Ölgii’s airport looks like that of a Soviet border post, which, in a sense, is exactly what it once was. Mongolia left the Soviet Union only in 1990. The tarmac was shrouded in ground mist, and as the sun rose, we saw ash- colored mountains and white nomad gers, or felt tents. Two Land Cruisers took us through Ölgii, with its decayed Soviet squares, through immense flocks of goats mingled with red- cheeked children on their way to school. On the far side, we followed the course of the dark-blue Khovd River, which curves through the desert steppes. Yaks and argali sheep me-andered along the river as well, shadowed by saker falcons. Jalsa’s temporary ger camp is built by the edge of this river every October for the Golden Eagle Festival and then dis-mantled afterward. It lies several miles from Ölgii, in a wilderness of grassland and glittering beech trees, the gers spread out along the gravel banks. ... The Kazakhs were—and many still are—Muslim nomads who emigrated into western Mongolia in the 1860s under pressure from the aggressively expanding czarist Russia. Their language is Turkic and thus unintelligible to Mongols, but they share with their hosts an ancient steppe culture based on the horse, on archery, and on hunting. In Kazakh, eagle hunters are known as berkutchi, from the word for “eagle,” berkut, and as with the Mongols, their falconry skills have been honed over centuries. Genghis Khan himself is rumored to have kept a thousand hunting birds for his pleasure.
An interest in big-clawed bears gave way to an interest in big-clawed cats, and for the past half decade, Rosen has spent almost all her time studying Panthera uncia, or the snow leopard, an animal whose life in the wild, owing to its far-flung habitat and fundamentally elusive nature, remains little known. ... So much remains unknown that scientists debate even the size of the snow leopard population itself: Some thought there were a thousand cats in the country, others put the number at 300. ... At 12,200 feet, the sage of the plains gave way to the middle reaches of the mountains, and the only other vehicles were trucks from a nearby gold mine. All around us was an ocean of unbroken snowpack; without sunglasses, it hurt to even open your eyes. At 15,000 feet, according to the altimeter on my satellite phone, the air began to feel painfully thin; my vision clouded at the corners with a gray haze, and my head throbbed. ... The snow leopard is a deceptively small beast: Males are 95 pounds, give or take, and light through the back and torso. They stand little more than 24 inches tall. (Female snow leopards are smaller still.) And yet as the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen, who wrote his most famous book about the snow leopard, once noted, there are few animals that can match its “terrible beauty,” which he described as “the very stuff of human longing.” ... Save for the pink nose and glimmering green or blue eyes, its camouflage is perfect, the black-speckled gray pelt a good blend for both snow and alpine rock. ... Data from the Snow Leopard Trust suggest that the cat will bring down an animal every eight to ten days—ibex or bharal or long-horned argali sheep, whichever large ungulates are nearby—and can spend three or four days picking apart the carcass. ... life of a male snow leopard is lonelier. He might stay with a female for a few days while they mate, but after that he’ll typically return to hunting and defending his territory in solitude. In Kyrgyzstan, he is often referred to, with reverence, as “the mountain ghost.”
Few developing countries have seen their hopes dashed more by the slump in global commodity prices than Mongolia, this country of three million people that is almost four times the size of California. ... With its vast unexploited reserves of copper, coal and other minerals once estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion, and a neighbor—China—going through a belated industrial revolution, Mongolia looked to have won a ticket into the modern world. ... “We missed the big time; the free ride that we were given,” said Ganhuyag Chuluun Hutagt, Mongolia’s vice minister of finance from 2010-2012. “No matter what happens to China, I thought, we will still find something to sell to them…which was not true, obviously.” ... There is little industry outside of Mongolia’s resources sector and no other country is as reliant on China, to which Mongolia sends nearly 90% of its exports, mostly commodities. ... Residential property prices have dropped by 35% in the past four years, while an estimated 37,000 apartments stand empty across the city, according to estimates from M.A.D. Investment Solutions, a local property group.
More than half a million square miles (a thousand miles long and five hundred miles wide), the Gobi Desert is about twice the size of France and with an elevation of 3,000 to 5,000 feet—remote and austere and prized by paleontologists as one of the world's richest sources of dinosaur fossils. Most of it lies in Mongolia, but China rules its southern portion, which is known in that country as Inner Mongolia. ... the snow leopard, the shy Panthera uncia, which has been seen in the wild by only a handful of people and of which only an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 remain outside zoos. ... The Gobi is in many ways like the old American West, filled with abandoned hamlets and buildings, traces of disappeared peoples. Across its oceanic blond grass, horses and the black silhouettes of camels move languidly, as if they are the only inhabitants. Ancient Turkic nomads left enigmatic petroglyphs carved into boulders 2,000 years ago. ... The following morning we got up before first light and drove on across the same open plain toward a distant rim of mountains, guided only by shallow tracks that converged, separated, and reconverged hour after hour, pathways across the desert unreadable to anyone but Gobi drivers. On the far side of the plain, hidden within the low mountains, lay the small and winding valley where Jalsa's lead guide, Anand Munkhuu, who was with us, had seen the snow leopard a few days earlier drinking from a half-frozen stream that ran along its bottom. We went there morning after morning, hoping we too would see it.
If you were able to observe this creature in person, which is hard to do, given that they live in only a few places on earth, you would find it in a family network—a harem—with a dominant stallion watching over mares and their offspring, in groups of 5 to 15. For this to happen, you would have to be in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China or Russia, the only places the horse lives anymore in the wild. ... You don’t ride the takhi, or stable it, or—pony-like as the horse appears—saddle it up and perch children on it at birthday parties. The horse is too wild for that. While it has been captured and occasionally confined to zoos, it has never been tamed—it is the only truly wild horse in existence. Other horses that are thought of as wild are in fact feral. ... There are roughly 2,000 takhi in the world right now, and the largest number of them live at Hustai National Park, within 60 miles of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.