Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Henning Haslund on Mongol Horses

Haslund-500If all Henning Haslund had ever accomplished was to survive an expedition with Sven Hedin, that would have made him notable (Hedin’s expeditions are remarkable for the body count of both men and animals). But he is also one of the “must read” writers for anyone interested in Mongolia.

I’ve only read one so far, “In Secret Mongolia”, but the second one “Men and Gods in Mongolia” is sitting on the shelf waiting for me. I’ll be getting a copy of “Tents in Mongolia”, the third of what is really a series, also.

“In Secret Mongolia” (published in 1934) is the story of Haslund’s participation in a Danish project to establish a farm in northern Mongolia (which lasted from 1923 to 1926). Along the way he meets most of the major characters who were also in Mongolia at the time or hears tales of others, like the Bloody White Baron, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.

He also wrote eloquently and with affection about the Mongols. Absent is the thinly veiled attitude of inherent white superiority present in many other accounts.

Here is Haslund writing about the Mongols and their horses (Note: when Haslund refers to “wild” horses, he is talking about the domestic Mongol horses, which run “wild” when not in use, not the genetically wild takhi/Przewalski’s horse):

herder JM“It is a pleasure to see the Mongols in association with their horses, and to see them on horseback is a joy. If one of the wild or half-wild horses of the herd is to be caught, the Mongol rides on a specially trained catching-horse, holding in his hands an urga, a very long pole with a noose at the end. The catching-horse soon understands which horse his rider wants to get hold of, and follows it until it is cut out of the herd. Then the pursuit goes at a flying gallop over the steppe, until the Mongol gets his lasso over the pursued horse’s neck, when the catching-horse slowly but surely holds back till the wild horse is tired out, and the Mongols hurry up to saddle it. The wild horse is not let go until is has a rider in the saddle, and then it gallops, buckjumps and throws itself on the ground in the attempt to get rid of its rider. But the Mongol sits fast and the horse is soon broken.

herder 4 JM

herder 2 JMSuch horse-breaking is admirable, and the strength, swiftness and elegance of the Mongol surpass those of any ballet dancer. I once saw a Mongol ungirth and throw off the saddle from under him and continue to ride the horse bareback, bucking wildly all the time, till it was broken.

herder 6 JMHorses are the Mongol’s chief investment. He knows nothing of banks and silver does not interest him beyond the quantity that he and his women can use for ornament. But if he has many horses on the steppe, then he is a well-to-do man. Then he sits on a hillock looking out over his wealth, and counts up the many-coloured multitude of splendid animals grazing on the steppe with slim necks and flowing manes, just as a man in the west counts his notes, and when the neighing of the stallions rings bell-like over the grass lands, his eyes shine with greater pride than the ring of minted silver can call forth in us.”

Note: the horse photos in this post were taken by me last year near the Jalman Meadows eco-ger camp run by Nomadic Journeys, who does all my in-country travel arrangements. It is located in the Strictly Protected Area of the Han Hentii Mountains a few hours northeast of Ulaanbaatar. The local family who helps run the camp lives nearby and demonstrates Mongol practices and horsemanship for visitors, including riding a couple of two-year olds for the first time when I was there. They also provide horses for trekking trips.

Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Beatrix Bulstrode on Mongolian Bactrian Camels

beatrix bulstrodeFirst in 1911 and again in 1913, an intrepid British woman, Beatrix Bulstrode, traveled in and through Mongolia. The result is one of the great travel classics of all time “A Tour in Mongolia”. I’m only 78 pages in and have already found enough material for 3-4 blog posts. She was a wonderfully droll writer in the the English tradition, coming up with unforgettable phrases like “desperately unsportsmanlike” to describe her Finnish missionary traveling companion’s offer to throw a number of Chinese out of an inn to make more room for Mrs. Bulstrode. She refused for the reason stated above, and so  joined them and nine or ten Mongols either sleeping on the raised heated bed the Chinese call a k’ang or tucked into every available corner.

These days, tour companies like the one I work with, Nomadic Journeys, uses camels for cross-country trekking trips.
These days, tour companies like the one I work with, Nomadic Journeys, use camels for cross-country trekking trips. They carry all the baggage, tents, food and even a ger for use as a kitchen and dining hall.

