Well, after a brief visit to my fair homeland (where The Weather Channel went into full, 24-hour Ice Age Armageddon mode), Gungyi Lhamo, the goddess of winter, is careening back into Mongolia for at least the rest of the week. Sitting on the mercury, it looks like she might provoke that mythic moment each winter when the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales meet at -40, maybe Wednesday night. Watch Brother Don’s blog; he always provides documentation of such events.
Update: Jumpin' Jehosophat. Weather Underground is saying that the ambient temp Thursday will only get to -20F/-29C, but a sharp wind will make it feel like -72F/-58C. My first thought was, "Is that even possible?" For those of you who do, please keep Mongolia in your prayers. That's the kind of weather that actually kills people and animals.
So I’m glad to have visited Hustai National Park last Saturday, Mongolia’s preserve for the Takhi, one of the world’s last ancient races of wild horse (the wider world knows it as Przewalski's Horse). It was a boys’ day out, and the five of us were a truly international crew, representing four continents.
Hitting the road 7am-ish, we arrived with the sun at the Park’s Visitors Center. Learning that the resident biologist was still sleeping, we lingered a bit anyway for a hot beverage (some had coffee, some had tea, and yet none of us were disagreeable about it, even though the poll in the last post shows DODR readers' intelligent bias toward the moral and spiritual efficacy of coffee). Peeking into an adjacent room provoked some bemused shock from us Westerners. I recalled the board game Clue (originally named Cluedo by the Brits -- who knew?) and thought, “Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with...a double-headed axe? A chainsaw?”
Of course it made sense. The rec room, heat-free, served as a perfect deep freeze for the meat needed for winter (I always laugh a little when I see a product that says ‘store in a cool, dry place,’ and wonder if anyone sends them to Mongolia). Hustai maintains one of the only year-round tourist camps. Ishee, the Mongolian in our crew and a herder in his youth, eyed the carnage and said, “About three cows.”
And with that, off into the park we drove. The Takhi may be prehistoric, but they aren’t Neanderthal (Neigh-anderthal?) They’ve learned quickly that the vehicles on the park’s roads and the bipeds they disgorge aren’t any threat; the clicky things they point at them don’t launch any projectiles, either. And we all pulled out our clicky things. The Takhi is a beautiful beast, so perfectly suited to its natural steppe environment. There are now about 220 in the park, re-introduced from animals preserved in European zoos. They are a bit shy, and these are the only shots I got that didn’t exclusively feature Takhi tushee (yes, Sarah, I am sending you a hi-res of the bottom one):
The Takhi’s only worry are the few score of wolves that also call the park home, one of the few places in Mongolia where they themselves are protected from the rifles of herders defending their livestock. I was a bit disappointed not to see one, but that was more than made up for when we spied small groups of Mongolia’s magnificent Red Deer. This time of year, the stags are sporting the huge, backwards-arching antler racks that one finds carved into Mongolia’s famous ‘deer stones.’ I find these images somehow so full of the gorgeous life of the steppe, rendered with obvious love and respect by the artists, that if my monastic vows allowed for merely decorative tattoos, for sure I’d ink one of these stylized Red Deers and wear it with special Mongol pride:
Of course, three of us were primarily on the lookout for birds. Now here are two views of what the winter steppe looks like in the park:
You wouldn’t think any sane bird would hang around during the, you know, ten months of winter here, would you? But we found 20 species Saturday, all of which get real bragging rights when their sun-loving cousins arrive in the spring. I’m thrilled to report a lifer in the batch; during the day we flushed up three small coveys of Daurian Partridge, so well-camouflaged and so handsome if you can see one in the open. No mean feat, but I done did it. Here were their intrepid observers, actually quite warm in the full sunlight, climbing around on the rocks: