Mongolia — wild, rugged and exotic, this vast land of desert and steppe is occupied by the proud nomadic inheritors of a region once ruled by the medieval warrior chieftains Genghis and Kublai Khan, and visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century! At its height, the Mongol Empire covered 22% of the world’s land surface, and formed the largest contiguous empire in history. Today, the warriors and Silk Road traders are long gone, and in their place are peaceful nomadic families dotted over a grand and timeless landscape of distant horizons, blue skies and exotic wildlife!
Mongolia first opened its doors to foreign visitors in the early 1990s, following the break-up of the USSR. Although tourism has developed slowly since, the accommodation and tourist infrastructure has improved markedly over the past decade. Gone are the days when the only places in which to stay outside the towns and cities were very basic ‘field camps’, and today our groups are based in simple but comfortable ‘ger camps’. A ‘ger’, known as a ‘yurt’ by the Turks, is a round tent. Each one provides comfortable twinbedded accommodation, although all facilities and the communal dining area are shared. Despite this added comfort, travel in Mongolia is still an adventure! Visitors are amply rewarded, however, with a diverse range of flora and fauna and a particularly sought-after suite of birds. There will also be opportunities to meet nomadic families and, for the brave, the chance to try fermented mare’s milk — a local delicacy!
Our tour begins with a flight to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. Here, introductory birding along the Tuul River, and in adjoining willow woodlands, may yield such exotic species as Whitecrowned Penduline Tit, Azure Tit, Yellowbreasted Bunting and Long-tailed Rosefinch. On the following day we will head out across the open steppe to Hustai National Park, keeping an eye open en route for such raptors as Steppe Eagle, Upland Buzzard and Saker Falcon, while regular wayside stops will introduce us to the region’s variety of larks, wheatears and pipits. Hustai National Park is known for its reintroduced population of the endangered Przewalski’s Horse. However, it also offers a wealth of other wildlife and, during our 2- night stay, we will look for Red Deer, Mongolian Marmot, Mongolian Gazelle and even the elusive Pallas’s Cat, as well as such birds as Daurian Partridge, Golden Eagle, Lesser Kestrel and Amur Falcon.
Next, we will head further to the west, in search of such enticing birds as Whitenaped Crane, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Falcated Duck and Eastern Marsh Harrier, before arriving at Ugii Nuur, a large freshwater steppe lake. The smart Asian Dowitcher will be a key target here, whilst the spectacle of large numbers of Barheaded and Swan Geese will surely prove another highlight. Here, too, we might find a striking Citrine Wagtail or a pair of faithful Demoiselle Cranes, whilst impressive raptors such as White-tailed Eagle, Pallas’s Fish Eagle and Cinereous (Black) Vulture might well command our attention overhead. Upon the shimmering waters of the lake itself we will hope to sift out a White-winged Scoter, Dalmatian Pelican or perhaps even a rare migrant or two!
Returning for a night in the capital, we next take a scenic flight to the far south of the country to explore the northern fringes of the vast Gobi Desert and a scenic mountainous region known as Yolyn Am or ‘Valley of the Lammergeier’. In these mountains we will look for Altai Snowcock, Kozlov’s Accentor, Beautiful Rosefinch, Wallcreeper and, of course, Lammergeier. We might also encounter mammals such as Siberian Ibex and Argali Sheep.
Descending onto the desert steppe below, we will continue our journey westwards, stopping to locate the elegant Oriental Plover. Our destination is Khongoryn Els, an area best known for its huge and spectacular sand dunes, which our ger camp overlooks. At night we will be treated to star-filled desert skies, while by day we’ll hope to enjoy such species as Saxual Sparrow, Asian Desert Warbler, Steppe Grey Shrike and the striking Henderson’s Ground Jay, the latter often announcing its presence with its distinctive piping calls. It is here, too, that we hope to see flocks of elegant Pallas’s Sandgrouse as they fly in front of the huge dunes — a sight that will surely rate amongst the highlights of the entire tour!
Returning north we finish our Mongolian adventure in the northern boreal forests and the Terelj National Park, whose southern extremities of larch, pine and birch woodland are accessible from Ulaanbaatar. Our final ger camp borders the forest, allowing exploration on foot in search of such tantalising species as Black-billed Capercaillie, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-throated Thrush, Pine Bunting and Red-flanked Bluetail. Finally we must return to Ulaanbaatar for our flight back to the UK, hopefully with great memories of Mongolia’s exceptional landscapes and superb wildlife!