Eco Club Summer Camp in Norovlin soum, Khentii Aimag
WWF hosted the annual Summer Camp for eastern Mongolian Eco Clubs in Khentii province in early July. Ten Eco Clubs were present, and six Eco Club members from western Mongolia made the gruelling three-day journey from the steppes to take part.
The actual campsite was on a wide, grassy plain 30 kilometres from Norovlin Soum, but it might as well have been the middle of nowhere, so remote did it feel!
After pitching tents, constructing two gers, digging latrines, building the volleyball pitch and a quick supper, everyone was understandably ready for bed.
On the first day, the children were split into different workshop groups. In their groups, the children learned about and did practical exercises involving freshwater streams, plant growth on the steppes and trees life. There was also a creative class where children were challenged to use only natural substances and objects to make art pieces.
When lunch time came around, many Eco Club kids took pride in preparing the food themselves, which was tasty! Never-ending games of “Steppe Volleyball” and table tennis were played throughout the afternoon, and in the evening a party was organised with loud speakers and all!
Unfortunately the party ended prematurely when a biblical downpour drenched the whole campsite, wetting everything from sleeping bags to deels and forcing everyone to make for the two gers! Luckily there was somehow enough space for the 60 odd people.
The following day was an important one for all concerned: a donor visit from the Teng family, who had come all the way from Singapore to meet with various conservation projects in Mongolia. The Eco Club children acquitted themselves exceptionally, welcoming the guests in Mongolian and English before a full programme of dance, theatre, songs, video screenings and art displays. The visitors were clearly impressed!
On day three it was time for most to make the long journey home. It is hard to overstate the commitment and passion the Eco Club kids have for these camps and the lengths they are willing to go to participate. There is real enthusiasm for learning about the animals on the steppe, the critters on the streams and bugs in the air, and most youngsters would no doubt have stayed longer!
Into the Jargalant Mountain
It started off last night. After another long day of driving it was getting to 11pm. We were on a smooth tar road and almost in Mankhan Soum. In other words on the home straight after five days on the steppe.
Of course, we didn’t stay on the tar road.
Our team leader Sergelen (WWF Species Officer) told the driver, Suraa, to take a right (as in just a right, not onto any road or track) and within minutes we were bouncing across riverbeds and up what seemed to be a dune. And we were gaining altitude.
Finally we stopped on a bare, exposed slope. We pitched our tents in 5 minutes flat on the stony surface. I slept within seconds.
I woke up the next morning to find Sergelen already breaking down the tent. By the time I’d wiped the sleep out of my eyes, the Land Cruiser was packed.
“This is Jargalant Mountain. We drive up the mountain and come back about midday,” Sergelen said.
Jargalant Mountain. Territory of ibex, argali sheep and snow leopards. But could you really drive up it?
Turns out you can – at least partly. A rocky track leads up ancient riverbeds and seemingly into dead ends only for it to climb over an incredibly steep saddle. The Land Cruiser must really scrabble its way up scree covered tracks more suited to camels or other pack animals.
Ibex race overhead across ridges. We roll over a hump and a smooth, grassy plain opens in front of us. Eagles soar overhead, massive marmots scurry across the plain and dive into their holes. A camel watches us idly in the distance.
The peaks around us are massive and jagged. I try to run up one only to feel like my lungs have been ripped out – I then remember we’re at around 3000 metres above sea level!
Sergelen leads the way as we hike along loose goat trails. It’s like walking on sand – for every two steps forward, I slide one back! The mountain scenery is possibly the starkest I’ve ever seen, barring perhaps the peaks of St. Helena Island. The ridges are abrupt, the rocks sharp. Water trickles out of springs that bubble up from nowhere.
Sergelen shows me a fresh snow leopard spoor. It must have prowled past here in the night. The WWF has set up remote sensor cameras along this trail and have captured stunning images of the elusive cats that survive by picking off ibexes, marmots and the occasional sheep.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in winter this mountain is blanketed in snow. Even without the white cover, it’s near impossible to spot the well camouflaged snow leopards across the valleys and ridges. As the wind whistles through the crags I think I hear one growl. It wouldn’t surprise me.
Of Red Rocks and Elusive Ibex
It’s a fine spring day in Khovd as I accompany WWF Species Officer Sergelen and his assistant Munkhzorig on an afternoon expedition to Yamaat Ulaan Uul (roughly translated as “the red mountain with goats”). It’s the landmark summit just north of Khovd City, and our aim is to install remote sensor cameras near the peak to monitor wild animals living near Khovd’s urban boundary. We’re particularly interested in the local Ibex population (Capra sibirica).
After a short drive to a suitable starting point, we begin hiking up a small, rock-strewn valley. It’s a short, steep climb to the first saddle, where a large Buddhist cairn overlooks the Buyant River valley with Khovd sprawling close by. Sergelen and Munkhzorig circle the cairn, tossing stones as they go. Despite the icy wind blowing off the steppe, we’re sweating as we pick our way through the boulders and loose rocks. After a lung-busting thirty minutes we reach the summit. The views up here are fantastic and we can see the still-partially frozen Khar Us Nuur (Black Water Lake) in the distance. It’s also the perfect spot to position our remote sensor cameras as the saddles near the summit provide grass and act as a natural thoroughfare for the Ibex.
Sergelen and Munkhzorig are well practiced at setting up the cameras, and it takes just a few minutes to place and disguise them among the mountains red rocks. Even so, the icy wind burns Sergelen’s fingers as he screws the cameras into protective metal boxes.
It’s vital that the cameras only react to movement of larger animals, otherwise the devices’ 32-gigabyte memory will be filled with pictures of nothing but waving grass, Sergelen explains. Munkhzorig volunteers to be the guinea pig, and walks right to the edges of the cameras’ field of vision.
Luckily, the cameras work perfectly and capture his every movement.
Anxious to get off the mountain before daylight disappears, we scramble and slide on our way down stony goat trails. The rocks graze our hands and knees but we arrive at the bottom in one piece. As I look over my shoulder, the mountain glows in the setting sun. A red mountain indeed. But will it be one with many ibex? We’ll have to wait and see.