Mongolia Monday- Back From Ikh Nartiin Chuluu!

They almost always see you first. That’s a nanny on the left and a three year old billy on the right. You can tell their age from the ridges on the horns.

It was Siberian ibex this time at Ikh Nart. I’d see them on previous trips and always take photos, but my main goal has been seeing as many argali as possible. This year most of those were 20km or so to the northeast, so it was not possible to walk to where they were, at least for me, and I didn’t have a car and driver this time. I’m good for about 8-10km or so a day, especially if it’s hot. And was it hot! Probably close to 100F on a couple of days and not starting to cool off until around 10:30 at night. We also had a couple of rain storms move through during the eleven days that I was there, one with quite a light show.

The valley were the research camp is located. The ibex were up on the rocks down on the far left hand side

I walked down the valley the first day, followed a slope up to the top, sat down to sketch the scene in front of me, looked around and there behind me I saw that I was being watched by an ibex. Forget the sketching, the wildlife fieldwork was on!

Close-up view of the previous photo. That’s a nanny on the left and a young billy on the right.

It turned out there was a group of around a dozen nannies and kids, one of each wearing radio collars, who were hanging around two adjacent rock formations. The first day there were also two young billies, one two and one three years old, judging from the ridges on their horns. I saw and photographed them in that same location three out of the next four days, shooting hundreds of images, around 900 in all. So you know one subject I’ll be painting this winter….

Ibex nanny wearing radio collar

My main reason for going to Ikh Nart, though, was to have my annual visit with the members of Ikh Nart Is Our Future, the women’s felt craft collective that I support. I had a very good meeting with the director, Ouynbolor, during which we spoke (through a translator) about how things had gone since I last saw her and what she needed me to do for this next year. Coming up will be a larger quantity of the full-color brochures I and staff at the Denver Zoo had produced to explain the collective to visitors to the tourist ger camp. They will also now be produced in Mongolian, not just English. There were also matching product tags in three sizes. They worked well, but a much larger quantity of those will also be needed for next year.

Collective members at work on various tasks

I registered a url for the collective last year, knowing that they wanted to have a website. At the meeting we were able to work out the content and a way to communicate while it’s being put together.

Making felt; the wool is laid out in cross-wise layers, wrapped in a piece of tablecloth, thoroughly soaked with hot water and then saturated with soap, which is the ingredient that melds the fibers together
They got me into the act too, helping to work the soap into the wool

The really special part is that I was able to arrange to go to the soum center (county seat), Dalanjargalan, for a night and a day. I had always met the women at either the research camp or the tourist ger camp and felt that it would be very beneficial to spend at least a little time where they live (when they are not out in the countryside at their gers with their animals) and learn a little about their lives. I got a walking tour that included the local school and shop. I stayed in the home of one of the collective members. Had lunch at the home of another and, in the afternoon, around a dozen members gathered at “the office”, a little building that used to be a gas station, to process their wool, turn it into felt and also work on various items that they will sell. I saw the felt presses that I had helped them acquire in action, along with the good sewing scissors they had requested in 2009. They have quite an operation set up now and work very efficiently and with great care and conscientiousness. I shot both still photos and around an hour of video with my new Panasonic recorder, enough to put together a little YouTube video after I get home.

Collective member with lovely pictorial peice done completely with different colors of felt

My ride back to camp arrived later than expected, around 10:30pm, and the reason was that they had seen and captured two very young long-eared hedgehogs that were crossing the road in front of the car! Hedgehogs are one of the species being studied at Ikh Nart, by a graduate student named Batdorj. Within a kilometer of leaving Dalanjargalan, a third one dashed across the road, this time an adult darian hedgehog, and it was captured too, riding back to camp on the lap of one of the students wrapped in his jacket. I was able to get a lot of photos and also video the next evening before they had radio transmitters glued to their backs and were transported back out to the general area in which they’d been caught. And yes, there will definitely be hedgehog paintings, cards and prints coming up.

Darian hedgehog
Young long-eared hedgehog

I also had time to just wander around the reserve and see what there was to see and it turned out to be….wildflowers! The rains have been very good this year and everything is green, green, green. I’ve been to Ikh Nart in August before, but have never seen so many different flowers and so many that I had never seen there before. It was like walking through a huge flower garden.


