Sunset in Mongolian Altai.

Wild Mongolia

If you try a web-search for Mongolia, you'll find plenty of companies advertising tours to this country. But virtually all these tours are either hunting expeditions aimed on shooting tame animals in specially organized hunting reserves (although customers think the animals are wild), or brief visits to luxurious "field camps" with Internet access and English-speaking "nomads" around. Both kinds of tours are extremely expensive and give you no chance of seeing any "unprepared" Mongolian life. The only way to see the real Mongolia is to travel on your own. It is not completely legal for foreigners, but, as soon as you get out of the capital, nobody really cares. If you don't mind spending long days travelling in overloaded trucks on dirt roads, or on less bumpy grassland floor, breathing dust, drinking fermented milk, eating almost nothing but meat for weeks, urinating in front of your fellow travelers during brief road stops, driving 50 years-old trucks and buses, camping on road junctions for days to wait for a passing car, and having wild sex with cute native girls (these little Amazons can teach you how to do it while riding on horseback) as part of local tradition of hospitality, you'll find Mongolia to be one of the most pristine and captivating places on Earth.

Onon River, Mongolia.
For me, the most interesting thing about Mongolia is the degree to which local Nature have been preserved. You can travel for days and see almost no signs of human presence. It is probably the last non-African country where you can observe large herds of various wild animals migrating freely outside Nature reserves. (Few years ago it could also be said about Western Tibet, but now its large mammals are mostly gone because of poaching. In other areas, there is no more than one species existing in large numbers, like saiga antelope in Kazakhstan or caribou in Canada).
Mongolia is the last place where temperate grasslands still exist in their natural state. This type of vegetation have once covered large portions of Eurasia, North America and Argentina. In our days, shortgrass prairies (also called dry steppes) still survive in Patagonia, The Great Plains and Kazakhstan (where they are mostly used as pasturelands). But the most beautiful and productive grasslands, tallgrass prairies (or blacksoil steppes) have all been converted into fields, except for tiny nature reserves. Central and Eastern Mongolia is your last opportunity to see the endless sea of emerald-green grass with no utility poles anywhere in sight. grass
Central Mongolia
kovyl kovyl
kovyl tyrsa
Mongolian feathergrasses: fluffy (upper left), Siberian
(upper right), splendid (lower left) and dwarf.
Grasslands become especially beautiful in late spring, when many species of bunchgrasses start spreading their seeds. Splendid (Stipa pulcherrima), Siberian (S. zalesskii), fluffy (S. pennata) and dwarf (S. capillata) feathergrasses turn Mongolian plains and foothills into the endless silvery sea of soft, tender awns. Summers are not as dry here as in other parts of Central Asia, so the grasses do not turn yellow until September.
The reason for such a good environmental condition is not the absence of people. Mongolian grasslands have been populated for thousands of years. Northern part of the country is dotted with ancient stone stelas, sculptures ("babas"), burial mounds and ancient cities. Iranian, Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and many other languages have all been spoken here as nomadic civilizations replaced one another. The so-called Flint Valley has been used as a quarry since Stone Age - it is still covered with hundreds of thousands of arrowheads and other stone tools. Some animals, such as bison and woolly rhinoceros, became extinct, but many others survived, thanks to some unique traditions and the preservation of nomadic lifestyle. baba
Hun babas,
Hentei Mts.
View from Bogdo Uul Mountain.
Giant larch trees, Bogdo Uul.
Bogdo Uul mountain just outside Ulaan Baator, the capital city, is one of the World's oldest Nature reserves - it have been considered sacred for at least twenty centuries. Populations of Altai red deer (Cervus canadensis altaicus), Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), and other rare animals still exist in its forests. When Genghis Khan, one of the greatest political and military leaders in history, was a small boy Temujin, he had to hide in these forests from his enemies - he had had a lot of them even than. (His life story was more interesting than any adventure novel). Many other sacred mountains and valleys exist in Mongolia. Large Nature reserves have been created during the last decade, some of them on these ancient sites.
Mongolia is the only country where the majority of the population is still nomadic. Outside few cities, almost everybody lives in gers (yurtas) - large and comfortable tents with wooden frames. Even the capital, Ulaan Baator, hadn't had a particular location until the 19th century. It consisted of large and small gers, and was frequently moved from one place to another. Large part of its population still lives in yurtas. However, even in nomadic times the city had its own architect and was very beautiful. It is an interesting place to visit - there is some beautiful architecture and excellent museums, including one of the World's most spectacular paleontologic exhibits. ger
Mongolian gers.
Colorful old murals in one of city
monasteries, Ulaan Baator.

