From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

The amazingly good weather conditions keep going – not comparable to the time with slot 1. The snow is melting away quickly and causing high water levels in the rivers (which are now even more difficult to cross).

Simone, who had to stay back at camp for a day, spent her time patentiently observing the area with the spotting scope and was successful! She spottet several ibex on the ridge south of camp – well done.

Several other occasions are worth mentioning: several times this week Anders has surpassed his personal altitude record. On Saturday he climbed up to almost 3700 meters – the highest mountain in his home country of Sweden is just above 2200 meters. Julija was able to shoot a photo having an eagle sitting in the grass just two meters away from a baffled marmot – just incredible! And our Women-Power-Team (Jeannine, Natalie, Nancy, Julija) watched a badger family playing on a slope for quite a while.

On Sunday, our day off, the group visited a herder nearby and enjoyed great hospitality and a very rich lunch. Some even went short spin on a horse. In the afternoon the head of NABU Kyrgyzstan came to visit with a PR person and conducted some interviews for local media.

On Monday our ‘overnighters’ (Aman, John, Anne, Julija and Anders) left camp with the aim of setting several camera traps at the very far end of Sokuluk valley. Beautiful weather went with them, but unfortunately they came back with disappointing news: a herder has moved into the far end of the valley and because he is afraid of wolves taking his sheep he fires shots with his rifle into the air regularly. This explains why the team was not been able to find any new signs of ibex or other large animals. So no camera traps were installed.

On Tuesday a group made it up to a remote ridge in “our home valley” where Natalie spottet ibex last week. After a hard and long climb Volodya, Roger and Aude set four camera traps alongside this ridge, a “highway” of animals as it seems. And, not to forget the finding of this expedition yet: two clear prints of Pallas’s cat together with scat that is very likely from this cat also. The other cat, the snow leopard, is still elusive. Mountain ghost indeed.

So, up and downs, successes and failures – typical for research and conservation work.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

We are still struggling with our satellite system, so you are receiving this diary with a delay and without photos. But nobody should be worried as everyone is just fine.

On Monday it took us more than nine hours (!) to finally arrive at base as a piece of luggage had to be retrieved and the tunnel on our way over the pass was also closed for more than an hour due to smog problems. Emma (our cook) was with but Volodaya at base jumped into the fray and had prepared a delicious dinner for the team by the time we arrived tired at our mountain home.

Mainly dry weather helped us to get through our training sessions. And of course Biosphere Expeditions worked hard on the weather because it was a special day for Julija: her birthday.

Earlier in the week we had some cold nights. But by sharing warm clothes and following some “hot” advice, we made everybody survive. During our first walk out into the field (still mainly for training purposes) not far from base, Natalie spottet, with her binoculars, several ibex on a ridge about 2 km away. Eagle eyes, well done!

Lately the day and night temperatures have become much more pleasant. Blue sky, sun and spetacular views enticed everyone into long and exhausting research days. New places, many findings, several sightings of larger Ibex groups with juveniles, snow cock, golden eagle, lammergeier and so on were the reward and a firm ” mission accomplished” during the first days of this group 2.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

No news from the field today, but no news is good news. They will be busy with training and their first surveys. Our satellite connection to the outside world has been restored with a new BGAN, so Ronald will be in touch at some stage.

In the meantime, here are a couple of videos from pioneer group 1, as well as some pictures.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

New week, new tasks: one team started the day by shovelling snow patches and moving rocks. Result: the “road” from base camp further into the valley is now officially (re)opened and leads about 1.6 km further up the valley to a ford. Unfortunately the water level of this river is still too high to be passed by the cars.

John, our mountain hero, climbed up a steep slope (not a path!) finally to reach a ridge at about 3800 m. He found a lot of tracks of ibex. A cornice blocked his way but within the next few weeks this will surely be a place to install a camera trap.

Tuesday was Monique’s birthday, so there was a bouquet of wild flowers (incl. onions!), a cake, a stack of pancakes with a secret filling in between, elaborately decorated with cherries, apricots and almonds.

Another team stayed overnight in the mountains from Wednesday to Thursday. A very long and extremely difficult drive (including a flat tyre on their way back) got the team to the far end of the valley of Sokoluk. The reward for Astrid, Martin, John, Volodya and Aman was to observe 19 (!) ibex.

