Fritz Pölking

On the way to work

Cats have always had a special interest for me, being a wildlife photographer ---- no matter if they were wild cats and lynx in the preserves of the Bavarian Forest National Park or the Lions Cheetahs in Wildlife Preserve Masai Mara in Kenya.

Especially the Leopards, which I followed for many years with my cameras and of which I must have taken more than 30.000 color slides during the course of these years, have always fascinated me.

Just how many good shots there are of Leopards is hard to say, but it certainly has to be a great many, since numerous wildlife photographers have always been intensely interested in them. In the many nature and wildlife magazines of the world, a large number of great shots of these beautiful cats in their natural habitat can be seen frequently.

But, I have seen a picture of a wild Snow Leopard (Irbis) only once, taken by George Schaller in 1970 in the Hindu-Kush-Mountains of Pakistan. In spite of 150 years of photography it seems that up to 1995 it was not possible to catch a good photo of this cat more often in the wilderness. All other pictures I have seen of this cat, were taken in zoological compounds, animal farms or were pictures of trapped Snow Leopards. Even researchers who lived in the natural environment of this cat for four years were unable to get a decent picture of them. It must be extremely difficult to get this cat in front of a lens .... Still.....I started off to give it a try........

The flight gave me the impression that I was in an entirely different world: My flight from Münster/Osnabrück to Frankfurt was on time and without any problems, so was the flight with Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Moscow. Then there was the flight from Moscow to Ulan Bator (the capitol of Mongolia) with MIAT, the Mongolian airline. First, we were informed of an hours delay which was still okay and after boarding the plane and getting settled, the plane started taxiing........about 20 meters .... and stopped. After some time, two Russian officials came on board and demanded from the pilot that the plane depart immediately. The pilot replied: "I can´t until two vehicles have arrived – one to pull me, and the other one with a starter kid."

Following that, the two Russians announced, that everyone should take out their papers, they were going to do an inspection. What the passenger passport inspection had to do with the missing starter car was not quite clear to us. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that shortly before we left, the Russians had arrested someone at our gate.

The car with the starter equipment came after another good hours wait........Well, for a "Westerner" it is hard to see the reason why one has to wait an hour for the car with the starter equipment to pull up to an aircraft at an international airport like Moscow, but anyway, we finally took off with 2 ½ hours delay ...... which isn´t too bad and arrived in Ulan Bator with 10 ½ hours delay. How can that be possible? 15 Minutes before arrival in Ulan Bator, the pilot turned the bird around and flew back. The airport was closed because of heavy storms, according to the stewardess´ announcement. So we flew back to Russia and landed at a Russian airport close to a large lake and waited hours.

After arriving at the airport in Ulan Bator with 10 ½ hours delay, we were asked why we had so much delay. It turned out that they didn’t have any storm and that the airport wasn’t closed down either. I really would like to know the reason why the pilot turned back so close to arrival and made us wait for seven hours at the Russian border.

Security standards: Amongst frequent flyers there is a great affinity to the emergency exit rows because of the larger amount of leg room. But because of the possible emergencies, there are special measures: no hand luggage is allowed under the seats on American stretches, only English speaking passengers are allowed to sit there so that the instructions in case of an emergency and an evacuation can be understood and promptly followed. On Lufthansa planes, the back rest can not be tilted during take off or landing. The stewardess can open the blockage after cruising altitude is reached and you can sit there just as comfortably as in other rows. You see, there are some very specific rules for these emergency exit rows.

It is a little different with MIAT, the Mongolian airline. MIAT flies twice a week with a Boeing-Jet from Moscow to Ulan Bator and the hand baggage compartments in the last 8 rows are filled even before the passengers are on board, with alcohol from the duty-free shops in Moscow. So there is no room for about 20-30 passengers to put their baggage. No problem, the stewardesses just pile it in front of the emergency exits so that by the time you get ready to take off, approx. 40-50 suitcases, purses, bags and similar baggage pieces are stacked up high there. Which conveys a 100% sure feeling that in case of an emergency, you can get out somewhere but under no circumstances should you try at the emergency exit.

