A trip to Hustai National Park, home of the Mongolian wild horse

I am catching up on some writing I didn’t have a chance to do in the Fall. Teaching four new courses is a heavy load, and I was also studying Mongolian and working on a research project. I’ve decided to take this week to do a bunch of writing, because I know I will forget if I don’t do it soon.

Emma and I were able to take a couple of weekend trips in October, before the winter weather really set in, during her fall break. She had a whole week off (I didn’t), so I wanted to do something special for her as well. We were lucky to have two weekends in a row with warm-ish (50s Fahrenheit), sunny weather. I’m going to write about the second weekend first, because it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’ll follow with a couple more posts about our first overnight trip out of the city over the next few days.

But let me backtrack a bit. Right after we got to Mongolia in August, Emma started school. Her school has something called Ideals Week, where classes travel together in Mongolia for five days. The idea is to get out of the usual school environment, do some experiential learning, and give the classes a chance to get to know each other better. Emma’s seventh grade class went hiking in Hustai, also called Khustain-Nuruu, National Park. We were all excited, because that is the home of a herd of Przewalski’s horse or Mongolian wild horse, called takhi in Mongolian. We had seen these horses at the San Diego Safari Park in Escondido, California, which is one of the zoos that has been breeding them to return to the wild. So the chance to see them here, in their natural habitat, was alluring.

The Mongolian wild horse or takhi, named the Przewalski horse in 1881 after a Russian explorer and naturalist who first described the horse in a Western scientific context, was considered extinct in the wild. The horses that are alive today are descended from a small number of horses that were captured in 1945 and bred in captivity. The last wild takhi was seen in 1969. Breeding programs in various zoos and facilities around the world brought the horse back from extinction, and a few hundred of them have been reintroduced in Mongolia. Hustai has a herd of around 300, so we thought Emma stood a good chance of seeing some on her trip.

She saw one. A lone male. She also saw a few deer (red deer are common in Hustai), and quite a few raptors and other birds. And a lot of domestic cattle and horses. And she did a lot of hiking, more than she’s ever done in her life, which the kids seemed to see as a form of torture. (As a Swiss-American who was raised hiking, I feel extremely remiss that I haven’t managed to inculcate her with my own love of hiking, but people are different.) She was excited about the horse she saw, but we were both a little disappointed that she hadn’t seen more. I also wanted to go to Hustai, so it was near the top of my list when we had a chance to get away. It’s only about 100 km southwest of Ulaanbaatar, so an easy overnight trip. It would be an easy day trip, too, but I’d read that the best time to see the horses was early morning or evening, so best to stay overnight.

So, I contacted Buugii (pronounced “Buggy”), the woman who had been our tour guide the previous week, and asked her if she and her husband Jagaa would be available to take us to Hustai for the weekend. It was last minute, so I was afraid she’d be busy, but she replied that they could pick us up at MIU Saturday morning and bring us back on Sunday. It turns out they had been planning to take their kids out of town that weekend, so they decided to make it a family excursion, which was fine with us. Their kids are both a bit younger than Emma, but their daughter speaks some English and is interested in art, like Emma. Buugii and I thought they might get along well, and it would be a chance for them to spend time together. I was also happy that we could travel together. Emma and I had really enjoyed getting to know Buugii and Jagaa (who was the driver) on our tour of Terelj the previous weekend.

On our way out to Hustai, we stopped at a cluster of sand dunes where you turn off the main highway onto the road heading for the national park. They are the closest sand dunes to Ulaanbaatar, a reminder of just how arid this region is. We walked around the dunes and marveled at the rodent highways carved through the dried grass and sand. There was such a dense population of rodents that it seemed as though the very ground squeaked as we walked. I’m not sure what they were, some sort of vole. I never saw one, just the occasional swish of brown at the entrance of a tunnel. But I’ve never been somewhere where the earth was squeaking like that. I’d like to go back before we leave and record it. If possible, we’ll come back in the spring when things are green and blooming because the dried vegetation looked intriguing. As we were leaving, a raptor swooped overhead and circled back towards the dunes. We saw another raptor perched on a bush, watching us drive away.

We were going to stay in a ger just outside the park, because by the time I asked Buugii about the trip, the small ger camp inside the park was fully booked and nearby lodges had shut down for the season. It turned out this was one of the best parts of our stay. We were not staying in a tourist ger, which, for all their charm, are basically hotel rooms. We were basically taking over a couple’s home for the night. When we arrived, they served us a hot lunch in the ger, and we had chance to look at how people contain their entire lives into these small, mobile structures. I was astonished at how much could be packed in. My favorite discovery was the vacuum cleaner tucked beside one of the beds. (You can see it in one of the photos if you look closely enough; it’s gray and blue.) I also loved the sink—a half-bucket with a spigot hanging over a basin that drained to the outside. You hand-filled it from a large container of water by the door.