We have now surveyed all side valleys between base and the Karakol pass, which is still not open for cars due to snow. Even Sabine, who isn’t into mountains, as she likes to say, pushed herself up a 45 degree slope for over an hour finally to reach a ridge above 3500 m.

Within the last few days, as if given a secret signal, lots of herders have moved into the area between the Kara-Moynok Range and our study area of Ala Archa. Hundreds of sheep, horses and goats are now taking advantage of the green slopes. Having all these herders around, gives us the opportunity to benefit from local knowledge. The information we did get is sometimes contradictory, but still interesting and helpful.

chat with a local(foto by Melissa Shepstone)

insight of a yurt (foto by Melissa Shepstone)

A very cold night with an icy layer on the top of our tents accompanied us into Saturday, the official first day of summer. Astrid, the second birthday girl on this group, received some fresh = iced flowers and shared gladly another fantastic birthday cake. After packing and cleaning up we left base this morning around 9:30. Arriving in Bishkek, we really noticed the 20 degrees temperature change.

Thank you again, you pioneers of the Karakol Mountains. The conditions were not easy at all but still everybody worked hard in helping to set a basis for all upcoming teams. And to stay it with the words of Dieter: hopefully this team will met again one day 🙂

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Apologies for the silence on the expedition (and the lack of videos and pictures for this one), but our technical department has been playing up. Our BGAN satellite internet connection is out of action, so until it is fixed, there will only be one or two updates per group – we are in the back of beyond after all. Photos and videos are also playing up, so just text for this one.

Trailblazing group 1 arrived on Monday (9 June) after their long drive to base to a sandwich lunch, pitch tents, and an introductions followed by a briefing session. The weather was mixed that day, but our Tuesday science, equipment, driving and datasheet training day was blessed with sunshine, so much of the training took place outside.

We started surveying on Wednesday. This trailblazing group’s job is to get to know the herder neighbours, the geography, valleys, passes and of course the wildlife on the way. Together with Volodya and the Grupa Bars we have visited about a dozens herder yurts so far to introduce ourselves and the project. At the moment it’s just getting to know people and their knowledge of the land, not structured interviews about snow leopards.

The same goes for exploring the range’s valleys to the east and west of base. Over the past week or so we have radiated out to many of them to ascertain accessibility, snow cover, the terrain and of course the wildlife. We have seen ibex and marmots, badgers and foxes, pikas and voles, birds and reptiles, and have found sign of wolves. No snow leopard sign so far, but it’s early days and the buggers are elusive.

Highlights include a day of six yurt visits, encounters with grazing ibex on alpine meadows, (live) badgers on the road, playful marmots on the hills, soaring golden eagles and lammergeyers in the air. Compared to the Altai, it’s encouraging to note that the ibex seem unconcerned by our presence. In the Altai they would panic and run away – a good sign of heavy poaching activity. Here they are mindful, but just go about their business of grazing as usual.

We’ve also had our first overnighter when four intrepid expeditioners went on a two-day loop around the mountains in search of animals. They found spectacular, remote and human-free mountain scenery, raging rivers, ibex and an incredible run of two days of near perfect weather, but their luck ran out with the snow leopard. Once, at about 3700 m near the twisted icefall of a glacier and in its terminal moraine, they caught a whiff of cat urine, but even an intensive search did not reveal more – no scats, no scratch marks, no nothing. Just the tantalising smell of cat in the air.

Last Sunday (15 June) was our day off and the day that Matthias left us. Some people opted to stay at base to relax and enjoy the changing weather of wind, sleet, sunshine and streaks of cloud being driven across the sky. Others opted to go fur lunch at a yurt an hour or so down the road. It’s our way of building relations, putting some money into the local economy and spreading the word about our work. It turned out to be a marathon lunch and the weather was not conducive to going riding. Next time we’ll try for more riding and less time in a yurt in front of heaps of food 😉

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

It took us eight hours form Bishkek to base yesterday, including some scouting stops. We were lucky to have a sunny day on the Bishkek side. Driving over the pass, the views are spectacular on a clear day. The tunnel through to the other side, however, is dark, dank, full of fumes and scary.