Finally it was time to depart. We were taking the train overnight to Ulaanbaatar. Most of our luggage, except for what we needed for the night, was taken back to UB by car in the afternoon. The rest of us caught the 1:14 am train and arrived about 8:30 am. I had never done this before, but managed to get around five hours of decent sleep. We were taken back to Zaya’s Guesthouse, where we got showers and sorted our dirty clothes for laundering. The rest of the day was spent getting lunch and puttering around, catching up on emails. The next day I spent most of the afternoon doing a massive download and back up of all the photos and videos I’d shot.

Late afternoon on the north side of the valley

So now I’m at Zaya’s, which I highly recommend to anyone coming to Ulaanbaatar. The rooms are sparkling clean, there is free wifi and the location is very convenient, right off Peace Ave. not far from the State Department Store. There is a common living room with a very comfortable sectional sofa and a full kitchen for the use of guests.

I did see argali a couple of times

As for the WildArt Mongolia Expedition, I’m now working on the last bits of planning and arranging, some things having changed since I left the US. Flexibility is important when doing things in Mongolia. It makes some people really angry when something doesn’t go right or on schedule (so this is not a country they should visit), but I’ve found that it creates possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

I’ll be in UB for the next 2-3 days, then I’m hoping for a long weekend at a ger camp I’ve stayed at before. Stay tuned!

Mongolia Monday- I’ve Been Appointed To The Ikh Nart Working Group!

Sunrise in the valley where the research camp is...with argali

I’m proud and pleased to announce that I am one of four Americans and seven Mongols who have recently been appointed by the Dornogobi Aimag Governor (an aimag is the equivalent of a state or province) to the Ikh Nart Natural Resource Area Working Group!

Ancient Turkic grave; there have been humans at Ikh Nart for a very long time

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve is becoming a model for how a reserve or park can be managed in Mongolia, which has set aside one of the largest percentages of its land area of any country, 13%, as protected in some way.

Pictographs near a well

The other Americans are Dr. Richard Reading, the Vice President for Conservation at the Denver Zoo, who in charge of the research camp that was established at Ikh Nart in 1994; retired Anza-Borrego California State Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen, (Anza-Borrego is officially a sister park to Ikh Nart and its supporters have been very generous in their support of Ikh Nart, donating both money and equipment like spotting scopes and binoculars) who will continue to nurture the sister park relationship; and retired state park employee Lynn Rhodes, who has been offering her expertise on law enforcement policies and training.

Dr. Reading inspecting a cinereous vulture nest

I have been tasked with continuing to support Ikh Nart Is Our Future, the women’s craft collective and also to publicize Ikh Nart and the collective outside of Mongolia.

Ikh Nart moonrise

The Mongols in the Group include the scientist in charge of argali research for the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Amgalanbaatar (Amgaa), who has become a good personal friend; the head of the aimag’s environmental agency; two soum (county) governors; the reserve ranger; and a representative of the local herders. So I will also have an opportunity to see how another country’s government operates at a local level.

Four Siberian ibex

I feel very privileged to be included in this on-going effort to conserve a very special place and to work with the Mongols in doing so.

Local herder Choibalsan and I at the end of the Earthwatch project, April 2005; I still see him most times I visit the reserve

UPDATE AS OF MARCH, 2012: As of a few months ago, the Working Group decided to create an advisory council on which the four westerners would serve. I am now a member of that council. My direct work with the collective, Ikh Nart Is Our Future, has not changed.


Mongolia Monday- “Ikh Nart Is Our Future” Update

I’ll get back to The Camping Trip, but I really want to share the news on the women’s felt crafts collective. Notice the change from “cooperative”. There are a number of words used in Mongolia for legally constituted groups, each of which has different requirements. I need final confirmation from him, but my scientist friend Amgaa, who has been instrumental in helping me help the ladies, believes that this is the correct term, which is almost surely a holdover from socialist times.

Stuffed toy camel in progress

I spent a fun and productive week at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. There will be more about my argali and ibex sightings in a future post, but for the moment I’ll just say that I finally, after five trips there, got the reference photos I’ve really wanted – both species in great light and close enough for me to really capture details like head structure. Paintings to follow.

I’ve been so anxious to see Boloroo, the collective director, the other women and to find out how things are going for them.

Boloroo and Tuvshin

I’ll quote from my journal:

Tuesday, August 10-
Great reunion with Boloroo and some of the other ladies. Learned that what started last year with 14 ladies from one Bag (the smallest administrative unit in Mongolia; “bag” means “small” in Mongolian) has now expanded to 30 members in four of the five bags in the soum (the equivalent of a county). Some of the new members came along and it was fun to meet them.

Tuvshin (Boloroo’s son, my little buddy from last year) is now a sturdy almost 2 year old. One lady who was pregnant last year came with her baby and husband, who brought a nice little ibex carving to sell. (I’ve got a probable donor for good quality steel carving knife blanks. I’d like to encourage the men, too.)

Two folding tables were set up and covered with lots of merchandise. The collective has expanded beyond felt crafts, too. One lady now has a knitting machine and brought a variety of tops and sweaters to sell.


Selenge (the research camp manager and my translator) had me explain it all to the Earthwatch volunteers. By close of business, close to half of what had been brought had been sold.

A wonderful follow-up in every way to last year’s launch.

And customers

I was also able to have a private meeting with Boloroo, Selenge translating, about ideas for the kinds of things I think would sell in the US and some possibilities I’m working on for sales outlets. Many of the women will be perfectly happy to make slippers, stuffed toys and small, simple items to sell to visitors who come to Ikh Nart. But I’ve seen a level of talent and creativity in some of the women that I want to encourage. They can take their work, with practice, to a very high level of fine craft and therefore command much higher prices.

I watched Boloroo switch from visiting mode to business mode and am really impressed by how thorough and professional she is. I am so very fortunate to have gotten involved with a group that has her as the leader.

One of the new members and her family

I had also brought over a stack of sketchbooks, plus pens and pencils, so that young local artists would have the materials they need to create designs for things like purses. I believe this is better  than having a westerner like me do them, although I’ll be happy to help if asked.

Office interior

The following afternoon, I visited the soum center, Dalanjarglan, for the first time. Boloroo was there and we got to spend three hours together. She showed us the collective “headquarters”, a small free-standing building which used to be a gas station. It turns out that she bought the building herself. Amgaa had a banner sign made and donated some large informational posters from a past presentation about Ikh Nart. These have been hung on the interior walls. I saw the felt presses and they are clearly getting used regularly.

The felt presses

I had also paid for training earlier in the year in UB for Boloroo and one other lady, Lhagvadelger, the Bag Governor’s wife. Boloroo is now doing training herself. I also learned that there are four more levels of training available, so I will be looking for funding to cover that in the future.

Boloroo and I in front of the "Ikh Nart Is Our Future" office building

In UB a couple of weeks ago, I paid a visit to Tsagaan Alt, a store run by the Mongolian NGO from whom we got the felt presses and training. Everything they offer is of very high, consistent quality. Eventually, the collective will be able to sell their work there.

Selenge is going to try to keep up with what is going on with the collective and send me occasional reports.  Stay tuned. The ladies are clearly just getting started.

Mongolia Monday- The Saga Of The Scissors

When I went to Mongolia last July on my AFC Flag Expedition, I knew that arrangements had been made to meet with some unknown number of women at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve research camp to talk about helping them set up a felt crafts cooperative. I sorted through all my sewing stuff and came up with a pretty good-sized bag of needles, thread, notions and one extra pair of very good sewing scissors to donate to the cause. You can read about the meeting and see photos of the four intense days I spent with the women here.

The scissors, I found out late on the third day, were very, very, did I say very, popular. I was asked during a last meeting of everyone, if I could get more scissors. Sure, I said, how many pair? One for everyone, so 20 pair. I knew I could figure out some way to do this, so I said yes.

Then a burly man in a del, clearly one of the herders who had spent most of his life out of doors and who had quietly come in and was sitting by the door, raised his hand. Through my translator, he shyly asked if it would be possible to get 21 pair. His wife hadn’t been able to come to the meeting, but he would like to give a pair to her because it would make her happy. Yes, of course. I still choke up a little when I remember him sitting there in a ger full of women (Mongol women can be formidable), summoning up the courage to ask a total stranger for something for his wife.

My gift scissors being used to cut out the fabric for a del for my husband. The women made two, one for each of us, in three days. Notice that there is no paper pattern. The skill to make these traditional Mongol garments is either passed down or there are classes where it is taught.

