It was more rain until Saturday (23 June), when there was not a single cloud in the sky. Jenny decided to head upriver, towards Kunduyak glacier, hoping to place some of our camera traps. It was hard going from the start across loose scree. Initial scans revealed only more marmots and a very exciting flyover by a lammergeier. We then had lunch at the conjunction of two rivers, surrounded by some beautiful golden flowers when we spotted three magnificent ibex, all males, sporting a very long set of curvy horns. The rest of the herd appeared soon after and we counted 17 of them. We set our camera trap and headed back. At base dinner and beer chilled by the glacier never tasted better.
The next day (24 June) we went for a scouting drive of Sailugyem and Chikacheva range. We parked the Land Rovers on one of the ridges and took a walk to nearby lakes, still filled with blue ice. We found ibex footprints all around and spotted some very agitated shell ducks and young imperial eagles. But the best was yet to come. On the way back to camp, we noticed some shapes running across the steppe and shortly afterwe realised that they were wolves! We followed in the cars at a respectful distance and were very pleased to see them disappear into the forest next to base camp. New neighbours! When the other neighbours (camels) came by for a visit later, eagle-eyed Debra spotted a lone wolf standing nearby, watching the camels intently. We were hoping for wolf howls in the night, but it was all quiet on the Altaian front.
On Monday (25 June) we split the group. Some of us went into the next valley to survey and set camera traps and others climbed under a beating sun to survey high ridges. We took it easy on Tuesday (26 June) as many of us were very tired and went to a nearby lake for some great birdwatching and spotting YAKs, our abbreviation for “yet another kite”.
For the rest of the week, the group then split into an overnight team and a stay-at-home team, with the overnighters returning to camp with tales of abundant prey, particularly ibex, but no snow leopard sign so far.
Jenny and Oleg started the long drive back while Nina and I stay back at base. On the way Jenny met up with Mikhail Paltsyn of WWF Russia to co-ordinate further our work. Over the next two months Mikhail wants us to cover quite a few areas, so we will have our work cut out! More from Jenny when you get here, eventually.
Thank you group 1 for all the hard work. Safe travels group 2 and see you at base on Tuesday!
The view from my “front door” here at base camp is beautiful.
The weather isn’t playing along, however, with a lot of rain in the last 24 hours, the snow line moving to within a few hundred metres of base and the temperature dropping to 8 C. But this can change at a moment’s notice here in the mountains, so we are ever hopeful and besides it gives the English on the expedition lots to talk about 😉
Nina’s hot porridge in the morning warmed us up. We got stuck into more training with Jenny introducing us to her datasheets, camera traps, GPS, navigation, etc.
We tested out the camera traps on some unsupecting marmotian neighbours and the results are as enouraging as they are entertaining.
The clouds only lifted briefly in the afternoon to allow us a short drive into the neighbouring valley to get our bearings.
Word from the neighbours (herders in their yurt stations some good miles further down the valley) is still about a couple of snow leopards on Sailugyem ridge right on our doorstep. It’s enouraging to see them come over and tell us about the sighting and it’s a good sign of the trust that has been established over the years. Well done everyone over the last eight!
With that piece of news, Jenny’s plan for the moment is to concentrate on Sailugyem for the first group, as well as scout out difficult and inaccessible Chicachova ridge with a few hardcore volunteers. That plan might change at any minute though, depending on the weather, permits, leakiness of the tents, fuel supplies, whether Jenny gets hot porridge in the morning, or a million other things. By the time you read this, the plan has probably changed. Welcome to expedition life!
After the negotiating the jungle of Russian paperwork (which seems to get more farcical each year – don’t ask – just be prepared for long waits and the plan changing frequently) to get our permits, we’ve finally left that part of “civilisation” behind and arrived very late and very tired at our tranquil base camp in the middle of the Altai mountains, close to the Mongolian border. After the long drives and the bureaucratic frustrations of the last two days, being right in the middle of nature in the mountainous land of the snow leopard is a welcome relief.
This morning we’ll kick into action with our training and orientation sessions and the most important person of the expedition, our cook Nina, can start to work her magic to replenish our energy levels. Very few visitors get to this corner of the world. Getting here was an adventure already, often for reasons that we would have preferred to circumnavigate, but we’ve made it, we’re here and now the adventure for all the right reasons is about to begin…
With everyone in the right place at the right time for the expedition’s assembly, our convoy of Land Rovers started slowly snaking its way into the land of the snow leopard. Although well east of the Ural mountains, and therefore firmly inside Asia, Novosibirsk feels decidedly European. Caucasian faces dominate and so does European architecture and culture. On the 1000 km drive to the Altai, we pass through flat landscapes with cities and huge fields on day one, before crossing the border to the Altai and into some hills towards the end of the day. It still feels like Europe. Last night we spent at a half-way camp for a first taste of the tent camp life that awaits in the Altai. It’s been raining a lot in the hills and mountains for the last few days, so after the dust of the road, we mostly stuck to the mess tent.
Today we will drive deeper into the mountains, via three passes, leaving a bit more of Europe behind on each one. By the time we’ve crossed the third path, horses, Asian faces and strange non-Cyrillic script will make it feel like we’ve truly left Europe behind us and have arrived in Asia.