Most of old architecture is in Chinese
style with some Tibetan influence.
Green Tara, work of
Zanabazaar, one of
Mongolia's greatest
artists (born in 1635).

Part of monastery
entrance gates,
Ulaan Baator.
Old mask made of coral,
gold and ebony, State
Museum of Arts, Ulaan

Part of monastery
entrance gates,
Ulaan Baator.
Erotic murals in Gandan monastery,
Ulaan Baator.

Only one building in unique
Mongolian, ger-like style is preserved.
Kerulen River, Mongolia.
Most of the country north of Ulaan Baator is mountains. Hangai and Hentei, two high plateaus, rise here from the sea of grasslands. Kerulen and Onon rivers make their way through beautiful meadows, rocky outcrops, and birch forests, to join Amur River further east. This area is often considered to be the birthplace of Mongol nation; many ancient songs and legends refer to Kerulen basin when describing the adventures of folk heroes and khans.
Tundrosteppes were widespread in
Siberia during Ice Age, but now they
exist only in Hangai Mountains
and on Vrangel Island off the
northern coast of Chukotka.
Inside these labyrinths of ridges and valleys, the nature resembles Siberia. There is even a local version of Lake Baikal, a beautiful high-altitude lake called Hovsgol. There are some enemic fish species in Hovsgol basin, such as Mongolian grayling (Thymallus brevirostris). taiga
Taiga forests of Hentei Mountains
are a good place to see snow deer
(Capreolus pygargus), wolves,
brown bears, taiga reindeer (Rangifer
tarandus major
), other Boreal fauna.
The far western part of Mongolia is the highest mountain range of all - Mongolian Altai. It is separated from Khangai by a chain of flat, dry valleys with a collection of lakes in them. Lakes range in size and salinity from tiny fresh vernal pools to huge Uvs Nuur, a bitter inland sea the size of Rhode Island. These valleys are inhabited by many interesting animals, such as endemic lake vole (Microtus limnophilys). mountains
Mongolian Altai in early fall.
Mongolian Altai near Russian border - habitat of
argali sheep (Ovis ammon), gray marmot (Marmota
), Altai snowcock and white-throated bushchat.
Rearview mirror
view of White Bom on Chuisky Tract.
Bulnai Fault was formed during 1905 Gobi-Altai
earthquake, the strongest recorded in history. The
earthquake didn't cause any human fatalities.
The spectacular Chuisky Tract is the only road that crosses the Altai Mountains and connects Western Mongolia with Russian cities along the Transsiberian Railroad. This highway is infamous for so-called boms - narrow cliff ledges, where truck drivers often perish when the pavement is slippery.
Valley of Big Lakes, Mongolia
Mongolian lakes and mountains are one of the best places in Asia to look for rare birds, such as white-throated bushchat (Saxicola insignis), Altai snowcock (Tetraogallus altaicus), relict gull (Larus relictus), white-necked crane (Grus vipio), Kozlov's accentor (Prunella kozlovi), black stork (Ciconia nigra), Dahurian partridge (Perdix dauurica), Pallas' sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus), many larks, shorebirds, bustards, finches, wheatears, and birds of prey.
Demoiselle cranes (Grus
) can be seen in the
Valley of Lakes in flocks
of up to 10,000 birds.
Bar-headed goose (Anser
) is the only goose
that often nests on rock
cliffs or even trees.
In October this bar-headed
goose chick will cross
the Himalaya to get to its
wintering grounds in India.
), the largest
bird of prey in Asia, is
common in Altai Mts.
Great black-headed gull
(Larus ichthyaetus) is
the most beautiful gull
in the World.
Interesting mammals of Western Mongolia include Pallas' cat (Felis manul), desert beaver (Castor fiber birulai), marbled polecat (Vormela pereguzna), snow leopard (Panthera uncia), desert weasel (Mustela altaica), Central Asian bat (Eptesicus bobrinskoi), and corsac fox (Vulpes corsac). The rarest of all is Mongolian saiga (Saiga tatarica mongolica). About 200 antelopes of this small, non-migratory subspecies survive in Yellow Gobi area in the Valley of Big Lakes. It inhabits barren areas in dry depressions, former lake beds, and salt plains. Unlike the widespread Kazakhstan subspecies (S. t. tatarica), it was never studied by naturalists and is seldom observed in Nature. The dim pictures below are probably the only photos ever taken in the wild.

saiga saiga saiga saiga
Mongolian saigas: male, female, pair and a group of 4. North from Shirgyn Gov', Mongolia.
Tracks of Mongolian saiga (the knife
is 12 cm long).

