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- Reptiles And Amphibians

Central Asian Viper (Gloydius halys)
Central Asian Viper (Echis caranatus)

I’m definitely more of a mammal person, but when out in the field I take photos of anything that moves and a lot that doesn’t.

There aren’t many reptiles and amphibians in Mongolia, but I’ve seen and gotten photos of a few and here they are, starting at the top with one of the four venomous snakes in Mongolia, the Central Asian viper. This is a smallish one and was found down from the research camp at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve near the spring. One of the scientists coaxed it up onto the stick and brought it to camp so we could all see what one looked like. It was the first time I’d seen a snake in all my trips to Mongolia. Roy Chapman Andrews, in one of his books, describes what was dubbed the Viper Camp when he was in the Gobi. I’ll post an excerpt from that next week.

Below is a very common species of lizard, the Toad-headed agama. I usually see a few on each trip, generally at Ikh Nart.

Toad-headed agama lizard (Phrynocephalus versicolor)
Toad-headed agama lizard (Phrynocephalus versicolor)

The species name “versicolor” is because, even at a single location like Ikh Nart, you can see this kind of color variation…

Toad-headed agama
Toad-headed agama

Amphibians are not the first animal that comes to mind when one thinks of Mongolia, but they’re present, even in the Gobi. I photographed these toads at Orog Nuur, a Gobi lake, in July 2010. I believe they are Mongolian toads (Pseudepidalea raddei).

Mongolian toad (Pseudepidalea raddei)
Four Mongolian toads (Pseudepidalea raddei) (tentative ID)

And saw one again in the wetland area at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve in August 2011, which is mountain steppe.

Mongolian toad, Gun-Galuut
Mongolian toad, Gun-Galuut (tentative ID)

I’ve seen one frog once and not far from where I photographed the above toad, at Gun-Galuut. I believe this is a Siberian Wood Frog (Rana amurensis). Is that a cool common name or what?

Siberian Wood Frog (Rana amurensis)
Siberian Wood Frog (Rana amurensis) (tentative ID)

Both the toad and the frog are listed by the IUCN as species of Least Concern “…in view of its wide distribution, tolerance of a broad range of habitats, presumed large population, and because it is unlikely to be declining fast enough to qualify for listing in a more threatened category.”

How I Start A Painting

There are many artists who come up with a way of working that satisfies them and they never alter it. That would not be me. Every year about this time, I sit back and rethink my whole process of painting a picture. I’m perfectly willing to toss it all in the air and tweak and change whatever I think needs it. It’s very liberating.

I recently went to the Norman Rockwell show and was reminded of how thorough a process he used, how he broke down the elements of a picture and solved the problems as much as he could with each step, always leaving the door open for alterations down the road if needed. It’s the same procedure we were taught when I was getting a degree in illustration at the Academy of Art in the late 1980s. One didn’t need to do every step every time, but it was always there to fall back on if one got in trouble. (The steps are: thumbnails, rough drawing for composition, finished drawing, value study, color study, finish)

One of the things Rockwell did was very finished charcoal drawings at the final size. It always looked like a lot of work, even though I really love to draw, and I guess I never really got the point. I do now. I got into messes a couple of times in the past year, partly due to not solving all the drawing and value problems before I started to paint. I had begun doing drawings at the final size for the large pieces, but only outlines, no value. I’ve just started a series of three argali paintings and decided to take it up a notch.

I also needed to rethink how I got my image onto the canvas. I don’t have a projector anymore and don’t really want one. I’ve found a lot of value in drawing an animal multiple times because I really LEARN it. A painting shouldn’t be about saving time or doing it fast. It should be about doing what it takes to get it RIGHT.

One benefit of doing the drawings at the finished size is that it is then easy to make a tracing and do a graphite transfer. The alternative is the venerable grid system, which works just fine, but, dare I say it, takes a lot more time to no good purpose and, more importantly, didn’t give me as accurate a result.

These three pieces are compositionally simple. I have a clear idea in my head of where I want to end up. The main upfront decisions were how big and what proportions each one should be since they are intended to hang as a group, although they will be priced individually.

The reference photos (which I am not going to post due the vagaries of the internet) were taken during one action-packed hour with five argali rams at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Mongolia in July 2010. And two afternoons I spent there this past August during an eleven day stay doing studies of argali horns at the research camp really paid off in being able to understand the horns in the photos.

I’ll start with that page from my sketch journal and then show you the steps so far for the three paintings. I didn’t do thumbnails or rough drawings, but went straight to finished working drawings of the animals, but still thinking about what the landscape will look like.

