For decades, I have hoped to one day travel to Inner Mongolia. Finally, now it was time for it, together with Chinese nature photographers Li Yuliang and Wu Ying. Mr Li has spent a lot of time up here over the last 7 years and has gotten to know both people, locations and wildlife here very well. He very graciously took me and Wu along to his favourite spots, to unheard-of nature reserves and wild natural areas in the arid semi-deserts, on the dry steppes and in the vast green grasslands. This road trip along roads less travelled, revealed to us that Inner Mongolia is a truly stunning place, some really ”Big Sky Country”, with hills, mountains and high sand dunes frequently consisting the horizon line, when it is not table-flat for dozens of kilometres.
It also has a really distinctive Mongolian cultural flavour, which is very visible everywhere where there are people. Round, classic Yurt tents and houses are mostly white with elegant painted markings in blue, meander lines or stylized ram’s head patterns. But people are pretty few and far between up here, Inner Mongolia is a very sparsely populated place, and thanks also to the Mongolian cultural attitudes toward wildlife, there is lots of room also for birds and other wildlife. And the birdlife is teeming, it is fascinating to realise that these quite dry landscapes can be home to so many and so diverse wild creatures, from cute small Mongolian desert jumping mice that are called jerboas, over amazingly tame desert hares to the tall and majestic white-naped, demoiselle and red-crowned cranes, Siberian roe deer and impressive steppe eagles. Migrating birds are everywhere on their way up north, and the breeding birds are all brooding their eggs or tending their freshly hatched chicks. Springflowers are blooming after the latest rains, quickly before the summer heat sets in and parches everything dry.
We follow the dirt roads far away from the well-kept main highways, into havens of natural beauty. Sheep, cattle, horses are almost always visible, every now and then also their owners. This whole landscape has been created by the heavy grazing pressure from millions of grazing animals, since the Ice age. Once there were only wild species grazing here, but then when mankind here started using domestic animals, the wild animals were rapidly exchanged for goats, sheep, cattle and horses. We even pass a group of domestic Bactrian two-humped camels. Ecologically, the heavy grazing of wild and domestic animals has had the same effect – to create a landscape where the grazers turn the grass into fertilizer for coming plant periods, and to the gain for a myriad of insect life, which in its turn feeds a lot of insect-eating bird species. People also use the cattle droppings, as firewood, a good alternative in a tree-less landscape, where temperatures frequently sink to below minus 30 during wintertime. Very practical too, you don’t even need to saw up or chop the wood, the units are already packed in pieces of suitable size for the fireplace. The dried fire-dung are kept in neatly stacked piles beside the houses, ready for use.
In the rolling grasslands of Bai Yin Aobao National Nature Reserve we visit 64-year old pre-school teacher Qi Qi Be who tends her daughter’s 100 sheep here over the summer, herself living in a classic Yurt tent. It is very cosy inside! Other herdsmen ride by, either on horseback or by motorbike.
Mr. Li’s favourite spot here is a remote desert wetland in a location that he wants us to keep secret, as not to have it completely crowded or disturbed – both for the sake of local wildlife and local people. It is fascinating to see how there in the middle of a really sandy and dusty semi-desert can exist a lush green wetland, with birds by the thousands, from 60-70 species, some of them very rare and endangered, like the white-naped crane, or the relict gull, which both breed only in a very few steppe locations in China, and in nearby Russia and Mongolia. Lapwings, plovers, bitterns, herons, egrets, sandpipers, ducks, geese and terns all frequent the wetlands, and specialised desert birds like the Pallas’s sandgrouse come in to drink every day. The smaller, but very elegant demoiselle crane breeds in good numbers, preferring the grasslands, just like the huge great bustards, as well as smaller birds like larks, wagtails, pipits, wheatears, hoopoes, buntings and the ever-present Amur falcons.
Here we visited two local herder’s families, the Mandu family and the Ge Ri Li Ao De family.
Like most other herdsmen’s houses they had a satellite receiver disk outside, solar panels, a wind generator, motorbike, and all of them use smartphones. We drink traditional Mongol milk and butter tea and talk about the cranes breeding success this year, thanks to a new fence to protect the grasslands to be flattened by vehicles, that has also kept the motorized egg-raiding strangers away. Mr Li was a co-sponsor for that fence and he was delighted to see that it seemed to have worked out well. The best evidence of that success was the great number of crane chicks, goslings and ducklings now present in the lake and the wetlands surrounding it.
The weather is also dramatic here. For three days the winds are really hard and bring a lot of dust and sand around, which is really difficult for the camera gear. Next, two days of pouring rain and again hard wind, that made the jeep track in the bush very muddy, totally slippery and just about impassable. Just as we thought it couldn’t get much worse, it could. A huge sand storm front rolled slowly in over us, like a dark grey-red-brown curtain being pulled across the whole panorama and in over us. Almost a bit spooky, the several hundred metres high bank of reddish desert sand was almost eerily silent and as it rolled in, day went into night and it got dark. Visibility was down to five metres and even though we quickly took shelter indoors, we could still both smell and taste the sandstorm dust cloud. 20 minutes later it was over and skies clear again, with the milky way clear to see and the sky all full of stars. At ground level, everything out in the open was now covered with a delicate layer of fine, fine dust. So even inside, in our rooms, everything had this thin powder layer of sandy dust on top.
Staffan Widstrand/Wild Wonders of China