This is a unique 13-Day private tour, showcasing the magnificent wildlife and, of course, the elusive Snow Leopard of Mongolia.
This one definitely deserves a place on your bucket list!
This Expert Guided Tour can be booked as a Private Safari for any date as per your planned travel dates.
This next Group Departure date for this tour is 12 May 2021
Full Itinerary – Mongolia Snow Leopard and Wildlife Tour
Arrival in Ulaanbaatar
Welcome to Mongolia! You will be picked up by our company representative at the Ulaanbaatar International airport upon your arrival in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, and transferred to your comfortable hotel for check-in.
With a population of around 1.3 million, Ulaanbaatar (known to locals as “UB”) is the largest city in Mongolia, standing as its political, commercial, industrial and cultural hub. The city was founded in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre. It settled permanently at its present location, the junction of the Tuul and Selbe rivers, in 1778. Ulaanbaatar sits at an average elevation of 1,300 meters (4,300 ft) above sea level and has the unfortunate distinction of being, on average, the coldest capital city in the world!
Some of the cultural and architectural highlights of the city include the National Museum of Mongolia, the Gandantegchinlen Monastery (the heart of Mongolian Tibetan Buddhism) with the large Janraisig statue, the socialist monument complex at Zaisan Memorial with its great view over the city, the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, Zandraa Tumen-Ulzii’s International Intellectual Museum (actually a wonderful shrine to toys, magic and games), Sükhbaatar Square and the nearby Choijin Lama Temple.
The city has boomed in the last 15 years due to the discovery of gold (and coal, copper and uranium) nearby, leading to an economic resurgence for Mongolia. Unfortunately, this has also led to increased pollution levels, traffic and petty crimes. On the positive side, the city is a cultural free-for-all, with a wonderfully eclectic mix of traditional and western eateries, shopping options and inhabitants.
After lunch (in case you arrive before lunch), we will meet up and start our exciting tour by doing our first activity together. We could start by visiting the Tuul river valley with some wetland birding at the Tuul fish ponds and also see a beautiful mix of cherry, elm, willow, and poplar trees.
Interesting birds here include Black Kite, Booted Eagle, Demoiselle Crane, Ruddy Shelduck, Great Crested Grebe, Little Ringed Plover, Pied Avocet, the mongolicus subspecies of Vega Gull, Azure-winged Magpie and if we are lucky even Black Stork.
Another option would be to visit one of the cultural highlights mentioned above. The choice is yours!
We will return to the hotel in the late afternoon, freshen up and enjoy our welcome dinner together at one of the better restaurants in Ulaanbaatar, getting to know each other a little better.
We will get our first taste of Mongolian cuisine. It is rooted in their nomadic history, and therefore includes lots of dairy, animal fats and meat, but few vegetables and spices. Two of the most popular dishes in the cities and towns are Buuz (a meat-filled steamed dumpling) and Khuushuur (a sort of deep-fried meat pie.) In the rural areas the most common dish is cooked mutton, rice or noodle stews, and for a snack they eat Borts (thin strips of air-dried meat). Milk and cream are used to make a variety of beverages, as well as cheese and similar products. Any dietary restrictions and preferences will be accommodated as far as possible, so everyone will get something they love and enjoy!
After our first meal we are off to bed for a good night’s rest; tomorrow the tour starts in earnest!
Flight to Ulaangom, transfer to Mongolian Altai Mountains
We will start our day with breakfast in the hotel and then we are off to the airport again.
We will take a flight to the small city of Ulaangom, the capital of the Uvs province in far western Mongolia.
During the 2 hour long flight we will learn a bit more about where we are, and we will certainly see the desolate landscape underneath us. It’s important to remember that Mongolia is the 18th largest and most sparsely populated country in the world (with a population of only about 3 million), with just over 30 tiny towns throughout a nation the size of Western Europe. Some areas are so remote you could drive a full day and see almost no signs of human habitation.
Three-fourths of Mongolia’s surface area consists of grassland plains without trees, which support the immense herds of grazing livestock for which the country is known, and is often referred to as “the Great Steppe”. The remaining area is about equally divided between forests, semi-deserts, lake-dotted basins, the barren Gobi desert to the south and the high Altai mountains in the west and north, resulting in a remarkable variety of scenery.
The country’s climatic conditions are dictated by the oceans on one side (albeit far away) and the snow-capped Himalayas on the other side (also far away). Basically, Mongolia is high, cold, and windy. It has an extreme continental climate with long, cold winters and short hot summers, during which most of its annual rainfall falls. The country averages 257 cloudless days a year, hence the “Country of Blue Sky” moniker.
Mongolia has a remarkable and very long history, with everyone from Homo erectus (850,000 years ago) to the Huns to Genghis Khan (legendary founder of the famous Mongol Empire) to the Chinese and even the Russians involved. However, over the last 3 decades the burden of communism has been lifted, there have been free multiparty elections, a new constitution, greater cultural and religious freedom with more emphasis on Mongol national traditions, a neutral position in international relations, and a transition to a market economy. Contemporary cultural life in Mongolia is a unique amalgam of traditional nomadic, shamanic, and Buddhist beliefs.
Mongolia’s nomadic culture is famous, and the locals (especially in the rural areas) are incredibly friendly with tremendous hospitality. Visitors can easily overnight in a herder’s ger as long as he or she helps round up the sheep! It’s refreshing (and strange to our Westerners) to meet people willing to open their doors so easily and with a smile.
Every nation has its myths and magical creatures, and tales about them. But few are so amusing and odd as the tale of the olgoi-kharkhoi, the Mongolian Death Worm. A longstanding belief amongst Mongols first revealed to the West in a 1922 account by the paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, the Death Worm is by reputation a rare creature that lives deep in the sands of the Gobi. The few who claim to have seen it describe it as a three-foot-long fat worm, dark red, with spikes sticking out of both of its ends.
Although sluggish, many fear it for its ability to spit corrosive acidic venom and to discharge a lethal electrical shock at humans and livestock from a great distance. There is no evidence it exists, and some speculate that it might have been a misidentified snake or worm lizard turned mythic over generations of tall tales, but the Death Worm is a fun topic of conversation nonetheless.
When we arrive at Ulaangom we are only 120 kilometres (70 mi) south from the Russian border. The city is located on the slopes of the Kharkhiraa mountain at an elevation of 939 m (3,081 ft) above sea level.
We will transfer to our mountain camp in the Altai mountains. We will stay in a community-based ger camp for the next 7 nights.
A ger is Mongolian traditional round shaped dwelling that has been used since the Mongols started nomadic life with animal husbandry. A ger is portable, easily assembled and disassembled, and actually the most natural dwelling on earth. A ger consists of felt covers, wooden columns, and a round window at the top, thin wooden poles and floor, wall (wooden lattice attached together with animal hide, ropes) and ropes. Most of the materials used for a ger are made of animals, like sheep wool for the felt insulation, camel or sheep wool for the ropes, and of course wood.
Our campsite is a real heaven, located on the mountain slope, facing the sublime scenery to all directions. Average altitude of the camp and surroundings is about 2,000 m (6,560 ft) above sea level. The camp provides clean and comfortable traditional gers with two beds in each, with every ger heated by a stove. There will be a secluded area of the campsite with a Western-style toilet, a place to wash our hands and faces, and a shower room.
Our cook in the camp will cater for your special food requirements. We will be provided with fresh fruits every day. However, the meals in the camp might lack a variety comparing to the European standards, but here will always be hot drinks and snacks.
We will get together for our first evening in camp, have dinner and marvel at our incredible surroundings. This is the Mongolia you see in brochures – enjoy!
Mongolian Altai Mountains
We will spend our next 6 days in the Altai Mountains. Every day will follow essentially the same pattern, with all 3 meals served and enjoyed at our ger camp. Our camp assistants, local guides and cooks are all friendly local people who grew up in the same mountain we are stationed at, which will be a great benefit to us as they know a lot about the area. During meal times, they will share their expertise, information and local knowledge with us; a real privilege.
We will search for the iconic Snow Leopard and other fauna and flora on walks in the mornings and afternoons. We designed this trip so that the walks are not too strenuous. Temperatures should be relatively moderate and skies are usually brilliantly clear. The days will usually be sunny and cool, and pleasant. Nights will be considerably cooler after the sunset, but the phenomenal stars should make up for any chills you might experience.
We will fully explore the truly untouched habitats around us. These include the mountains, meadows, rivers, alpine lakes, forests, and glaciers. You better get your cameras ready, for the landscapes are truly spectacular.
The Altai mountains were formed during the great orogenic (mountain-building) upthrusts occurring between 500 and 300 million years ago and were worn down, over geologic time, into a gently undulating plateau. Beginning in the Quaternary Period (within the past 2.6 million years), new upheavals thrust up magnificent peaks of considerable size. Quaternary glaciation scoured the mountains, carving them into rugged shapes, and changed valleys from V- to U-shaped. The name comes from the two words al that means “gold/red/yellow” in Turkic languages and the tai word that means “mountain” in Turkic languages; therefore it literally translates as “Golden Mountain”. A vast area of 16,178 km2, including the Altai and Katun Natural Reserves, Lake Teletskoye, Mount Belukha, and the Ukok Plateau, comprises a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site entitled Golden Mountains of Altai.
The Mongolian Altai embraces diverse fauna due to the different habitats here, including steppe, taigas (boreal or snow forests) and alpine vegetation.