Newborn Kazakhstan saiga, Black
Lands Reserve, Kalmykia, Russia.
The so-called oboos are the most common signs
of human presence in the grasslands. They mark
passes, junctions and other prominent places.
Upland buzzards (Buteo hemilasius), steppe eagles
(Aquila nipalensis), sakers (Falco cherrug) and
other birds often nest on or near oboos. South
from Mandal Gov', Central Mongolia.
East and south from Ulaan Baator the land is mostly flat. This immense ocean of virgin grassland is what remains of the "Great Steppe" - a grassland corridor that once stretched from Vienna to Beijing. During the time of Mongolian Empire, it was all one civilized country with excellent roads, so that Marco Polo and other travelers could get from Europe to China in few months. But as soon as the empire had collapsed, the exchange of goods and ideas between East and West stopped for a long time. Since the arrival of Buddhism, the Mongols have never started a war again. Eventually, most of their territory was lost to Russia and China.
Travelling in the grasslands is a nice adventure. Although cars are rare and mostly overloaded, hitchhiking is very easy. If you are a foreigner, locals usually assume that you can drive any kind of truck, bus or bike, so they often ask you to drive while they rest. In many parts of the country, even a city bus can be driven cross-country, and nobody minds if you chase antelopes or stop to have a better look at something. You'll have to stop at every ger to let your passengers talk to people there and have a drink (airag - fermented milk with 3-6% alcohol). steppe
October in Eastern Mongolia.
Zerens, Central
Harasults, South-
Central Mongolia.
Hulans, Southern
Takhi, Khustain
Nuruu, Mongolia.
Always keep your eyes open for wild animals. Zeren, or Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa) can be seen in groups of up to five thousands. A smaller ada, or Ordos gazelle (P. przevalskii), used to occur in southeastern Mongolia, but now it only exists in Kukunor area, China. Both can run at 60 km per hour, so be careful if trying to drive by. Further south, the harasult, or Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) is more common. Hulan, or Asian wild ass (Equus hemionus) is also widespread, mostly in the east and south. Takhi, or Przhevalskii's horse (E. caballus przevalskii) have been reintroduced to two Nature reserves.
Small mammals are equally interesting. Dozens of species of mice, voles, jerboas, hamsters, lemmings and ground squirrels hide in tall grass. There are also gerbils, mole voles, marmots, dormice and other rodents, pikas, hares, shrews and a rare hedgehog (Mesechinus dauuricus). Some of Central Asian rodents are now sold in pet stores throughout the world, but the cutest ones are difficult to breed in captivity, so they can only be seen in the wild. hamster
Dwarf hamster (Phodopus
), Hovd, Mongolia.
Long-eared jerboa, the
only photo ever taken
in the wild. Transaltai
Gobi, Mongolia.
The most cute, interesting and diverse of Mongolian rodents are jerboas. You can see them by driving or hiking at night in dry grasslands and deserts. The large species, locally called alagdaaga (Allactaga, Allactagulus), and smaller emuranch (Scirtopoda, Dipus) are easy to find, but tiny daahai (Cardiocranius, Salpingotus) are shy and difficult to see. The most bizarre of all, the long-eared jerboa (Euchoreutes naso), can only be found in sand deserts along the Chinese border.
Some of Mongolian jerboas: Allactaga major (1), A. sibirica (2), A. elater (3), Allactagulus pygmaeus (4), Scirtopoda telum (5), S. andrewsi (6), Dipus sagitta (7), Salpingotus crassicauda (8), Cardiocranius paradoxus (9). (From: V.Dinets, E.Rotshild. Mammals of Russia. ABF, 1998.)
As you travel south, the grasslands become more and more dry, and eventually turn into deserts. But to see the real Gobi Desert - desolate, hot and beautiful - you have to cross the mountains of Gobi Altai. altai
Foothills of Gobi Altai, Mongolia.
Gurvan Saihan Ridge, Gobi Altai.
canyon canyon
Yolyn Am canyon, Gobi Altai.
Yolyn-Am (Lammergeyer Narrows) is the part of Gobi Altai most foreign tourists see, as there is a large tourist camp close by. It resembles geologically similar canyons of Death Valley, California. This beautiful canyon is a good place to see rare Gobi sheep (Ovis ammon darwini), and many other interesting animals and plants. Nesting birds include wallcreeper (Trichodroma muraria) and cinereous vulture (Torgos monachus), locally known as condor. All this mountain ridge is now part of a large national park.
Southern foothills of Gobi Altai were once a shoreline of a shallow sea not unlike Gulf of Mexico. Just as the Gulf today, they were lined by dense baldcypress forests. Since than, giant "dinosaurs graveyards" exist in Gobi. Fossils of softshell turtles (Tryonix) are more easy to find, but dino bones are also scattered in many locations, despite collecting efforts of many expeditions. Northern Mongolia, by the way, is also of great interest for fossil hunters: many wonderful mammals have been found there, such as a giant carnivore Hyenodon and giraffe-like megarhynoceros Indricoterium. All these finds can be seen in the museum in Ulaan Baator. The most famous exhibit is a fossil of Velosiraptor mongoliensis fighting with Protoceratops andrewsii. There is also a pair of "hands" belonging to an unknown dinosaur (named Deinocheirus mirificus), probably a carnivore twice the size of Tirannosaurus rex. log
Petrified trunk of baldcypress
(Taxodium), Gobi Altai.