The ger had all the mod cons: refrigerator, freezer, microwave, corded telephone, hot plates for cooking, and, of course, a large flat screen TV, hooked up to a dish outside. The entire perimeter of the room was furniture or appliances, and a low table, stools, and stove occupied the center, alongside the supporting pillars holding up the roof. Everything was packed away in and under the furniture, except for family knickknacks and mementos. It reminded me a little of my own homes over the years, where I used space under and between furniture for storage. While we stayed there, the couple came and went, retrieving items from the chests and wardrobes, so I got to see a little more than just their colorfully-painted exteriors.

After lunch, we headed for the park. But first, we visited a breeding facility for the Mongolian dog, or Bankhar. Buugii had pointed it out to us while we were standing outside our ger. With Emma’s interest in dogs, I had to ask if we could visit. The place was on a hillside overlooking the road winding up to the park. It was turning out to be a clear but blustery afternoon, and the hillside felt very exposed. There were about 20 or so runs, each with a dog house, and one or two dogs per run. Buugii talked to a man there, who explained that the dogs were being bred, and the resulting pups were shipped to nomadic herders all over Mongolia. It was part of an effort to preserve the dog breed, which has been an important part of Mongolian nomadic life for hundreds of years, protecting livestock from wolves, snow leopards, and other predators. They are one of the oldest dog breeds, but starting in the Soviet era they had been interbred with other breeds, particularly German shepherds, making them less suitable as herd dogs. This facility was part of an effort to return the breed to its former place in nomadic life.

Looking at the dogs, I suddenly understood the statues at the major crossroads near MIU, which Emma and I had christened “polar bear dogs,” because they were clearly dogs but resembled bears. They were Bankhar, guarding the entrance to the city. The living dogs before us were massive, with thick, shaggy black and brown pelts, and distinctive brown markings over their eyes. They clearly could handle the Mongolian winters. They were also loud. It was hard not to recoil from their intense barking. But they were friendly, too, coming up to us and wagging their woolly, up-curled tails. We felt bad for their enclosed existence, and hoped they had a chance to run around outside their cages every once in a while.

When the barking became too much for us, we headed for the national park. We stopped at the park headquarters/visitor center just inside the gate first, to see the museum and then watch a short film about the park in the restaurant. Since 2003, the park has been run by a non-governmental organization called the Hustai National Trust, by the authorization of Mongolia’s Ministry for Nature and Environment. They manage the park, guest facilities, and visitor center, and established the small museum that explains about the preservation of the wild horse, as well as other wildlife in the park. The park was founded ten years earlier in an agreement forged by the Mongolian Association for the Conservation of Nature and Environment (MACNE), the Foundation Reserves for the Pzewalski Horse (FRPH), the Governor of the Central Aimag (province), and representatives from Altanbulag, Bayankhangai and Argalant Sums (districts), which had owned the land the national park is located on. You can read more about the founding of the National Park and the Hustai National Trust on the Netherlands-based Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Pzewalski Horse’s website.

The park was established to give existing wild horses, which had been kept in captivity, a place to roam freely, and to restore a healthy, wild, breeding population of the breed. Takhi have been reintroduced in two other areas in Mongolia as well, Takhin Tal Nature Reserve, in a corner of the Great Gobi-B protected area, and Khomiin Tal. Hustai is closest to Ulaanbaatar, and its herd grew as large as 350 horses, though now it is down to around 300 because of last year’s harsh winter. Buugii had explained to us that the park was closed to domestic horses to prevent interbreeding with the takhi, and also to other livestock to protect the pasture for the benefit of the herd and other wildlife. This was reinforced by the museum and the film. Herders and their livestock were kept out of the park so that the takhi were free to flourish in their natural habitat.

One of the challenges had been preserving the genetic heritage of the breed with so few horses remaining in captivity. The museum explained a bit about the breeding program that had keep the takhi going even with their extinction in the wild. Every takhi in the world is descended from a handful of horses. After World War II, which saw one herd in Ukraine shot by German soldiers, all the remaining takhi were in Munich and Prague. Because of inbreeding within these herds, many foals were born unhealthy or malformed. The Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse, founded in the Netherlands in 1977, began a program of interbreeding between captive horses to increase the genetic diversity. The horses Emma and I saw at the San Diego Safari Park no doubt contributed to this program.

