Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), September 2009
Excerpts from Sy’s Field Diary
Mongolian expedition, August 1, 2007-August 30, 2007
These are just a few excerpts from the daily journal the author keeps on expeditions. Much of this is not in the book—for obvious reasons! But I thought you might like to read some of the behind-the-scenes details of what life can be like for the author on an expedition like this.
August 1—We think our bags got lost in China. The health forms on entry, at least, do not inspire confidence in the officials of that country: “Please Mark The Symptoms and diseases you have with a check mark,” it asks, and then lists “fever, snivel, cough, sore throat, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, breath difficulty, venereal disease, HIV/AIDS, psychosis, acute pulmonary tuberculosis.” A separate line asks you to check the box if you have had close contact with patients or “suspects” suffering from Avian Influenza in the past 7 days.
Actually, this trip has been plagued with problems from the start—so many that you’d think we’d have run out by now. Nic’s flight from Kalamazoo to Chicago was cancelled, causing him to arrive on a different carrier that probably sent his bags AWOL. But this expedition is about accomplishing the impossible—saving a ghost—so perhaps it begins appropriately, a tribute to the Snow Leopard Trust and its impossible mission. Tom, its scientific director, told us he hadn’t seen a snow leopard in 9 years—till in Pakistan last year when he radiocollared a female (who the BBC had been filming for 3 years—and at first they were furious at him for doing science on their star!) Bayara, director of in-country operations, has never seen a snow leopard, except at a zoo. “That’s dedication for you,” Tom said as he drove us, without our luggage, from the airport to the hotel, “to work for an organization for 8 years to conserve an animal you’ve never seen.”
August 2—We spent the day on Plan B: trying to recoup if our luggage doesn’t make it from wherever it is now to Ullan Bataar before we leave for the flight to Gobi-Altai tomorrow morning. Bayara and Nadia, bless them, have taken turns on the phone arguing with various airline representatives in Mongolian (which of course Nic and I don’t speak, except for useful phrases such as “I like camels” and “Where is the snow leopard?”) Air China tells them they have to call Beijing, and Tom yells at the guy in English—but he can hear nothing but static in reply. And Tom is the soul of patience. To study snow leopards, you have to be.
Kim, the beautiful blonde biologist with WCS collaborating with Tom, takes us to the State Department Store where we scope out what we can buy to replace our gear if our luggage doesn’t show. If Nic and I share a two-man tent and borrow sleeping bags, we will be warm enough to sleep. Of course there won’t be any room or any privacy. But happily Mongolian clothes should fit me fine and all my stuff was pretty beat anyway. Alas, Mongolia doesn’t seem to have any cold medicine—I wonder why? And we will have lost all the gifts I brought for the people—coloring books, crayons and stickers for the kids, postcards and calendars showing scenes from New England. No matter. We’re here. We can do this.
Then, as we provision for tomorrow’s lunch, Nadia runs into the grocery to give us the good news: our luggage is found! We retrieve it joyfully from the airport.
August 3—3:30 a.m. to midnight: We rise early to catch the 5:30 a.m. flight to Gobi Altai. Signs at the airport in Cyrillic advise us to pack our swords in our checked baggage. Our Soviet-made Alt 26-100 prop, with exposed rivets and Russian exist signs gives Nic pause. His wife, Vivien, “wouldn’t like this,” he says to me, deadpan as always. Why not? “She’d consider it a flying coffin.” I am seated by the exit, featuring a pointy red handle, attached to the door with a few threads of copper wire, clearly a recent improvisation. You are supposed to pull the handle in an emergency, but I suspect it would come off in my hands—either that or perforate my gut, at which it is directly pointed, should there be a serious jolt during takeoff, flight or landing. Fortunately, as there are no overhead bins, I am forced to sit with my backpack in my lap, which provides a sort of airbag in case of such emergency. The raw eggs for our trip are under my seat. At least I do not have hold other passengers’ children, as Tom has had to do, while the parents stood in the aisles.
We are met at the airport by our driver, Munkho, thin with a lined face and clearly exhausted. He has already driven two days straight from UB to meet us here; and our plump smiling cook, Enke. We face a 10 hour drive to Bayantoori, an oasis skirting the base of the Altai Mountains. Our van is jammed. There is hardly room for us, much less our luggage, despite the fact that its roof is piled high with expedition gear. Off we go, but immediately we face our first delay: a visit with Nadia’s grandmother, who lives just blocks from the airport. With typical Mongolian hospitality, she serves us milk tea and fried bread and noodles with mutton while she and Nadia and Tom earnestly discuss the weather and its effect on the livestock. We leave encumbered with an immense package of raw meat for Nadia’s parents. Tom shoots Nadia a glance, and she replies “They have no meat there.”
On we go, the smell of meat permeating the hot air inside the van. The van has a heater but no air conditioner. We can’t open most of the windows, and if we do, dust and flies pour in. The “road” is as bumpy as a dry stream bed—which much of it actually is—and it’s so uncomfortable that the only escape is to go unconscious. The next morning, I find the second hand has detached from my watch, and floating around the face, catching the big minute hand and causing me to never know what time it is throughout the expedition without asking someone else to check their watch for me.
At 8:30 that night we reach Tsugt Sum ovo—an ovo being a pile of rocks, skulls and other objects that represents a mountain, pointing towards heaven, a closer point of contact between heaven and Earth. By adding a pebble, it is said, you give wind to your horse and receive good luck on your journey. Tom has purchased a blue scarf at the market earlier to lay here in honor of Louisa Bennett, wife of the filmmaker friend, Joel Bennett, who got Tom into the Gobi for the first time in 1992, having made the connection between him and George Schaller. Louisa died of breast cancer a month ago. “She knew this ovo and passed it many times,” Tom says. We all walk around it three times, clockwise, tossing a pebble each time. It’s an impressive pile—as big as a ger—with thousands of stones, from pebbles to boulders, and the spiraled horns and the argo sheep, the skulls of horses, and dozens of blue scarves called khadags. Surely just by adding to it, we are closer to heaven, and to Louisa. Tom ties the blue scarf he bought to honor Louisa to a pole. Why is it blue? The color blue, Nadia tells us, recalls the blue sky. “All we have,” she says, “is a kind of gift, a gift we give to nature, or to the mountain.”
We get lost a couple times in the dark. The road seems indistinguishable from the scree. But at last we arrive at Gobi park headquarters at 11:30 p.m.
August 4—Today we truly start our expedition. Morning interview with Batmunkh Mijiddorj, Nadia’s father and director of the Gobi National Park. He tells us where we might find snow leopards and water—though they aren’t always found together, both are essential for the expedition.
We learn about Nadia’s name. When she was born, her parents named her Solongo, which means rainbow. But she fell ill at 3 months of age, and her parents, frightened, consulted a monk when she didn’t get well. He told them the problem was she had been named after an ephemeral phenomenon. So they renamed her Tserennadmid, which means “Healthy Long Life.”
She recovered immediately. We wish her a healthy long life. But we call her Nadia instead, because we can pronounce it.
We arrive at Base Camp around 2, and set up the ger. It’s gorgeous and cool here, and seven horses, brown and chestnut geldings, come to graze by the beautiful stream in the evening. Late that night I get up and need to use the loo, which of course doesn’t exist. Blearily I walk some distance away from camp and I am aware the horses are still around, snorting. But they now seem bigger. In fact, much bigger. Not only bigger: they are very lumpy horses. In the starlight, it takes me many minutes to dawn on me: these are camels.
August 5—Early in the morning it rained and blew, on and off. I was afraid my tent might blow away with me in it. Nic told me he once had a tent like that—until it was blown to shreds. After learning this I carried immense rocks to pin the corners down. But in the dark of early morning it sounded like creatures were nibbling at my tent. This flowed into my subconscious and I dreamed of the elfin desert hedgehog who lives here, and the marmots, and the horses. We are supposed to meet our guide at 8 a.m., but he doesn’t show—later we learn his motorcycle was broken. We leave at 8:10 without him. “This looks good,” says Tom, looking at the map. He picks the steepest slopes to carry us to a point where he can get up high and see the lay of the land. I am actually shaking before we set off, so fearful that the ankle I sprained months earlier, then reinjured last week, will slow us down. Tom has been doing this for 15 years; Nic is in top condition—I think he fought his way out of the womb with his walking stick; beautiful Kim is 40 and does triathlons for recreation to raise money for charity; Nadia is 27 and grew up here. And then there’s me. I feel like a middle-aged blob.
But the hike is steady and I have no problem. The desert reveals itself in glimpses: the stark white skull, backbone and shoulder of a camel; surprising wildflowers—lavender asters, yellow daisy like blooms; the unexpected scents of onion, rosemary and mint; the crenellated horns of ibex; bright gold lichens. We find the skull of a red fox. To our delight we happen upon petroglyphs and can recognize argali sheep and ibex. One appears to be the image of a snow leopard.
We look for scats and scrapes. It is remarkably hard to discern these. Tom is an expert and even he isn’t sure. “It might be snow leopard,” Tom says, looking at one possible scrape. “If it were leopard, the two feet would parallel the rock face as it drew its feet back. Then it would turn and face the other direction and spray. But this scrape, if it is one, hasn’t been used in a long time.” I marvel at his knowledge and feel honored to stand where a snow leopard may have stood, even if it was months ago. It feels like sacred ground…
August 6—Today we go down our valley to a different one, a site selected by our 25 year old guide, Augie. He’s a sweet smiling fellow and he and his parents and sister pasture their animals there in the spring. In fact, on the way there, he recognizes some of the camels. That one belongs to his neighbors, Jambu Dorj, he says to us as Nadia translates. Augie’s family owns 15 camels, 3 horses, and more than 400 sheep and goats, mostly goats.
He has seen snow leopards three times in his young life—amazing! He will never forget the time in the year 2000, a winter night. The goats were crying, and when he turned on his motorcycle headlights, caught in their beam was a snow leopard on a goat! What did he do, we asked him through Nadia? What did his family do? “They didn’t anger the snow leopard,” she replied, translating. “They let him go.” Augie was afraid, he admitted, but he also admired the cat. “Its skin was very beautiful,” he told us, “and so was its long, fluffy tail.”
We’re crossing mainly rocky brown country but also shallow, shimmering streams brilliant with emerald grass. Tom is pleased with what he sees: good ibex habitat, broken steep cliffs these ungulates love, “because,” he says, “no one can chase them there—except our buddy.”
We start our climb at 9:45 at 5,747 feet. The cliff before us looks impossible. Where to put our hands? Where to put our feet? Every inch poses a quandary. Every step sends a small avalanche of rock to the climber below—and even larger avalanches when a rock you think is a handhold comes off, sickeningly, in your hand.
By 11 we’re atop the ridge, but to our dismay it’s an isolated one. It leads nowhere—nowhere with good snow leopard scrape areas. Tom is annoyed. There’s a small saddle we can get to. When we do, we find an old scrape with fresh scat. We hope it’s snow leopard and not fox or wolf—we take a sample to send back to the lab. But now what?
“Coming up this saddle was really a bust,” Tom says. Now we have to go down. But how? We can’t go down the way we came up. It’s too steep. Tom decides to try another ridge from the valley floor. But how to reach that valley?
“Straight down—oh, that looks bad.” This is coming from Kim, fit and fearless. It strikes terror into my heart.
And she’s right. It’s bad.
Tom admits he’s feeling the pins in his legs. Nic can feel his knee surgery. “I wish I had new knees,” he says. Nic never complains. And I descend ignominiously, often on my butt, tearing my pants and leaving the sharp rocks flecked with my blood. Worse, my right ankle just isn’t holding, and each time it crumples it’s crushingly painful. I feel like a jerk. I’m afraid I will hit a point where I can’t go on and when I will let everyone down. But Nic is so kind. “This is hard,” he says to me, reading my thoughts, “and it’s hard for everyone.”
At last we reach the valley floor. It’s gorgeous. Now we are walking along the sparkling stream, lush with purple and golden wildflowers. This I can do. I can do this for hours. But this isn’t where you find signs of snow leopards…
By the end of the day, we haven’t much to show for it all. But we have found other blessings. We have heard the eerie scream of a jager. In a patch of mud by the shade of a boulder, we found the paw print of a rare Pallas cat. Along the stream, I counted eighteen brown camels, and three white ones. The white camels are a sign—they mean good luck.
We’ll need it. That night I take off my boots and ankle brace and flop face down on my sleeping bag, my sore feet sticking out the flap to my tent. I wake in exactly this position at 5 a.m.
August 8—Instead of writing a book, maybe I should be making a how-to film for what NOT to do with a sprained ankle. DO NOT tackle a talus slope of 45 degrees. DO NOT put your foot every other step in exactly the position that injured it. DO NOT do this for several hours until you are sweating from the pain.
Today was very difficult. I came close to muscle failure. The climb up was terrible. Nic had to show me where to put my feet. Handholds came loose in my hands and tumbled down the slope. And then there was the descent. It wasn’t easy for anyone. I have now eaten 12 aspirin—my ears are ringing from it—and my ankle is still so swollen I can hardly bend it. Last night I thought I’d have to ask Nic to pull it off for me and tonight I am just going to leave it on even if I get gangrene! I am writing this lying in a shallow little pool of pain.
