In search of snow leopards

In case you’re wondering, we didn’t actually go searching for one of the world’s most elusive creatures, though we were now passing through territory in which they are known to live and breed. From Ulaangom we took a pass through the mountains to Üüreg Nuur, a mountain lake sat at 1425m surrounded by 3000m peaks. With the weather deteriorating and snow falling heavily as we crossed the pass we weren’t sure it would be worth the detour. But it surely was, with half the deep blue lake still frozen and golden rays of sunshine picking out the steep valleys and chasms piercing the wall of snow-covered peaks. We found the only Ger camp on the lake was, for once, open and so set ourselves up in their beautiful lodgings whilst the storm clouds bubbled and burst around us, making us slightly nervous about our planned route out the following day.

The next day dawned brighter, so we headed around the lake for a walk into the realm of the snow leopard, or at least to the edge of it. We were rewarded by two large herds of argali sheep with their huge horns, munching their way along below the snow line. The drive out proved as interesting as we expected, over the 2550m Bairam Davaa, which was heavy with fresh snow. After stopping for tea with a couple of local herders (and their hand-reared lamb) Giles made short work of the terrain and we were soon contemplating another large ovoo, complete with the almost obligatory crutch. The descent of the south side was easier going, and we were surprised to spot a lone cyclist picking her way up the road. Delphine is from Belgium and cycling solo from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar, having just spent several months in South America. She gratefully accepted our offer of hot chocolate and we enjoyed a few minutes chatting before she headed on up the hill, hoping to find a local family with whom to spend the night. We continued downhill on a heavily rutted stoney road, justifying our under vehicle protection upgrade before leaving Australia.

After spending another cold night tucked into a small canyon just off the road we eventually reached Ölgii, the capital of the Bayaan-Ölgii aimag (province). This part of Mongolia is predominantly Kazakh and the place has a very different feel to the rest of the country. Things started well at Coffee & Book, a western style cafe serving good coffee and Kazakh food, whilst allowing us to swap some of our reading material. The local museum contained some interesting insights into the Kazakh culture, along with some truly atrocious taxidermy, and a quick scoot around the town allowed us a quick re-supply, including the mandatory fire extinguisher to be carried in Russia. Ölgii has a very friendly feel, and as with many frontier settlements a certain defiance and Wild West atmosphere. We liked it. It was also recently closed (only 10 days ago) due to an outbreak of bubonic plague. Turns out eating raw marmots, which carry the disease but are traditionally consumed by Mongolians for alleged health benefits, isn’t that healthy after all. However, a trip to a local butcher, and some interesting mime, scored us some tasty looking camel.

The drive to the Russian border is mostly paved and took a little over an hour the next morning. Having taken two days at our last border crossing we were hoping this would be a bit faster. Getting out of Mongolia was pretty simple – pay for road tax (asking for an official receipt almost halving the price…), wait for the customs officials to work out that yes, our visa is still valid, quick check of the vehicle and drive on through to no-mans-land. This consisted of 5km of snow and ice, with several jack-knifed lorries being dug out by their hardy looking Russian drivers. The Russian side was very friendly, even allowing us to light the stove and make coffee whilst awaiting passport inspection, but not fast. The import documents for Giles took an age to process, though the Mongolian drivers weren’t faring any better. Once through, we had to find third party insurance, mandatory in Russia, which was provided by what appeared to be a couple of kids logging on to the State system from a slow internet connection in their front room. After a total of six hours, we were free to drive on into Western Siberia for our quick transit to Kazakhstan.

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