As she headed north out of Kalgan up onto the Mongolian plain and the Gobi, she passed camel caravans going south. She had a wonderful ability to pick up information and write about what she saw in a vividly compelling way. Here is her description of the bactrian camels:

“The staying power of camels is proverbial. The caravans in Mongolia march from twenty-five to twenty-eight miles a day, averaging a little over two miles an hour, for a month, after which the animals require a two weeks’ rest when they will be ready to begin work again. Their carrying powers all the same do not bear comparison with the ox-cart. The ordinary load for the Bactrian, or two-humped Mongolian, camel is about 2 cwt. For riding purposes, though despised by the horsey Mongol, a good camel may be used with an ordinary saddle for seventy miles a day for a week in spring or autumn without food or water. The points of this particular species are a well-ribbed body, wide feet, and strong, rigid humps. The female camel is pleasanter to ride and generally more easy-going than the skittish young bull camel, who in the months of January and February is likely to be fierce and refractory. I have heard it said that if a camel “goes for you” with an open mouth, you should spring at his neck and hang on with both legs and arms until some one renders you timely assistance and ties him up. Generally speaking, however, they are not savage. They make as though to bite, but seldom actually do. The female might, in fact would, try to protect her young; and the cry of a cow camel when separated from her calf is as pathetic as that of a hare being run down by the hounds.”

My first time on a Mongol bactrian camel. Western Mongolia, Sept. 2006
My first time on a Mongol bactrian camel. Western Mongolia, Sept. 2006

There will be more excerpts by Beatrix in the future. Stay tuned.

Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: “Viper Camp”, Roy Chapman Andrews

Central Asian pit-viper (Agkistrodon halys intermedius)
Central Asian pit-viper (Echis caranatus); photographed at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, August 2010
Last week’s Mongolia Monday post was about reptiles and amphibians I’ve seen in Mongolia. It was well received on Facebookso I decided to follow up with this excerpt from Roy Chapman Andrews’ book about his Central Asiatic Expeditions “The New Conquest of Asia- a narrative of the Central Asiatic Expeditions in Mongolia and China, 1921-1930”, in which they have a pretty intense encounter with one of the four poisonous snakes that occur in Mongolia. He appears to be referring to Agkistrodon halys intermedius (now Echis carinatus) since he states earlier in the book that “…the brown pit-viper, Agkistrodon halys intermedius, which is the only poisonous snake we have encountered in the Gobi, is fairly abundant.”
Another photo from the cafe, this one showing the Expedition's camp. The tents are "maikhan" or summer tents, which are lighter and even more portable than the better known felt gers.
Here’s a photo of one of Andrews’ camps, taken at one of the cafes at the American Museum of Natural History. The tents are called “maikhan” or summer tents, which are lighter and even more portable than the better known felt gers.
Our next camp, ten miles to the north of Baron Sog-in-Sumu, was very
similar to the one we had left. The tents were pitched on a great promontory
which projected far out into the basin. Near them was an obo, or religious
monument, and shortly after our arrival two lamas came to call. They were
delegates from a temple, Tukhum-in-Sumu, four miles away, and asked us
to be particularly careful not to shoot or kill any birds or animals on the
bluff. It was a very sacred spot and the spirits would be angry if we took
life in the vicinity. Of course, I agreed to respect their wishes and gave orders
at once. But we had promised more than we could fulfill, as events proved.
In the first two hours of prospecting, three pit-vipers, Agkistrodon, were
discovered close to the tents. A few days later the temperature suddenly
dropped in the late afternoon and the camp had a busy night. The tents
were invaded by an army of vipers which sought warmth and shelter. Lovell
was lying in bed when he saw a wriggling form cross the triangular patch of
moonlight in his tent door. He was about to get up to kill the snake when
he decided to have a look about before he put his bare feet upon the ground.
Reaching for his electric flashlamp, he leaned out of bed and discovered a
viper coiled about each of the legs of his camp cot. A collector’s pickax was
within reach and with it Lovell disposed of the two snakes which had hoped
to share his bed. Then he began a still-hunt for the viper that had first
crossed the patch of moonlight in the door and which he knew was some-
where in the tent. He was hardly out of bed when an enormous serpent
crawled out from under a gasoline box near the head of his cot. Lovell was having rather a lively evening of it — but he was not alone.
Morris killed five vipers in his tent, and Wang, one of the Chinese chauffeurs,
found a snake coiled up in his shoe. Having killed it, he picked up his soft
cap which was lying on the ground and a viper fell out of that. Doctor Loucks
actually put his hand on one which was lying on a pile of shotgun cases. We
named the place “Viper Camp,” because forty-seven snakes were killed in
the tents. Fortunately, the cold had made them sluggish and they did not
strike quickly. Wolf, the police dog, was the only one of our party to be
bitten. He was struck in the leg by a very small snake, but since George
Olsen treated the wound at once, he did not die. The poor animal was very
ill and suffered great pain, but recovered in thirty-six hours.
The snake business got on our nerves and everyone became pretty
jumpy. The Chinese and Mongols deserted their tents, sleeping in the cars
and on camel boxes. The rest of us never moved after dark without a flash-
light in one hand and a pickax in the other. When I walked out of the tent
one evening, I stepped upon something soft and round. My yell brought
the whole camp out, only to find that the snake was a coil of rope ! We had
to break my promise to the lamas and kill the vipers, but our Mongols
remained firm. It was amusing to see one of them shooing a snake out of his
tent with a piece of cloth to a place where the Chinese could kill it. The
vipers were about the size of our copperheads, or perhaps a little larger.
While their fangs probably do not carry enough poison to kill a healthy man,
it would make him very ill.
The snakes inhabit bluffs throughout the desert, like the one on which
we were camped. Their great number at this particular spot was due to the
fact that it was a sacred place and the Mongols would not kill them there.
This viper appears to be the only poisonous snake in the Gobi, and we
collected but one non-poisonous species. The climate is too dry and cold to
favor reptilian life.”
The entire amazing account is available free through the Internet Archive ( in a variety of formats. It can be downloaded onto iPads through an app called Megareader or saved as a pdf, for instance. There are facsimile versions and also OCR scans, which work but can be filled with errors. Here’s a facsimile version of the book itself, which includes all the photos:

Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Owen Lattimore On The Buying And Selling Of Sheep

Sheep for sale by the road during the National Naadam, 2009
Sheep for sale by the road during the National Naadam, 2009

This excerpt is taken from “The Desert Road to Turkestan” by Owen Lattimore, published in 1929. It is his incredible account of traveling with a camel caravan from a point west of Beijing to Urumchi in present-day Xinjiang, far western China. Highly recommended and on my short list of Best Travel Books Ever.

Sheep for sale in Hovd, western Mongolia, 2006
Sheep for sale in Hovd, western Mongolia, 2006

“Sheep buying is done by the Mongol usage. There is first a bargaining for quality – small sheep, good sheep, or pick of the flock, at different prices. It is usual to agree that good sheep are in question, at so much per head. The Mongol turns them out by the score, which he says are good. The buyer disputes this with scorn, making the Mongol change as many of them as he can. When at last the goodness of the herd as a whole has been admitted, the Mongol plunges among the sheep, seizes one, and cries “This is it!” “Not so, says the buyer; “it is the worst of a poor lot.” The buyer here is in the right, for I never saw a nomad, whether a Mongol, Qazaj, or Kirghiz, who failed to tackle the worst sheep with speed and skill. The Mongol protests and argues, but after awhile he seizes another; the argument begins afresh, but after several have been rejected the buyer in the upshot gets the mathematically average sheep from a mathematically average lot, the whole deal, with words and antics, having taken from half an hour to half a day.”

Flock of sheep and goats, at my driver's ger in the mountains north of Tsetserleg, 2011
Flock of sheep and goats, at my driver’s ger in the mountains north of Tsetserleg, 2011

Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Owen Lattimore On How To Ride A Camel

My first camel ride in Mongolia, September 2006. No, I didn't fall off.
My first camel ride in Mongolia, September 2006. No, I didn’t fall off.

Owen Lattimore’s books are filled with information and lore about all kinds of things that one would encounter traveling with Mongols back in the 1920s, including the fine art of riding a bactrian (two-humped) camel.

