Nature's pulse at Asia's heart

By Mark Brazil | Sep 20, 2006


It’s September, autumn is around the corner, and here in Hokkaido where I live we have already had the first dusting of snow.

This has been a long summer of travels for me. As soon as my teaching commitments at university were completed, I set off to the Canadian Arctic to continue my explorations of the coastline of Baffin Island, watching, among other things, bowhead whales, polar bears and ivory gulls.

Then came an opportunity to visit north-central Asia, to travel through Mongolia, to explore its wild places, meet its people and to seek out wildlife.

Each year in early spring a fine patina of yellow dust settles almost invisibly, coating the landscape across northern Japan. This airborne deposit is most noticeable on shiny surfaces such as cars and balconies — a hint that at the heart of Asia there is desert. This is dust from the Gobi Desert, and it has been tracked crossing northeast Asia and being carried by winds as far as North America. This enormous desert spans northern China and southern Mongolia, yet it is just part of the immense arid heart of Asia extending westward toward the Caspian Sea, north of Iran.

A huge, landlocked country, Mongolia — which this year celebrates the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Mongolian Empire by Genghis Khan — spans 1,566,500 sq. km. That makes it about twice the size of Texas, three times the size of France and more than four times the size of Japan — but with a population barely half of Hokkaido’s 5.7 million. Its turbulent history has seen it go from dominating the second-greatest empire on earth from its ancient capital at Karakorum (now a sleepy backwater called Harhorin), to being dominated by its larger neighbors China and then Russia.

Rich cultural history

Although Mongolia achieved independence from China in 1921, its true period of modern freedom began only in 1990-92 as it emerged from Russian-style communism. It is now, consequently, a young vibrant country but with the rich cultural history of an ancient civilization.

Its people are hardy, self-reliant, Asian in appearance, but seemingly Western in their thinking and attitudes. The country’s average elevation exceeds 1,500 meters, and the sky seems close and enormous; this is truly the “Land of the Blue Sky,” as it is known, and spiritual references to the significance of the sky are found repeatedly at sacred stone piles and shrines where sky-blue scarves are invariably tied or wrapped.

Landlocked at the heart of Asia, Mongolia’s climate is truly continental, its year dominated by long cold winters and short, cool to hot summers. It is a land of extremes, of heat and of cold, from deserts to damp shady taiga forests, from ancient freshwater lakes such as Hovsgol in the north to the glaciers and towering peaks of the Altai Mountains of the west, reaching up to 4,374 meters high.

But what remain uppermost in my mind are the immense open landscapes, the rolling steppe with undulating grasslands, the gravel and sand of the Gobi Desert bursting with wild onions after recent rains, towering sand dunes and, above all, the enormity of the overarching blue sky.

I went in search of wildlife, imagining, from my readings, that I might photograph herds of large game on the open plains and in the mountains: Asiatic wild ass, Argali sheep, ibex, Mongolian and black-tailed gazelles — and perhaps even glimpse their predators such as wolf, lynx or fox. But I had not reckoned with the dramatic pace of change, nor the peculiar circumstances of Mongolia.

This is an unfenced country; the awe-inspiring landscape I saw stretched mostly unbroken by anything other than an occasional jeep track. Across the vast openness roamed nomads with their herds of horses, sheep, goats and camels, part of a national domestic livestock herd of between 20-30 million animals. The ubiquity of grazing herds creates competition for the larger wildlife, driving it to ever more remote areas, and alas bringing people ever closer to irresistible opportunities for poaching. I heard gunfire even in national parks, and can only imagine that either ibex or Argali sheep were the targets.

All the larger animals I glimpsed were wary and shy, and reminded me very much of the nervous animals I had tried to observe on hunting preserves in Namibia some years ago. But where the larger wildlife was scarce and elusive, the smaller species proved locally common and entrancing.

The burrows of Daurian pika were everywhere along the Yol Valley, and these relatives of Hokkaido’s naki usagi were more numerous and more confiding than pika I have seen anywhere else; they were already harvesting grasses, carrying great mouthfuls back to their burrows in readiness for the winter.

Meanwhile, near Lake Hovsgol in the north and in Hustai National Park near the capital of Ulan Bator, enormous burrows proved to be those of the Siberian marmot, and these slow-moving herbivores of fat cat proportions gave excellent views. Across the steppe grasslands ran ground squirrels (long-tailed sousliks), their long, flaglike tails alerting relatives to danger, while in the northern taiga forest there were Asiatic chipmunks, as cheeky and as captivating to watch as those in Hokkaido.

Bumbling into camp

My favorite was the long-eared hedgehog that came bumbling into camp one night near the Singing Sands — great dunes that stretch for more than 180 km. It was all the more exciting because I had spent an hour after dinner wandering the desert by flashlight trying to find one. Overhead, the sky was bewilderingly bright with stars, each constellation packed with more pinpricks of light than I had seen in years (there is no light pollution in the desert). My weakening torch lit only sparse xerophytic vegetation and I saw no movement, but on returning to camp I heard that my quarry had been visiting one of the other tents, and was now on view.

I have a fondness for hedgehogs that lingers from my childhood in England; but there, hedgehogs are rounded, somewhat porcine creatures (once known as hedge-pigs) that are apt to roll into a defensive tight ball bristling with spines when disturbed. The desert-dwelling long-eared hedgehog is an altogether more active, svelte creature, better endowed as its name implies, and far more likely to run than to roll. When I encountered another at dawn the following morning while I was out birdwatching, it immediately ran and pushed itself deeply into spiny vegetation — an admirable defense mechanism from predator and photographer alike.

Although many of the larger creatures are locally (and probably even nationally) in decline, one in particular is making a remarkable comeback. Przewalski’s horse, or takhi as it is known in Mongolia, actually became extinct in the wild in the late 1960s, but thanks to an active and successful captive-breeding program overseas, that population became large enough to allow reintroduction. That began almost as soon as the new Mongolia emerged from communism post-1992, and I was able to visit one of the sites, in Hustai National Park, where new herds have been established.

There, sunrise found me scanning valleys and hillsides in search of these beautiful wild horses. They look just as if they have stepped out of a prehistoric cave painting; stocky, pale- to mid-brown, white-faced, with a short erect mane and no forelock. In the dawn light I found a small group of mares with two young playful foals being watched over by their stallion, and in a valley a group of haremless males, and I was able to observe as their daily routine began. After spending the night in the valleys they move higher, following the sun to cooler daytime pastures, only descending again in the afternoon.

Hearing their high whinnying calls across the rolling grasslands was a marvelous finale to a journey through Mongolia, where enormous conservation efforts are bringing nature’s music back to the once-silent steppe. Perhaps one day, Argali sheep, ibex and gazelles will also be as protected.