Tales From The Field: Baby Marmots In Yellowstone National Park

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In June of 2005, I spent some time in Yellowstone National Park, doing what most visitors do….driving around wildlife spotting. On this day I’d gotten going fairly early in the morning so when I pulled into the parking area at Sheepeater’s Cliff, I had it all to myself, at least as far as other humans.

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I got out of the car with my camera and had started to walk towards the basalt cliff formation when I saw movement. A yellow-bellied marmot! I hadn’t seen one in the park before, much less been able to get good photos. And not just one, but three! A mother with her kits. All I had to do was slowly sit down and watch the show. Here are some of my favorite shots from that special morning.

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The youngsters started to play and they were a riot! I was in plain sight but they just carried on as if I wasn’t there.

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They heard something and ran back up to mom.

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But almost immediately started up again.

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Back to the ground for a wrestling match.

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Ouch!

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Payback.

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Back up onto the rocks and a little tidying up.

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This is when you mentally say “Thank you” to your model.

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Back down to the ground and time for some King of the Rock.

Then I heard a car pull in behind me. Fair enough. Heard a door close and footsteps. And some guy walks straight past me towards the marmots with a dinky point and shoot camera. And in an instant they were all gone into the rocks, leaving the guy standing there apparently too dumb or uninformed to realize what he’d done. Needless to say I was pretty irritated at him for interrupting and scaring them off because he couldn’t keep his distance and didn’t take a cue from what I was doing.  But at least I’d already gotten a bunch of great photos.

The rule of thumb in watching any wild animal is that if you do anything to alter its behavior you’re too close. Period. Non-negotiable. We can come and go as we please. The places where people see wildlife are the only homes they have and it and they need to be respected. I understand the temptation to want to get close, but anyone who has done any amount of animal watching knows about “the one step too many”. Please don’t take it.

The reward for patience and stillness…

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Tales From the Field: In Which We Ford a Flooded Gobi River (July, 2010)

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Breakfast, with cashmere goats. Great way to start the day!

In a country where 100km is a good day’s travel on the earth roads that serve most of it, we had just learned from locals at Baruunbayan-Ulaan, a soum center where we had stopped to get petrol, that the heavy log and plank bridge we heading for in order to cross the Taatsyn Gol had been destroyed, a casualty of five days of rain in the Hangai Mountains followed by serious flooding downstream in the Gobi, where I was on a two-week camping trip in July of 2010, traveling in a Land Cruiser with Khatnaa, my driver/guide and Soyoloo, our cook. The closest intact bridge would require almost a two day detour north and then back south, which didn’t appeal to any of us. What to do.
Khatnaa decided that we would drive on west to the river and see what the situation was. Also at the petrol station were two very full Mitsubishi Delicata van’s worth of Mongol men and their families. A little later a third one showed up.

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Heading south-east into the Gobi. I love this

In one day that had incident enough to two, here’s my journal entry from July 15, which gives a certain immediacy to what followed (photos after the journal entry):
“What an amazing day. Went south-west with Orog Nuur (Orog Lake) as our goal. Khatnaa knew there was the Taatsyn Gol (Taatsyn River) to cross, so stopped at a petrol station to ask about it. Also there were two van loads of Mongols from Togrog who were heading west to mine for gold. Usual Mongol socializing and information exchange ensued.
A third van showed up and we all headed towards the river, which was flooded due to rains in the Hangai Mountains.
We got across one stream, but were stopped by a broad ribbon of streams and mud. The main channel was moving fast and pulsing with even more water.
Went back up to the bluff overlooking the river and had lunch, watching the three van loads of Mongols look for a way across and mess around in the water.
Went back down to the river. Khatnaa walked a long way to see if he could find a crossing point, but came back and told us that the last stream of water was the worst of all. So we were faced with going north 100 km to the closest bridge. Such is travel in Mongolia.
Suddenly, there was action with one of the vans. A bunch of guys had formed a line across one point of the main channel and the van charged into the water, started to stall, but the guys all got behind it and pushed it on through!
Well, if a van could make it, our big Land Cruiser certainly could and did, without even needing a push. We did end up with an extra passenger, a little eej (mother) who wasn’t about to miss her chance to ride in our big car.

We got out on the other side and I photographed the other two vans making the crossing. Then said our good-byes.

We followed one van up a soft sand slope. It promptly got stuck so we rolled back down and went around it and on up the hill.
The entire “adventure” of the river crossing was a perfect example of Mongol practicality, improvisational skills and good humor. No one at any point got angry, showed frustration or swore. When it looked like things had stalled out, the guys took a break and goofed around in the water. Or so it seemed. They were clearly having fun but they were, in retrospect, also searching for a crossing point.
The spot they found was one where the channel wasn’t too wide or deep and where they felt the bottom was solid enough for a vehicle to get across with a minimal chance of getting stuck.
Without winches, cables or even rope, they simply used the same solution they always do – push.”