Then, during a series of “competitions” that celebrated the end of the meetings, everyone divided up into teams to do skits. One team did theirs on where the scissors were because everyone was wanting to use them.

I think what is being said is something like "I need to cut this. Where are the scissors?"

Fast forward and I’m back at home. My husband generously offered to donate the money to purchase the scissors through his company. I got on the internet and in touch with one of the staff people at the Denver Zoo Foundation. It turned out that a fabric store chain had 8″ Gingher sewing scissors on sale at a very good price. Sewers know that Ginghers are about the best you can get and that’s what I wanted the ladies to have.  So they were ordered and delivered to my contact person at the Zoo.

Next was how to get them to Mongolia. We’d hoped to send them over with someone, but no one was going in the near future, the scissors weighed a fair amount and, with security being what it is, we felt like it was a lot to ask for someone to take them on a plane, even in checked luggage.

The Director of the Conservation Biology Department, which is who I work through, said that the only reliable way to make sure they got to where they needed to go was via FedEx, so that’s what we did. That cost over $400. My husband had included $100 for shipping in his original donation and the Zoo picked up the rest. So far so good.

The scissors arrived at the airport and then it got complicated with customs paperwork that none of us knew had to be done ahead of time. More fees, which my husband covered. But the scissors were in UB and in the possession of the right person, who would make sure they got to where they needed to go.

All along I’d had this vision of the scissors arriving in the winter when the women didn’t have as much work to do, so would have time to make felt items to sell this summer. And it would be cold and things would be difficult, but maybe this would be a nice mid-winter surprise. And I would be announcing that this endeavor of my Art Partnerships for Mongolian Conservation had been successfully concluded.

Unfortunately, this winter has turned out to be what the Mongols call a “Zud”, heavy snow and extreme cold, as in below -40F, which is a “normal” winter low. Haiti has the world’s attention, deservedly, but for those of us who care about Mongolia, there is a crisis happening there, too. I wrote to the scientist who goes to Ikh Nart every month and who is going to deliver the scissors, asking how my friends are. His reply was that he hasn’t been able to contact anyone, but will let me know when he does. I suspect that he can’t even get to the area right now. Conditions may not improve until April. I know that the Mongols are resourceful people and they’ll help each other through this, but I am concerned. I’ll be very glad when I hear that everyone is ok.

I’ll post as soon as I have news. In the meantime, I’m making my plane reservations for the next trip in July/August.

Off to the “Art and the Animal” Opening Weekend and an Update on the Mongolia Women’s Craft Collective Update

Taking a break from painting for the next week, so y’all are going to have to hang tuff to see the next step of the big argali painting. Tomorrow I’m off to the opening weekend festivities surrounding “Art and the Animal”, the annual majored juried show held by the Society of Animal Artists, of which I’m proud to have been a member since 2002. As those of you who follow this blog know, earlier in the year I learned that I had finally gotten into the show after coming up short for five or six years. I’ll try to blog a little of it while I’m there.

In other (great) news, along with some more pictures of the felt work:

Felt purse with horse motif
Felt purse with horse motif

Yesterday I had an eagerly anticipated phone conversation with Gana Wingard, the Mongolian scientist (she’s married to an  American attorney who specializes in natural resource law) who was my translator and liaison for my meetings with the herder women who live in and around the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I came home on the 30th and she stayed to run the Earthwatch team, so I was out of touch for almost a month with anyone who could tell me what happened next.

The women went home the same day we left for Ulaanbaatar, but most of them plus more local men and women, came back on August 5 to clean out the spring that serves both the herders and the research camp. They also created some spots for the argali to drink.

Two physicians came and provided information and advice on infectious diseases like swine flu.

The Bag Governor and his wife (a “bag” is the smallest administrative unit in Mongolia) were there, too. Amgalaanbaatar, or Amgaa, who leads the argali research from the Mongolian side, gave them and the other local people who had not been at original meetings a briefing about the new association “Ikh Nart Is Our Future”. He also brought, by request, 3 meters of good thin felt from Ulaanbaatar that the ladies, according to Gana, very carefully divided up square foot by square foot.

