day 14: Great Gobi A to Baga Bogd Uul. This morning we will visit the scrubby Saxaul Forest to search for breeding Saxaul Sparrow and Steppe Grey Shrike. We will also probably see Long-legged Buzzard, Isabelline Shrike, Crested Lark, and Desert Wheatear, and also visit a small pond to hopefully see Pallas’s Sandgrouse coming in to drink water. After the Saxual birding we head for the Gobi Altai mountains and Baga Bogd Uul. Overnight in a tourist ger camp.

Days 15-16: Baga Bogd Uul (Gobi Altai Mountains). After breakfast, we head into the mountains of the Gobi Altai, famous for sightings of Altai Snowcock. The drive may take a little while because of the poor roads. Apart from the snowcock we hope to see Chukar, Bearded and Himalayan Vulture, Pied Wheatear (vittata), Black Redstart, Brown Accentor, Barred and Sulphur-bellied Warblers, White-winged Snowfinch, Mongolian Finch, Twite, Grey-necked and Godlewski’s buntings and more. We will stay in a community-based ger camp for three nights.

A nomadic boy on horseback
A nomadic boy on horseback (Mongolica Travel)

Day 17: Arvaikheer. Today will be another long drive to get Arvaikheer. We will search for the beautiful Oriental Plover en route. We might encounter a gathering of different species of vultures. We arrive in a town with a clean and comfortable local hotel in the early evening, and we will be due for a cold beer.

Day 18: Khugnu-Tarna National Park. This place hosts wonderful contrasting scenery of sand dune, wetland, and rocky mountain. A pair of White-naped Cranes breeds at the wetland every year, symbolizing the ever-lasting life of the place, which yields a long list of lifers for many birders from around the world. The top birds include Bar-headed and Swan geese, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Black-throated Loon, Asian Dowitcher, Pallas’s Grasshopper- and Oriental Reed warblers, Citrine and Eastern Yellow wagtails and many other waterbirds. Overnight in a tourist ger camp.

White-naped Crane is one of several crane species we could see on the tour
White-naped Crane is one of several crane species we could see on the tour (Sam Woods)

Day 19: Return to Ulaanbaatar. Today we return to Ulaanbaatar. En route we will stop for birding and hopefully some good views of Saker Falcon, Steppe Eagle, and Upland Buzzard, possibly a gathering of Cinereous Vulture and Himalayan Vultures on a carcass, Mongolian Lark, Small Snowfinch, and Asian Short-toed Lark. Night in Ulaanbaatar.

Day 20: Departure. After breakfast, we transfer to the Chinggis Khaan International Airport for our international departures out after a magical few weeks in this stunning country.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. The sun rises before 6am and sets just before 10pm at this time of year. Therefore, there will be some early breakfasts (5:30-06:00am), and long days in the field. Some of the drives on this tour are long and on challenging dusty unsealed roads; on average we will be driving for 3-4 hours a day, but on some days, drives may be longer than 7 hours.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. There will be a fair amount of walking required on this tour, and so you should be prepared to be able to walk 3 miles per day on average; some of these walks will be strenuous (e.g. when looking for the Spotted Capercaillie, or Snow Leopard). Also in Baga Bogh Uul we will need to climb to lookout points to scan for Altai Snowcocks. The average altitude in Mongolia is around 4920ft/1500m, so most of the time will be spent at these altitudes and higher, reaching to around 8200ft/2500m. A lot of birding though is easy and either conducted from next to the car or short walks.

CLIMATE: As we will be in both mountain areas and desert areas, we are likely to experience a range of climates. Temperatures at night may drop to around 50 Fahrenheit/10 Celsius, and daytime temperatures can reach as high as 100 Fahrenheit/38 Celsius.

ACCOMMODATION: Mongolia remains a wild underpopulated country, with a lower standard of infrastructure than typical on many Tropical Birding tours. In order to visit the best birding and wilderness areas, we will be spending 10 nights in several separate Mongolian tourist “ger” or “yurt” camps. This allows us to stay right within the best birding areas, set within dramatic scenery. The gers are large and one can easily stand in them, they always have proper beds and are equipped with a wood or coal stove, although we will unlikely need them. On these nights, there will be shared restroom and shower facilities in another block or communal ger/yurt. These are well equipped with warm water. Single supplements are available to have your own ger/yurt, although the restroom and shower facilities will still be shared. For seen nights we will be camping in A-frame tents in the Gobi. This is both remote and idyllic, and the possibility to even visit this amazing area is the major selling feature of the tour. Our outfitters will kit the tents well and keep the shower tents and bathroom tents as neat and tidy as possible. Although these arrangements are simple, they are loved by most participants that find them part of the romance of visiting Mongolia and are much happier here than in soulless city hotels. For the other three nights of the tour we will be staying in a city hotel, with en-suite facilities.

FOOD: Food will mostly be local stews, potatoes and simple salads. Although vegetarians can easily be catered for, in general the choices of food in these remote locations are rather limited. If you have strict dietary requirements, please speak to the office before booking.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding and wildlife tour, but as the habitat is open for most of the tour, the light for photography is often good. There are no feeders, or special set ups for photography on this tour, and photography is secondary to the birding and wildlife watching.

WHEN TO GO: The climate in Mongolia is extreme, both in the winter and summer. In winter temperatures fall to well below freezing (-4 F/-20 C), and often rise in summer to nearly 100 F/40 C. Furthermore, 70% or more of the Mongolian birds are migrants, which leave the country during the harsh winter. Therefore, a spring or early summer trip is the best time to visit, the months of May through to early July being generally considered the best.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least ONE YEAR past your intended stay. Currently visas are not required for citizens of the US and Canada, for stays of up to 30 days. Citizens of most other countries require a visa to be applied for and obtained before arriving in Mongolia. Travel requirements are subject to change (especially in a country like Mongolia); if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help. Our office staff will provide the needed support documents for you to get your visa.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and accommodation staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 19; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 20 (some of the lunches will be packed lunches taken in the field); safe drinking water throughout; 1 Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 19; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on the designated arrival and departure days (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from days 1 to day 19, in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; 1 domestic flight (Ulaanbaatar – Dalanzadgad); entrance fees to all the birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for any luggage porters used at city hotels/ger camps; international flights; snacks; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.