Eggs of Oviraptor dinosaurus,
Gobi Altai.
Tirannosaurus baatar,
Ulaan Baator.
Saurolophus angustifrons,
Ulaan Baator.
T. baatar, also known as Tarbosaurus efremovi, was common in Mongolia in the late Cretaceous. It probably fed on Saurolophus duckbills and other herbivores. It was the most spectacular fauna in the history of our planet, but it was destroyed 65 million years ago.
Transaltai Gobi is the most "typical" part of the desert. Its name is derived from Mongolian "gov'", that means a dry basin. Being surrounded by old mountain ridges, Gobi is mostly covered with flat alluvial cones. These "pebble seas" can be black, purple, gray or brown, and they are very easy to drive across. But there are also badlands crisscrossed with small canyons, soft beds of dry lakes, and sand dunes (the latter are mostly present in central parts of basins, and they are much less common in Mongolia than in Chinese parts of Gobi, such as in Gashun Gobi near Dunhuan). So, driving in Gobi is always an adventure. The desert is mostly uninhabited, so it can be a good idea to get a horse or a camel instead of a car - this way you'll never get stuck anywhere without fuel. Besides, the undriveable parts of Gobi are often the most beautiful ones. gobi
Transaltai Gobi - habitat of long-eared
(Hemiechinus auritus).

Northern Gobi - habitat of Mongolian
ground-jay (Podoces hendersoni).
Jeep in Transaltai Gobi. Black-bellied sandgrouse
(Pterocles orientalis), and giant windspiders
(Ammotrechis giganteus) live in such places.
Badlands of Central Gobi - habitat of eagle owl
(Bubo bubo), desert green toad (Bufo viridis),
and steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanni).
There are some interesting animals in Gobi, but they can be difficult to find because of low population density. Many are nocturnal, despite the fact that nights in Gobi are often very cold.
Probably because of cold nights, snakes are very rare in Gobi. In addition to the two poisonous species shown here, there are also two dwarf boas and three racers, but none is common. Two nocturnal species of lizards are also rare, but diurnal ones are abundant. Hiking in Gobi in summer, you normally see one lizard every minute or two. snake
Small viper Vipera
, Gobi.
Pit viper Akgistrodon
, Gobi.
Lizard Eremias
, Gobi.
Lizard Phrynocephalus
, Gobi.
Gecko Teratoscincus
, Gobi.
Various small species of Eremias and Phrynocephalus are the most common lizards in Mongolia. The only large lizard is Stolichki's agama (Laudakia stoliczkana), rare inhabitant of some desert canyons.
Of all the large animals in Gobi, two are particularly difficult to find: mazaalai, or Gobi bear (Ursus arctos ssp.), and havtgai, or wild camel (Camelus bactrianus). There are only 20-40 bears left in Gobi, and nobody knows exactly what they look like. Some scientists suggest that this relict population belongs to Tibetan subspecies (U. a. pruinosus), others believe that it is a Tian Shan bear (U. a. isabellinus). Its entire range is now within nature reserves, but the population seems to be declining, probably because of climate aridization. The wild camel is more numerous (a thousand or more left in Gobi and Takla Makan deserts), but it inhabits the most remote and inhospitable areas, so seeing this beautiful creature in the wild is a great luck (and, unlike Przhevalskii's horse, it have never been obtained by any zoo). snake

Wild camel, Gobi.
High plateau in Mongolian Altai.

Mongolian trip diary can be found here.