Snow and Flowers: It’s Spring in Mongolia!

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Our most recent heavy snow was just two weeks ago, and we’ve had a few flurries since then. But out in the countryside near Ulaanbaatar, wildflowers have begun to grow in profusion. 

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Snow drops (above) are among the very first flowers to show.

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Notice the small red ant on the right side of the photo. The centers of these particular flowers reveal a tell-tale indication of their age, with the youngest flowers having yellow centers. Most of the early wildflowers are small. But they’re everywhere, and close examination they often reveals intricate beauty…

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…making us wish we knew more about these splashes of color.

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And happy to come across something as familiar as Alaska’s state flower, forget-me-nots.

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There’s wild rhubarb, too, and wild mint and caraway are abundant.

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But it’s the flowers that capture our attention.

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And leave us vowing to take a botany course when we return to Alaska.

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The scene in Ulaanbaatar just over two weeks ago on May 11. 

Our Annual Mongolian Khorkhog

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Packed with sheep, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, sizzling hot fist-sized rocks and water, the piping hot contents of this milk can are tender and ready to be served. Let the khorkhog begin!

It’s a a tradition keenly anticipated at the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU). With our first week of school behind us, it’s time for faculty, staff and administrators to relax in the style of traditional Mongolia – with a khorkhog. In days past, the animal’s stomach would have served as the cooking pot. These days, it’s more common for khorkhog to be slow roasted with hot rocks, meat and vegetables placed in an old-fashioned milk can. Prepared thus, the meat comes out tender and flavorful, though as the photo suggests, containers are to be opened with caution.

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A shovel handle is used to apply pressure to the milk can to slowly let off steam while ISU’s driver turned chef Baatar pulls a roasted potato from another can.

With a faculty, staff and student body representing over 30 nationalities, ISU is truly an international school. But the school’s roots are planted firmly in Mongolia. The site selected for this year’s khorkhog is on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar on the shoulders of Bogd Khan Mountain, a place Mongolians point to with pride as the world’s oldest national park. An easy bike ride from our Ulaanbaatar apartment, we’ve come across signs of deer and wild boar on hikes and rides through the hills, and have encountered fox, sable, marmots and Eurasian red squirrels. We’ve also focused our binoculars on dozens of species of birds including demoiselle cranes, hoopoes, falcons, eagles, hawks, kites and numerous song birds.

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Circling high overhead, an imperial eagle checked out our feast.

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Song is a rich tradition in Mongolia, and once stomachs were full a guitar and drum came out. 

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Everyone knew the words to the Beatles’ classics!

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Meanwhile, a group found a perfect pitch speckled with wildflowers for a game.

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Rounds of tug-of-war were amiable enough…

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… but wrestling, one of the Mongolia’s national sports, always has a serious edge to it.

Recent rains have turned the fields and forest lush shades of green, and wildflowers – not to mention abundant wild herbs such as mint, sage and caraway – are everywhere.

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Situated at over 1,300 meters (4,300 feet) above sea level and not terribly far south of Siberia, fall comes quickly on the heels of summer in Ulaanbaatar. Already nights are growing cool. In a few weeks time the larch trees where we recently held our khorkhog feast will turn gold with autumn. 

Hana Restaurant, Ulaanbaatar: a Trip to Japan Without the Passport

Sushi?… In Mongolia?! Heck yeah! Slightly crunchy in the best possible way, herring roe paired with mackerel is a sumptuous favorite at the Hana Japanese restaurant in Ulaanbaatar.

Jack’s birthday. What to get a man with a serious fish addition in a country where canned Alaskan salmon is pretty much the only palatable fish to be found? We’d heard a couple of good reports from a relative newcomer to Ulaanbaatar’s rapidly growing restaurant scene. Hana was said to have the best sushi – in fact the best fish of any description – in town.

Crisp, light and slightly malty, when it comes to pairing a beverage with sushi, it’s tough to beat a traditional Japanese rice lager such as these frosty glasses of Sapporo. Hana also features a decent wine list as well as locally-brewed beers.

On a whim, we’d stopped in for lunch at Hana the previous day during a walk of the city. I thought we were just getting in out of the mid-day heat for a bite to eat. I know now that Jack was vetting the place for a possible birthday meal. We each ordered a set menu. My chirashi-zushi, an assortment of beautifully-sliced salmon, tuna, sea bass, prawn and mackerel on top of a bowl of sushi rice surprised with its fresh and delicate flavors. Jack went with a nigiri-zushi set (which should have tipped me off that he was up to something). Like my bowl of chirashi-zushi, Jack’s meal was beautifully presented and fresh. Our bowls of miso soup, too, were spot on. We’d tried the sushi at a couple of other Ulaanbaatar restaurants, and had found it to be OK. But our lunch experience at Hana was authentically good.

