This report is written from memory. Whilst I did keep an accurate list of the birds seen, I did not really pay attention to anything else, as I never had any intention of writing a trip report. Therefore, I cannot really comment much on accommodation, traveling times, etc.
This was not a birding trip per se. I went to Mongolia for two reasons: a) my mother was visiting me in China, where I worked at the time, and she had always wanted to go to Mongolia, and b) after a year in Beijing I needed to escape the maddening crowds of that city.
I obtained my visa from the Mongolian Embassy in Beijing; it took one week and cost USD 25.00. As we did not have much time, we arranged the entire trip as a package; this was booked through Selena Travel, and cost ca. USD 800.00 per person. Service and accommodation (with the exception of Ulan Bator) was excellent throughout our stay, with a guide that spoke good English. We flew with MIAT, the Mongolian national carrier, which was not as bad as I was led to believe it would be. It helped that, for an additional USD 50.00 we got upgraded to Business Class, the free Champagne did its trick to alleviate my fear of flying somewhat.
Accommodation and food:
The hotel in Ulan Bator, near the railway station was nothing special at all. However, at the time choice was limited and over-prized. Once in the countryside, we staid in luxurious Yurts. They are absolutely huge, but get a bit cold at night, even in summer. Throughout the night, staff would pop in and add wood to the oven located in the center of the Yurt.
Food was either excellent (my opinion), or lousy (my mother’s opinion). Basically, the problem is that everything tastes of Mutton, even dishes that are entirely free of meat. Even our driver had a strong odor of rather gamey Mutton about him. An important part of bird watching, a cold beer, was readily available. There are two breweries run by Germans in Ulan Bator, their beer isn’t half-bad.
This and that:
On the whole, people were friendly wherever we went. The only time I was a bit worried was in Ulan Bator, there are way too many drunk people. The other concern is the dogs: they are all over the place, and they are huge. Our guide told us that the Mongolians are very cautious about approaching a settlement without first making sure that the pooches are secured.
I think the best way to travel is with a car and driver. Most of the roads are dirt tracks at best, and I do not recall seeing a single road sign anywhere. Petrol stations are far and few in between, making self-drive a daunting task indeed.
All in all, Mongolia is definitely worth a visit, both for nature and culture. I do hope to go back next year, that time with a more bird-focused itinerary.
A word on the spelling of location names: there seems to be no hard and fast rule, I have seen Ulan Bator spelt in half-a-dozen different ways, and that is true for all Mongolian names,
This being the height of Summer, the weather was gorgeous throughout and pleasant enough during the day (T-Shirt-weather). But, as mentioned above, it does get cold at night, with temperatures dropping close to 0° at night. Coming from Beijing, which was boiling at the time, I did not bring nowhere near enough warm clothes. Visiting Terelj one early morning, I was the only person in Shorts and Sandals, much to the bemusement of the locals who were wrapped up to their eyeballs.
We used the Lonely Planet for the touristy bit. Without a dedicated bird guide, I used de Schauensee’s “Birds of China” (maybe ground-braking at its time, but the drawings are horrendous by today’s standards), and McKinnon’s “A Field Guide to the Birds of China (excellent book) as well as a couple of European books, Collin’s Guide amongst others.
12th of August
Hardly slept the night before. I was playing pool with a couple of buddies, when a huge commotion started around the TV. It was CNN, and a madman had just flown the first plane into the WTC. (We would meet a few Americans a couple of days later who had been completely out of touch with the world, they were pretty shook up at the news). We arrived in Ulan Bator in the afternoon; there was not much time for anything except a quick stroll through town. The Lonely Planet states that you should spend 3 days in Ulan Bator, I suggest that 3 hours are about the maximum. Stalinist architecture at its best. Mind you, had some of the best Pretzels in my life, and the beer was good, too. Birds seen on the trip from the airport to the city were Black-eared Kite, Hen Harrier, Red-billed Chough, Carrion Crow, and Eurasian Tree Sparrows.
13th of August
Off to the Mongolian Steppes. We headed southwest towards Mongol Els, a very luxurious Yurt camp in the middle of nowhere. Horses, Camels, and domesticated Yaks outnumbered humans by far; what bliss after the heaving masses of Beijing. I have to admit that I did not pay much attention to birds during the drive; I was absolutely awe-struck by the landscape. However, I did see numerous birds. The frequent puddles of water held Grey Heron, Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, and Mallard. Black-eared Kites were common, as were Hooded Vultures. Upland Buzzards were seen a few times. I felt right back in Europe with all the Northern Lapwings, Eurasian Swallows, and White Wagtails, whilst the Isabelline Wheatear did not quite fit that picture. Other birds seen were Black-billed Magpie, Red-billed Chough, Common Raven (really common in Mongolia), and, best of all, Pere David’s Snowfinch.
