My flights all went well, with no problems in either security or immigrations. I went from Anchorage to Portland to Los Angeles to Seoul (South Korea) to Mongolia, for a total of 21 hours of actual flight time and 10.5 hours of layovers. The return trip was pretty much the same except we went thru Seattle instead of Portland. The time difference between Alaska and Mongolia is 17 hours: I’m still not quite “back” if you know what I mean.

I got into Ulaanbaatar (the capitol city of Mongolia, with a population of over 1,000,000 people) at about 5:00 in the afternoon and was so beat I just went right to bed. Thankfully, I had most of the following day to get settled in and see a bit of the sights before the expedition actually started. I went on a walk about the city with fellow expeditioners Jack & Mary (from Homer Alaska) and Ronda (from Denver Colorado), and even got in a bit of shopping at the State Store (a huge 5-story department store selling anything from groceries, electronics and appliances, to tourist nick-knacks and furs).

The official start of the expedition was a big group dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. They stuffed all 13 of us into a table meant to accommodate 8 and served us so much food an army couldn’t have eaten it all. We spent a very pleasant 2 hours getting to know each other and getting pumped for the adventure ahead of us.

Our group of volunteers consisted of myself, Jack & Mary from (of all places) Homer Alaska, Dwight & Karla from Oregon, Brian from England, Dianne from Namibia, Monique from Switzerland, Kathie from Wyoming, Allyn from South Carolina, and Ronda from Colorado. Oddly enough, I was the youngest!

The following morning, we all met out in the parking lot of the guesthouse where we were staying (Zaya’s Guest House) and got all our luggage and gear situated in the cars. Our trip to the train station was a bit cramped, but we survived. Driving a car in downtown Ulaanbaatar is an adventure all on its own! They have stripes on the road, but don’t really pay much attention to them: a four-lane highway can have as many as 6 rows of cars on it, if you drive close enough to the guy beside you, don’t you know.

All the while, our luggage and gear was on its way via the vehicles we’d need at the camp: it was supposed to have been a 5-hour trip (as opposed to the 7.5-hour trip that the train took) but apparently they had car troubles along the way, because when we finally arrived at our designated meeting place, they weren’t there to pick us up. Thankfully, the governor of the Soum (city/town) was kind enough to entertain us while we waited: he took us in to the museum/meeting hall and talked to us about his Soum and what they wanted to accomplish with themselves.

Finally the vehicles arrived, so we climbed in – or rather, we squeezed in – and headed off on our way. And of course, we broke down half way there. This time, the vehicle had a flat tire (the “roads” out there are not much more than a trail in the wilderness). It was quite late and dark by the time we arrived at our base camp, so dinner was by flashlight that night.

My first night of sleeping in a ger on the ground in a sleeping bag was quite fun, but I have to admit the “fun” wore out rather quickly. By the third or fourth night, I really was tired of it and very quickly discovered that the $79 sleeping pad I bought at REI just for this trip had a faulty valve that wouldn’t stay closed - so as soon as I lay down on it all the air would go out of it, and I ended up literally sleeping on the ground. It was cold; it was uncomfortable; it was confining (a mummy-style sleeping bag); and there was no privacy at all (5 other people sleeping in the ger with me, a rather even mixture of both male and female).

But – Hey! I was in MONGOLIA, so who cares!

The morning of our first day was spent with orientations and instructions: Ganaa and Amgaa talked to us about drive-netting and argali capture, Buyana talked to us about her small mammal capture techniques, Mandakh talked to us about her vegetation plots, and Tuugii showed us the radio telemetry, the GPS units, and the two-way radios. After a quick lunch, we were off to set up the drive nets and catch us an argali or three.

Setting up drive nets is hard work. The nets are about 6-feet tall, and run for about 1,500 feet in double rows, one about 15-feet away from the other one. They are propped up on poles that are very easy to knock over by either an argali, an ibex, or even a good gust of wind. The theory is that the horsemen go out and locate an animal (or, if they’re lucky, a herd of animals) and drive them into our nets. The first row of netting will capture the first animals to go thru. The second wave of animals will jump over the first wave and then get caught by the second row of netting. Any animals after that will simply get away. The nets are pulled down each night so that nothing will get tangled in them overnight, and had to be relocated several times once the animals caught on to what we were doing and left the area we had currently been set up in.

We were stationed at intervals along the rows of netting, hiding down amongst the rocks so as not to be seen by the skittish animals. Once an animal (or animals) was caught we’d jump up, run over to them, and pile on top of them to keep them down. The scientists would then quickly (and quietly) wrap a cloth over the animal’s eyes and begin to take their measurements and/or biological samples and get a collar on it. The whole procedure had to be completed within 20 minutes, to minimize the stress on the animal.