As bright and fresh as maguro in Japan, this tuna flank was amazing. 

Anytime we visit a good restaurant, we start by asking available waitstaff, chefs, managers and owners what they recommend. On the night we visited Hana, the consensus was that the tuna, recently flown in from Hana’s Japanese supplier, was superb. We began our meal with a plate of maguro sashimi and were not disappointed. The translucent-ruby slices were served with a traditional salad of shiso leaf and julienne daikon, radish and squash. It was absolutely delicious.

Perfectly ripe, creamy avocado, crisp garden salad, seared tuna flank and a house-made sesame dressing came together beautifully. In the background, our chef is shaping the nigiri-zushi that would follow. 

The next item that was recommended to us was an appetizer salad featuring a balance of impeccably ripe, thinly sliced avocado and lightly seared tuna. Searing the tuna gave it a sweetness which was deliciously complimented by a quick dip in soy sauce. The chef’s sesame sauce gave the avocado and garden salad a savory-sweet dimension. In California, restaurant goers take avocado as good as this for granted. Here in UB, this kind of quality is evidence of the effort and attention to detail that separates Hana from other establishments.

A delicious, authentic assortment of steamed vegetables, pickled seaweed and other appetizers appeared next. 

Among the appetizers, our favorite was this konbu tsukudani. This savory bite is made of kelp cut thin, cooked in soy sauce and mirin, and served with sesame seeds. Jack felt like he was back in Japan. 

With enough food for two or three people, the sushi assortment platter is a good place to start if you’re visiting Hana. 

When it came to choosing our main entrée, we opted for the assorted nigiri-zushi for two.

The plate featured the obligatory cooked shrimp, tamago (egg), and a sushi roll that didn’t excite us. The tamago was quite good – but not something we typically would order á la carte. The remainder of our plate took us to Japan.

Although the hamachi lacked the butteriness we expect, it was impeccably fresh and beautifully presented with wasabi-cured flying fish roe. 

The sea bass, sliced translucently thin (you can see the wasabi beneath it) and dressed with a dollop of flying fish roe, was excellent. Given that the fish is fresh, what really makes and breaks sushi is the quality of the rice. Delicately flavored sea bass is unforgiving. At Hana, the sushi rice is excellent. Former Alaskans, we appreciate the difference between good, really good and excellent salmon. Fresh and melt-in-your-mouth buttery soft, the salmon sushi at Hana is perhaps the best fish available in Ulaanbaatar. 

We were on the verge of leaving when the chef brought out a treat appreciated by true aficionados of Japanese cuisine and by few others. Natto. Sticky, gooey, fermented soy beans. In most restaurants, natto is served on rice, perhaps accompanied by a raw quail egg. On Jack’s birthday, the chef served it on a bed of tuna sashimi. I let him have the bowl to himself. The perfect end to the perfect birthday dinner. 

Ulaanbaatar is not a foodie mecca. But restaurants like Hana are working to change that.

Connected by Waxwings

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Like drops of bright red sealing wax, pigment is enclosed in the translucent sheathing of extended secondary feather shafts, giving waxwings their name.

In the midst of the 11-minute walk from our apartment to our school in Ulaanbaatar earlier this week we heard a familiar “wheezing” sound from nearby treetops. The friend we were walking with must’ve thought we were crazy as I abruptly spun around and began crossing the road toward the origin of the sound. But Barbra knew what it was about. “Waxwings!” I exclaimed as I approached the tree where they were perched. Barbra confirmed the sighting. “Yep! Look at their crowns.”

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For the past few days, small flocks of Bohemian waxwings have been putting smiles on our faces. On their way to nesting grounds in the conifer forests of Siberia, these flocks don’t hang around long. Until recently the southern edge of Ulaanbaatar near the Tuul River was covered in berry bushes, poplars and willows. Each year, less and less of this habitat remains as Ulaanbaatar’s human population grows…

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…but here and there a small patch of what it used to be remains. Every little bit of this habitat is increasingly critical. Even a few berry bushes edging apartment buildings helps.

If you’ve never seen waxwings in good light, I’m not sure I can adequately describe them. Their primary wing feathers are streaked with pure white and edged in yellow the color of daffodils in sunlight. The just-dipped-in-paint sheen on these feathers is reminiscent of crayon gone over with watercolor paint. But it’s the candy apple tips of their secondary wing feathers that give waxwings their name. The red is not on feathers. Rather, it’s opalescent pigment encased in modified, translucent feather shafts.