Once in Hoyor Zagal, there was just enough time for a quick walk around some small lakes near the camp. Birds seen before a well deserved dinner, and not seen during the road trip, were Whooper Swan, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, Common Pochard, Eurasian Coot, a handful of Demoiselle Cranes (more on those later), Common Redshank, and Short-toed Larks.
As soon as the sun set, it became quite cool, but the Yurts were well heated.
14th of August
The first shock early in the morning: the water for the showers is not heated!!!! It felt like ice-cubes coming out of the showerhead, but it woke me up almost as well as the coffee that was soon to follow. Breakfast was my first experience of the fact that everything in Mongolia tastes of mutton, even toast.
Today, we were off to Karakorum, the ancient capital established by Genghis Khan. Not much left of its former splendor, but the draw here is the monastery of Erdenezuu. Really nice, and all that, but there was a small distraction: masses of Demoiselle Cranes moving overhead. They just kept coming in incredible numbers (I stopped counting at 4,000) and at a really low altitude at that. I had my mom take photos of the monastery, of which I have little recollection whatsoever. Other birds seen around this area were Common Kestrel, Herring Gull, Northern Wheatear, and plenty of Daurian Jackdaws.
We eventually went back to Mongol Els, where I had once again time for a quick stroll. Birds not seen the previous day were Northern Goshawk, Saker Falcon, Horned Lark, Red-throated Pipit, Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush, and Rock Sparrow. A word of warning or two: the dogs are a menace, and distances are awfully hard to judge due to the very clean air and expansive landscape. I walked towards a little, rocky outcrop that seemed only a couple of hundred yards away; it took me an hour to get there.
15th of August
Another shocker in the morning, the water hadn’t gotten any warmer. Today, we were due to head back to Ulan Bator. Trying to get warm, I took a quick spin around the camp before breakfast. I added a Great Cormorant to my trip-list, and had a Merlin almost fly into me.
The drive back was very leisurely. Picnic by a large river turned up Slavonian Grebe, 12 Black Stork, Northern Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye, Spotted Redshank, and Common Sandpiper.
That evening, we watched a traditional Mongolian music performance. Apparently, the Mongolians are known for “throat-singing”. Sounds pretty strange, but it was magic! Difficult to put in words, I guess you should just have been there.
16th of August
The last day in Mongolia. We left very early for Gorhi and Telj, a National park northeast of Ulan Bator. It was sunny, but bitterly cold. Of course, I could not let on that I was to stupid to bring warm clothes, so I walked around pretending I enjoyed the glacial temperatures, whilst my toes (and feet, legs, hands, ears, and certain other extremities) slowly turned to solid ice. Bring plenty of warm clothes, even in summer.
I had the car drop me off in Gorhi, whilst my mother drove on to Telj (she was cold, too, and smart enough to stay in the heated car). All was soon forgotten, however. Temperatures started climbing above freezing, the landscape was gorgeous as ever, and some good birds showed up. First up where a couple of Goosanders, and the sole Grey Wagtail of the trip. Daurian Redstarts and Red-throated Thrush were common along the river, as were Pallas’s Warblers and Coal Tits. The last “new” birds seen were Eurasian Jay and Pine Bunting.
All in all, I saw 53 species, many of them spectacular. I dipped on many birds, but that was primarily because I did not look too hard.
Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Black Stork Ciconia nigra Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope Common Teal Anas crecca Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata Common Pochard Aythya ferina Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula Goosander Mergus merganser Black-eared Kite Milvus (migrans) lineatus Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis Upland Buzzard Buteo hemilasius Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus Merlin Falco columbarius Saker Falcon Falco cherrug Eurasian Coot Fulica atra Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus Common Redshank Tringa totanus Common Sandpiper Tringa hypoleucos Herring Gull Larus argentatus Short-toed Lark Calandrella (cinerea) brachydactyla Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris Eurasian Swallow Hirundo rustica Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus White Wagtail Motacilla alba Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush Monticola saxatilis Red-throated Thrush Turdus ruficollis Pallas's Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus Coal Tit Parus ater Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius Black-billed Magpie Pica pica Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax Daurian Jackdaw Corvus (monedula) dauuricus Carrion Crow Corvus corone Common Raven Corvus corax Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia Pere David's Snowfinch Montifringilla davidiana Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos