Lake Hovsgol, in Mongolia’s far north, is the little sister of Siberia’s Lake Baikal. Between them, the two lakes hold about 22% of the world’s fresh water, and if Hovsgol is now one of the prizes of Mongolia’s tourist economy, Baikal too is tied to the country; it was historically part of the territory of the Buryats, a Mongolian tribe, and takes its name from the Mongolian word Baigal, ‘nature.’
Both lakes are part of the Baikal Rift Zone, which is slowly pulling apart the Eurasian and the Amur Plates. The Baikal Rift Zone, one of only three continental rift zones on earth, probably had its genesis in the collision of India with Asia about 50 million years ago. Trending north-south in Siberia, the rift takes an abrupt turn and tapers out in a series of depressions to the west of Hovsgol. The most notable of these is the Darhad Valley, separated from Hovsgol by a wall of rugged mountains. To the south, the range bears the name Horidol Sardag. In 2001, I spent about two weeks in these mountains surveying for snow leopards, argali, and ibex. The terrain was stark, especially at high elevations, where there was little water and scant vegetation. In nine days on horseback, I saw no humans other than those I was with. We heard wolves at night, and I saw a single elk picking its way across a vast talus slope. Otherwise, there was nothing. Later, Mongolian and international scientists would conclude that the range no longer hosts snow leopards, and contains only a tiny, genetically bottlenecked population of argali. Ibex are doing okay in the Horidol Sardag, but their ultimate future is uncertain due to poaching.
North of the Horidol Sardag, the range pinches in near a town called Renchilhumbe, and then expands out again as the Bayan Nuruu, the Rich Mountains. North and west of the Darhad, the wild, deeply incised mountains twist around into a range called the Ulaan Taiga, the Red Taiga, which contains some of the highest peaks in the region. The mountains come full circle at Eliin Pass, south of the Darhad near a town called Ulaan Uul, fully enclosing the valley in a protective circle of stone.
In Jackson this spring, as Jason and I planned for our Mongolia expedition, we pored over google earth images and Jeff Copeland’s snow map and tried to locate areas that matched both the snow model and Jason’s search image for good wolverine habitat. The goal was to find a place where we could ride into the mountains, talk to people we met en route, assess the habitat, and maybe even cross wolverine tracks. Our initial choice was in the Ulaan Taiga, but when I arrived in Mongolia and started making inquiries about what it would take to get an expedition off the ground to the west of the Darhad, colleagues who worked in the region warned me that the area was experiencing a gold rush and that about 4000 ninjas – informal miners – were currently camped out in the river valleys of Ulaan Taiga, panning for gold and demonstrating a willingness to violently defend themselves; apparently two people had been murdered recently. The general lawlessness of a place with great potential wealth, a huge number of aspirants to that wealth, and absolutely no regulation, prevailed. Jason has a wife and two young children, and I have several uncompleted books that I’m hoping to finish writing: reasons enough for not risking our lives. I scratched Ulaan Taiga off the list of possible sites and we switched our focus to the Bayan Nuruu, east of the Darhad and west of the Lake. The Bayan Nuruu are equally high and, in Copeland’s snow model, occupy a stretch of territory that has deep spring snow for four years out of seven – good conditions for wolverines.
The question was, would we be able to get up there? Logistically, the trip was challenging- we would fly from Ulaanbaatar to Murun, the capital of Hovsgol Aimag, drive twelve hours in a questionable old Russian vehicle over questionable dirt roads from Murun to Renchilhumbe, and then ride several days to reach the high country where – we hoped – wolverines might be living. We had to bring a substantial amount of food from UB, and the rest from Murun. I’d also decided at the last minute to include Miki, our field assistant from our pika work earlier in the summer, on this trip as well. This meant an extra horse, extra food, and extra tickets to arrange. All of these arrangements had to occur over bad phone connections from UB. We were fortunate to have the assistance of a friend who was from Renchilhumbe, but it still seemed like a huge gamble. What if we got to the airport in Murun and no one was there to pick us up? Or what if we got to Renchilhumbe and there were no horses? Or what if we got up into the mountains and there were no wolverines? The permutations of possible disaster seemed endless, but Jason’s and Miki’s enthusiasm for the trip were inspiring, and by the time we all got on the plane in UB, the general atmosphere was of excitement.