Back on the Water: Upriver Grayling in Mongolia

It felt good to finally get out on water. Prospecting for these handsomely marked grayling on a small river in Mongolia took us back to prospecting for trout in small waters in other places.

Nearly as translucent as water and marked like colored glass, the grayling’s dorsal fin…

By mid-September, autumn has come to Mongolia’s steppes and mountains. By the end of September, we’ll have had our first snows.

Sluggish with cold and dark with Autumn, one of the year’s last grasshoppers. 

Yellows, golds and browns mixed with the blue-green of evergreens, predominant fall colors across this land. Here and there a touch of crimson. 

Feet up. Water pours across the floorboards of the doorless Polaris Ranger. One of several crossings.

Not everyone made it.

Stringing up. Something between rumor and someone’s good authority sent us up to these headwaters, prospecting.

I stuck my camera into the icy water to get a photo of rocks speckled with caddis casings. 

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We encountered sporadic blue-winged olive mayflies. Rocks we flipped revealed caddis and stoneflies, a few loaches and this dragonfly nymph. 

Possible water, but not promising. Larch trees yellowed by frost-laced mornings, pools in shaded feeder streams iced over.

It feels like a lifetime ago that we were on our boat in Alaska, filling coolers with a years’ worth of ocean bright salmon, halibut and rockfish to sustain us through months in the Arctic Bush. Back to roots – a fly rod, a small river, drifting nymphs and dries. Bone satisfying to once again feel the weight of a fish. Could be a rainbow stream in Colorado, cutthroat water in Oregon, a brookie creek in Pennsylvania or a yamame stream in Japan. It all feels like home.

Barbra’s first grayling and her first fish in Mongolia.

We hiked and drove and hiked some more. At last we found the water I’d been looking for – the right depth, the right flow, the right-sized boulders breaking up the bottom at the right intervals. And there in front of us, tens of fish materialized out of nothing – out of water as clear as air – porpoising and splashing across a run maybe 60 feet long and half that width in pursuit of something tiny emerging from the water. Several times these grayling rocketed completely out of the water as they threw themselves at our mayfly patterns. A number of times we were both hooked up, simultaneously.

Eight inches or eighty pounds… It never gets old. The grayling were still feeding when we left, reluctantly, the sun low behind clouds.

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A backward look…

Grayling. Grayling water. Mongolia…

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. 

Common Merganser with Chicks, Tuul River, Ulaanbaatar

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A healthy family of common mergansers (Mergus merganser) indicates an abundance of small fish in the Tuul River on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Mergansers are large diving ducks that subsist primarily on fish, although the young also fill up on aquatic insects such a the larva of mayflies and stoneflies. They make their nests in cavities in trees, sometimes a good distance from water. Less frequently, mergansers nest in holes in cliffs or high banks. They can be found on open water throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and are a good indicator of clean water and healthy populations of small fish.

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If you look closely, you can make out the serrations on her bill – the perfect adaptation for holding onto fish. In contrast to the females, the drakes’ heads are dark green, their flanks are white and their backs are black. Although common mergansers are usually encountered on freshwater lakes and rivers, they are frequently seen in coastal bays and estuaries as well.

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A baleful eye tells us we’ve approached close enough. Undisturbed this family went about their business, dipping their heads underwater in search of food as they paddled along the river’s current breaks.

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.

Fire and Ice Needles: Dawn, Hustai National Park, Mongolia

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Stalked a group of stag red deer

up a draw to the top of a rise 

where the sun broke fiery and cold

lighting feather grass and ice needles

suspended in the negative something air.

Along the ridge, winter-hard antlers

lit with sunlight

scattered into the dawn.

– Hustai National Park, Mongolia, 2014

Jack Donachy

 

 

Takhi – A Success Story in the Land of Chinggis Khan

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Magpie and takhi (Przewalski’s horse) – old friends reacquainted in a scene that has played out for many thousands of years but that was sadly interrupted in those decades during which the takhi were extinct in the wild. 

In 1967, somewhere on the arid steppe of Mongolia’s Western Gobi Dessert, the last small herd of wild takhi was seen. Two years later, only one horse remained. And then Equus przewalskii vanished completely from the wild. Although closely related to modern domestic horses, takhi were never tamed. This differentiates their status as “truly wild” from the ferrel mustangs of America which are descendants of domestic horses.