At the moment, however, we are still waiting for our permits, before we can drive off. Rumour has it that someone in the office in Gorno Altaisk where we are usually issued our permits was sacked a few days ago, so they simply shut up shop and we were faced with rolled-down shutters. After nine years of running this expedition you would have thought it is plain sailing. But bureaucracy here is ever resourceful in making things difficult. So you just have to be flexible and go with the flow, otherwise you’d just get an ulcer 😉 Being flexible in this case will mean a luxurious lie-in for the team in their camp beds and some animal ID, navigation, safety and other training sessions at our half-way point until the permit issue is sorted. Stay tuned for updates on our progress, which will decrease in frequency now as we leave the internet, mobile phone coverage and other technical wizardry behind. Our connection to the outside world at base will be an (expensive non-broadband) satellite system, so please bear with us for the next update.
Following the unusually hot temperatures, everyone was praying for little bit of rain. Yesterday evening, Novosibirsk got more than it bargained for. It went very dark just after 15:00 and then the skies opened. Hail, torrential downpours, floods, thunder, you name it. Our friend Zenja assures me this is still the driest year on record. Hard to believe from the picture.
This morning was rather busy at the car park. Our Land Rovers attracted lot of attention from a group of New Zealanders driving their vintage MGs from Shanghai to London. I also managed to help out a couple of locals who left their lights on overnight, flattening their car battery. They turned out to be owners of one of the largest sauna enterprises in Gorno Altaisk and invited me and the whole group for bit of pampering.
Jenny kept sending excited text messages about how beautiful the campsite is and how lovely the Altai looks this year. Only two days to go!
Jenny, Oleg and young Zenja (our camp helper) left yesterday morning and headed over to Gorno Altaisk for the night, before continuing their journey to the mountains and base camp.
For me the mission yesterday was printing and laminating. It was quite a mountain of papers to go through, but friendly people in the copy shop did an excellent job and even gave me a generous discount. The only mistake I made was to walk across the main square, carrying a set off maps. Nothing wrong with that unless there is demonstration going on. Plain-clothed policemen stopped me and asked to see my documents. Lesson learnt, always carry a copy of your passport and visa on you!
Today my task was to update the medical kit. With all my local helpers on the way to the Altai, I had no choice but to go shopping on my own. Ordering things in English in a Russian pharmacy was close to Mission Imposible, but luckily, in pharmacy number four, I ran into Ivan who, educated in London, kindly helped me out.
I spent the rest of the day fitting roof racks to the Land Rovers, which was tricky for one person only. But once the job was done, and with three days to go, we’re starting to look like an expedition!
Jenny arrived at Novosibirsk early in the morning. I left her sleeping off the jetlag for most of the day and continued with the equipment inventory. Oleg showed up after lunch and we then headed over to our storeman Vladimir, where we collected the last of our gear and transferred everything over to the Azimut hotel. Finally, everything is now in one place.
One thing that Biosphere Expedition does is create scholarships and placements for local people wherever possible. The Altai expedition is no exception and we conducted interviews throughout the morning and finally settled on three winners: Ivan, Elena and Evgenia who will be with us for groups 3, 4 and 5 respectively; they all displayed great interest in conservation and biology, their English was good and their keenness inspiring. Welcome to the team.
After the past 34 C days, rain finally arrived and brought some relief to Novosibirsk. We went out for bit of walk and headed up to the main square, where a public concert was being held. After asking lots of people for days what this public holiday was for, we found out that it is “Russia Day”. Apparently it’s a brand new holiday Mr Putin awarded his fellow Russians for their votes. I think they were as baffled as we were.
We then carried on with our preparations, unpacking cars (see picture), Jenny pouring over Google Earth and me, as usual, playing with the equipment and Land Rovers. I think they too now have itchy wheels and cannot wait to hit the road for the mountains and fresh air.
It’s a hot, sunny day here in Novosibirsk today. Oleg and I are still in shopping and preparation mode and we are already looking forward to leaving this urban jungle (see picture) for the golden mountains of Altai! Anectodal news from the field is that snow leopards have been spotted on both Chikacheva and Talduair ridges earlier this year. Since Chikacheva is one of our traget areas, this is great news. Chikacheva is inaccessible and hard work for everyone (including us and poachers), which I guess is why snow leopards still cling on there!
Whilst I was fiddling with equipment in the hotel car park the day before yesterday, I was approached by two men in suits, asking me what I was doing. I don’t think they liked what they saw. Maps, binoculars, laptop, GPS units, short wave radios. I must admit it did look a little suspicious. They then radioed someone and before I knew what was happening, I had two large German shepards sniffing around. I had to open up the Land Rovers and storage boxes for them and when they were done, I was rudely told to pack up and produce all my documents. Luckily the hotel manager showed up and explained to me that the Russian PM is coming shortly to have a lunch in the hotel, hence the increased security. Dmitriy Medvedev then arrived ten minutes later and his entourage stayed for most of the day, preventing me doing anything at all. Russia 1 : Biosphere 0.
On that theme, all of Russia went nuts yesterday after beating the Czech Republich in their first EURO 2012 match. Celebrations lasted for most of the night. Being Czech originally myself, I kept a very low profile telling everyone I am from Australia, which is where I live now 😉
Oleg and I have done a lot of shopping and I have discovered completely new parts of Novosibirsk, further to East, city fringes dotted with megastores and supermarkets. Oleg insisted we had lunch in IKEA, which was a bit odd, but it seemed that’s what everyone else was doing. The store itself was empty, but the restaurant was literally besieged by hungry locals.