Here’s a selection of the photos that I took…

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Mongols from the vans looking for a place to cross a channel of the flooded Taatsyn Gol (river)
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Khatnaa walking out to see if he could find a crossing place as described in the journal entry
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After Khatnaa came back from not finding a way across, he drove up to the top of a bank overlooking the river valley where we had a picnic lunch and watched what was going on down below
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We drove back down and passed these two local herders who were riding over to check out what was happening
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You can see them in the distance on the left. Of course, they just rode across, no problem. Which was pretty funny, actually. It was that kind of day
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Would-be miners getting advice from the herders. All this taking place under a spectacular summer sky and crystalline light
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We were waiting at our car and suddenly one of the vans started across. I took this photo just as it started to stall out. The guys behind it immediately rushed up to give it a push and out it came on  the other side
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Then it was our turn. I took this shot at mid-stream. The water was up past the bumper
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Then the second van crossed with us looking back the way we’d just come
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Meanwhile, the herders enjoyed a little unexpected afternoon entertainment…
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The third van crossing without incident but some pretty good splashes
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All vehicles safely across the guys took a few minutes to goof around in the water.
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Then they headed back to their vans to continue their journey
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We followed behind and came upon one momentarily stuck in sand on the slope up out of the river valley. We smiled and waved as we went by since we still had a fair distance to go to our next destination, Orog Nuur (lake)
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And not too long after….camels!

In Mongolia, when traveling in the countryside, even when it seems bad it can be very good. And something cool, interesting or out and out wonderful happens every day.

Tales From The Field: A Stroll Through Egan’s Creek Greenway, Fernandina Beach, Florida

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The starting point of my walk

Not all good tales come from exotic locales. You don’t have to have a passport to get to somewhere worthwhile. And good adventures don’t all have to be exciting, much less life-threatening. Just getting out into nature wherever you live or travel to can yield fun, amusing and interesting stories. I’m known for my adventures in Mongolia, but I love to get out in nature and animal watch wherever I am. For instance, last March I spent over a week exploring southern Georgia and also some of the northern Florida barrier islands like Amelia Island and the town of Fernandina Beach, Florida, which turns out to have a wonderful and clearly much-loved community amenity, Egan’s Creek Greenway, a park braided with trails that run right through the town. Kudos to the townspeople who had the will and vision to set aside this natural area. You can read more about my March 2016 trip here and here.

We live in a rural coastal county in northern California, where the biggest reptile one is likely to encounter are large but harmless gopher snakes or a watch-your-fingers-cause-they-bite Pacific giant salamander. So it was a bit of stopper to see this sign upon entering what is essentially a town park…

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I walked most of the way to the northern end and back.

It was late afternoon and the light was getting better minute by minute.

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The trail split. I followed the one to the left, saving the one along the stream for the way back.

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It was March but a few wildflowers were already blooming.

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I really liked the three different textures of the grass, water plant, and trees.

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I saw a movement around twenty yards ahead. I had my long lens so was able to get some good photos of what I believe are marsh rabbits (Silvilagus palustris). I noticed that they stayed in the shade, which makes sense for a prey animal. They are similar in appearance and size to the brush rabbits we have here in Humboldt County.

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Turtles! This was a big deal for me since I’d never seen any in the wild before other than sea turtles in Hawaii. They are yellow belly sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta).

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These were to the right of the ones in the first photo, all catching some last rays before sundown.

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I had learned about this trail while chatting with my Airbnb host and this was my only chance to check it out. I couldn’t have come at a better time since the light was great and there was almost no one else around.

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I came upon a great egret in soft cool light.

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It took off and I got a good shot of it in flight.

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After that sign at the trailhead, this log stopped me for an instant.

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I came to another open area adjacent to a deep water-filled depression where the trails went off in different directions, I was getting pretty close to being back to where I’d started. I happened to look down into the pond…

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And what do you know? An alligator! At least six feet long, also catching the last of the day’s sun.

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Can you spot the gator?

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I walked on and a short time later came upon another grazing bunny who quickly hopped into the brush. I caught up to where I thought he’d gone and there he was, holding very still.

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A few minutes later I spotted this male cardinal. We don’t have these where I live so I always get a kick out of seeing them even though I know they’re quite common.

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A short distance more and I was out of the greenway into the open and here was a big pond with not only a great blue heron (we do have them here on the west coast, too), but  more turtles!

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As I photographed the heron and turtles, I spotted something in the sky. It was a red-tailed hawk circling around. I took a lot of photos and finally got a few of the bird as it turned and caught the light.