Besides the elusive Snow Leopard, we have a chance to see many interesting mammals including ungulates like Argali, Siberian Ibex, Red Deer, Siberian Musk Deer, Siberian Roe Deer, Goitered and Mongolian Gazelle and more. Predators we could see include (Grey) Wolves, Eurasian Lynx, Dhole, Steppe Polecat, Red and Corsac Fox, and another top target, the near threatened Pallas’s Cat.
Small mammals we could see include Alpine and Pallas’s Pika, Tolai Hare, Mongolian Marmot, Long-tailed Ground Squirrel and many others.
During the nights, we will look for jerboas and other nocturnal animals. We will also use Sherman live-trap cameras to catch and photograph the rarely seen rodents for future mammal photographic guidebooks of Mongolia. You could be part of history!
From a birding perspective, there is also a lot going on in the Altai. We have a good chance to see some fantastic species, including Altai Snowcock, Chukar Partridge, Dalmatian Pelican, Bearded, Himalayan and Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle (the only people in the world who still hunt with eagles live in the Altai region), Saker Falcon, Merlin, Eurasian Eagle-owl, Eurasian Crag Martin, Rock Sparrow, Güldenstädt’s Redstart, White-throated Bush Chat, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Mongolian Finch, White-winged Snowfinch, Brandt’s and Plain Mountain Finch, Common, Red-mantled, Himalayan Beautiful and Great Rosefinch, Asian Rosy Finch, Alpine, Altai, Brown, Black-throated, Kozlov’s and Siberian Accentor, and Little, Rock, Godlewski’s and Black-faced Bunting and many more.
Our main target is, of course, the Snow Leopard Panthera uncia. It truly is one of the apex species on the planet, on par with other “big names” like Tiger, Eastern Gorilla and Jaguar. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because the global population is estimated to number less than 10,000 mature individuals. Their camouflaged fur gives them an incredible advantage in the rugged and foreboding mountains where they live. It preys on the Siberian Ibex and the Argali sheep. However, for all its power, an adult cat weighs only about 55 kg (121 lbs) at most. To help it cope with the cold, the Snow Leopard has been blessed with the thickest fur of all the big cats. We will learn a lot about this amazing feline from our expert local guides during our time in the Altai mountains.
The area where we will search for the Snow Leopard supports the lives of the Zahchin ethnic group, which were formed in the sixteenth century from the ancient Mongol tribes. They were famed for their bravery and abilities in battle. If you want to visit an authentic Zahchin family, this can be arranged during our time here.
We will return to our ger site in the afternoons and enjoy some relaxation time in the camp. Dinner will be served in a central ger and we will socialise into the evenings, completing our lists and wondering why it took us so long to take the leap and come to magical Mongolia. We will marvel at the incredible night skies as we head to our gers at bed time every night, enjoying the pollution-free air in one of the most remote places on the planet.
Transfer to Uvs Lake and surrounding areas
Today our time in the stunning Altai mountains come to an end. After having hopefully ticked all the target species for this part of the trip, we will move onto our next exciting destination.
After breakfast at the ger camp we will pack our luggage in the vehicle and say our goodbyes to the wonderful staff in the camp, who we have bonded with for the last week.
Then we head east to the area of the Uvs Lake. It is the largest lake in Mongolia (3,350 km2/1,290 sq mi) and actually extends into neighbouring Russia. It forms part of the Great Lakes Depression of Mongolia. The lake is quite shallow (average depth of 6 m), very saline and lies at an altitude of 759 metres (2,490 ft) above sea level. Uvs has been described as the “sea” of western Mongolia, and although many seabirds visit the lake’s water, the nearest ocean is more than 3,000 km away!
The main feeding rivers of the lake are the Baruunturuun, Nariin and Tes-Khem from the Khangai Mountains in the east, and the Kharkhiraa and Sangil from the Altai Mountains in the west. The Tes-Khem, the lake’s single most important feeder river, meanders through an extensive wetland complex in its last 100 km before the lake, creating a wildlife-rich delta some 40 km wide. The lake is frozen from middle November to about middle May annually.
In 2003, the UNESCO listed the Uvs Lake Basin as a natural World Heritage Site. It was nominated as “one of the largest intact watersheds in Central Asia where 40,000 archeological sites can be found from historically famous nomadic tribes such as the Scythians, the Turks and the Huns.” The lake and its surrounding wetlands are also recognised as a Ramsar Wetland of Importance.
Because of its geographical location, the lake is subject to extreme climate fluctuations. Temperatures of – 40 °C are normal in winter (-58 °C has been recorded here, the coldest ever for Mongolia), but in summer the basin warms and the temperatures easily top 40 °C.
We will reach our ger camp and settle in, relishing in the amazing scenery around us. The huge lake, the snow-capped mountains in the distance, massive sand dunes, and the bush-covered valley landscapes will make our cameras go crazy!
