Mongolia: Enigmatic Wildlife Tours (EWT)
Mongolia needs little introduction – its wilderness is near-legendary, and it is home to the Mongol horsemen, descendants of the famous Ghengis and Kublai Khan. It remains a land as exotic as it is mysterious. Nomadic tribes still live on Asia’s most extensive plains, hemmed in by incredible mountain landscapes. Although the wildlife is the focus of our exploration of this area, it is hard not be impressed by the remarkable history and lifestyle of the Mongolian people. This tour targets two of the most amazing mammals on the planet, the “Gray Ghost” (Snow Leopard) and Bactrian Camel. We have good chances for Snow Leopard at low altitudes and in summer (rather than in frigid winter in Ladakh, India - where most other groups go for the world’s most enigmatic big cat), but we will need to be glued to our scopes as we scan for this master of camouflage. In addition, we will see a slew of other wildlife on this summer trip, rather than be confined to the icy slopes of the high Himalayas in winter. The other “mega” mammal here is the Bactrian Camel; some of the last 1400- odd remaining wild camels persist in the Gobi, a remote wilderness where very few have ventured. Even just the chance of finding this incredible double-humped rarity is enough to get the adrenaline flowing. We will be in the best area on Earth for this beast. Pallas’s Cat is another possible target. This squat-faced alpine cat embodies everything that is a wildlife enigma: rare, stunning, strange, and desirable. Even with our focus on rare mammals, there will be plenty of time for birding too. We will target many of the amazing rare and local birds of Mongolia, including Altai Snowcock in the high-altitude Gobi, Henderson’s Ground-Jay, majestic Saker Falcons, the stunning Oriental Plover and local Relict Gull in breeding plumage, and the cryptic but elegant Pallas’s Sandgrouse. So this tour has it all!
This 18-day main tour is fairly comprehensive, and we cover more than enough terrain to get a real in-depth feel for Mongolia and nearly everything it has to offer, including spending a few nights in the famous Ger (yurt) tents, as well as some mobile smaller A-frame tented camps that will be rustic (the only accommodation in the most remote and beautiful of Mongolia’s landscapes). For those that have not yet had enough, we have an extension to the comfortable Hustai NP not too far from Ulanbataar. This glorious wilderness area is where the Przewalski’s Horse was re-introduced after it was saved from extinction, and they breed there now. We might also encounter Siberian Jerboa, Steppe Polecat, and Mongolian Lark.
Main Tour: 31 May - 17 June ($7550; single supplement: $650)
Extension: 16 - 19 June ($1450; single supplement: $180)
Main Tour: 27 May - 13 June (Price: TBA)
Extension: 12 - 15 June (Price: TBA)
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Other Tour Details:
Length: 18 Days (20 Days w/ Ext.)
Starting City: Ulaanbaatar
Ending City: Ulaanbaatar
Physical Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
Focus: Rare Wildlife, Birds
Max group size: 10 + 1 leader +1 local guide
Day 1: Ulaanbaatar
Today we arrive in the strange capital of Mongolia. Without much established history it is a hodge-podge of modern buildings and nomad tents, that betray Mongolia’s recent development from a much more traditional past. In the afternoon, we will enjoy a stroll down the tree-lined Tuul River, where we are likely to encounter the first of our central Asian specialty birds such as Swan Goose, Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline-Tit and White-cheeked Starling. However, the riverine scrub may also hide some buntings, tits and leaf-warblers. The river may hold Common Merganser, and some shorebirds. We spend the night in a city hotel, and we should revel in the mod-cons as much as possible as it’ll be our last city-luxury for a while.
