May 2010

Mongolia © Chris Leahy, Mass Audubon
Mongolia © Chris Leahy, Mass Audubon

Mass Audubon Naturalist and tour leader, Christopher Leahy, led a group of intrepid travelers to Mongolia.  Here, Chris recaps their experience:

One of the reasons I am always glad to return to Mongolia is that the unexpected is always to be expected. Though I have led groups there almost annually since 1994, returning to familiar places never seems repetitive or boring both because they are uniquely beautiful and because I know there will be new surprises each time! The biggest overall surprise this year was the extraordinary run of good weather.

The first stop was at Hustai National Park, where the world’s last remaining wild horse (the Takhi or Przewalski’s Horse) has been successfully reintroduced after going extinct in the wild in the 1960’s. We spent some quality time with several harems – one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with these handsome animals.

Other Hustai highlights included flushing a rare Black Stork from its cliff side eyrie, and a Bar-headed Goose nesting in an abandoned raptor nest! This was also the group’s first experience inhabiting the traditional Mongolian ger (aka yurt), which got rave reviews.

As with many places in Mongolia, Lake Hovsgol (a pristine mini-Baikal) is a place where it can be sufficient simply to gaze at the ever-changing sky, watery reflections, and mountains cloaked in larch forest without necessarily focusing on all the details. And yet we managed to discover lots of excellent details:

  • Pacific Loons and Horned Grebes in breeding plumage.
  • A White-tailed Eagle at its nest.
  • A flock of Red Crossbills and many migrants.
  • A colony of pikas.

Just two and a half hours from Mongolia’s bustling, rapidly modernizing capital, Ulaan Baatar, the Gun Galuut reserve gave us close encounters with the globally rare Argali sheep and White-naped Cranes. We also got a spontaneous glimpse of Mongolian family life. Our ranger-guide, Aryiuna welcomed us into her family ger for the traditional milk tea and sundry pastries; she also  decked out the women in ourgroup in some gorgeous silk “dels” that her mother produced.

Fixed in the imagination as the quintessential vast nothingness, the Gobi is always the ultimate Mongolian surprise.

  • A verdant pasture of wild onions? Cocktails beneath flaming cliffs of red sandstone?
  • Bone-munching vultures (Lammergeiers) sailing over an ice-filled gorge?
  • Five species of confusing Old World warblers chasing each other around a modest hedge of native elm?
  • A luxury lodge with all the comforts including a Mongolian masseuse? 

The only “problem” with Mongolia is that it impossible to encompass all of its spectacular landscapes, outstanding wildlife and fascinating cultural aspects in a single visit. No doubt this is why many Mass Audubon travelers have returned to Mongolia for second – and even third – visits, to experience the several different itineraries we have developed for this “last wilderness nation.”

–Christopher Leahy