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During their nesting season, waxwings often eat insects. The rest of the year, it’s berries, berries, apples, and more berries – sometimes hundreds of berries in a single day. We walk past these bushes every day and never noticed the winter-preserved berries still clinging to them. But the waxwings noticed. They need this fuel as they fly on to Siberia.

You could be almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere and never see a single waxwing. Ottawa, Canada; Sacramento, California; Clarion, Pennsylvania; Sapporo, Japan; – to name a few places where waxwings may or may not be. And, in the wrong light, you might pass right by them and dismiss them as robins or sparrows.

Wheezing. That’s what gives them away. If you hear birds wheezing, look closely. Get them in the right light. You won’t believe what you see.

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The only bird with a brown crest – as though the black eye paint and warrior feathers weren’t distinctive enough.

My first sighting of waxwings occurred many years ago on western Pennsylvania’s North Fork of Redbank Creek. I was fly-fishing in early spring, and as I worked my way around a bend in the stream I came upon a leafless poplar that was as lit up as a Christmas tree with waxwings. I thought I’d never seen anything as beautiful in my life. The paint-dipped tips of their feather seemed to glow in the evening light and I stood motionless in the water, mesmerized till they suddenly filled the sky.

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This photo shows that the waxwing’s red wing tips are featherless extensions of wing shafts.

In mid-winter, they light up the holly bushes on the campus of the College of Charleston where I earned my master’s degree.

In Sacramento, they filled the camphor tree in our front yard – gorging on berries, wheezing their calls to each other, brightening our day.

The birds we encountered in the lower 48 were cedar waxwings, smaller relatives of bohemians. But here we are, many thousands of miles removed from Pennsylvania trout steams, holly bushes in the Deep South and a lovely, mid-town bungalow in California.

Connected by waxwings.

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A pair of waxwings look north against the pale dusk in Ulaanbaatar. They still have hundreds of miles to go before reaching the conifer forests of Siberia where they’ll build their nests and bring the next generation of waxwings into the world. Not many berry bushes here anymore, and a hunk of metal overlooking a construction site makes for a cold roost.

Spring! April in the World’s Coldest Capital

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Warmer temperatures are bringing flocks of new birds to Ulaanbaatar. These Bohemian Waxwings won’t stick around long; they’re on their way to nesting grounds in Siberia.

One day temperatures are in the 50’s or 60’s (in the teens, Celsius). The next day it’s below freezing with snowfall. And so it has been for the past few weeks from late March through mid-April. Welcome to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – officially recognized as the world’s coldest capital city. As transplants from Alaska, it feels like home – albeit a little warmer than our former north-of-the-Arctic-Circle village of Point Hope.

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Pussy Willows – flowers of willow trees – have begun pushing out of their buds along the banks of Ulaanbaatar’s Tuul River.

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Great tits, above and below, are common residents along the Tuul River as well as in the nearby mountain forests.

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Such interesting little birds, all camouflage and color from the head to the mid-back, an abrupt line, and then symmetry from the mid-back through the tail, which, in nature, is its own form of camouflage.

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Early morning frost turned the withered remnant of last fall’s flowers into frozen jellyfish.

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By late morning, the sun had melted most of the frost…

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…while in shaded pockets where snow still lingered, newly arrived long-tailed rosefinches filled up on last year’s store of seeds. The willows and grasses along the Tuul provide the perfect habitat for many species of birds. And, judging by tracks in the snow, rabbits as well.

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Finches become acrobats in pursuit of a good meal.

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As is typically the case among passerines, the colors of the female long-tails are subdued compared to their male counterparts.

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Magpies were out in force, searching for nesting material to add to the massive jumbles of sticks they build in trees. It must work. They return to the same nests year after year, building them ever higher. Note the hooked beak; passerines beware. Magpies are predators, and no mistake.

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The Tuul River green belt is our favorite place in Ulaanbaatar. In addition to providing habitat for year-round resident birds and summer nesters, the abundant seeds provide critical fuel for passerines migrating further north.  The belt is also important hunting grounds for kestrels and other birds of prey as they make their way to their own nesting grounds. The banks of the Tuul are what’s left of an increasingly fragmented ecosystem. We’ve even caught fleeting glimpses of some type of quail or partridge in the thick willow undergrowth!