“I have never been thrown by a camel when I was really trying to stick on unless the girth gave. Camels are too awkwardly built to do any fancy bucking, but when they do their best they can almost always burst the girth, because it is a healthy principle of camel-riding that the girth should always be weak. If the rider should be caught with a foot jammed in the stirrup when thrown or when the camel has managed to sling the saddle around under its belly it would be very serious. It is better to have the girth part and to be thrown clear, even though the fall is much higher than from a horse. As a matter of fact, the greater fall seems to let you hit the ground with muscles relaxed. I do not remember feeling badly shaken when falling from a camel, and the Mongols say: “Fall from a camel-nothing to worry about; fall from a donkey-break your leg.”

From Mongol Journeys

Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Excerpt From A Great Book About Mongolia, “Mongol Journeys” And A Reminder

Done for the Day  17x30" oil-domestic bactrian camels.
Done for the Day 17×30″ oil- domestic bactrian camels.

Don’t forget to check out my 2013 calendar filled with images of my paintings of Mongolia! It includes “Done for the Day”, which was accepted into the Society of Animal Artists prestigious juried show “Art and the Animal” in 2009.


River valley, Hangai mountains north of Bayanhongor
River valley, Hangai mountains north of Bayanhongor

Owen Lattimore was, in his time, considered one of the greatest western experts on Mongolia. He traveled extensively in what were then called Inner and Outer Mongolia in the 1930s. The former is now an autonomous region of China and the latter is the independent country of Mongolia. He revisited Mongolia in the early 1960s. I just finished his book “Mongol Journeys” and would have to say that it is one of the best books on Mongolia that I have read yet. It’s not easy to find, but you can currently get it here for a reasonable price.

I’d like to quote from it today about the traditional Mongol view of names for things. It’s a pretty good example of how untrue and simplistic the overgeneralizing statement is that “people are all alike”. In fact, people in different parts of the world operate from very different cultural assumptions which can, in equal parts, trip up, amuse or, with luck, enlighten a visitor and give them an insight into a different way of seeing the world.

For example, the exploration of America often consisted in being first to a place and then giving your name to it. If the name stuck, then it was the one that appeared on all maps henceforth down to today. We even get a kick out of places that have had the same place name for a very long time. For many Americans (I can speak only to my country, others may be the same though), the first thing they ask when arriving at a sight like a mountain or river or waterfall is to ask what it’s called.

But for the Mongols:

“Another very interesting thing about nomad life is the balance between the specific and the vague. In the Mongol vocabulary, for instance, the age, colour and individual characteristics of a horse or a camel or any other animal can be told with the most minute precision. There is also such an accurate terminology for different kinds of hills, ridges, plains, lakes, pools, streams and springs that you can get directions taking you across many miles of vague country without a mistake. On the other hand, it is often difficult to get a precise place name. A hill or a spring may have several names, of which some are descriptive and others honorific or propitiatory. The “real” name is likely to be taboo, so that if you ever hear it at all you are more likely to hear it when you are far away than when you are near it.

Why such taboos? Well, to begin with, if you are at a certain place you are obviously in some ways dependent on that place – for a safe camp, for good pasture and so on. It is better, therefore, to talk about that place vaguely in a ‘respectful’ way than exactly in a ‘familiar’ way. Even more important, perhaps, is that fact that, being a nomad, you do not want to be tied to any one place even by verbal associations. It is true that neither the Mongols nor any nomads are unlimited wanderers; you move in a framework which is partly the social frame of your tribe and partly the geographical frame of your tribe’s territory….the fact that you are a herder means that you always long for fluidity of movement. The Mongols, as nomads, call themselves nutel ulus, moving people….Your “homeland” is your nutuk (today this is spelled “nutag”)…your nutag is not only ‘the territory within which you move’ but ‘territory in which you are always moving about’.

Within this territory you do not want to be pinned down to any one place, nor do you want to be easily traced or spotted by an enemy (Note from Susan: this was written in the 1930s when there was still intertribal conflict and banditry in both Inner and Outer Mongolia). At the same time you do want your friends to be able to find you and you must be traceable by the authorities…..All of this explains why, when you are travelling and either asking your way or being asked from where you have come and where you are going, there are two extreme answers and any number of gradations in between; the vague answer and the exact answer. It all depends on the authority of the questioner and the degree to which the man questioned recognizes that authority and the necessity of being indentified or the desire to be traced. When, in short, you sometimes find yourself thinking that the nomad is frank and honest and at other times that he is evasive and a liar you must remember that this is as much a social convention as it is of personal veracity.”