Why, then, am I so eager for tomorrow, to get up and do it all over again?
August 10—I am lying on my left side, waiting for my last dose of aspirin to take effect so I can sit on my right hip. The cut I got from my most recent fall must be infected, or maybe this scrape is a new one. Of course I didn’t bring a mirror—the horror, the horror!—and I can’t really see back there too well, especially inside my tent, but then again, I don’t want to. Nothing I can do about it.
There is no spot on my body that isn’t cut, bruised, burned or sore. Everything is either stinging, aching or throbbing. Even my eyes feel sunburned. Every spot exposed to the sun is chapped and red. And I only notice this now. This is our last day in the field with Tom and Kim. Earlier, I was too occupied by all they were showing us, by the joy of their company, by the need to take notes, and by the effort of not falling to my death off the mountain. I never had a fear of heights, but I do now. Today we watched with horror as Nadia’s pack fell 500 feet off the cliff where we were standing—containing all the precious scat samples we had collected. They scattered all over the hillside—much like my body parts would have been had I fallen the million times I slipped. But—a miracle!—the GPS unit was uninjured. Our guide Augie, wearing purple bedroom slippers, ran down the mountain and picked everything up for us.
At one point during today’s climb, I was holding on to the side of the mountain with my right index finger while Augie, smelling strongly of yak butter, was holding my left hand, and sliding slowly down the scree. Nic had ahold of my walking stick, which was attached to my right wrist by a strap, and I was so afraid I would take them both down with me as I slid down the mountain. I scrabbled with both boots trying desperately to get a foothold, but only sent a hail of flat, sharp scree flying down below, the rocks tinkling as they broke to pieces like shattered glass. “Don’t worry about me!” I cried to Augie and Nic, “Don’t let yourself fall!” But they wouldn’t let go. Finally Nic pointed to a workable foothold for my good (left) foot, and pulled me there with my walking stick. At that point I was hyperventilating with fear, shaking all over.
We walked over knife-edge ridge after knife-edge ridge—one misstep and you fall 500 feet. Or so it seemed to me. Nic tried to convince me otherwise. “A truck could drive here,” he said. “It’s a highway.” Of course Nadia, Tom and Kim skipped over these slopes with the ease of a fly climbing a wall. I think they were aware of my difficulty but too kind to call attention to it. Kim tried to help. “Be ONE with the rock!” she would say. But this was what I was afraid of: being reduced to splatter on stone.
For hours each day, I have been terrified of slipping and falling. But the terror would pass in an instant. You never know what you might find around a bend: a sloping meadow; a hillside of pearly pink stones? Would THIS spot yield a snow leopard track? A good scrape? A pile of recent scat? Or most likely more rocky scree or meat-cleaver rocks.
14 August—We’re back in Bayantoori as Kim and Tom depart. But first we get to ride on camels, which delights me despite the oppressive heat. Bayantoori isn’t high in the mountains like our camp; it’s miserably hot and flies are everywhere. But 17 km away from park headquarters, at a place called Tsagduult, the park maintains its fleet of 41 camels, including one of the last wild Bactrian camels, and I wouldn’t miss the chance to visit them.
The camels are used as transport, for milk, wool and—an unfortunate retirement program for the older camels—meat. One of them is Tom’s. He doesn’t recognize her, but he acquired her 8 years ago when she was a baby, in exchange for a sewing machine. There are also four baby camels all born in April. They are adorable, but when we approach them, they make spit-face and try to kick us. Brave little creatures. This only makes me admire them more. The adults are all on their knees in a huddle when we arrive, their humps forming a mini mountain range. The camel master soon picks out Tom’s camel and brings a saddle. Since these are Bactrians, it’s not a wood and leather affair but just fabric, with attached stirrups, since riding a Bactrian it’s almost impossible to fall off. It feels great up there, riding higher than you would on a horse, securely pinned between two warm, hairy air-bags. I do adore camels and would contentedly ride around on them all day, despite the heat and the flies and the strong scent of camel dung. I insist Nic take a turn. He does so, even though he is clearly quite sick, nauseated with what proves to be heat stroke.
