The regions could be simplified as the Gobi Desert to the South, Mountainous Alpine Lake region to the North West and forest and grassland Steppes to the North-East and East. We mainly wanted to experience the vastness of Mongolia and get a feeling for the solitude of a country with the lowest population density of any in the world. So with no other information or ideas, we booked into Gun Guluut Nature Reserve, 120 km East of Ulaan Bataar and reportedly home to several rare species of birds and animals. We figured rare animals don’t live near too much habitation and a 3 hour car ride seemed like an economical option.
As described, we arrived amid confusion as to what we were actually doing. When things were finally explained as much as we could expect, we discovered that we were doing the equivalent of a “homestay” with the local Ranger, a lady called Ariuna. Her husband Dunduuk and daughter Umyuna also lived with her. Her mother, father and two nieces from the Choibalsan region near Mongolia’s Eastern borders, were visiting before the busy tourist season. I think we were kind of unexpected as they went from 2 Gers with 7 beds to 1 Ger with 3 beds and an extra outside! For us, we would soon find out that having Ariuna’s family staying made our visit that little bit more special but it did also eventually sway us from staying on longer (which we really wanted to) as despite paying for our accommodation, it was hard not to feel like intruders.
Intruders, guests or otherwise, we were looking forward to plenty of activities. Dunudduk and Ariuna had two horses, Dinki (a Buryat Horse) and a local Pony, as well as a horse cart and Dundduk had a reasonably new Chinese agricultural motor bike that we soon established I could ride. Plus the neighbouring Ger camp had inflatable kayaks, mountain bikes, archery and other activities for a small fee.
Starting slowly, we wandered around our immediate area checking out amenities, the Kherlen River and the views from the mountain behind our Ger. This was what we wanted, miles of uninterrupted solitude with a beautiful river, spectacular mountains and a sky that like in Australia, went forever.
Whilst on our local wander I noticed some fairly dirty, big clouds approaching from the South. The day was pretty cold and windy as it was but it looked like some sort of storm. And then we all realized what it was, baring down on us from the Gobi desert – a dust storm. We ran like crazy, jumped a fence, dodged some horses and ignored some crazy dog in a mad rush for the safety of our ger. We made it a little late, brushing dust from our jackets and hair whilst appreciating just how weather proof the ger was, although there was some flapping and minor adjustments required.
The dust storm passed and was followed by a spectacular dry storm to our East with a lot of lightning but almost no rain.
The next day we decided to head up the nearest big mountain and see if we could see any rare birds. Reportedly on offer were Siberian Cranes, Hooded Cranes, Duck Geese and White Cranes (?). We are not into bird watching but the mountain looked like both a good challenge and a good vantage point for both bird watching and taking in the view so off we went. The day was perfect less a very strong wind, although we at least had it at our back heading up the long spur line to the top of the mountain.
Once on top we hid over the lip of the ridge, out of the wind and could hear but not see some sort of water birds. That didn’t matter – the views were amazing and the serenity unbeatable.
We headed down to the wet land area, plodded around on the boggy, marshy grass mounds and found what we think was a vulture feather, talked to a couple of cows and a horse and then headed back.
For those into more “substantial” rare species, Gun Guluut has on offer a resident wild heard of Agalia Sheep, an endangered species best described as wild mountain goats. Big horns, tall, gazelle like bodies and living in a very rocky and inhospitable mountain range. To get to them, the next day we decided on a 2 pronged approach – horse for Julia, mountain bike for Molly and I. Ariuna accompanied us as a guide and off we went.
About 6km down river the track we were on was blocked to vehicles to assist park management. A further 3 km on we left the track and headed south up a long, broad spur. On the initial part Molly and I made good time, despite now being into the wind, and we were able to stop and enjoy the view as we wished. We joined Ariuna and Julia to view some of the rare birds – Ariuna had binoculars so today it was easy!
Then a little further on we stopped to let the horses drink from a stream whilst we explored and relaxed. Here we discovered that Julia and Ariuna had detoured down to the river to do a bit of Yak herding with a neighbour, somehow picking up the Yak hereders dog along the way. Molly and I liked the dog, a girl, and as she tagged along with us we decided to name her Yakkie.
As the track got worse the horses made much better time than the bikes (the rider has nothing to do with the speed of these things!) so by the time we were approaching Agali territory Molly and I were dodging huge rocks in the grasslands whilst Julia and Ariuna did the scouting. Then they found the Agali – at least 30 or 40 that we could see but Ariuna suggested that the mountain here was home to a herd of over 130. Julia learnt that Ariuna had been to Japan as part of her work with the Agali and we would later find that she had a degree in Enviro-Studies and was completing a Masters in the same, doing a thesis on the Agali in Gun Guluut. All this from a humble little ger in the Mongolian Steppe’s.
We decreed the next day a rest day but as the weather was so nice decided to go against our own decision and head onto the river. Molly and Julia took a double kayak and I went in a single and down to the river we went. The thing about some inflatable kayaks, even the good ones, is that they assist themselves in remaining upright by creating water ballast in the cockpit – they have holes along the floor to let water in. Jumping into a fast flowing river in your jeans is probably not the time to find out. Julia was suitably unimpressed although had at least had the sense to put shorts on for our aqua adventure. We went downstream about 300 metres and then pulled alongside the bank to sort out our soggy mess. For met there was no choice, noting that we weren’t sure if we would be walking back from 6 km down stream or not – my jeans had to come off and start drying out. Fortunately I had bright red bike shorts on underneath – lock up your yak herder’s daughters!
Thye day went well, I looked silly and the girls loved teasin me for it - almost as much as they loved scaring me as we continually approached wild horses drinking in the river, not too keen on us paddling past. At least the Yaks seemed more scared of us.........