Biosphere Altai Expedition 2007 – 2. Juli - 17. August
This is the first entry for the 2007 expedition to Altai. Yesterday, I travelled to Germany from Scotland, meeting with Matthias (Biosphere Expeditions' director) in England. We spent today, packing all sorts of things. GPS and binoculars, mist nets for catching birds which will allow us to identify many birds we have probably not even seen before. Jackets for the Russian staff as it will almost certainly snow on occasion during the expedition; it's usually lovely summer weather but we all need to be properly equipped - sunscreen and waterproofs, hot and cold, sunshine and snow - you name it!We have also been sorting out paperwork as the Russian authorities are very particular about that. Tomorrow, we both fly to Moscow and then on to Novosibirsk to prepare the vehicles and supplies for those of you joining us for the first slot. I very much look forward to meeting you, both first timers and old hands so we can do some great research work and see some amazing sights.Can't wait..
Expedition leader (Biosphere Expeditions)
3 July - Moscow
At Moscow's Shermetyevo airport, Matthias and I got the free transfer bus to the other terminal for our domestic flight to Novosibirsk. There are lots of taxi drivers offering "special rates" for the transfer, special for them that is, but if you go just outside the arrivals hall you will find the free "avtobus transfer".
The Moscow - Novosibirsk flight passed very uneventfully in our somewhat comatosed sleep-deprived state and the renovated airport made baggage claim a delight compared to the stampede and crush that was baggage claim of old.
We were met at the airport by Tim; for the second time in barely ten minutes, I was again delighted, this time because his English was very good, which is really lucky as he is our interpreter for the expedition!
4 July - Novosibirsk
Spent all day at the Land Rover dealer in Novosibirsk, where all four of our vehicles were there waiting for us; two brand new Discoverys and two almost new Defenders - yes, you guessed it, I was delighted.Spent ages going through the mountain of paperwork making sure everyone has authorisation and insurance to drive the vehicles, that they are properly registered, "MOTed" and that they are free from defects - it's all looking good. All of the vehicles have CD players and as we have a 1000 km drive to base camp near the Mongolian border, it might be an idea to take a few CDs so that you can embarrass yourself with your choice of music! Matthias is into opera, but luckily does not have any CDs with him, as I can't stand the screeching. So do please bring some CDs of your own. Having said that, there's no real need as I've got my Mongolian throat singing CD that we can play the whole way there to get us in the groove ;-)))
22 July Novosibirsk - Anoz
The 500 km drive took us about 8 hours, during which time we saw three crashes including a fatality; the drivers here are nuts.
23 July Anoz - basecamp
We got to the office in Gorno Altaisk just before it opened; the registration process took a while, so it was almost 11.00 before we left. We then had to get to Aktash before 1700 to obtain permissions to operate in various areas from another office there; we got there at 1630 but still did not get the permissions - Tim will have to go back to get them tomorrow, Russian bureaucracy is a wondrous thing.
Packed up the vehicles with tents, food and excitement and headed off to Irbestu's Snow Leopard Valley for Biosphere's first survey into uncharted territory. Stopped for lunch on the way near Ortelek by a small river where James spotted a cuckoo with what I'm sure was a cheese and onion wotsit in its beak; others thought it was a worm or grub - what do they know. With Peter at the wheel, we crossed the Kosh Agash steppe, which was very different from basecamp steppe - very stony and seemingly endless.SnowLeopardValley's entrance was beautiful with lush green vegetation by the river and high cliffs either side. Just as we were arriving at our camp site, we saw 14 ibex on the cliffs, quite a welcome! We set up our tents whilst two rare lammergeyer vultures soared on the crags high above and three herders rode in on their horses with tales of snow leopard tracks seen in the winter.
After breakfast off a perfectly polished beautiful rock by the river, we split into two groups. Volodya with James, Martin, Peter, Christine, Alan and Guido headed up Tyesta (3861m) whilst Gerald, Tim and myself drove further up the Irbestu river (literally!) in the Defender. Guido spotted ibex on a ridge a little further up the valley from where Gerald, Tim and myself were. I've no idea how he saw them, they must have been 4 km from where he was! Having told us about them on the radio, we set off to investigate. We got to the cliffs and gave them a thorough check, Gerald on the telescope and me with my binoculars, but to no avail, they were gone.
