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 spring, 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 empty of people, being packed with dramatic landscapes, (involving rugged mountains, stark deserts, and riparian forests), and is home to a discrete selection of birds, many of which are tough to find elsewhere. If birding 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 short 9-day tour follows our Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: Birding the Silk Road tour, which makes for a fascinating, 3 week-long, tour of three, very different, Central Asian countries.

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 enjoy our first birding during the afternoon. 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. The night will be spent in the city, which is steeped in rich Buddhist culture.

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

Days 2: Ulaanbaatar to Yolyn Am. We’ll return to the airport in Ulaanbaatar this morning, and tak a short flight to the town of Dalanzadgad. After meeting with our local crew, we will drive into the Gobi Desert and to the spectacular scenery in Gobi Gurvansaikhan NP, where we’ll be staying three nights in a tourist ger camp, right in the heart of the dramatic landscape of the park. In the afternoon we’ll begin our birding exploration of the area, which is rich in game birds, including Chukar, Daurian Partridge, and the much wanted Altai Snowcock, which we’ll search for among the rugged scenery.

Mongolian Ground-Jay is one of the country star residents
Mongolian Ground-Jay is one of the country star residents (Keith Barnes)

Days 3-4: Gobi Gurvansaikhan NP. We will have two more full days to explore this dramatic area, near the deep gorge of Yolyn Am. Even though this is technically part of the Gobi Desert, this particular ravine receives more precipitation than much of the surrounding areas, and is frequently covered in ice during the colder months of the year. The higher levels of precipitation makes this considerably richer in birdlife than other parts of the desert, and so a proverbial Mecca for visiting birders. Yolyn Am is famed for its ice field that carpets the valley floor, which often persists well into summer. When this spectacular icefield melts, the area is no less impressive, as the ice gives way to a blanket of alpine flowers. This park is more diverse than many would expect; it can contain both sand dunes and moist, snow-topped mountain peaks all at one time. The park is big, open and dramatic country, where few people reside, rich birdsong carries for miles, and vultures and eagles soar within the enormous blanket of skies above.

Yolyn Am is known as the Valley of the Vultures after this bird
Yolyn Am is known as the Valley of the Vultures after this bird (Keith Barnes)

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 and Brown Accentors, and Mongolian Finch. A monotypic family, Wallcreeper, also occurs in the area, and breeds on the jagged cliffs, while within the drier, sandy areas the scarce Saxaul Sparrow may be found, or the striking Mongolian Ground-Jay. This area also hosts some little known Asian mammals, like Mongolian Pika, Siberian Ibex, and Argali Wild Sheep. These nights will be spent the same tourist ger at Yolym Am, right in the middle of this stunning area.

The Gobi Desert will be scoured for the much wanted Pallas's Sandgrouse
The Gobi Desert will be scoured for the much wanted Pallas's Sandgrouse (Mongolica Travel)

Day 5: Yolyn Am to Dalanzadgad. Today we will journey through the Gobi Desert to the town of Dalanzadgad. While the surrounding landscape may appear initially brren, and lifeless, this is actually important bird habitat. It is home to two particular specialties, the scarce Pallas’s Sandgrouse and beautiful Oriental Plover, as well as both Isabelline and Desert Wheatears. After making multiple stops in the desert, we will arrive at Dalanzadgad, where we’ll overnight.

Days 6-8: Gorkhi-Terelj NP. After returning to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, on the morning of day 6, we shall drive into a very different habitat altogether-forest, as we enter Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Three nights will be spent in a tourist ger camp inside the park. While our birding in recent days will have involved vast dry open desert country; in stark contrast, we will start to experience some of the wetter areas of this wonderfully varied country. Wetlands in this area are home to White-naped and Hooded Cranes and the odd Swan Goose.

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)

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.

The forests of Gorkhi-Terelj are home to Siberian Rubythroat
The forests of Gorkhi-Terelj are home to Siberian Rubythroat (Mongolica Travel)

Day 9: Gorkhi-Terelj to Ulaanbaatar for departure. After breakfast, in the morning we will pack up and transfer back to Ulaanbaatar for international departures out.

The scenic Tuul River Valley
The scenic Tuul River Valley (Mongolica Travel)

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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. The drives on this tour are not especially long; varying between 30 minutes to 2 hours with no birding stops. Please note though that some of the birding areas will involve driving on unpaved, bumpy dirt roads.

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 Black-billed Capercaillie). 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.

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 20 Fahrenheit/-6 Celsius, and daytime temperatures can reach as high as 100 Fahrenheit/38 Celsius.

ACCOMMODATION: Mongolia is a poorly developed 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 6 nights in two separate Mongolian tourist “gers” or “yurts”. This allows us to stay right within the best birding areas, set within dramatic scenery. The gers are equipped with a wood or coal stove, which the local staff will operate when needed. On these six nights, there will be shared restroom and shower facilities in another communal ger/yurt. Single supplements are available to have your own ger/yurt, although the restroom and shower facilities will still be shared. For the other two nights of the tour we will be staying in a city hotel, with en-suite facilities.

FOOD: Most food will be local stews and salads. Although vegetarians can be catered for, and some other dietary restrictions, 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 tour, but as the habitat is open for the first part of the tour, the light for photography is often good. There are no feeders, or special set ups for photography on this tour.

WHEN TO GO: The climate in Mongolia is extreme, both in the winter and summer. In winter temperatures fall to well below freezing (-4 Fahrenheit/-20 Celsius), and often rise in summer to nearly 100 Fahrenheit/40 Celsius. Furthermore, 70% or more of the Mongolian birds are migrants, which leave the country during the harsh winter.Therefore, a spring 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 8; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 9 (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 8; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (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 8, in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; 2 domestic flights; 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; 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.