Apologies for the silence on the expedition (and the lack of videos and pictures for this one), but our technical department has been playing up. Our BGAN satellite internet connection is out of action, so until it is fixed, there will only be one or two updates per group – we are in the back of beyond after all. Photos and videos are also playing up, so just text for this one.
Trailblazing group 1 arrived on Monday (9 June) after their long drive to base to a sandwich lunch, pitch tents, and an introductions followed by a briefing session. The weather was mixed that day, but our Tuesday science, equipment, driving and datasheet training day was blessed with sunshine, so much of the training took place outside.
We started surveying on Wednesday. This trailblazing group’s job is to get to know the herder neighbours, the geography, valleys, passes and of course the wildlife on the way. Together with Volodya and the Grupa Bars we have visited about a dozens herder yurts so far to introduce ourselves and the project. At the moment it’s just getting to know people and their knowledge of the land, not structured interviews about snow leopards.
The same goes for exploring the range’s valleys to the east and west of base. Over the past week or so we have radiated out to many of them to ascertain accessibility, snow cover, the terrain and of course the wildlife. We have seen ibex and marmots, badgers and foxes, pikas and voles, birds and reptiles, and have found sign of wolves. No snow leopard sign so far, but it’s early days and the buggers are elusive.
Highlights include a day of six yurt visits, encounters with grazing ibex on alpine meadows, (live) badgers on the road, playful marmots on the hills, soaring golden eagles and lammergeyers in the air. Compared to the Altai, it’s encouraging to note that the ibex seem unconcerned by our presence. In the Altai they would panic and run away – a good sign of heavy poaching activity. Here they are mindful, but just go about their business of grazing as usual.
We’ve also had our first overnighter when four intrepid expeditioners went on a two-day loop around the mountains in search of animals. They found spectacular, remote and human-free mountain scenery, raging rivers, ibex and an incredible run of two days of near perfect weather, but their luck ran out with the snow leopard. Once, at about 3700 m near the twisted icefall of a glacier and in its terminal moraine, they caught a whiff of cat urine, but even an intensive search did not reveal more – no scats, no scratch marks, no nothing. Just the tantalising smell of cat in the air.
Last Sunday (15 June) was our day off and the day that Matthias left us. Some people opted to stay at base to relax and enjoy the changing weather of wind, sleet, sunshine and streaks of cloud being driven across the sky. Others opted to go fur lunch at a yurt an hour or so down the road. It’s our way of building relations, putting some money into the local economy and spreading the word about our work. It turned out to be a marathon lunch and the weather was not conducive to going riding. Next time we’ll try for more riding and less time in a yurt in front of heaps of food 😉