Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mongolia 2017 - Day 7. Tosontsengel to Har Termes

Oh, my God, will this dirt road never end!

But let me start from the beginning. We started about 9 am, after hearing the good news that the last half of the road to the western depression was “black road” (in other words, it was paved). We just had to get to the town of Songino, and from there on it should be easy going. In high spirits we started meandering our way down from the mountain massif of central Mongolia (the Hanngayn Nuruu massif). It was not a bad road, but we still had to go slowly through a landscape a lot less spectacular than what we saw yesterday. There are still small copses of trees, but basically we are back to the steppe, but with a lot less people and herds of animals.

All of a sudden we see, no more than 50 feet from the road, an enormous bird standing on the ground. It was a Golden eagle! Yes, the iconic raptor of Mongolia was right there, allowing us enough time to take pictures before it majestically took off. A little odd seeing an eagle on the ground, but in a land with few trees I imagine even the might eagle has to rest from time to time.

We were so excited, and our excitement rose to a peak after a second and third sighting of Golden eagles. There are people that pay small fortunes to go in bird watching tours to see the great raptors of Mongolia, and here we were, having then wait by the side of the road for our pleasure.

This is a lonely landscape, with a myriad of tire tracks, so from time to time we had to scratch our head trying to decide where to go next. But we are not the only ones who have such trouble. Zoe was driving when a truck came over the horizon and approached us. “Great”, we thought, “the driver will confirm our direction”. But no, the dark and craggy Mongolian driver flagged us down and asked blue-eyed Zoe if he was on the right way to Numrug, to which the little imp confidently answered in the affirmative, with the confidence of someone who has grown in the steppes. The man was delighted and climbed back on his truck to resume his way. (Note: We had just come from Numrug, so that is why Zoe knew she was right).

Goodness, another three eagles and a hawk sighted in the next few kilometers. We are in heaven.

So we finally made it to Songino, sometime around noon. Here we will pick the paved road and the rest of the trip will be a breeze. In the best of spirits we stopped at a small shop, bought some pate and a spread between soft butter and cream cheese (delicious), carrots, chips, bread, and beer, and had a delicious lunch in the central park gazebo. The breeze was delightful and life was perfect. Morale was high.

Back on the road we sighted, maybe a kilometer ahead, the straight alignment of the new road. Unfortunately when we got to it we found out that the gravel base had been laid down, ready to receive the pavement, but berms had been built across the road at regular intervals to prevent people driving over the recently graded and compacted surface. Rats!

We followed the track that ran roughly parallel to the new road, expecting to see the start of the pavement at any moment now. But Zoe ran through her hour and a half driving turn (two more eagles admired along the way), and then Horacio took his hour and a half turn (an eagle and a hawk dutifully photographed along the way), and then came John’s turn to drive. My God, will this torture of seeing the paved road as a mirage never end?

And then John drove, head on, into a wallow filled with loose, powdery silt. It was like we had been engulfed by a tsunami, and the cabin of our trusty jeep was immediately filled with clouds of fine silt, completely obliterating visibility. Flying by instruments John got us out of the dust trap, and we rushed out of the car like so many clowns in a circus act. The car was covered in fine dust, and Zoe and John had to work hard to partially clean out the windshield so we could continue. We laughed a lot about the incident, but there is no question that morale was at its lowest point when we resumed our way.

And then came the high point of our bird-watching trip. By now we had lost count of the many opportunities we had of seeing the magnificent Golden eagles, but imagine our delight when Zoe sighted, on top of one the berms built across the new road, a nest where Mama Eagle was feeding three hungry chicks. It was a once in a lifetime sighting and we stood in awe for several minutes seeing the incredible scene. The photographs we took, alas, do not make justice to the beauty of this family scene, but the memory is etched in our minds forever.

As if the sighting of the chicks had been a good omen within five kilometers we finally reached the beginning of the paved section, and five minutes later we were happily traveling along Mongolia’s newest road, heading for Hyargaas Nuur, a vast lake in the axis of the western Mongolia depression. Even though the sun was low on the horizon we had the plan of driving along the east coast of the lake, to a tourist camp located close to a rocky promontory where cormorants nest, by the shore of the lake. Our information had it that the camp was about 15 km along yet another dirt road, but what are 15 stinking kilometers to veterans of the 300 km between Tosontsengel and the edge of the paved road?

Well, 15 km in the middle of nowhere can look like a long distance, particularly when there is no end in sight. After about 20 km, and several anxious stops to scan the horizon with binoculars, we had to conclude that there was no evidence that anyone had come this way in months, and that the tourist camp was probably no more (keep in mind that a ger camp can be here today and gone tomorrow). So we turned around just as the sun was setting over the lake, which in magnificence and setting has nothing to beg from Mono Lake, and by the time we reached again the paved road night was definitely setting in. Fortunately for us within 55 km we reached a “tourist house” named Har Termes, and there found refuge for the night. It is a very basic Russian era hotel, without toilettes or showers, but the people are very friendly and notwithstanding the lateness of the hour fixed us a good dinner, showed us pictures of the area, and wondered in amazement at the photos we showed them of the eagle and her chicks.

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