Burgastyn Els, Mongolia’s highest desert (1/3)

Choosing the target

Mongolia again. All in all it’s the country with the best potential for my plans. Home to the Siberian Anticyclone’s center it offers the biggest chances to experience strong winter temperature inversions. The area is huge, the places remote and wild, relatively untouched by the modern world. The natural advantage is enhanced by the appropriate socio-political situation, where visitors can experience real freedom.

 

The high altitude desert with Ulaagchiin Khar lake, the track from Erdenekhairkhan village (red curve) and the location of the research area (red dot)

Two years before, while researching the sand dunes north of Erdenekhairkhan I had great luck with a powerful cold snap, when at the bottom of a 60 meters deep hollow my logger registered a stunning -53 degrees Celsius, the lowest temperature ever seen by my devices.

This year’s plan is to set the equipment in another sandy depression a little farther to the north-east, where the dunes are touching the slopes of a mountain ridge. The easternmost, respectively highest part of the desert is called “Burgastyn Els” (meaning “bushy sands”). As the desert itself has no bushes, its name’s origin must be the fact that it’s situated just below the partially bush covered mountain, which is named the same way: “Burgastyn Uul”. The chosen basin is about half the depth of the previous one, but with a bigger drainage area. With its bottom situated around 2200 meters, it’s also the highest between the sand covered hollows with considerable depth (more than 20 meters).

Actually the sand is “climbing” the mountain, as you can see the dunes continuing their eastward way on the other side through the saddles, reaching and invading the remote Ulaagchiin Khar lake. Even the 2600 meter high top has a sandy overlay.

 

The chosen high altitude basin with the contour intervals (1, 5, 10, 15, 24 meters) calculated on GoogleEarth

 

Brief summary of the research

Just a few days before the asian journey the sensor of my logger became damaged and the bad timing made impossible to repair or substitute the tackle. That meant I was constrained to leave at home also the Barani radiation shield and rely mainly on the alcohol based minimum thermometer. There will be no temperature curves, no daily maximums, only the lowest values. Fortunately this is the most important thing, so let’s be positive. I also have the digital precision device for instant measurements, which is my favorite tool while on spot.

I arrived in Mongolia in the morning of 7th January by the Budapest-Ulaanbaatar (through Istanbul) international flight. From the mongolian capital I used domestic flight to Zavkhan aimag’s capital, Uliastai. At the airport a private driver was waiting for me, who was contacted by a tourism company from Ulaanbaatar. Previously this company supported me to obtain the visa at the mongolian consulate in Budapest and helped to arrange the transports and accomodations in the country during the entire journey.

The Toyota Land Cruiser owner came from Gobi Altai province and had taken me to Erdenekhairkhan (around 85 km’s), which is the closest settlement to my targeted zone. From the village we approached the research area with the jeep, following a snow covered track (around 30 km’s) not far from the Mukhart river’s source, a scenic place with interesting geomorphology. We managed to get close to the target around 13 km’s in straight line. From this point I reached the chosen place alone by foot crossing the dune field, carrying the camping equipment and the meteorological devices in a backpack.

 

Burgastyn Els desert

Even so the area is very remote, it still have some human activity in the wintertime. In contrast to the Nariyn Golin Els I didn’t saw any yurts here, only two shepherds on horseback during the entire six days of hiking through the dunes. However many horses and yaks are grazing unsupervised in the desert, many kilometers from the closest populated place.

Despite its isolation and severe climate, in most parts the surface was full with animal trails. Actually the single area which was completely lacking the domestic animals presence was the chosen frost hollow. Starting from the southern col there were only a few trails, most likely of deers.

 

View of the hollow from the southern col

I raised my tent near this southern saddle, around 1 km from the actual research place, at 2250 meters above sea level. The tripod with the attached minimum thermometer was set on the bottom of the frost hollow, at 2194 meters elevation (GPS on spot). During the second trip I’ve visited also the northern col, which represents the outflow point of the depression. According to my measurements the endorheic depth is 28-30 meters (about 5 meters more than GoogleEarth shows).

The tripod’s coordinates were: 48.286 N, 96.005 E. The thermometer’s elevation above the surface was around 160 cm. The instrument was measuring the minimum temperature from the afternoon of 12th January until the morning of 23th January. The precision electronic device was used to take instantaneous measurements of the air (holding the device in hand at head level while moving) and near the surface (leaving the instrument on the snow).

 

The tripod with the minimum thermometer on the bottom of the basin

On average the snow in the desert was rather big (for mongolian standards), reaching 20-25 cm on the bottom of the frost hollow. The weather was generally good, mostly clear or partially covered by cirrus and cirrostratus clouds, but pretty windy sometimes with some short and weak snowfall intervals. Regarding the temperatures this season wasn’t a lucky one, the clear and calm conditions were only partially covering the nights.

The research period was encompassing eleven consecutive nights. From these I spent three in my tent, the remaining ones in Erdenekhairkhan (yurt).

 

The devices used in the field

-One Greisinger GMH 2710-T digital precision thermometer with the measuring range between -199.9, +200 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of +-0.1 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.
-One meteorological alcohol minimum thermometer, USSR, 1988, with the measuring range between -50, +40 degrees Celsius.
-One photo camera tripod serving as the support for the instrument.

 

Temperature near the snow surface

 

To be continued…