Further along the valley, we met a herder Victor; he had been totally alone, living in a small log cabin with only his dog for company for a month. He should have been relieved by his boss long before and wondered if he'd been forgotten about; it was his birthday the next day so I gave him my bar of chocolate. We talked to him about wildlife and he said he'd seen a group of ibex cross the valley 30 min earlier - must have been the ones Guido saw.
Further up the river, we headed south west up a side valley as far as the Defender would take us - a long way. A half hour walk took us past a mixed group of sarlik (cow yak cross) and horses to glaciers and then back down along a small valley.filled with white-winged redstart and Mongolian finch.
Unfortunately, due to the poor weather, Volodya's group had to abandon their survey.
29 July - "Day off"
Woke up to a monsoon! Our small stream by base camp had transformed into a raging torrent that was dragging boulders along with it, grinding and cracking. Venturing out for a walk or sightseeing did not appeal (!).
However, on showing Christine (our botanist from Cambridge University) photos of a yellow flowered plant, she got very excited and had us at the site by the Buguzon river (which was surprisingly a bit lower than usual) in no time at all. The plant was still in flower and Christine identified it as a lousewort - much more beautiful than its name suggests. We spent some time by the river watching birds before lunch. Among the many birds we saw were six rough-legged buzzards, which should only be in our area in the winter; good bit of new information.
In the afternoon the risk of drowning when venturing out had reduced a little so a few brave souls went to have a look at some 7th century Turcic stone circles, carved stelae and burial tombs; there are a surprising number of these around and they add a whole other fascinating dimension to this lovely area.
Low cloud and rain this morning so we shelved our plans for the overnight trip to Tapduair, instead deciding to survey birds in the lakes on the steppe. On arrival at the Buguzon river that we had to cross, we were confronted by a raging torrent so took a detour to Kokorea where there is a bridge. Two new species for the expedition were white-winged tern that Christine saw and spoonbill that Guido spotted. On the lake we normally survey, the pair of Slavonian grebes that I had seen two weeks ago with tiny black and white chicks were now accompanied by juveniles that were in beautiful plumage like their parents; rusty ochre and black with a piercing red eye and yellow stripe on the head. After the birds, we headed to Marat's Isle; Marat is a local hunter/herder with whom last year's expedition leader, Tessa, went exploring/surveying on horseback for four days; an isle is a wooden version of a yurt built form round logs. We had planned to do our standard interview about snow leopards and their prey etc. but the conversation wandered off into many interesting directions over tea, bread and cheese in the course of an hour, actually two hours, or was it three??
31 July - Overnight trip to Tapduair
Weather glorious today, so packed the vehicles with tents and a big box of food and headed off for Tapduair. On arrival, we set up our tents; Volodya and Gerald headed off for one ridge, everyone else headed for another.
Straight away we were finding lots of sign of animals, carnivore scat, argali tracks and more. Eagle eyed Alan spotted a fox running across the hill and out of sight. I set off to look for it and almost immediately, was confronted by two argali fewer than 150 m away. I looked at them, they looked at me; eventually, they ran off and the fox re-appeared, not a bad start to the day! We worked our way up Tapduair's south-east ridge line abreast, covering a huge amount of ground and finding a huge amount of sign: tracks, scat and resting depressions of both argali and ibex, a mountain hare ran off in front of us leaving its footprints in a patch of snow. The last saddle on the ridge at around 3200 m was a veritable motorway for ibex and argali, their tracks everywhere. Looking west across the valley with three turquoise glacial lakes, we could see Volodya and Gerald, little black specks on the bright white snow; I hope that when I'm 77 I can make it to 3300 m like Gerald - amazing! The last part of the ridge was more exposed with a steep scree slope to the west and a broken rocky cliff to the east (and a lammergeier vulture above). The way to the top was blocked by hanging glaciers, but we reached the summit 'plateau' at 3450 m (50 m below the summit) and had fantastic views all around of our core area, Chicachova mountain range on the Mongolian border and just about everywhere else too it seemed.
Having photographed ourselves and the views from every conceivable angle, we started to carefully pick our way back down. From about 3100 m on the ridge, Guido had a very tantalising sighting of an animal, the observation conditions were poor and it was a long way away so he was not at all sure what he had seen, something like wolf or snow leopard! We can't be sure, but it's a great result and certainly made for a very exciting day out!