We worked on the drive nets for 4 days before catching the three argali that we’d set our goals at. The trick was to capture only argali: apparently, argali and ibex travel together, and it’s very difficult to separate them out from each other since they are both running at top speeds.

A typical day would see us up for breakfast around 6:00; off to the drive netting site by 7:00; back to camp around 1:00 for lunch; back out to the drive netting site for another attempt by 2:00; back to camp for dinner at 7:00; and to bed by 9:00.

For those who wanted even more adventure, Buyana needed about 4 volunteers to help her set up her small mammal traps each evening, typically heading out at 8:00; and then each morning she needed another 4 volunteers to go check them all, heading out typically around 6:00. She laid her traps out on a grid system of 10 rows of 10 traps, each spaced a few meters apart. The times I spent with her, she captured mostly wild hamsters with the occasional jerboa or two. She also set out about 10 insect traps (my favorite) which typically had anywhere from one to five beetles in them: big black ones with long antennae. The bugs she’d just count and identify then let go; the small mammals would all get measured, weighed, and tagged before being let go.

Once we got our 3 argali captured, collared, and measured – we switched gears and started in on the radio telemetry and vegetation sampling. A typical day for those was pretty much the same except that lunch was a brown-bag event out in the field wherever you happened to be at the moment.

For radio telemetry, two or three volunteers were assigned to a student and dropped off seemingly out in the middle of nowhere and told to walk back to camp, typically a distance of about 10 kilometers. The walking wasn’t really all that hard, but the terrain could be rather tricky at times. The rocks were tall and steep, and once you got on top the wind tried its best to blow you off. Of course, that’s where you wanted to be in order to get a good reading of the surrounding area with your radio telemetry antennae, trying to locate each animal on your list. In between the rock climbing and radio sweeps, walking on the sand was the hardest. It was stiflingly hot and extremely difficult to walk quickly in sand (and the student I was assigned to was really booking).

The vegetation plots were my favorite. Mandakh was a very nice lady, and her lack of English didn’t impede her sense of humor one bit. Best of all, she always had along a thermos of hot water and would take a tea break periodically throughout the day, complete with cookies and chocolate. A lady after my own heart!

A computer had randomly picked 160 spots throughout the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, and each spot was visited four times a year in order to get a good sampling of all the vegetation. With her hand-held GPS unit, Mandakh would find one spot after another to do her sampling, typically taking a car and the driver since you never knew which spot you’d be sent to or how far apart they might be. Once a spot was located, she would place a square-meter string out on the ground, take a survey of the types of plants located within the string, count how many of each type of plant was there and measure how tall each one was. Then she would basically mow the plot down to the ground and place all the plant material in sampling bags to be taken back to her lab in UB (that’s short for Ulaanbaatar). There she would assess the nutritional values and the carrying capacity of everything collected.

Our last day at the camp was spent doing transect surveys, which is basically doing a walk-thru and counting how many animals you saw. Each volunteer was assigned to a student (don’t want anybody getting lost out there) and dropped off out in the middle of nowhere again. I went with Dandar, who was just cute as could be but spoke no English at all. We walked rather quickly, since we had quite a ways to go and only 4 hours to do it in. When we spotted an animal or two, Dandar would locate it with his GPS unit and I would record all the data in the notebook.

Once we all made it back to camp, we set to work on breaking down the gers and getting them packed away for the winter. It was really interesting to see them go down and to realize the entire “house” could be stored in a small (ish) container for easy transport. Hundreds of years of tradition had worked out all the kinks, that’s for sure.

In between all that scientific stuff, we did get to do some fun cultural things, too. One day we loaded everybody up into the cars and headed off to the horse races. Apparently, it’s a big deal out there, with everybody for miles around competing to win the prize. The riders were all young, anywhere from 6 to 9 years of age (both male and female) and the horses were - of course – the famed Mongolian Horses: short, stocky, and half wild. It was so cool to see everybody there: they still wear the traditional clothing worn for hundreds of years, and of course no body speaks English. It was like being transported back to the times of Genghis Kahn and the Mongol Horde!

On another day, we got to visit with a neighboring rancher who invited us in to their ger for some authentic Mongolian hospitality and a taste of the nomadic way of life. The lady of the house even got out all of her traditional dels and let us try them on: we looked like real Mongolians (not).

Back in UB, Ganaa arranged for us to go to the cashmere warehouse, to the black market, and to a cultural dance & music event to round out our trip. I chose not to go to the shopping events (I was looking forward to an actual shower and a nap on a real bed!) but certainly did go to the dance & music event. The Mongolians have perfected the art of Throat Singing, or the ability to sing two separate melodies at the same time. They also are masters at contortionism with some extremely amazing moves performed by the dancers.

Ruth in Mongolia