Day 2: Ulanbataar to Khovd
We take an early morning flight to a frontier city in far western Mongolia, passing the Tarvagatai Mountains and great lakes of the western Mongol steppe! We then begin our epic overland journey that will lead us across wildest sections of the ancient Mongol Kingdom. Our drive into the Altai Mountains leads us to a beautifully located Ger Camp dubbed ‘Snow Leopard’ Camp that has the peaks of the Altai nearby, while we enjoy a vast lake near our camp in the semi-desert steppe to the east. We spend five glorious nights at this spectacular camp, nestled on the Chinese and Kazakh
Days 3-6: Snow Leopard Camp
For the next four days we spend our time with the professional trackers and local guides as we search for the elusive Snow Leopard in the magnificent landscapes of the Altai Mountains. Nothing is guaranteed, but these guys are among the most skilled in the world at finding this elusive animal. We need to be prepared for many hours of scanning the rugged terrain where this cat blends in seamlessly. While in the Altai, we have a strong focus on trying to see one of Earth’s greatest enigmas, the ‘Gray Ghost’; but will also be seeking out their prey species such as the magical ‘Big Horn’ Argali Sheep, and spectacular Siberian Ibex. The majority of observation points can be driven 5-12 km with 4x4 vehicles; this is normally followed by a walk of a couple kilometers over largely flat terrain. However, on occasion, it will be necessary to take a short-medium length walk that will demand some basic fitness and the ability to walk on rocky, uneven or steep terrain. Some of the more local specialties here will be the Mongolian Marmot and perhaps Pallas’ or Alpine pikas! In the drier semi-desert scrub around the camp we might luck out with Long-eared Hedgehog or Tolai Hare. Our main avian target in these rugged mountains is an amazing a local enigma. Here the curlew-like ringing calls of the Altai Snowcock rings across the valleys, but it is no easy feat to see these birds and we will require much effort to find this amazing gamebird, the most elusive snowcock on Earth. But there is plenty else to look for here including Grey-necked and Rock Buntings, Pied Wheatear (vittata), Black Redstart, Brown Accentor, Barred Warbler, White-winged Snowfinch, Mongolian Finch, Twite, Bearded and Himalayan Vultures, and Chukar. If the mountain road is in good condition, we will climb 3400m asl mountain to get high altitude species including Altai Accentor, Asian Rosy Finch, Great Rosefinch, Guldenstadt’s Redstarts, Water Pipit and imperious Golden Eagle. The mountain areas may also yield the beastly Saker Falcon, including perhaps the bizarre and poorly-known darker form ‘Altai’ Falcon. In the flatter areas near the Ger Camp we might get lucky with Horned Lark, Pallas’ Sandgrouse or Mongolian Ground-Jay. If the lake has water in it we are likely to locate our first waterfowl including perhaps Greylag Goose, Whooper Swan, Ruddy Shelduck and other ducks.
Day 7: Har Us Lake
We depart this morning for a great wetland site, but en-route we will be travelling through semi-desert steppe, where we may locate yet more enigmas, as this is not a bad area to see the nasally well-endowed and incredible Saiga antelope and
Goitered Gazelle. We’ll also search studiously for one of Earth’s most interesting shorebirds – the Oriental Plover. These chestnut-breasted beauties breed here in low densities, but with enough scouring we ought to find them. We may also see vultures at a carcass, an increasingly rare phenomenon anywhere in Asia these days. At the lake we hope to find White-headed Duck, Pallas’s Gull, Western Marsh-Harrier, Horned Grebe, Amur Falcon, and Pallas’s Reed Bunting. We spend out first night in a simple tented camp along the desert’s edge. It’s simple, it’s rustic, but it is also wild and magical.
Day 8: Darvi
Today we enjoy some more waterbirds and lakes. But our prime enigma for the day is the rare and reclusive Relict Gull, and we visit a lake with a breeding colony of this globally Vulnerable specialty at Ikhes Lake. The night is again in tents, under the stars, lots of stars.
Day 9: Darvi to Altai Town
After another day of lakes and steppes, where we hope to encounter a variety of birds like grebes, Eurasian Spoonbill, Swan and Bar-headed geese, Falcated and Ferruginous ducks, Red-crested Pochard, Mongolian Gull, Upland Buzzard, Demoiselle Crane, Pacific Golden Plover, Greater Sand Plover, and if very lucky, the magical Asian Dowitcher, we make our way to the settlement of Altai, where we check into a hotel and enjoy a proper shower for the first time in a while.
Days 10-12: Bayan Tooroi - Great Gobi-A Strictly Protected Area
Today we travel to Bayan Toorroi, where we set up our camp to explore one of the wildest areas on the planet. The Great Gobi-A Strictly Protected Area provides habitat to many endangered species such as the Siberian Ibex, Argali sheep, ‘Gobi’ Brown Bear and Wild Bactrian Camel. This reserve 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 goal, although very challenging, will be to track down and maybe photograph Wild Bactrian Camel, with possibilities of Asiatic Wild Ass and Goitered Gazelle. In this wilderness, we will stay in simple tented camps visiting oases, plains and mountains. Some night-drives in this area can deliver some superb mammals including the Large-eared Jerboa (perhaps the planet’s most endearing rodent – just google it!), Pygmy Jerboa and Marbled Polecat.
Day 13: Gobi-A to Buuntsagaan Lake
As we begin our long trip back to Ulanbataar, we head north and east of Gobi-A, as the dunes and cracked parchment of the desert gets drier we keep an eye out for Mongolian Jird, Mongolian Antelope, Asian Desert Warbler, the stunning Henderson’s (Mongolian) Ground-Jay, and at the lake some waterfowl and shorebirds. We overnight in a mobile tented camp tonight on the fringes of Buuntsagaan Lake. Although things will be simple, the amazing wilderness of where we are ought to make up for that!
Day 14: Buuntsagaan to Bayankhongor
After another day in the wilderness the simple comforts of the town hotel in Bayankhongor will come as a treat.
