Handing out books to village schools

The Przewalski horses.


After many months training and preparation. a 21 strong Scientific Exploration Society backed expedition, assembled in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia in early July 2013.  The aim was to ride into a remote mountainous area near the Mongolia/Russia border to aid a little visited group, known as the Reindeer people.


Along the way the team was to distribute books to needy village schools and give out reading glasses.  Moving by local plane and 4WD vehicles they paused to witness the famous annual Naadam Festival which involves archery, horse racing and wrestling at Moron, administrative centre of the Khovsgol province.  From here the team drove North on rough tracks to meet up with a herd of 65 riding and pack horses that the Leader, Colonel John Blashford-Snell and Prof K Terbish of the Mongolian National University, had organised with local tribesmen. 


On the way there was a problem when the Russian stores truck, heavily laden with camp and riding gear, sank axle deep into a morass.  Thanks largely to retired Sapper, Lt Col Tom Gallagher, the vehicle was extracted but as the hour was late, the team made camp in the swamp.  However keen to use every opportunity to study local wildlife, the zoologists set up a line of metal cones buried flush with the surface, to catch small mammals in the night.  At dawn they were delighted to discover they had collected two rare 10 cms long Narrow Headed Voles.  These were promptly measured and released. 


Pressing on and handing out books to village schools, the team reached the end of the road at the Khoglin river.  Here awaited their herd of horses.  These were not quiet well trained riding stable ponies on which the members had practised in Britain, but frisky, near wild beasts many of whom, who although only 14-15 hands high were immensely strong.  Mounting up, the expedition then rode North through lush greenery and heavy wooded Taiga forest.  As they climbed higher, permanent sheets of ice appeared stretching across river beds and these had to be negotiated with care.  Whilst the sun was out it was pleasantly warm but as soon as it dropped below the horizon, the temperature plummeted to near freezing.  Wrapped in sleeping bags and blankets, the expedition slept in small tents, waking to find the fabric stiff with frost.   However somehow the Mongolian cooks always managed to produce warm, filling breakfasts wherever they went. 



As the column rode on, ground squirrels scuttled from beneath the horses hooves, diving into their burrows.  Chipmunks and birds of prey also appeared and there were wolf tracks on the river banks. 


On 14th July at around 7500 feet above sea level, the leading riders saw white tepees on the distant hillside and surrounding these were herds of grey heavily horned reindeer.  They had found the Reindeer People’s summer grazing camps.  Unafraid, these strange looking beasts came trotting over to inspect the newcomers, much to the consternation of the horses who did not like the towering horns of these beasts.  The people, also known as the Dukha came over riding on reindeers and soon arrangements were made to set up a dental and medical clinic at a central camp.  Surgeon Lieutenant Angela Critchlow RN used a pressure cooker to sterilize the instruments on a dung burning stove whilst the Dukha served tea with reindeer milk and blocks of reindeer cheese.   Whilst Dr Kate Clayton gave some medical treatment the local Shaman arrived and fortunately agreed that although his methods of curing ailments were more effective, the people should try out the western medicine.


Peter Manns was making a study of Shamanism and he was delighted when the Shaman agreed to demonstrate his techniques.  He gave a midnight performance, entering into a trance to communicate with the spirits and told the expedition that he knew England well as the spirits had often taken him there. 


Having extracted over 30 teeth Angie Critchlow and her assistants issued brushes and toothpaste urging the locals to use them regularly.  Meanwhile the Ornithologists were fascinated by many nesting ptarmigan and the zoologists caught a water vole.  Wolves are a problem here and a guard dog was attacked and badly bitten.  All around the camps were masses of wild flowers and the expedition botanist Cynthia Hardyman, working with Mongolian botanists, had a real field day. 


After several fascinating days with the Dukha the expedition remounted their horses and rode back through the forest to the Khoglin river where thankfully it was a little lower and warmer at night. 


Annabelle Burroughs, who John Blashford-Snell had appointed as “riding master”, had done a fine job in providing some veterinary treatment for the horses and they were in good fettle for a period of botanical and zoological exploration around the Khoglin river.  There was also the chance to fish for the fezzan, a  fish related to the salmon.  One weighing 5½ pounds was duly caught by a Mongolian groom, and Peter Manns landed a couple of grayling for the camp supper. 


The next task was further South, so the team returned to their vehicles and drove for Moron.  Alas the stores vehicle developed a series of faults and drove along belching black smoke before finally a front wheel fell off.  “This can be mended in 30 minutes” said Prof Terbish but John Blashford-Snell and Tom Gallagher decided it was a major garage job.  Pressing on in the 4WD vehicles, the team reached Moron at dusk and as all the camp kit was on the stricken truck they moved into a local ger camp for the night.  The ger is a felt lined circular Mongolian tent and thus they had shelter for the night.   To the members amazement at dawn, the stores truck appeared.  Village  mechanics had gone to it in the night, jacked up the vehicle and refitted the wheel.  “They really are incredible repairmen” said Deputy Leader Barry West who had been keeping an eye on the state of the transport. 


The final task of the expedition was a study of the Przewalski horse.  These creatures, a different species of horse and the only truly wild horse left in the world, had been reintroduced to Mongolia some years go after becoming extinct.  Now there are growing numbers of these heavily built, long maned, beige coloured animals in a  special reserve.  Janet Wood of Mere had set up the study with the guidance of experts in the UK and the team were lucky to find over 50 of these beautiful animals, several with foals.  In the same area they also encountered some large red deer and marmots.  The marmot hosts a flea that is believed to carry the feared Bubonic plague germ which  known as the Black Death, caused such terrible loss of life in Europe in the middle ages.  The Scientific Exploration Society supported a collection of these fleas on an earlier expedition. 



Returning to Ulaanbaatar with their mission  accomplished the expedition bid farewell to the Mongolian scientists with whom they had worked and have now dispersed to write their reports on the various aspects of this fascinating and highly successful expedition in the land of Genghis Khan.


For further details please contact:  Anne Gilby email