Mongolia’s Cinereous Vulture & Winter Horse Trekking

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

April 15th, 2013

One of the sights of Mongolia at any time of year are huge, black birds, hundreds of feet in the air, just catching the thermals, sometimes for hours. These are Cinereous, or Black Vultures, one of the largest birds of prey in the world. While circling high above, they are also looking for carrion – a dead animal will attract a host of these birds all competing for scraps. Armed with ferocious beaks with fearsome tips to them, they can tear apart a horse carcass and leave nothing but bones in just two hours.

I was fortunate enough to be able to come across one of my friends who had one, and drove out to go and see this huge bird as well as have an afternoons trekking up to see a Temple dedicated to a Chinese Princess in Terelj. The bird turned out to be a juvenile – less than a year old. Yet is was still massive and it took all my strength just to hold it steady on the wrist. Back on its perch, it reassumed the familiar hunched neck posture as the image demonstrates. It is rare to come so close to such creatures – and I remain in awe of their sheer size. Despite their reputation as scavengers, I’ll  be seeing Vutures as the creatures they really are – elegant, powerful and highly effective cleaning machines on wings.

Mongolia is the land of blue sky, and sunshine can be deceiving. These images, despite the bright sun, were taken at daytime temperatures of -35. This is the frozen River Tuul, while my horse had snow shoes on – horseshoes with spikes – as the ground is frozen and they also need to grip into ice.

The Temple I wanted to visit is near to Turtle Rock, out in Terelj about two hours drive from UB, but can only be reached the last four miles either on foot or by horse, the route in unsuitable for vehicles and the temple itself is half way up a sheer mountain face. It was built, about 300 years ago, to commemorate a Chinese Princess who married the local Mongolian Khan. Asked by her Father to betray her new husband and reveal his military secrets so he could invade and claim the land as his own, the Princess refused. Her Father later arranged for her to be poisoned. The temple therefore is popular as a site for women to visit, especially those facing dilemma’s, but also for men to honor the strength of their own women. It also boasts fantastic views.

The Horse I used was a bit lazy to be honest, and I could have done with some spurs and a whip, so I had a lot of digging my heels into his ribs, and then broke off a length of sapling branch to use to get him to behave. But despite his wanting to take off on excursions of his own (probably to some nearby winter hay dumps) I managed to get us to where we needed to be. He was also, curiously a bit spooked at times, especially when his rear feet slid, so I had to keep him fairly close of the reins or he’d be off. So he was a bit of a challenge. But with views of the temple and all the way down the Terelj Valley as my reward, even in those low low temperatures, it was  an excellent day trip into the heart of Mongolia’s Siberian winter chill.