It was with a mixture of mild excitement and deep trepidation that I packed my guide bags for the Mongolia expedition this summer: Leading a trip full of strangers and a co-guide you never worked with, in area rarely visited, and looking for an elusive cat that we were pretty sure we wouldn’t see.
What I did know was that this would not be a routine “Walk in The Park” – it would be one of those exploratory trips doing things on the fly and where clients were forewarned to be flexible due to the unknown nature of the hiking terrain and the long drives involved. This time The Park would be Western Mongolia, one of the most thinly populated parts of one of the least populated countries on earth, 3 times the size of France and only inhabited by 2.8 million people – half of them nomad herders. Just to put the place in perspective – it took us 3 hours to fly from the middle of the country to western Mongolia and our supplies were driven from Ulan Baataar in trucks to meet us. It took them 5 days of hard driving! As one of our clients later dubbed the place, we would be deep in the “Vast Vastness of Mongolia”.
The main objective of the expedition was to join forces with Mongolian World Wildlife Fund researchers and top international snow leopard scientist to search for the rare-to-find cat in two of its known habitats: The Yamaat Valley tucked into the Altai Range close to the Russian border, and the Jargalant Hairhan (hairhan means “sacred”) Mountain area of Khar Us Nuur National Park in Central Western Mongolia.
We looked, looked and looked – scouring the mountains relentlessly with our scopes. We found plenty of snow leopard traces (yes – it was there!): Scratch marks on trees to mark territory, fresh paw prints, turds and urine markings – everything except the animal in flagrante. We knew it was close, and sometimes we felt that the snow leopard was watching us! Recent satellite signals from a collared female cat proved its proximity.
Were we disappointed not seeing the “star” animal? Perhaps a few of us a little bit – but it was easily ameliorated by the many other wonders this amazing place offers: The majestic snow leopard pre species, Argali sheep, and Ibex traversing the steep mountain slopes above us, the breathtaking landscapes, and the hospitable and hardy local herder family who invited us in for fermented mare milk in their yurts.
Thinking back on all the many adventurous moments that naturally will occur on a trip like this, there were several: Crossing window-deep raging rivers in our land cruisers (yes water did seep in and wetted our boots!), encountering the traveling nomads on their Bactrian camels, and seeing the last original horses (The Taki) in the wild at dusk in Hustai National Park – were just a few among many. But the most lasting impression from our traveling across these central Asian steppes through these unexplored mountain ranges – was the unforgettable and beautiful Vast Vastness of Mongolia.