Argali horns, research camp, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia, July 2012
Argali horns, research camp, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia, July 2012

Painting No. 1- Tentatively titled “Coming Through”, a big ram asserting his right to walk wherever he wants to, when he wants to

Beginning the graphite drawing; detail to show how I "drew through" the ram in back to make sure the parts all are in the right places. I used another piece of reference for the back legs since the ones in the photo didn't read well.
Beginning the graphite drawing; detail to show how I “drew through” the ram in back to make sure the parts all are in the right places. I used another piece of reference for the back legs since the ones in the photo didn’t read well.
Finished drawing; graphite on vellum bristol
Finished drawing; graphite on vellum bristol
I put tracing paper over the drawing and did an outline only drawing to use for transferring the image to the canvas
I put tracing paper over the drawing and did an outline only drawing to use for transferring the image to the canvas
Brush drawing on canvas after graphite transfer
Argali horns, research camp, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia, July 2012

Painting No. 2- No title yet

Finished drawing; graphite on vellum bristol
Finished drawing; graphite on vellum bristol
Outline on tracing paper
Outline on tracing paper; I’m drawing shapes of structure and values
Brush drawing on canvas
Brush drawing on canvas

Painting No. 3- No title yet

Graphite drawing; this was the third one and felt that I didn't need to go all the way to the same point. It was more important to get all the size and position relationships between the rams correct. The one in the back looked very odd in the reference photo, so I changed out his head for a profile instead of three quarters view
Graphite drawing; this was the third one and felt that I didn’t need to go all the way to the same point. It was more important to get all the size and position relationships between the rams correct. The one in the back looked very odd in the reference photo, so I changed out his head for a profile instead of three quarters view. Notice that the single ram and the group are on separate pieces of paper so I can move them around.
The tracing paper transfer version
The tracing paper transfer version
The brush drawing
The brush drawing

I should have a pretty good handle on argali horns by the time I’m done with all three paintings.

Learning What Siberian Ibex Look Like

What? You say. She’s seen them and photographed them. Surely she knows what they look like. Well, in a manner of speaking, I do, of course. I’ve got quite of bit of reference of them from previous sightings and have done a couple of small paintngs. But until this past trip I didn’t really have sharp, close-up reference of ibex in good light and also doing interesting things. Now I do.

I spent three out of my first four mornings at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in August taking around 1000 photos of 2-3 groups of nannies, kids and young billies. I’ve done an initial sorting and 5-star rated (in Aperture, my image management software) the ones that caught my eye for possible paintings.

But…I’ve learned when I decide to paint a new species that I’ll be sorry if I just dive in and hit the easel. I first need to “learn what the animal looks like” and to do that I simplify things by doing a number of monochrome sketches and drawings to familiarize myself with their structure, proportions and anatomy, along with looking for interesting behaviors. I pick reference photos that have a strong light and shadow pattern or some kind of interesting, perhaps, challenging, pose. Sometimes I throw in a quick indication of the ground so I can start to think about that, too.

I like doing small, fairly quick pen sketches. For those I use Sakura Micron .01. and .02 pens on whatever sketchbook I have on hand. They give me a basic idea of what I need to know. Then I’ll often do some finished larger graphite drawings on vellum bristol. I also did a couple of iPad drawings using ArtRage, which makes it easy to lay in some color.

Pen and ink sketches- I do these directly with the pen and spend about 10-30 minutes max on them depending on size
Pen and ink sketch
Pen and ink sketch
Pen and ink sketch
Pen and ink sketch
Graphite on vellum bristol
graphite on vellum bristol
graphite on vellum bristol
iPad using ArtRage app
iPad using ArtRage app

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- Expedition Destination: Takhin Tal

Expedition destinations by species

Takhiin Tal is part of the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area. It is to the west of Great Gobi A, which is larger and even more remote from people and towns.

It is also part of the Dzungarian Gobi, where the last takhi/Przewalski’s horse was seen in the wild in 1969, a lone stallion at a waterhole. And it is one of the three destinations that the WildArt Mongolia Expedition will be exploring.

Great Gobi B encompasses 9000 sq. kilometers, almost 3500 sq. miles. As has been true for centuries, local herders, around 100 families with about 60,000 head of livestock, use the area to graze their animals, mostly in the winter and during their spring and fall migrations.

Khomiin Tal takhi, September 2006;  These horses were photographed at the third release site, which is some distance to the north.

Takiin Tal was also the first of the three takhi release sites in Mongolia. The first horses arrived from Germany in 1992 through the efforts of Christian Oswald, a German businessman, and the Mongolian government. The organization he founded, ITG or the International Takhi Group, is involved there to this day, working to conserve and increase the population of the world’s only surviving species of true wild horse.

Besides takhi, the Expedition also hopes to see another endangered equid, the khulan/Mongolian wild ass, along with a variety of birds and smaller mammals.