This afternoon and tomorrow we will do short drives and walks to target specific mammals and birds in these wildly different habitats. Some 359 species of birds and almost 50 mammal species have been recorded in the area around the lake.
We will return to the ger camp in the afternoon to freshen up and get together for dinner out here in the middle of nowhere under millions of stars in Mongolia.
Uvs Lake and surrounding areas
We have a full day today to explore all that this area has to offer. The area is a wildlife hotspot, and the lake itself contains 29 different fish species. The surrounding areas support many mammal and bird species.
During our time here we will look for some fantastic smaller and interesting mammals, including Long-eared Hedgehog, Pallid Ground Squirrel, Campbell’s and Dwarf Hamster, Mongolian Clawed Jird, Mid-day Gerbil, Siberian and Gobi Jerboa, and Corsac Fox.
Top birds we will search for in the area include Western Osprey, Eastern Imperial, White-tailed and Greater Spotted Eagle, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Dalmatian Pelican, Bar-headed and Swan Goose, Black Stork, Eurasian Spoonbill, White-headed Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Stejneger’s Scoter, Little Grebe, Great Cormorant, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Demoiselle and White-naped Crane, Broad-billed and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Long-toed and Red-necked Stint, Asian Dowitcher, Black-headed, Relict and Pallas’s Gull, White-winged Tern, Hen Harrier, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Henderson’s Ground Jay, Paddyfield Warbler, Pallas’s and Common Grasshopper Warbler, Desert Wheatear, Western Yellow Wagtail and many others.
We will once again return to the ger camp to relax, unwind and have dinner in this amazing setting.
Fly to Ulaanbaatar, transfer to Hustai National Park
This morning we will have breakfast, pack our luggage and head back to Ulaangom, from where we will take a flight to Ulaanbaatar.
Once in Ulaanbaatar, we will hop into another vehicle and head westwards to our final location of this fantastic tour.
We are heading our ger camp located strategically close to the Hustai National Park, also called the Khustain Nurru National Park.
This is the land of the famous, reintroduced “Takhi” or Przewalski’s Wild Horse (Equus przewalskii), the only truly wild horse population left on the planet. They were reintroduced in the reserve back in 1992, and thanks to good conservation management (the Mongolian government declared the park as a Specially Protected Area in 1993), the species, which was on the brink of extinction, now has a population of well over 300 individuals.
The 506 km2 (195 sq mi) park extends through the Khentii Mountains and includes the western edge of the Mongolian steppe, with the Tuul river running through the park. In 2002, UNESCO certified the park as a member of the world biosphere network of natural reserves.
We might have time in the afternoon to head into the park and look for our first species to tick here. Hustai is home to 16 species of fish, 384 insect species, 459 species of vascular plants, 85 species of lichens, 3 reptile species, 90 species of moss, 55 species of butterflies, and 33 species of mushrooms. A new species of soil insect was found in the park and given the scientific name of Epidamaeus khustaiensis. Tonight we will once again have dinner at, and overnight in a tourist ger camp run by locals.
Hustai National Park
We have the full day to explore the beauty and diversity of Hustai today.
It is a beautiful park, with wide open steppe areas, rocky hills, imposing mountains and picturesque forests in the southwest. Get your cameras ready!
We will do our best to locate some of the 55 species of mammals that have been recorded in the park, along with 223 species of birds.
Our top mammal targets here include the special (Przewalski’s) Wild Horse, along with others like Mongolian Marmot, Brandt’s Vole, Eurasian Lynx, Wolf, Corsac Fox, Argali, Siberian Roe Deer, Red Deer, Mongolian Gazelle, Wapiti, Wild Boar and Eurasian Badger.
The park also boasts some fascinating birdlife and we hope to see Whooper Swan, Daurian Partridge, Cinereous, Bearded and Himalayan Vulture, Golden and Steppe Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Saker and Amur Falcon, Lesser Kestrel, Little Owl, Great Bustard, Red-billed Chough, Mongolian and Asian Short-toed Lark, Northern, Isabelline and Pied Wheatear, Brown Shrike, Mongolian Lark and Meadow Bunting, to name just a few.
After our exciting day we will return to our ger camp and freshen up. Then it’s time for our final dinner together on this amazing tour to magical Mongolia. We will socialise into the night, having made friends for life. Then we are off to bed for a final night’s rest in this fascinating place.
Transfer to Ulaanbaatar, and Departure
Unfortunately our amazing tour has come to an end.
After breakfast this morning we will leave the ger camp and head back to Ulaanbaatar, specifically to the International Airport, where we will say our sad goodbyes and catch our homeward or onward flights.
To join this adventure in Mongolia with us, contact our team at firstname.lastname@example.org