How this trip came about
On 3rd Nov as I reached Mandal a small village at the base of Chopta and a place where you get connectivity I received a PM on Instagram asking me to call my friend Ismail the moment I get into range. I called him and he told me that he was going to Mongolia and if I would join him? I asked him what were the dates and he said he was planning to leave on the 10th of Nov. I asked him for a days time to revert. When I told Srikanth who was travelling with me what the whole conversation was about he told me if you are not doing anything you should go. I immediately called back Ismail and told him I am on for the trip and asked him what documents he needed for the visa and also told him I would be able to provide him with everything on that weekend as I would reach Mumbai only then. He said it was fine as he was planning to go to the embassy in Delhi on the following Monday.
I was all excited and a little fearful. Excited because was going to an exotic destination that most of us have read about and know only because of Genghis khan. Fearful because I was breaking my own rules of financial discipline.
Once back in Mumbai I try finding the best way to get to Ulaanbaatar and find that travelling through HK is the best option. I block the tickets and send all documents to Hyderabad and on Monday the visa is done and in flat four days a plan to visit Mongolia the land of the blue sky has been finalized.
I arrive in Ulaanbaatar (UB) and was greeted by Bayasaa a very nice gentleman who is the head of the local travel company. They had provided the invitation. He took me to the hotel through nightmarish traffic. Imagine I had just returned from Bangalore and then travelled home from Mumbai airport in peak traffic and still found it nightmarish!!!! The roads were filled with only Japanese cars and Bayasaa told me that they were one of the biggest markets for used Japanese cars.
Food for a vegetarian is an issue in Mongolia. For all Mongolians the day begins with meat and ends with meat. So it took an effort to find a place that served veg food. On the dinner table I found a fortune telling game where the dice was made of Sheep bones. Each bone had four sides representing sheep, Goat Camel and Horse and each combination had some relevance. It is like a fortune telling game. Also tells you in what order they value their livestock
A little about the country
This land locked country sandwiched between Russia and China has wonderful people. It has rich mineral resources and livestock’s but they manufacture very little and also there dependence on imports for all food items is huge.
Population of the country is 3 million (Mumbai & Delhi has 6 times more population 18 million each) also the size of the country is 1.5 million sq. kms where as Mumbai is just 653 sq. kms
30% of the population lives in Ulaanbaatar. Unemployment is big and air pollution in the capital is also bad. As they still depend on the Soviet era central heating plants. A predominantly meat eating Buddhist population (51% ). 38% have no religion .
Was joined by my friend Ismail who travelled through Turkey. We went for a late lunch to a vegan restaurant run by the Hinayana society post that visited Gandantegchinlen Monastery (means “Great Place of Complete Joy”) the oldest monastery in the city. In the night photographed the Sükhbaatar Square in freezing temperatures.
Mongolia does not have very ancient buildings, as the concept of permanent structures was very recent about 200 years. They were Nomads who lived in mobile tents called Ger.
Left our hotel early morning to visit The Hustai National Park, which is home to the Przewalski’s horse. These horses became extinct in 1966. They were reintroduced into the wild some years back and now around 500 of them are there in this park. Also got to see the deer and red fox.
Checked out of the hotel to take a 4-hour ATR flight to Khovd.If they used a bigger font the Name of the airport would become longer then the airport building itself We had lunch at a local restaurant and encountered the biggest problem of Mongolia “Alcoholism” The society has a huge drinking problem and people especially the youngsters get drunk early in the day (probably unemployment could be one reason 30%). Had a very funny encounter with one such drunk attaching the video to view. Warning and disclaimer some words uttered by the drunk may not be exactly family viewing and are his own words and the writer of this blog is not responsible.
It was a long drive to the Altai Mountains and we got delayed and had to spend the night in a village house in Ullgi. The living room tells you how the Mongolians revere Gangiz khan. The storeroom outside the house would not be a pleasant sight for vegetarians
Living roomStore Room
Left early morning for Altai Mountains, which was going to be our home for the next five days. The journey itself was a great adventure where we had to cross-frozen rivers. A few kilometers before the camp a group of horsemen were waiting for us to lead us to the camp. They also acted as icebreakers on some streams so that the SUV could crossover. The last 2-kilometer we had to walk to the camp. Thankfully there were no altitude issues like in Ladakh even though it was freezing cold. After reaching the camp and putting our gear in the Ger (traditional Mongolian tents) we went to wander around our camp and take a few evening pictures. We were told about a horse kill on the mountains and the plan was to head for it the next day.
Our SUV getting across
The rangers took turns to visit our Ger to keep the fire going but we later found out that they were actually curious to look at people who did not eat meat. We headed out to the reach the horse kill at around 9 AM. The initial part was a steep climb and had to be done on foot. Post that we got on to the horses and after the initial few minutes my respect for the horse back conquers like Alexander, Gangiz Khan and Chandra Gupta went up a zillion times. After 15 minutes I was saying Alexander the great and my backside was saying Alexander was great.