After learning a bit about the park and the horses, we were ready to try to find some. I did not have high hopes, after Emma’s experience in August. The first horses we saw were clearly a domestic herd, just inside the gates to the preserve. Establishing a buffer zone around the park was part of the park arrangement to accommodate approximately 300 families that live in the area and make their living from their livestock, so there are livestock herds in the area, even though they try to keep the wild horses away from domestic horses.

Hustai National Park follows the American model of national parks championed by Teddy Roosevelt in the US and overseas, in which nature is protected by removing people and domesticated animals from the land. The core of the park is protected from human encroachment, except for tourists and researchers, so that the wildlife can have free reign. This approach to wildlife preservation can be problematic because it doesn’t consider how landscapes and ecosystems are products of generations of interaction between wildlife, vegetation, and, if they happen to live there, human beings and their livestock. One excellent example of this that I teach about in my environment courses is the Serengeti in East Africa, a savannah that developed over thousands of years with humans and their livestock as part of it. The excellent documentary A Place without People, directed by Andreas Apostolidis, shows how removing the Maasai and their cattle from their territory changed the “natural” environment and made it less hospitable to the wildlife living there and migrating through by reducing the vegetation they rely on for sustenance. Further, because of the national park, the Serengeti became a major tourist destination, and the tourism is destroying the environment far more than the Maasai ever did. The result is an environment that may not be able to sustain the very animals that the tourists flock there to see.

Hopefully Hustai can avoid this fate. It is also a delicate area, and I was wondering how an increase in tourism would affect it. Further, removing people and their livestock from the land could have unintended consequences. The impact of herding on Mongolia’s grasslands was minimal for generations, though livestock management changed considerably both during the Soviet era and with the rise of capitalism since the 1990s. In her article “Living off the Land: Nature and Nomadism in Mongolia” (an academic article most likely behind a paywall), geographer Caroline Upton explains how Mongolian herders are at odds with the imported western conservation model because wild animals and livestock were coexisting for years, and people had taken care of the environment themselves without official protection. The intensification of livestock production under capitalism has resulted in pasture degradation (with serious consequences I will write about in another post). But the more local people are involved in conservation projects and their ideas of conservation are included, the more likely these projects are to succeed, which is one of the reasons why the Hustai National Trust has incorporated the local people in the buffer zone into park planning and activities.

As we drove further into the park, it didn’t take long to spot our first wild horses. On a hillside across a gully we spotted what turned out to be three mares with their foals from last spring. We got out of the van to get a closer look. One of the mares was coming up from having a drink down at the stream, and as we walked in their direction, she stopped and watched us. Then she returned to her foal, who began nursing. The horses were the same dun color as the hillside, but they stood out clearly because we were seeing their shadowed side. We watched as all six horses walked over the crest of the hill, grazing as they went, occasionally looking back towards us until we turned and went back to the van.

For me, that would have been enough, and I would have called the day a success. But a few minutes down the road, we saw a lone horse, likely a stallion, run across the road. Then we spotted a cluster of red deer stags on a hillside and decided to get out again to take a closer look. We picked our way carefully across a hillside that was littered with marmot holes; I joked that we were crossing Marmot Metropolis, but we didn’t see any marmots. Then we heard a howling sound. Buugii said, “It’s wolves!” and it did sound like it (there are wolves in Hustai), but it turned out to be another group of stags further away. The stags we were watching started standing up as we got closer, keeping a wary eye on us. There were ten in all, some of them materializing out of the bushes as their comrades reacted to our presence. They began walking up the hill away from us, slowly, looking back at us, walking on, and looking back again.

I turned to look back down the hillside and saw a single horse making its way in our direction from the next hill. We decided to walk parallel to the road to see if there were more horses. As we cut across the gully separating the two hills, I looked back up towards the stags in time to catch them walking in a line along the crest of the hill, their antlers standing out against the brilliant blue sky. Then we heard swishing and snorting. A small herd of horses was peeking over the side of the hill at us. They were clearly used to having people around. They looked at us with mild curiosity before continuing to follow the lone horse we’d just seen, walking between us and the road. Meanwhile, Buugii’s husband had gone back down to get the van, to meet us further down the road. The leader of the herd stopped and watched the car go by, as the other horses trotted to catch up. Then we heard a whinny and the thunder of galloping hooves. Two mares and a foal who had fallen behind crested the hill and joined the rest of the herd. Suddenly, behind us, another group of around ten horses came into view. It felt as though we were surrounded by wild horses, one of the most breathtaking moments of my life. I’ve certainly been around more horses than these, but the place itself and knowing how rare these takhi were and what had gone into their being where they were at a moment when I could see them made it an unforgettable experience.

