Located 120km south of the Russian border in the northwestern region of Mongolia is the city of Ulaangom. Known for its nearby snowcapped mountains, crystal clear lakes, waterfalls, and mountain springs you can drink from, this was where I ended up for the last stretch of my first Mongolian expedition after spending most of a summer in the Zavkhan province finding signs from an unknown snow leopard population. I was excited about this site because there was already a study going on through my partner NGO monitoring snow leopards with camera traps. I imagined cooler days in the field and the chance to see some fresh images of the elusive big cat, while enjoying some well-needed, peaceful alone time after being around the same people nonstop for so long. Turns out I was only about half right on my expectations.
My little adventure in this site all started after landing at a tiny airport and waiting for what seemed like forever for my teammate to come pick me up. I was assuming that a jeep of sorts would pull up to the curb, where I could load all my gear and relax for the duration of a 3 hour ride to the site where I would be camping out next to a ranger’s ger. Nope! To my surprise, here he comes with a couple friends riding beside him… on a motorbike. My thoughts were “How the heck are we going to do this? Strap my gear across my back and put a bag somehow in front of you while you drive and I hang on for dear life behind you?!” My expression simply indicated the bike and my gear skeptically, before being received with a huge grin from my teammate. Yes. That’s exactly what we were going to do. So off we went, cruising down what appeared to be the only road until it turned into a rough, dirt trail, up and over slopes and rocks, making slower progress on the bike since it was weighted down.
Not long after the sun disappeared a loud pop came from a tire. Oh great, we got a flat…in the middle of nowhere…in the dark, miles from any form of civilization. Not able to go anywhere, my teammate’s friends went on ahead to get us help and bring a vehicle while we sat there snacking on some trail bologna. Eventually, we were saved and made it to my teammate’s family’s ger where I was fed some biscuits and milk tea, as 8 family members snoozed away on the floor. Not long after, we finally made it to the ranger’s ger where my tent could be set up and I could pass out, but not until after the family made me a bowl full of fatty mutton, noodles, and potatoes from scratch.
While at this site, we hopped on the motorbike and rode to the mountains where camera traps were set. The hike up the main valley was difficult since it was nothing but chunks of loose granite piled up from probably centuries of snowmelt. To get to the cameras, we had to climb, flex around narrow ledges, and stretch across boulders to navigate along. One thing about studying snow leopards is that you need to channel your “inner goat”. Compared to the blazing, breezeless heat back on the steppe where my tent was set up, the mountains offered what I considered the closest thing to air conditioning. It took hours, but the reward each day was well worth it as we were greeted with images of the resident snow leopard and a couple Pallas cats on the SD card, as well as fresh scratch marks on a tree from the snow leopard.
By late afternoon, I was back at camp hanging out alone in my tent for the remainder of the day since the ranger’s family and friends were always visiting in celebration of the Naadam Festival (a major annual national holiday dedicated to honoring the three “manly sports”: horse racing, archery, and wrestling). I caught up on some reading or writing in my journal, baking in or just outside my tent, trying to curl up in the tiny bit of shade it offered. Lying nearby, the family’s dogs had the same idea. Together, we panted the rest of the day away.
It was so hot that eating heavy native food was the last thing I wanted to do, especially after drinking some water taken from the stream that ran right between livestock herds that apparently wasn’t boiled enough. Needless to say, my stomach and I were not very good friends so I stuck with eating bread and jam, with the occasional “canned fish” for my final week in the field. A note about that “fish”: its not the canned fish most people are used to, such as your Bumble Bee Tuna meat all nicely minced. No, this fish was pretty much sent through a meat grinder whole, cartilage, scales, eyes and all, and then canned for consumption. However, I craved protein, and there it was. Bon appétit.
Other than that, field time in Ulaangom was relatively tranquil. Almost like a mini vacation. The only “hazard” I really had to deal with were naughty goats trying to climb my tent while I was inside or waking up to the ranger’s bull sticking his head in my tent flap innocently watching me sleep. Creepy cow.