1 August - Tapduair to basecamp
After the exertions of yesterday, we split into three groups and did short survey walks, again finding much sign of the snow leopards main prey species - ibex and argali. My mission for the day was to identify which species of snipe was in the area - there are four possible species and they all look pretty much identical, so I took lots of photos of them and will study them later, watch this space. On the drive back to base camp, the skies were amazing: deep blue with bits of wispy cirrus clouds and cumulus clouds. After an age filling in datasheets for the last two days, we set about the feast that Nina had prepared for us; thought I was going to explode. Later, in the yurt we had a number (!) of bottles of Russian champagne fresh from our cooler (the stream) as we chatted into the night about our adventures, past and future.
2 August - basecamp to Anoz
The weather decided to give us a send off of blue skies and sunshine; it always makes it more of a wrench to leave, the hills looked wonderful.
3 August - Anoz to Novosibirsk
A long drive today, filled with diary writing..
Looking forward to meeting everyone on the third slot 20.00 Saturday in the entrance lobby of the Hotel Central before dinner together if you wish.
4 August - Novosibirsk
Met all the team members for the third slot at and then went for a fantastic Russian meal at Jelly Belly.
5 August - Novosibirsk to Anoz
Apart from myself falling asleep at the only junction on the 500 km drive and hence missing it (not driving at the time - only supposedly navigating!) we had an uneventful drive - just the way I like it.
6 August Anoz - Base
A familiar long drive through beautiful scenery, now with the addition of many people out cutting hay with scythes; great to see that industrialisation is not everywhere.
7 August- Base: Training Day
Did the off road driving course in which Jean Phillipe excelled having done a lot of driving in muddy conditions already. Also went over the use of GPS, map and compass and radios.
8 August - Argali hills and overnight camp to the back valleys
Decided to do the animal sign training 'on the job' so headed for the Argali hills by the back valleys. Working our way up a river, a boat might have been the natural choice for the journey, but our two Land Rover Defenders did a great job. Straight away on the survey Karen and Kevin found sign of argali and ibex as well as marmot, pika and other rodents. Unusually, the hills were gentle and rolling covered with a profusion of wild flowers indicating that grazing is not a problem here. Near the top Roman found a wonderfully clear and detailed fossil of a mollusc shell, later Katherine and I found brachiopods and marine mollusc - this at 2800 m in central Asia, about as far as it is possible to get from the sea on this planet.
9 August - Horseshoe ridge
After spending the night by a small stream underneath the horseshoe that was our objective for today, we had breakfast and set off. We climbed the ridge that got progressively steeper, rougher and more exposed. The views into the valley in the horseshoe where Volodya, Katherine, Karen and Kevin were wonderful with a turquoise glacial lake, hanging glaciers and rugged cliffs.
As we picked our way up the ridge, we found lots of sign of argali whilst in the valley, the other group found sign of ibex. At dips in our ridge, natural crossing points, there were very well worn animal trails with sign such as resting depressions and wool. Then, suddenly, after one well used crossing point, there was no more sign at all, we were now really high at around 3100 m. After a slow climb to the summit under a blue sky and hot sun we had our lunch and enjoyed being in what was instantly my favourite spot in the whole of Altai; I'm afraid my grasp of English is inadequate to describe how beautiful it was.
10 August - Travel to Irbestu
After the rigours of yesterday and getting back late, we hade a late breakfast, discussed and recorded all the findings of the previous day and then set off for Irbestu.By far the most important part of the day was stopping at Kosh Agash on the way for ice cream - everyone attended to their duties most diligently!The Kosh Agash steppe on the way to Irbestu was a far more colourful place than two weeks ago, the recent rains having tempted out a host of purple and yellow flowers. Rivers, mud, ruts, rocks and steep slopes entertained us and our Land Rovers all the way to our camp site at the head of a side valley at 2700 m. Arriving at , we set up our tents, had dinner and then went to sleep in preparation for the next day.
11 August - Irbestu
Split into three groups, we surveyed three different areas around the head of our valley. Christine and Katherine went with me and we headed for the high peaks and glaciers. Accessing the high ground via a narrow rocky ridge we found lots of sign of ibex as well as many beautiful crimson-winged finches. Climbing over rocks the whole way we reached the high point of our survey at 3450 m to be greeted by endless views. MountBelucha, covered with a thick rounded dome of ice, Altai's highest peak to the west, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan around the south and everywhere peaks, glaciers and turquoise jewels of glacial lakes.
Each mountain range that we survey is very different, each with its own geology and its own flora and fauna. One example in Irbestu was a bird that we were very lucky to see and had not seen in Altai before, a nightjar that very obligingly sat in front of us for a while before whipping off at speed in the strong mountain winds. Shortly before getting back to camp, we turned a corner to be met by a group of 12 ibex; we froze and were very privileged to be able to watch them causally wander off up the hill only 150 m away from us, a fantastic way to end the day.