We made our way back down to the waiting van and continued on. We were heading through the park, towards a historic site on the other side, and I thought, surely, that was so much more than I had expected, we won’t see anything else. But to our left, across the gully we had been driving along, was a herd of red deer, dozens of them. There was a large group of does and their nearly full-grown fawns flanked by several stags, who were bugling at them and each other (the “howling” we had heard earlier). A smaller group of stags came near, but the ones already there turned on them and fended them off. Buugii explained that it was the mating season, so stags were trying to ensure their access to the does. We watched for a while, then got back in the van and continued driving. We saw several more large herds of red deer, and more herds of takhi as well. I felt like I was in the middle of an amazing nature documentary.

Finally, we were out of the park. It was very obvious. As the land flattened out, we came across a number of sheep and goats being herded by a truck. Our destination was the Ungot grave site, a cemetery with over 30 standing stones, most of them human-shaped, but also a lion and a ram. A line of 552 standing stones extends for a couple of kilometers to the south. The site dates from the Turkic Khanate of the 6th to 8th centuries AD. Emma had seen it during her Hustai excursion, and I had mentioned to Buugii that we wanted to go. We got there right around sunset and were treated to a large raptor (a buzzard? I haven’t learned Mongolian birds very well) sitting on the tallest of the human-shaped stones. As we got out of the car, it flew off across the steppe. It was clear from the tops of the stones that birds frequented the site.

The main site was fenced in (though when Emma had been there, there had been cows grazing inside the fence), and there was just a small sign offering some interpretation, but it satisfied my inner archaeologist. However, with the sun down, it was getting quite cold, so we didn’t linger. By the time we got back to the ger, it was fully dark. We had dinner, another delicious vegetarian meal cooked by our hosts, and then we read for a while before falling asleep.

The next day had a leisurely start, with a simple breakfast served in our ger. I went for an early morning picture taking stroll before breakfast while Emma took her time waking up. After breakfast, we packed up and went over to Buugii’s ger to see what they were doing. Buugii had brought along a model of a ger for the kids to build, and an ankle bone set (there’s a traditional game here involving ankle bones from sheep/goats that we learned how to play with Buugii and Jagaa in Terelj, so I’ll describe it in more detail in that post). Emma and Jagaa persisted in building the model ger, and then the kids played with ankle bones while I took more detailed photos of the ger. Despite only having learned the ankle bone game the previous weekend, Emma held her own.

About mid-morning, we packed up the car and started back for Ulaanbaatar. The plan was to get back before lunch. While we were driving back, I realized how foggy it had been the day before. This time, we had a clear view of the landscape, and I could see how much agriculture had encroached on the pastureland around the national park. There were wheat fields along the road, and we saw one of them being harvested by hand by a family. Further down the main road to the city, we saw hay bales being loaded onto a truck. This area was flat and well-suited to agriculture, though Buugii explained that there had been a lot more rainfall in the 1970s, and farming had been much better back then. Another effect of climate change.

Our trip to Hustai National Park was extraordinary. I saw more wildlife in one day than I have in a long time. I could see that with the increase in livestock in Mongolia since the introduction of capitalism in the 1990s, where the Soviet-style scientific management of pasture gave way to increasing herd size in order to increase income and provide a buffer against economic and environmental hardship, the takhi may well need a space of their own in order to survive. In the long run, though, we will have to do much more than setting aside a few plots of land to protect wilderness or particular species, especially if we cause what isn’t set aside is to deteriorate to the point where it can’t support life, much less us.

Mongolians have a long history of protecting land and nature, since so much of their livelihoods have depended on careful management of natural resources. Indeed, the Bogd Khan mountain, which we see from our apartment at MIU, is the world’s oldest nature preserve, legally protected since the Qing Dynasty in 1783, and there are currently around 100 protected areas in Mongolia. But the shift to communist-style production followed by the transition to capitalism have taken their toll not only in the city but in the countryside as well. The question is whether national park-style nature conservation, in which some parcels of land are set aside for “protection” (and tourism) to the exclusion of people living there, is the solution. Some of the work I have been reading and will be reporting on here questions the long-term success of this approach. I only have to look at my home state of California to see why, but I am looking forward to learning more about the human-nature relationship in Mongolia.

4 thoughts on “A trip to Hustai National Park, home of the Mongolian wild horse

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