15 August—Tom and Kim have left. Now Bayara arrives, delighted to learn that we will pass a wedding on our way back to Base Camp II. If we stop at the wedding, we are sure to find where many of the families who participate in Snow Leopard Enterprises are, so we can interview them. These folks are all nomads, after all, and with no permanent address it can be difficult to track people down in any season—but especially now, as some families are moving from their summer grazing grounds to autumn ones due to lack of rain.
We leave at 8:30 for a place called the Bagh Center, near Base Camp I, where the wedding is to be held. The day and hour of the wedding is determined by the lunar calendar in consultation with a lama. It depends on the time and year the bride and groom are born, choosing a day that is lucky for both. But if no compatible dates are found, a lama can be visited to solve the problem with prayers and a ceremony. Most weddings are held in August and September when there are plenty of dairy products for the celebration, herds are thriving, and most of summer’s hard work is done.
At 10, we spot the new ger—the home set up for the newlyweds by the groom’s parents. The verb “to marry” in Mongolian means “to get your own ger,” and this is central to the event being celebrated at the joining of bride and groom.
This ger is exceptionally beautiful, with a freshly painted orange and blue door, orange and blue radiation poles, and the latticework walls covered in silk printed in red and yellow roses, like the finest wallpaper. As we enter, we see the left side of the tent is filled with new furniture, beds painted in orange with concentric circle designs in blue, green, pink and red, and a similarly adorned altar and bureau. A new teakettle sits on the new stove. There are storage chests, mirrors, even a toothbrush stand already in the ger. But the right hand side is empty. It awaits the bride’s furniture—sewing machine, bedding, more mirrors. They’ll come with the bride—who the groom has gone to fetch from her family’s ger 20 km away. It turns out they were our neighbors at Base Camp I!
The wedding’s auspicious hour was set at 11, but the bride is late. Meanwhile we admire the two-foot towers of food: mountains of petrified cheese, piles of friend bread dough, topped with a pile of candy in bright wrappers. Each is the equivalent of wedding cake. And there is plenty of time to notice that yet again, I have been seated next to a pile of animal parts. This time it’s a whole roasted sheep, complete with its head, including horns, teeth and eyeballs. Both bride and groom, we learn, were born in the “Year of the Sheep” so the head is particularly apt.
At 12:35 the bride arrives. We spot on the horizon three jeeps trailing dust. And out of each, like a magic trick, come an incredible number of people and furniture and song. The heart of the wedding party is first disgorged: the mother of the bride—who slings ladles of milk in all directions to bless Mother Earth and Father Sky. Beds, carpets and mattresses are taken from the roof of the jeep and thoughtfully arranged on the bride’s side of the ger, along with a handsome orange chest and a red wall hanging.
Guests are arriving, too. Men in rich dark dels with wide sashes of gold and green, or with leather belts studded with silver; ladies in their loveliest silks. The bride is resplendent in her blue del and cowboy hat. She is not a young bride. When I ask her age, people reply discreetly “over 20.” She and the groom have already had a 7 or 8 year old daughter together, who is breathtakingly pretty, her hair in pigtails tied with red bows.
We leave the party to their celebration. The bride must light the first fire in the new stove and serve her first tea. When everyone seems settled, we are invited into the ger. Somehow more than 50 people are crammed in here, and we are promptly handed what looks like a bowl of water. It is actually vodka, poured from a kerosene can, made from fermented goat’s milk. It comes with a mutton-scented coaster: a 100 Tugrik bill. We notice one wedding “cake” now is piled with money, and the other adorned with jelly beans.
I have now managed to acquire a seat worse than the one by the meat. Now I am by the stove, which has been lit, and as the old men begin to sing the traditional “long” songs, which sound remarkably Navaho, the ger is heating up. For some reason the door is closed, and people begin to pass a rag with which to wipe sweaty faces.
Every kind of hospitality is extended to the wedding guests, including the one I love best: the snuff bottle. You don’t have to snort it, only sniff it, and it’s a lovely spicy smell which briefly overrides the smell of meat, sweat and vodka. Then you pass it on. A parade of culinary specialties follows: the sheep’s head, and now people are eating slices of its face; hot milk tea; and bowls of potato salad. I wonder about the vintage of the mayonnaise and its travels in the desert. It looks delicious but Nic and I give it a miss.
Bayara discovers that none of the guests here are SLE members, but many of them say they know the 15 families from the area that are. One man generously gives directions to some of their homes, most of which, he tells us, are 50 k away from camp. If that’s true, we’ll have to move the ger. Happily, we notice the man was drunk and double-checking his information we discover he was in error. But we are so glad we came!