In their natural environment, wolves were their main predators, and the dry, harsh, cold conditions of the steppe would invariably claim victims each winter. But the main cause of the demise of the takhi was probably due to its being hunted for meat.

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Takhi form small family groups comprised of a lead stallion, two or three mares, and their offspring. These family groups loosely intermingle with other families as well as with bachelor stallions which often travel in pairs or groups of three. Stocky and with zebra-like manes, takhi are comparatively small, standing only about 48 – 56 inches tall at the shoulders. They have 66 chromosomes, two more than any other species of horse. 

By 1970, the only living specimens existed in a few zoos and private ranches. Extinct in the wild, it seemed only a matter of time till their official extinction from the planet would be announced.

Then something truly remarkable occurred. In a cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian biologists, the horses were reintroduced to Mongolia’s Khustai (Hustai) National Park where they’ve been thriving even since.

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On a morning bright with ice needles in the air and a fresh dusting of snow on the ground, takhi and female red deer (Cervus elaphus) share a piece of rugged terrain in Mongolia’s Khustai National Park. 

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In full winter coats, these wild takhi are as beautiful as they are tough.

We counted ourselves as lucky to have spent a few days in Khustai during some of the coldest stretches of winter. The deeply rutted dirt roads were quiet, wildlife was abundant, and the horses seemed only mildly curious regarding our presence.

takhi in summer field

Takhi can readily be viewed in summertime as well. We can’t say which season is more beautiful. There are wild horses in this world still. That is beautiful.

Big, Beautiful Grizz Chillin’ at the Edge of an Alaskan Forest

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We caught this Alaskan grizzly bear chillin’ on the edge of a forest on a cool, overcast morning in mid-summer. With nails like that, who wouldn’t lie around admiring them? (Six more photos.)

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The previous day, I (yours truly, Jack Donachy) managed to drop and break “the big lens.” But this sleepy guy barely paid us any attention as we photographed him from the safety of our Chevy, so the 70-200 mm with a 1.4 teleconverter got us close enough. Hard to say how many cars had driven by this big, blonde-brown hulk without noticing that morning. We stayed with him – and he with us – for about half an hour.

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He’d doze off for a bit, wake up, think about whether or not to get up (or maybe he was trying to remember where he’d left his car keys last night), give a little sigh and then drop off to sleep again. 

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And then he’d wake and take a look around.

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Eventually a scent on the air caught his attention…

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And he ambled off. Almost looks like he’s posed in a diorama. The overcast morning light really made the colors pop.

Daurian Partridge: Birds of Mongolia

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We encountered these softball-shaped Daurian partridge (Perdix daurica) in the pre-dawn of a December trip to Mongolia’s Hustai National Park.

Any day we see a new species of bird or other animal is a good day. On a recent three-day trip to Hustai, we had several such encounters. Nothing was any cuter than these relatives of pheasants and quail that would have fit perfectly in our cupped hands.

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We startled them, a covey of 14, as they were feeding on seeds on the coldest morning to date this winter in Mongolia. Maybe it was the sub zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, or the fact that none of us – including the birds – were fully awake. But uncharacteristically they let us hang around and snap a few photos in the blue morning twilight. The orange beard-like feathers and gray side whiskers are part of their fall and winter plumage. 

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Named for the Daurian region of Russia, the average Daurian partridge is about 11 or 12 inches (28 to 30 cm) from head to tail and weighs around one half to three quarters of a pound (225 to 340 grams). The main part of their diet consists of seeds, which are abundant on Mongolia’s steppe grasslands. Insects and berries also figure into their diet, when available. Partridge are ground nesters, having developed a long-term dislike of heights (such as tree branches) when, Daedalus (father of Icarus of Greek legend) threw his nephew Perdix off the Athena hill in a fit of anger. Not wishing to experience another such fall, members of genus Perdix avoid high places to this day. So the legend goes.

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But they do fly, and this is the more usual view of Daurian partridge. Twice, previously, while hiking the Mongolian steppe we’ve had our startled hearts stop in our chests as a thrumming whoosh of wingbeats exploded practically underfoot. Once the birds have flushed, it’s difficult to approach them again, although you can sometimes track them down by listening for their rix, rix, rix, call as they regroup. 

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.