Now here is the really funny part. We, that is about 100 passengers, weren’t able to enter the country through passport control, because the official on duty had to stamp our visas in our passports. For that you need the official stamp .... which he had forgotten.....

Could you imagine that one of our German officials forgets his stamp?

Fascinating: at the Hotel Bayandol, the largest hotel in Mongolia with more than 200 rooms, we were offered the usual breakfast you get everywhere in the world with small plastic dealies filled with butter. Printed on the lid was: Kleeblatt-Butter, Meggle D-8090 Wasserburg 2, and if kept cool, use by: see bottom. On the bottom there was printed 8.89: could this be the last gift from the DDR to their socialistic brothers of Mongolia? And what amount this must have been if this butter is still being served in 1995 for breakfast? And what would the monitoring health officials (and the stomach) say to butter served with a "best use by" date of 6 years ago? Breakfast for tough guys....!!??

Especially funny are the security controls at the international airport of Ulan Bator by Mongolian in-country flights. They have a very modern Heimann screening device which lets you see the contents of baggage in black and white as well as different colors, so that the screening personnel can work especially careful. Which they do....they control the pictures extremely carefully. Only, no-one checks the passengers. There is no metal detecting archway, no body searches. You simply place your hand luggage on the belt for the screening machine, walk to the other end and pick it back up again.
So if you ever want to fly in Mongolia with five hand granates and two pistols, you should under no circumstances put them into the hand luggage because you get caught right away. You have to carry them in your pockets or your coat or under your hat and you have nothing to worry about.

To fly in a post communist country with Mongolian Airlines by the way, is quite easy. First version: We land in Ulan Bator on Monday and continue on to Altai on the same day. Second version: The flight plan has changed and our connecting flight leaves on Thursday. Third version: We can connect on Tuesday after all. Fourth version: We can fly according to the newest flight plan either on Tuesday or on Wednesday.

We finally flew on Tuesday, just to find that after arriving in Gobi / Altai, that our jeep that was to pick us up, wasn´t there. It took us a day to find a replacement which meant we had to spend the night.

The next morning, 8 o´clock was supposed to be the departure time, but there was no electricity and so we couldn’t pump any gasoline. The gas pump wouldn’t work. Finally, at 11.30 we were able to start on our 10 hour trip through the Gobi desert.

It was a small Russian jeep with four seats which brought us to our destination in the Altai Mountains and this jeep came with working personnel of 3 ½ people: the driver, his wife to honk and take the cash, a second driver to stall the first when he got tired and the daughter of the first driver who wanted to visit family. So to that came the wildlife photographer, a translator since the folks living in the mountain villages only spoke Mongolian, and my guide, which made all in all 7 people in the little 4-seater.

The desert was not very photographic during the day on the long ride – nothing below and lots of blue sky above. Finally, towards evening about 9pm, as the sun had gone further down on the horizon, the desert came to life and developed form and plastic.

Three rivers were to be crossed by us with our 4-wheel drive and every two hours we had a vodka break. At first I took the large liter bottles filled with clear liquid as water bottles and the four inch high cut off Pepsi can on the floor for an ashtray: But no, this was the communal vodka glass.

My Mongolian hosts in front of their Jurte (the traditional tent of the
Mongolian herdsmen) in the Altai Mountains,
home of the Snow Leopard (Irbis).

There are no road signs in existence there, and several times we had to stop and the driver, the second driver and my guide had to powwow over which of the two or three pairs of tracks that appeared suddenly and went off in different directions, most probably could be the right one. Road signs were probably not worth putting up, because in the whole 10 hours that we were travelling, one lonely truck was all we encountered.

Finally, towards 11pm we arrived at our first stage of our journey. The Jurte (tent) of a Mongolian family of herdsmen in the mountains was where we spent the night and from where we continued the next day on horseback to my place of work in the realm of the Snow Leopard.

That was where I spent the next weeks at 30° C below freezing - at night in a tent and during the day on foot and on horseback, searching for Snow Leopards. But that is another story.... (You can read that one under: Workshop Book - "The Snow Leopard – almost never been photographed".