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Illegal hunters
Ulaan Baatar (Mongolia), July 6th 2010

During our trip through Mongolia, we definitely wanted to bring a visit to the Eastern part of the country. The Eastern part of Mongolia is hardly ever visited by travellers, because most of them prefer to visit the mountainous Northern or Western part, of the Gobi desert in the South. Eastern Mongolia is characterized by blue skies, infinite flat grasslands with yellow grass, and sporadic jeep tracks that connect the rare dusty towns and nomad camps. Thus, the Mongolia that we had in mind.

The flat steppes are also the domain of large groups of Gazelles. Some herds have more than 20,000 animals, but because of intensive illegal hunting, especially for the Chinese market, these huge groups are rare nowadays. We travelled all the way to the small and dusty town of Erdenetsagaan, because it is the springboard to the Lkhachinvadad Nature Reserve, a huge area full of Gazelles and Elk. At least, that is what our travel book says. The area borders China and is for that reason also the domain of the Mongolian Army. We heard that we need a special border permit to visit this area. Our guide inquired at the local petrol station (!) and they told her that the necessary permit could also be obtained at the military post on the way to the reserve. This is also confirmed by a local nomad family that set up their camp next to the jeep track that leads to the military camp.

Giving water to the herd of horses in Eastern Mongolia

Just to be sure that we take the right tracks, the nomad family sends one of their sons with us to serve as a guide. After an hour, we arrive at the military post. It isn’t more than a couple of old ramshackle buildings and a lot of unarmed soldiers. Our guide and the driver disappear in one of the buildings, while we have to wait in the van. It takes more than one and a half hours before we get the message that we do not get the permits. To the contrary, we have to leave immediately under military surveillance. The soldier that travels with us back to Erdenetsagaan keeps our passports, until we reported ourselves at the regional military headquarters in Erdenetsagaan. We don’t really understand all the hassle. We just drove to the military post to ask for permission, and now we didn’t get it, the issue is over for us. But, apparently not for the military guys.

Time for a bath in the public bath house of Erdenetsagaan
When we arrive at the regional military headquarters in Erdenetsagaan, our guide and driver disappear again in the barracks. It takes almost one and a half hours before rumours reach us that we are suspected of illegal hunting. Besides that, the jeep track that we took to the military camp seems to be closed for non-military people. In the beginning we think that this is a joke, but when the guide and driver appear again with deathly pale faces, we know that this is a serious issue. Our guide tells us that she has to pay a fine and that they are probably going to be ‘photographed’. And ‘being photographed’ is in Mongolia almost as bad as getting a criminal record. We think that the military officer is just trying to get bribe money. When the military officer arrives at the van to check the car for illegally hunted animals, we approach him. We try to convince him that we are good-hearted travellers willing to visit the nature reserve and that we are absolutely no illegal hunters. We show him our travel book that describes the area as a tourist destination. Also the recent roadmap that we bought in Ulaan Baatar doesn’t say anything about a forbidden area. Eventually, he is convinced and even doesn’t need to inspect our van anymore. Also the fine disappears and no one needs to be ‘photographed’. We get our passports back and after shaking hands with the military official, we drive back to our small guesthouse in Erdenetsagaan. We eat ‘Buuz’ (mutton dumplings) for dinner and lubricate our throats with a beer in the local disco bar afterwards. And bit by bit, our guide and driver can laugh about the military encounter we had today.

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