“Enchanted Evening” Has Been Accepted Into “Art and the Animal”!

Enchanted Evening   36×40″ oil

I’m very proud to announce that my latest takhi painting “Enchanted Evening”,
has been accepted into the Society of Animal Artists’ 52nd Annual Exhibition of “Art and the Animal”. This is the fourth year in a row that I have had work in the show and they have all been Mongolia subjects, which pleases me a lot.

The exhibition will be held at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum, which is located in Oradell, New Jersey, and officially opens on the weekend of October 5-7. I plan to be there for all the festivities. More details later on as the opening approaches, but consider yourself invited!

The story behind the painting: Last August, nationally-known sculptor Pokey Park and I were on a two-week tour of the best wildlife watching locations. We were leaving Hustai National Park, one of the three places in Mongolia where takhi have been reintroduced, after a last horse-watching drive, which had already been very successful. Then, less than 50 feet from the road we spotted this small group of takhi coming down to a pool of water. We stopped and got our cameras ready. Would they come or not…

Trying to decide…
We’re thirsty!

And here’s a short video that I shot on my Flip HD. Unfortunately we ended up with a lot of cars stacked up behind us, just like a bear or bison jam in Yellowstone. One woman came up next to me out in plain view (I was behind the open door of the car, using it for kind of a blind) and spooked them, but at least they’d all been able to drink. Enjoy!

Mongolia Monday: 5 Photos of Favorite Places- Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve

This will be a occasional, on-going series of images of my favorite places in Mongolia. Baga Gazriin Chuluu means “Small Earth/Land Rocks”. There is also an Ikh Gazriin Chuluu (Great Earth Rocks), but I haven’t gotten there yet.

In July of 2009, my driver/guide and I pulled into the ger camp, which is located in the reserve and got settled in. I came out of my ger and was greeted with this amazing light and a woman riding down the valley. I had a feeling I was going to like this place.
It was my good luck to be there on the day of a local mountain blessing ceremony or local naadam. There was a horse race, wrestling, anklebone shooting and lots of people just riding around on their horses.
Seeing argali was my purpose for going there and within a couple of hours the first morning, my driver spotted this group of rams within sight of the car.
The following year, 2010, I got to go back as the first stop on a two-week camping trip. Here's the spot my driver/guide (same one as in 2009) picked.
Driving around, we came upon a short valley which had a number of cinereous vulture nests, including this one with a juvenile who was almost ready to fly. We climbed up on the rocks to get above him and I got some great photos.

There are more photos of Baga Gazriin Chuluu, including the story of my first trip there in 2009 here.

Mongolia Monday- Wildlife Profiles: Takhi

Takhi stallion, Hustai National Park, 2010

Species: Takhi or Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii)

Takhi, Khomiin Tal, 2006

Weight, height: approximately 300 kg or 660 lbs.; 13 hands (52 inches, 132 cm)

Takhi, Hustai National Park. 2005

Conservation Status: Endangered (IUCN Red List)

Takhi, Hustai National Park, 2011

Habitat Preference: Steppe, semi-desert; now also mountain steppe (Hustai)

Takhi group, Berlin Zoo, 2004 (first time I ever saw the species)

Best places to see takhi: In the wild: Hustai National Park, Mongolia. Captive animals: Many zoos and some reserves, including: San Diego Zoo, Denver Zoo, the National Zoo, the Berlin Zoo, the Wilds (near Cincinnati, Ohio)

Takhi leg stripes, Hustai National Park, 2005
Domestic Mongol horse with leg stripes, 2011

Interesting facts:

-Takhi are the only surviving species of true wild horse. What are called “wild horses” in the USA are feral domestic horses.

-The last wild takhi, a lone stallion, was spotted at a waterhole in the Dzungarian Gobi in 1969, and not long after the species was declared extinct in the wild. After WWII, only 55 survived in captivity, all descended from 13 founder animals. Today there are approximately 2000 takhi of which, as of 2011, 360 were at three release sites in Mongolia.

-Their range originally included, along with Mongolia: Belarus, China, Germany, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Russian Federation, Ukraine.

– Takhi have 66 chromosomes. Domestic horses have 64. They can mate and produce fertile offspring. It is estimated that they diverged around 500,000 years ago, so the speciation process is not complete. Domestic Mongol horses with takhi characteristics like carpal and tarpal leg stripes are fairly common, indicating a cross at some point in the past. Modern horses are not descendents of takhi.

-Other than a few instances of intensively hand-raised foals who would tolerate a rider while young, no one has ever “tamed” a takhi.

-They became known in the west when Col. Nikolai Przewalski brought a skull and skin, which had been presented to him at a border crossing between far western China and Mongolia, back to Russia. The official description was published in 1881.