Firstly, any true wildlife tour is not for the faint-hearted, and this was certainly the case with our quest to see the fabled Snow Leopard. Mongolia was chosen as the alternative to the more famous Ladakh ( Northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas). For us, trekking about in sub zero temperatures, sleeping in hike tents, all at 3500 metres was a bridge too far.
Mongolia was sold to us primarily as the dates in late July /early August with temperatures similar to our own, were much more appealing. Plus sleeping in Gers or Yurts with some basic facilities seemed a step-up from my Boy Scout days which neither of us wanted to repeat as Silver Travellers.
So, the journey from Heathrow to Moscow, then to the capital city of Ulaanbaator took approx. 9 hours plus a short stop-over. An overnight stay at a very reasonable hotel just outside the city centre gave us time to gather our loins and some lost luggage…. Aeroflot are not the most competent airline….they mislaid about 8 bags from our party. Apparently the luggage did not get on the plane with us, so it was quite useful have a day spare for it all to be retrieved, before we travelled on to our final destination.
An early morning flight saw us travelling West to the Altai Mountains which borders China and Kazakhstan. Hunnu Air with a very tidy prop plane got us there in another 4.5 hours with a scheduled stop enroute. We then picked up the minibus for a further 2 hours drive to what I can only describe as the back of beyond.
The tour company “wildlife touring company”:http://ecotourswildlife.co.uk , had collaborated with the locals to set up a new ger camp in the foothills of a particular part of this mountain range. Basically people from the nearby village had hired out spare dwellings and erected them for us, along with the very very basic shower and toilet facilities. The Gers were either single or double occupancy with beds and wash basins, but very spacious… you could see how a small family could live in one of these (please see the photos).
The general plan for each day was to get up at sunrise, have breakfast, and drive off to various parts of the mountain range to spot the wildlife. Local scouts had been hired to locate the snow leopard dens and thus try to zero us in. We spent 6 days covering many miles over very rough country, mainly in 4 x4 vehicles and then short treks to various vantage points, so that we could scan with high powered telescopes.
Personally, Mary and I were a little out on a limb so to speak, as we had hoped that any sighting of the fabled Snow Leopard would result in a photographic opportunity. It soon became apparent that even if a sighting occurred, the great distances to these likely haunts were well out of reach of our telephoto lenses. We did not have ‘scopes’, as they call them, ourselves but were able to use others. Of course, whilst scanning for the so-called target species, many birds were identified by most of our group who were avid bird watcher/ twitchers, which Mary and I are definitely not.
The bottom line is that we did not see a Snow leopard, although there had been a fleeting glimpse some 0.75 mile away. The other wildlife species consisted of Saiga Antelopes, Black Tailed gazelles, and some Red Deer, but again they were all at great distances with no photographic opportunities. However, we did spend some time on own with other photographers in the group finding small mammals to photograph, ranging from Mongolian Stoat…. probably my best shot, to Pallas’s Piker (something like a large hamster), and Voles all of whom live in burrows in the soft earth of the plains and foothills. This was great fun and quite challenging, but not really what we had travelled that vast distance for.
There were many compensations….. the landscape was stunning wherever we went, the company representatives and the local people who looked after us were delightful, and the group of 10 like minded travellers all gelled very well. We were well fed, even though very little you would ask the recipe for, but bearing in mind where we were, our camp cook and his staff did amazingly well.
Of course everybody was disappointed at not seeing the Snow Leopard; it was the inaugural trip after all, but in truth it was not a trip for serious photographers…. bird watchers yes, because they had their ‘scopes’ and saw much more than we did. We have reflected and confessed to a little naivety in thinking that it should have been different. The touring company is primarily a bird watching tour company and true wildlife is never guaranteed anyway.
We would certainly recommend this touring company and even Mongolia as it is a beautiful country, particularly if you are a ‘birder’, but for the moment go to Ladakh if you really must see Snow Leopards…. these fabled creatures have been sighted here in Altai by the locals and on the recce by Ecotours. It is undoubtedly more comfortable than Ladakh in Winter, but there is more groundwork that needs to be done to give you a reasonable chance of a sighting…..we have high hopes for this place in the future.