Oasis in the Southern Gobi: A Camel-Back Trek

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Brown with October’s cold, a gnarled desert tree frames buntings (possibly Jankowski’s) (Emberiza sp.) near our ger in Mongolia’s southern Gobi Desert .

A few miles south of the Khongoryn Els singing dunes marked our southern-most push into the Gobi.

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A herdsman’s goats crowd around a rare source of water. 

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While driving, we encountered a species of gazelle that was new to us – black-tailed gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa).

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The black-tails proved to be every bit as skittish as the Mongolian gazelle we’d been seeing throughout the trip. 

After driving through an expanse of mostly sand and rock, we came into an area of small trees, shrubs and tall grasses, evidence of water close to the desert’s surface. The family gers there would be our camp for the next two nights. With water available, one of our first orders of business was good hair shampooings all around. This was to be the closest thing to a shower we had during our eight-day trek, and it was decidedly refreshing.

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Jimi Carter and I lug water cans to our ger for impromptu hair washing. The effects of the mini-shower were immediately spirit lifting. 

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There was a large gerbil warren not far from our camp – and signs that a fox had recently visited it. 

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For dinner, the appetizers featured steaming bowls of temeni suute tsai (suu – te – tsay) – camel milk tea, fried bread and camel milk aarts. Aarts is similar to sweet, mild cream cheese. It was absolutely delicious, and we had to remind ourselves to save room for the main course – goat with a variety of goat meat sausages. 

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The sunset that night was, as usual, spectacular. 

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This was the most spacious and ornately decorated ger we stayed in. Note the bag of aarts – camel milk cream cheese – on the right wall. After breakfast, our host rounded up several camels for our trek to a set of dunes about three miles from the ger. 

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Decked out in a traditional dell, our driver, Nimka, (foreground) and our host were ready to mount up and lead the way to the dunes.

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Raptors use the dunes as perches and hunting grounds. Here a cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) executes a take-off… 

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…and a common buzzard (Buteo buteo) soars above the landscape scanning for prey.

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Evidence of a successful hunt. The porcupine-like quills are those of a hedgehog. We found several of these pellets along the ridge of the dune. Birds of prey regurgitate the undigested parts of the birds and mammals they dine on.

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Camels tethered below, we ascended a fairly steep dune where we’d seen raptors perched. Although we never did encounter a fox, once again their tracks were present, along with those of hares. 

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We named our camels for the trek. Here Barbra’s camel, Timmy, hams it up for the camera. (The Mongolian word for camel is teme – hence Timmy the teme.)

Below: Surprisingly lush growths of various seed producing grasses provide forage for the abundant bird and rodent populations, which in turn provide prey for foxes, wolves and the Gobi’s numerous raptors.

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In addition to the many buntings and sparrows around this oasis ger, there were times in the early morning when thousands of doves filled the skies. 

 

 

Climbing Khongoryn Els: The Gobi Desert’s Singing Dunes

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Towering nearly 200 meters high, Mongolia’s Khongoryn Els are among approximately 30 “singing dunes” worldwide. Precise balances of humidity, silicon content and sand grain size and shape must be perfect to achieve the deeply vibrating hum these dunes produce. Click any photo to enlarge. 

With each step up the steep slope of the dunes, we simultaneously gained and lost elevation, slipping back with the shifting sand. Although the mid-October day was cool, we were stripped down to jeans and shirts, and would have been more comfortable in shorts. By the midway point, we were drenched with sweat. And that’s about when we began to notice it – an unmistakable vibration that began in our feet and traveled through our leg bones up through our hips accompanied by a low, resonate hum. The sound was audible – sort of like monks chanting “ohmmmmmm” from somewhere deep in their throats.

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Wind sculpted sand has fascinated humans for millennia. Views like this were our reward for hiking to the top of the dunes.

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Water bottle in tow, Barbra takes a breather halfway up the tallest dune. Livestock look like mere dots on the shores of the distant shallow lake. The water is a morning gathering place for doves in the thousands… perhaps tens of thousands.

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The top of the dunes felt like the top of the world –  the perfect place to make sand angels. 

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Although much of the Gobi Desert is rocky and wet enough to support plant life, the area of the singing dunes is an ocean of ever-shifting sand. See Yolyn Am Canyon: Wildlife Safari amidst Remnants of the Gobi’s last Glacier and The Gobi Desert’s Valley of the Lammergeier.

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Dusk was closing in by the time we descended the Khongoryn Els, creating dramatic contrasts along the dunes’ curving edges. 

One of the funnest runs of our lives was racing down the dunes barefoot – a 200 meter decent, big strides landing in soft, cool sand, only slightly tilted away from vertical.