Without the truck and scouting stops, it should take us about six hours on Monday with Group 1. Yesterday, we arrived by 19:00 and put up the kitchen and mess tents, as well as our own. When darkness fell at around 21:00, we had something resembling a base.

It drizzled when we put up camp. When we rose at 05:00 this morning, this had turned into snow. Pack acrrordingly! The snow did not stay for long on the ground, but the mountains around us are covered in icing sugar not far from our base.

The pictures show a bird’s eye view of camp. Our British Ecological Society approved toilets are marked in red. If we have time, we will produce a video of how to s**** amongst the rocks. Watch this space… Other pictures are Shilo and Volodya putting up tents, Ronald sorting out paperwork in the mess tent with our maps and summary datasheets in the background and Emma in action in the kitchen tent. As I write this, the drizzle has turned into rain. Don’t you love the sound of rain on a tent flysheet!

Base Camp birdtentsemma

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

A day of extreme shopping and packing. It’s almost 22:00 and the most important man of the expedition, who is actually a woman, Emma, our cook, is still not back from food shopping yet. Perhaps it’s all been too much and she has run away. We’ll be in tents then, but just eating raw carrots and bananas.

Anyway, we’re sure she’ll be here any second. The boxes are all packed and tomorrow morning we’re off into the field to establish Base 1 for Team 1. The picture shows the truck all packed up with (from left to right cook Emma, expedition leader Ronald, scientist Volodya, Aman from Grupa Bars and Shilo from Grupa Bars).

truck

The next diary entry should be with pictures of/from base via satellite phone, but here’s one of Bishkek with our study site in the background for now. Not a bad view for a day’s work in the office.

bishkek-mountains

It’s been two no-cloud, blue and sunny days here in Bishkek. The next three days are forecast to be overcast, but then it’s meant to be sunny again. Mind you, this is on the Bishkek side of the range. The other side sports the coldest place in Kyrgyzstan, where -54 dec C have been measured (in winter). But yes, you’ve guessed it, that very place is quite close to Base 1. Appropriate clothing therefore modelled below. Spot the snow leopard in the background!

cold base

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

From Matthias in Novosibirsk, Russia:

The month says June, but it’s 5° C in Novosibirsk. There’s a clue in the name – Siberia.

Here in Novosibirsk our gear has been in a Cinderella sleep since the end of the Altai expedition. We awakened it today and bundled it all into a minibus. Those of you who have been to the Altai might recognise Oleg (right), our friend and helper from Altai days. His friend Dennis (left) is providing his minibus and driving skills to get us to Bishkek. We’ll be leaving this afternoon.

Dennis & Oleg

From Ronald in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan:

Hi everybody. My name is Ronald and I will be your expedition leader for the first three groups. I arrived in Bishkek on Sunday morning hitting very pleasant weather conditions: sunny, light wind, 21 degrees C. To be honest: it will be colder in the mountains (probably between freezing and 16 degrees C).

Writing this diary, I am sitting in the office of our partner organisation NABU not too far away from the centre of Bishkek – a restless, busy and turbulent capital. The most important news for now is that we have found an experienced cook (even in the outdoors) who is also willing to stay with us in these remote locations. As she does not speak any English, Volodya – our scientist who arrived on Monday – has now got an additional job as translator 😉

Our cars are ready to go and the list of equipment that has to be organised gets shorter and shorter, and our pile of equipment gets larger and larger. It’s all currently strewn about in one big room of the NABU office.

office

This morning Matthias, Oleg and Dennis arrived after a mammoth trip from cold Siberia via the endless steppe plains of Kazakhstan and finally into Bishkek. They took turns at driving through two nights and a day and a half, 42 hours in total for 2000 km. You can calculate the average speed and state of the roads from that.

So we’re all here now (from right to left): Matthias, Biosphere Expedition’s founder and executive director; Volodya, our scientist; Ronald, expedition leader; Aman & Shilo, members of NABU’s Grupa Bars and local staff.

staff

We’ll be in Bishkek for another couple of days before setting up base for you in the mountains. I’ll meet team 1 at the Grand Hotel as described in your dossier. Be there or be square! And please don’t forget to get some pocket money (in SOM) for sweeties, special drinks or similar at the airport because there will be no time for ATMs or money exchange on Monday. My mobile phone number you already have.

I am looking forward to meeting team 1 soon.

Ronald

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