My own personal experience with this whole cultural issue of place names was on my 2009 trip to Mongolia, heading south to Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. We stopped for lunch on a hillside with a view to an amazing mountain that rose out of the steppe. Naturally I asked what it was called. My guide/driver said “Hairhan”, which means “sacred”. Then he explained how the Mongols do not, out of respect, say the name of a mountain while in its presence. They are all called “Hairhan”. I observed that it got around the question like the one I had asked, that a visitor could ask the name, get an answer and be content, while the Mongol had preserved the correct cultural practice. And, in fact, I follow it myself now. If someone asks me the name of a mountain (they are all sacred since the top of a mountain is the closest one can get to Tenger, the Eternal Blue Sky), I say “Hairhan”, but also explain what that means and that I will tell them the “real name” once we are out of the mountain’s presence. It just feels like the right thing to do.

Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Friar Giovanni DiPlano Carpini

Mongol warriors escorting Chinggis Khan's mother, Hoelun: National Naadam opening ceremonies, Ulaanbaatar, July 2009

Mongolia has always been considered an incredibly remote and exotic destination by most westerners. The shorthand expression for the farthest a person could be from any place has been to say that they’ve gone all the way to “Outer Mongolia”.

The reality today is that it is quite simple to get there from the United States and Europe. I fly to San Francisco (one hour) to Seoul, South Korea (11+hours) to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia (three hours). There are non-stop flights to Ulaanbaatar from Berlin and Moscow. But before air travel, before trains, before the country was essentially closed to foreigners by the communist government from 1921 to 1990 (other than the Russians who were stationed there), Mongolia was a challenging place to get to and travel in.

This will be an occasional series about westerners who have traveled to Mongolia in times past and left written accounts of their experience.

Epic. Journey.

First up is a man known in English as John of Plano Carpini, sent to Mongolia by Pope Innocent IV in April of 1245 to find out all he could about the “Tartars” who had beaten every army of European knights sent against them, but had then mysteriously vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

He and his party were stopped for a time in Russia at the camp of Batu, one of the most important Mongol princes, who finally ordered them to travel on to the court of Guyuk, who was the grandson of Chinggis Khan through his father, Ogedei Khan. 106 days and 3,000 miles later, in July of 1246, they arrived at the Mongol imperial capital of Kharkhorin. Carpini was in time to witness the Great Khural during which Guyuk was elected Great Khan.

Guyuk declined their invitation to become a Christian, although there had been Nestorian Christians present and living in the empire for some time. He did, however, give Carpini a letter to take back to the Pope demanding that he travel to Kharkhorin and submit to Mongol authority.

One page of the letter from Guyuk to the Pope

Guyuk allowed them to begin their journey home in November. They re-traced their route across the length of the Central Asian steppes through the winter and on into spring, then summer, finally arriving at Kiev in June of 1247. Traveling on, they delivered the Khan’s letter to the Pope in Lyon, France, who was not inclined to obey.

This epic journey was really a spy mission. The Mongols had withdrawn from Europe, it turned out, due to the death of Ogedei Khan (the cause is presumed to have been acute alcoholism) and the requirement to return to Mongolia to choose his successor, but the westerners, not knowing any of this, had no choice but to assume that they might return at any time and pick up where they left off, on the verge of entering central Europe. Carpini’s mission, which he courageously carried out, was to gather all the information he could, not only about the Mongols themselves, about whom nothing was known, but everything he could find out about their military: numbers of men, armor, weapons, tactics. Of course, if this had become known to the Mongols, it would have been a one-way trip for all of them.

The edition I have.

Once home, he wrote it all down in a report for the Pope, which has become the book, “The Story of the Mongols Whom We Call The Tartars”, the first account of the Mongols by a westerner. It has been translated into English and is a fascinating read for anyone interested in history, Central Asia, the military, travel and the Mongols themselves. You can get a hardcopy translation by Erik Hildinger at Amazon or read a free online version, translated by Richard Hakluyt here, which also has various download options.