What a day. But there was one more treat in store.

Palm warbler

As I walked back to the parking area I spotted a small bird hopping around in the chain link fence and managed to get this one photo. It’s a palm warbler, a new species for me.

The whole walk was at most three hours. I had nothing in mind, just to explore a new area and see what was there. What places are there where you live that you’ve never gotten around to exploring? We tend to take where we live for granted, but nature is ever-changing and no walk or hike will ever be exactly the same. If you’ve discovered a local gem where you live tell me about it in the comments!

Tales From The Field: “Crashing” A Naadam In 2010

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I sat in the car and took photos through the windshield

I was coming to the end of my first tent camping trip in Mongolia in July of 2010. We had traveled south to a remote Gobi lake, Orog Nuur…myself, my driver/guide and a cook… and back north into the Hangai Mountains to see a variety of sights, including two mineral spring resorts, a Buddhist retreat established by Zanabazar, Mongolia’s finest sculptor, popular Orkhon Falls and the much visited site of the imperial Mongol capital Harkhorin which is adjacent to the famous monastery, Erdene Zuu, partly constructed of stones from the ruined capital which was sacked my the Ming army after they ended the Yuan Dynasty of Khublai Khan and chased the Mongols back to their homeland.

Our route now took us north, down out of the Khangai Mountains, where, for the last night out, we were going to pitch our tents at Ongii Nuur, a lake known for its birds. It was a gloomy, cloudy day. As we were driving along, I noticed a large ger encampment down and off to the left. I almost said something to to my Mongol driver/guide Khatnaa, but let it go. Then he had to slow down because a bunch of men and boys on horses were crossing the road. I told him about the gers. He made a right turn and followed the horsemen up the slope. And at the top found ourselves in the midst of over a hundred Mongols, many dressed to kill in fancy brocade del, sashes and boots.

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Last instructions, I assume, before the riders and horses go out to the starting p0int

Just about the only thing that I had hoped to encounter on the trip (my fifth to the Land of Blue Skies), but had not, was a local naadam, the festival that always has a variety of traditional competitions and activities, including the Three Manly Sports of horse racing, wrestling and archery (I had gotten to attend my first local naadam at Baga Gazriin Chuluu in 2009 and was instantly hooked). Now it appeared that we had finally stumbled onto one on the last afternoon of the last day of the trip.

We pulled up in an area on the hill where a lot of cars and trucks were parked. There were horses all over the place. Khatnaa got out, spoke with someone and came back with the news that the event was a family reunion. Stay or go? We’d inadvertently crashed a private party. I told Khatnaa that it was up to him to do what he thought best. He thought for a moment while I held my breath and then pulled into the middle of a long line of cars, where we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Over the next two to three hours I sat in the big silver Land Cruiser and took around five hundred photos of whatever crossed my field of vision. Our arrival had coincided with the run-up to the horse race and we had gotten there just in time to watch all the preparations for it.

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I wasn’t sure what to watch for, but then saw the characteristic cloud of dust with a chase car in front and the riders and other cars behind

It seemed like over half the men and boys were on horseback, warming up the racehorses, chatting and just riding around the area the same way the rest of us would walk. The trainers stood out with their fancy del, sashes, hats and boots, along with their sweat scrapers tucked in to the back of their sashes. Older men sat on the ground exchanging snuff bottles in the traditional greeting. Kids were happily running and riding all over the place. Everyone was clearly having a great time, as was I getting to watch it all.

Our “cover” was blown when a young couple on a motorbike drove up and offered us fresh, hot khuushuur (fried mutton turnovers). No way we were going to pass on those. I stayed in the car until the first horses were approaching the finish line and then got out and joined the happy crowd.

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I never found out for sure, but it looked like it was a tie for first place. What counts is to be in the first five to cross the finish line

Afterwards, shortly before we left, I was photographing a lovely black race horse who was being scraped down, as the sweat from the winning horses is thought to be very lucky and auspicious. A woman came up to me, took my arm, led me over to the horse and made a gesture for me to lay my palm on the sweat, which suddenly turned me from spectator to participant. It was a very kind and thoughtful thing for her to do since I was very obviously not a member of this very big family. I was never so glad that I knew how to say “thank you” in Mongolian.

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The black horse. This was a race for two-year olds so the horses haven’t reached their full size yet.

Tales From The Field: An Ibex Day At Ikh Nart

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I spent over an hour watching this group of ibex nannies and kids, six or seven in all; I’m working on a painting of them is this great setting of rocks and green grass

I was staying at the research camp at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in September of 2012. It’s one of the best places in Mongolia to see argali mountain sheep (Ovis ammon) and Siberian ibex (Capra siberica).