Day 15: Bayankhongor to Sangiin Dalai Lake
After a night of comfort in a hotel, we return to the wilds, slowly eeking our way north to Sangiin Dalai Lake and start getting into territory for the spectacular ‘white-winged’ Mongolian Lark, Bar-headed Goose and Black-throated Loon. We overnight in a mobile tented camp tonight on the fringes of Sangiin Dalai Lake.
Day 16: Erdenesant soum
For our last full day of wildlife-viewing, we shift into an area that more regularly produces the squat-faced and remarkable Pallas’ Cat, a serious target of tonight’s night drive. We overnight in a mobile tented camp for the last time tonight.
Day 17: Erdenesant to Ulanbataar
After some final birding in the Erdenesant area we return to Ulaanbaatar where the main tour draws to a close with a night in Ulanbataar. For those continuing on the extension we instead drive to Hustai NP, where we enjoy staying in the well-
appointed Ger tents.
Day 18: Departure from Ulanbataar
After breakfast the ‘main’ tour concludes with a transfer to the international airport
Days 1-3: Hustai NP
We will be based in a delightful Ger (yurt) camp near the Khentii Mountains, and the gateway to the incredible Hustai NP. The main objective is to see the Przewalski’s Horse, which almost went extinct, but is recovering well and can be seen in places like Hustai, where it breeds successfully. Other mammals we may encounter include Red Deer, Mongolian Gazelle and Wild Boar. This amazing place is even home to Gray Wolves and Eurasian Lynx, but we have only the slimmest chances at encountering these rare mammals. On the bird front, Lesser Kestrel, Amur Falcon, Golden Eagle, Mongolian Lark, Daurian Partridge, Black Stork and Meadow Bunting are some of the interesting birds we might find here. We will be based in a comfortable Yurt camp for three-nights.
Day 4: Hustai NP to Ulanbataar
After another morning in Hustai, we pack-up and return to Ulanbataar where the extension draws to a close
PACE: Moderate. Finding open country species is not dependent on extremely early starts. However, we will have a few earlier starts to look for certain birds and take advantage of the cooler early morning air, or sometimes do a dawn night-drive. Breakfast is typically served around 6:00-7:00am. Mongolia is a huge country, and we do a lot of driving on this tour. This is likely to be the most difficult element of the trip, with long days on unpaved and rutted roads. However, this is the only way to access the most remote areas with the very best birds and mammals, so it is an unavoidable hardship. There will also be a fair amount of night-drives offered to see some of Mongolia’s best nocturnal mammals. These will always be optional, so if you would rather get some rest, you can easily skip some of them.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. You will need to be able to walk at least 3 miles (5 km) per day on average, some of that on mountain trails, although these are not muddy or slippery, although they may be on uneven or rocky terrain. We will walk slowly, especially at altitude. Most of the mammals will be searched for from the vehicles or from lookouts.
CLIMATE: Usually mild to hot (mostly 50°-90°F, 12°-30°C), but it can get cold in the mountains and may even reach freezing on occasion. On the open plains it can get very windy, but mostly it is a just a light breeze.
ACCOMMODATION: This is not a tour for those looking for luxury. In Ulanbaatar we stay in good tourist hotels, which have private bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity. We will also stay at simple hotels in the towns of Altai (Day 9) and Bayankhongor (Day 14). While off the beaten track (much of the tour) we will be staying in basic Gers (yurts), which are nomadic Mongol-style huts. These will have beds, a wash basin and heater. The bathrooms and dining facilities are separate, and fairly basic. Warm water is often available or can be arranged. There will be very limited electricity when we stay in the gers. In the remote Gobi area, and on our returnto Ulanbataar (Days 7-16), we spend most nights in simple A-frame tents in very basic conditions, with mats and sleeping bags. We will have solar-shower facilities and camp toilets.
FOOD: Food will mostly be local stews, potatoes, and simple salads. Although vegetarians can 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 not a Photo Tour, and the objective is to observe the wildlife of the region. However, there will be ample opportunities for casual photography, and we will indulge them whenever time permits
WHEN TO GO: This tour is best taken during late spring or early summer to maximize sightings of rare mammals and breeding birds.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Historically Mongolia has been a country that has not had strong diplomatic relationships with other nations and most nationalities required visas. The only exceptions are citizens of the USA, Canada, Japan and Malaysia. Almost all other nationalities require visas. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 17 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 3 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 18 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee during meals are available; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 17 if taking only the main tour, or to the afternoon of day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension; 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 day 2 to day 17 (and to day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a domestic flight from Ulaanbaatar to Khovd; 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). Although Covid-tests are not included in the pricing, we will definitely be making provisions for any testing required by participants before their flights home from Ulanbataar.
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in the city hotels (if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; 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.
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