Ibex purse custom made for a Chinese researcher studying argali; i did the drawing on the felt
Ibex purse custom made for a Chinese researcher studying argali; I did the drawing on the felt; the writing is old Mongolian script which, I think says "Ikh Nart" and the Mongol name they gave her "Ibex" or Yamar

The director of the association, Boloroo, was very happy to receive a laptop computer, which she badly needed for the association’s recordkeeping. The computer was given to her by the research project on the condition that I find a replacement, which is something I’ll be working on. If anyone reading this can donate or knows where I could buy reasonably, a good quality fairly new laptop, please let me know.

There has been no time for Amgaa to research prices for the felt press, so that has had to be put off until October.

Ikh Nart formalized a sister park relationship with Anza-Borrego State Park last fall. I haven’t really met any of the park people yet, but they have donated a fair amount of equipment and help with things like signs. Amgaa visited them in California in January, his first trip to the USA. Six people from the park were at Ikh Nart while Gana was there with the Earthwatch team. Boloroo came to the camp on a motorbike with a selection of craft items. The Anza-Borrego people bought over 100,000 tugrik (about $100) worth for themselves and as gifts. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to hear about this. Two of the American Earthwatch staff members also purchased over $150 of crafts. This means that at least a small income is already flowing to the women who showed up and worked so hard while I was there.

Eyeglass case; closure and stars from notions and extra craft things I brought as gifts
Eyeglass case; closure and stars from notions and extra craft things I brought as gifts

There are two more Earthwatch teams this year and Boloroo plans to visit each one. She has also contacted my guide who was interested in commissioning traditional felt rugs and it looks like something will happen there, too. All in all, a terrific beginning. It was hard not to have been there for what came next, but I’m looking forward to seeing everyone next year!

One woman also brought this child's khurem, or jacket, that she made, wanting to sell it because it was too big.
One woman also brought this child's khurem, or jacket, that she made, wanting to sell it because it was too big. All the ribbon decoration was done by hand. The jacket body is blue wool.

I’ve Returned from Ikh Nartiin Chuluu

My trip to Ikh Nart was amazingly successful. It seemed like all the stars aligned for my three days of meetings with the women who want to start a crafts cooperative.

It’s going to take a bit to sort it all out and write it down coherently, but the punchline is that they got the word out, fourteen women took a five day felt workshop a month or so ago, and, when they showed up at the research camp (a half hour early), their new Director, Boloroo, handed me a fourteen page proposal and the ladies spread almost two dozen felt craft items out on the tables we’d set up.

To say that we were off and running would be a major understatement. The ladies even had a name for their group- “Ikh Nart Is Our Future”- ready for my approval. I approved. Immediately.

I had purchased four meters of felt in UB to give them and, in three days, all of that was turned into slippers, purses, a large rug and a variety of other things.

I also brought the fabric for them to make del for my husband and I. They finished both of them, fully lined and all the fastenings made by hand, sewn on manual sewing machines and ironed with old irons heated on a propane stove, in three days.

The next step will be to work out the details of the $800 loan that they have requested to buy a felt press, since their intention is to make the felt themselves, not buy factory-made.

Gana Wingard, the biologist who made the trip with me as translator and liaison, was as blown away as I was at how much effort they had put into this. We were going to go out early and late to look for argali and ibex, but never had the time. The schedule and pace was set by the women and it was non-stop. I did see and photograph some argali on the way into the reserve and on the way out.

To Jeff Whiting and everyone at AFC- I can absolutely guarantee you that you have gotten your money’s worth and then some for awarding me this grant. There are single mothers and poor families who will be benefiting for years to come because you made it possible for me to go to Ikh Nart.

Here’s a few photos:

Argali ewe on rock
Argali ewe on rock
The ladies arrive at the research camp
The ladies arrive at the research camp
Laying Mongol felt rug design
Laying out Mongol felt rug design
Ladies working on felt projects
Ladies working on felt projects
Me with new friend
Me with new friend
Sewing my del
Sewing my del
A felt purse with Ikh Nart patch which was given to me as a gift
A felt purse with Ikh Nart patch which was given to me as a gift
Ready for customers; eleven Aussies, as it turned out
Ready for customers; eleven Aussies, as it turned out
A "maikhant" or summer tent; me in my new del with the AFC Flag
A "maikhan" or summer tent; me in my new del with the AFC Flag
Group shot, including Aussie tour group members
Group shot, including Aussie tour group members
Four argali that we saw as we left the reserve this morning
Four argali that we saw as we left the reserve this morning