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Mongolia: Enigmatic Wildlife Tours (EWT)

Tour Overview:

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 Pallas’ Cat. 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. Another “mega” mammal here is the Bactrian Camel; it is rarely seen, but we do have a chance of encountering some of the last 1400-odd remaining wild camels that persist in the Gobi, a remote wilderness where very few have ventured. Come in hope of that rather than expectation. But even the chance of finding this incredible double-humped rarity is enough to get the adrenaline flowing. We will be in one of the best areas 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 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). We also stay in a few hotels and enjoy the comfort of 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.

Upcoming Departures:


19 May - 5 June ($8960; single supplement: $600)



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Detailed Itinerary

Other Tour Details:

Length: 18 days 

Starting City: Ulaanbaatar

Ending City: Ulaanbaatar

Pace: Moderate

Physical Difficulty: Easy/Moderate

Focus: Rare Wildlife, Birds

Group size: 10 + 1 leader +1 local guide

Mongolia- Enigmatic Wildlife Tours (EWT)_Mesa de trabajo 1.jpg

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 Daurian Jackdaw, Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline-Tit and perhaps a few Mandarin Duck. 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 comfortable hotel, and we should revel in the mod-cons (like salad!) as much as possible as these will be our last city luxuries 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 can see distant vast lakes 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 borders.

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, Gobi-Altai Vole or Zhaishan Mole-vole and perhaps Pallas’ or Alpine pikas! The slightly more widespread Red Fox, Beech Marten, or Mongolian and Midday Gerbils will also be sought. 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 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 Little Owl, Common Wheatear, Black Redstart, White-winged Snowfinch, Blyth’s Pipit, Mongolian Finch, Twite, Bearded and Himalayan Vultures, and Chukar. 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, Greater Sandplover, or Pallas’ Sandgrouse. If the lake has water in it we are likely to locate our first waterfowl including perhaps Greylag Goose, Whooper Swan, Ruddy Shelduck and others. Depending on our luck with the Grey Ghost we may make a foray into the surrounding arid steppe for a few choice targets.


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 may also see vultures at a carcass, an increasingly rare phenomenon anywhere in Asia these days. At the lake we hope to find the rare 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 which frequently (but not always) has a breeding colony of this globally Vulnerable specialty at Ikhes Lake. Watching these stunning gulls in breeding plumage in record numbers is treat never to be forgotten. The night is again in tents, under the stars, lots of stars.


Day 9: Darvi to Gobi-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 Sandplover, 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.


Day 10: Gobi-Altai to Buuntsagaan Lake

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. In the afternoon we reach one of the largest lakes in this part of the Gobi and begin to enjoy some waterfowl and shorebirds. We overnight in a mobile tented camp tonight on the fringes of Buuntsagaan Lake. Here colonies of breeding Palla’s and Mongolian Gulls jostle on the lake fringes and we can hope for stunning views of Great Crested Grebe and Little Tern. The highlight however would be a Pallas’ Eagle if we are lucky, and we will scour the lake fringes as we go, probably picking up Little Terns and Great Cormorants as we go. Although things will be simple, the amazing surrounding wilderness ought to make up for that!


Days 11-14: Shinejinst Great Gobi-A Strictly Protected Area

Today we travel to Shniejinst and then onwards into the great Gobi Desert. 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 Wild Bactrian Camel, with possibilities of Asiatic Wild Ass. 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 15: Great Gobi-A to Bayankhongor

After another day in the wilderness, the simple comforts of the town hotel in Bayankhongor will come as a massive treat.


Day 16: Bayankhongor to Erdenesant Soum

We move from the drier desert into the grassier steppe. And we finally 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. This zone may also produce Steppe Polecat, Campbell’s Hamster and Least Weasel!


Day 17: Erdenesant to Hustai NP

After packing up camp and moving from Erdenesant Soum, we will be based in a delightful Ger (yurt) camp near the Khentii Mountains for our last field night, 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 fairly easily in places like Hustai, where it breeds successfully. Other mammals we may encounter include Red Deer, Mongolian Gazelle, Tolai Hare, Corsac Fox and Siberian Jerboa. 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, Amur Falcon, Golden Eagle, Mongolian Lark, Daurian Redstart and Meadow Bunting are some of the interesting birds we might find here. We will be based in a comfortable Yurt camp for the night.


Day 18: Hustai NP to Ulanbataar

After some final birding and mammal-watching we return to Ulaanbaatar where the main tour draws to a close with a transfer to the international airport

Trip Considerations

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: Easy to 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, with snow, frost and sleet. 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 Ulaanbaatar we stay in a good tourist hotel, which has 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 15). 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, and a wash basin. The toilet, showers and dining facilities are separate, communal and basic. Sometimes based on availability, single supplements are NOT available in the Gers. 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 return to Ulanbataar, 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: The staff do their very best with food, but supplies are very limited, and most meals comprise pasta/bread/potatoes, stews of veggies and very limited perishables like fresh meat. This is not the French Riviera! Although vegetarians can be catered for, in general the choices of food in these remote locations are rather limited. Expect to get bored with the options, but again, you should not be joining this tour for the cuisine. If you have strict dietary requirements, please speak to the office before booking.

PHILOSOPHY: This trip is a borderline expedition. If you are inflexible and expect everything to work perfectly, there are other more suitable products for you. If you are worried about this, please speak to the office and we can let you know what to expect. Chances are that we will not complete this itinerary as advertised due to immovable objects, irresistible forces and nature of the unknown. Those that revel in the spirit of adventure, will love this trip!


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.

Other Information

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 staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 17; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 18; 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; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person only 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 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).


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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