As we proceeded deeper and higher into the mountains the climbs became steeper and the terrain rockier. Me sitting on the horseback was letting my mind drift so as to forget the discomfort of the saddle.
After about 2 hours of a combination of walking and riding we came to a very rocky area and I was thinking of Louis Lamours books in which the lonely rider breaks his ankle when a mountain lion spooks his horse. With those thoughts in mind I had loosened my right leg from the stirrup and then the horse slipped on a rock and fell on to the right side where there was a huge boulder and just managed to jump across as the horse was getting up. Even though the foot was caught between the horse and the boulder I escaped with no major injury. This was a case of the foot between a hard rock and a horse.
I fell over and the first think I did was check my wide-angle lens and camera that I was holding in my hand. And then asked if someone had clicked a picture to lighten the moment as everyone were in shock. After that I refused to sit on the horse and climbed up and down the mountains with the painful right ankle. The day was disappointing as we did see some Snow leopard pugmarks but they were 2 days old. We got back to the camp and the locals administered a black tea wash for my leg.
I walk down a steep face after the fall.
The day begun with the news that a snow leopard had taken a sheep from a nomad about 10 km from our camp and the Rangers were tracking the fresh pugmarks. Ismail and me guessed that there had to be 2 leopards as they had finished the sheep in one night. And then the rangers called to say they had visuals of the snow leopards and it was a Female and her sub adult cub. We asked the rangers to hang back and follow and inform when she rests. After nearly 3 hours the rangers reported that the cats had gone into a rocky area and were not seen coming out so they assumed they were resting and called us. As I was in no position to ride a horse my friend Ismail went up the mountain slope and we went around in the SUV on our way we say a family of Ibex and photographed them. We reached the other side of the mountain and climbed up half a kilometer to wait. Then we got to see the small group of horsemen heading back. The Snow leopard had given us the slip. That was the closest we got to see one. We got back to the camp and decided to shoot star trails, as the sky was brilliant.
As usual post breakfast we were making our walk of the 2-kilometer to the jeep to begin our day. And that is when we noticed that the people had stopped asking us to give them our bags to carry. We asked our English-speaking guide Bayasaa why this had happened? He said like all horsemen the Mongolians also hated walking. They were talking amongst themselves that we should be given more loads as they were finding it hard to keep up and wanted to slow us down. Day 8 post lunch got us the first sighting of a cat. Our guide spotted the Pallas’s cat, which was a lifer for us. We also saw the golden eagle and the Bearded vulture.
This was our last day in the mountains and we enjoyed it fully. After we got back to our camp our guide and the trackers decide to take us for a drive in the night. The drive under star filled sky was wonderful and freezing. We saw a couple of Red foxes and a few Ibex but no sign of the elusive Snow leopard. we came across a very old grave and wondered if it was of the great Gangiz Khan. whose death is shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that he did not want his grave to be found . he also wanted to be buried with his beloved horses. His close aides did that. to keep the secret of his grave they made a 1000 horses run over the entire area and also killed the people who helped bury Gangiz Khan. Still wondering how the people would react if the grave was ever found.
Bid goodbye to the camp and the rangers and headed back to Hovd for the night stay.On the way we saw a pair of Black vultures. also spent time with a group of semi wild Bactrian camels.we also passed the Ulaan davaa highest pass in Mongolia We reached Hovd late night and we checked into a hotel. I had heard of rooms with a view but what I got was beyond my wildest imagination. Have a look!!!!!!
Early morning flight to UB. Went around the market trying to buy some local junk jewellery for my daughter and then had dinner and got ready to get back home.
some photos of the food we were served
The Team that was with us. I am with the horse which slipped and ended my career as a horseman
Took the flight back home.
I feel two things played a big part in the sighting not happening one the animals are very shy, as they are not used to humans and two lack of snowfall made tracking them very difficult. Even though I am neither great landscape photographer nor a keen one but just looking at the place makes one want to shoot. These photos tell you why Mongolia is called the land of the blue sky. The Mongols used to practice Shamanism before Tibetan Buddhism became popular. In Shamanism they worshipped the Blue Sky. I can conclude that
This trip was possible because of my friend Ismail Shariff who specializes in exotic wildlife and adventure trips. his contact number is 9885008850
To find their Zen people do various things like visiting religious places, staying in ashrams, going mountain climbing in Nepal, Sailing the oceans but looks like I found my Zen just looking at the beautiful blue skies of Mongolia. I am at complete peace post this trip.
The need to shoot big cats is never ending so will leave on a tiger trip shortly and there ends my mental peace.