12 August - Run Away!
Got woken up at around by very heavy rain, I had a look out of my tent and did not like the look of the weather, not only heavy but also set for the day. I decided it was time to leave before the rivers rose too high and impassible. Packed up quickly and left what were now snow covered mountains; we had no problems leaving the valley. Driving away across the steppe, Irbestu in the rear view mirror was hidden under a big black cloud.
13 August- Kamtytygem
A mountain area, west across the steppe from base camp, this area was first visited by Biosphere's Tessa and Roman last year when Tessa found a snow leopard scrape. Splitting into three groups, Katherine and myself headed up a very steep slope to access the ridge above. Having just passed the peak we got to a small crag at the bottom of which I noticed a skull and horns - ibex, these were very big horns and counting the ridges on the back of the horns the animal must have been about 11 years old when it died, perhaps a month before. There was a very strong smell by the horns, Katherine thought it smelt like her cat...The only predators likely to kill such an animal are wolves, snow leopard and humans. Wolves normally defecate by their kill; we had a good look around but could see no such scat. Teeth marks on the skull can give clues to the identity of the killer, but the only clear marks were those of rodents gnawing the skull after the predator had finished its meal. A very intriguing find that may with further investigation conclusively identify the predator but for the moment is uncertain.
Revived by the excitement of our find, we headed off and straight away bumped into a group of about 20 Altai snowcock, an endemic bird species that are almost turkey sized. One of the birds displayed its tail feathers, spread out fan shaped it looked fantastic. Reaching the valley floor, we saw dipper in the stream, a new species for the expedition, lammergeyer vulture and lots of very bold Northern pika squeaking at us from the rocky slopes as we passed by.
14 August- Arzhan Buguzon sacred springs
As all our work this slot has been surveying in the mountains looking for animals and their sign, we decided to do some interviews today, this being important to get information on animals and also to gauge local opinions on wildlife and conservation. Arzhan Buguzon Sacred Springs is a holy place where locals go for a few days at a time to benefit from the healing springs there, to appreciate nature and to socialise, as such it was the perfect place for us to go and talk to lots of people about wildlife. One slight flaw in our plan was failing to appreciate that hay making activities would occupy the time of many people at this time of year; when I say many, I mean every man and his dog, and his cat, budgie, hamster and favourite cactus named Cyril. There was no-one there, the place that is usually full of people was totally deserted. Plan B; have a walk, go home, have dinner and pretend it never happened.
15 August - Packing Up
Christine, Katherine, Kevin, Volodya and Roman went surveying on Kosholu, finding much fresh Ibex sign as well as a few fossils before a snow shower persuaded them back to the shelter of base camp. Karen helped me with the packing in our mess tent as a few bold ground squirrels helped themselves to tea bags and other goodies out of our bins - got some great photos. Jean Phillipe and Tim arrived with Gulinara and set about dismantling our yurt - very sad to see it come down as it has been great chatting and warming up around its stove. Took the yurt back to its owner in Tobeler where lots of black-eared kites were loitering, looking for something to eat. On the way back, we picked up Boutagoss, Gulinara's niece whose name apparently means 'baby camels eyes' - aptly named. Lisa had prepared some lovely food for our last night at base camp, after which we had some champagne around the best camp fire we've ever had and under a star filled inky black sky; what better way to end our time here.
16 August- Base to Anoz
Having packed our belongings and dismantled the tents, we breakfasted on cake and other goodies left over from the previous night's festivities before heading off from base camp fro the last time. The weather has definitely changed in the last couple of days and though the weather was lovely on our departure it felt like it could change at any moment. The leaves on the dwarf birch are starting to turn brown, hay making will end soon and yurts are being taken off the steppe, even during the long drive to Anoz, all the road works that had been an inconvenience for the last six weeks, were now all completed in preparation for the winter.
17 August - Anoz to Novosibirsk
Set off from Anoz in heavy rain that soon became torrential; everyone glad that we were not out on top of a mountain surveying.Stopping at the honey market, we had piroshkies and delicious cherry bleenies for one last time.
Loaded with all kinds of honey we set off again.
This concludes this year's expedition and I would like to say a big thank you to everyone involved. All this is only possible through your commitment and enthusiasm and I think we should all be proud of what has been achieved.