I went out walking one morning for a day of hiking around and it quickly turned into One of Those Days that wildlife watchers and artists dream of…nine separate sightings and three times spending an hour or more with an entire group.

About halfway through the morning I’d come along the top of the valley and was now walking down a draw towards the valley, intent on heading towards the western end rock formations and following a very narrow path left by various animals, both wild and domestic. I was maybe ten yards from where the draw joined up with a larger one which would drop down to the valley when, with no sound or warning, two ibex nannies came running at full speed around the corner of a rock straight at me! They pulled up fast, gave me a look and turned. One bolted back up the way she’d come and the other, which I now saw had a kid, ran off down the direction I intended to go. Everyone involved was equally surprised. Needless to say I didn’t get any photos of the actual encounter, but I can see it in my mind’s eye. all of us standing there for an instant looking at each other. No idea, of course, why they were running so hard and fast.

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At the fork of the “y” where we all came together. I’d come in from the left, the ibex had come barreling around those rocks that are also on the left. I’m standing with my back to the draw I was heading for.

And, as you can imagine, my heart was pounding. They could have easily run right over me. But everyone was fine, they were gone, so I continued on down the draw. And, believe it not, there was the nanny and kid…

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The nanny  was straight ahead of me

Amazingly, the ibex had stopped running, had gone up on a rock formation and was just standing there.

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Siberian ibex nanny and kid

I walked forward a slow step at a time and got close enough for a few shots and her youngster. The photo above is not cropped. It was taken with my Nikon D750 and Nikon Nikkor 80-400 lens. She looked around a bit then she and her baby vanished on down the valley. I waited a bit to let them get ahead of me and be able to go where they wanted to go. I think she’d seen enough of me for one day.

Here is a far more common way of seeing ibex. One learns to spot them from quite a long distance because the pattern of head and horns doesn’t match the rocks.

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This was the first sighting of the day, very typical, just a head above the rocks.

And here are some more photos of other sightings that day. I finally got down to the rocks on the south side of the western end of the valley and found a large group of nannies and kids, who I hung around with for over an hour.

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There are seven ibex in this photo

Farther down the valley there was yet another group. A couple were wearing radio collars. Once they settled down I sat in plain view, photographing and sketching them.

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There were a number of kids who were playing and jumping around on the rocks, which was great fun to watch

They finally moved off out of sight, but I’ve learned to hang around and wait. This time I was rewarded by having the whole group reappear and cross in a long line along the ridgetop, finally disappearing out of sight for good.

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Ibex nanny group against the sky

There were a couple more long distance sightings of one or two ibex on my way back to camp, but they were either too far away or in the shade for photos anything other than “I saw them” shots, which I always take as a memory jog, if nothing else.

And that’s the tale of my “Ibex Day” which I will long remember.

Tales From The Field: “The Yak”

 

1-yakHappy New Year! I’m going to change things up on the blog for the coming year, my tenth as a blogger. I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of traveling over the years to a variety of destinations. And do I have stories? I certainly do. So the first Friday of each month will be “Tales from the Field”, which will include Mongolia, of course, but also Kenya, Canada, Europe and the US. Then I plan to do a post on whatever I’ve got cooking in the studio or on location, followed the next week with one of useful tips and information on painting and drawing. The fourth Friday will be a “gallimauphry” post, a great medieval term for “this and that”… announcements, special offers, whatever has caught my fancy. There may be posts in between for news that just can’t wait.

To start off Tales from the Field, here’s the story of my encounter with a yak in the northern mountains of Mongolia….

I was on my way to Jalman Meadows, a Nomadic Journeys ger camp located in the Han Hentii Strictly Protected Area at the northern reaches of the Tuul Gol (River), which wends its way down through Ulaanbaatar and on west.

We had left the pavement behind and were traveling on earth roads through the beautiful late summer countryside, passing local herders and their livestock, along with their white gers, the quintessential Mongolian landscape. Driving along a slope overlooking a valley we came upon (top photo) these two young men and a couple of yaks, both of which appeared to be gelded yak/cow crosses, which are stronger for work than pure yaks. The intact bulls have their horns removed because otherwise they would be too dangerous to handle.

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They were keeping a careful eye on their charges.

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But clearly experienced in moving these big beasts along. The horses were as phlegmatic about it as they always are.

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We stopped while they crossed the road in front of us. I was sitting in the front seat of the Land Cruiser on the left side, the car being right-hand drive, and shooting photos through the windshield, but was able to have the window down next to me.

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The boys and their charges moved off down towards the valley floor and we drove on.

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There was a summer rain storm coming in and the light was spectacular at times. While we were stopped the riders and yaks caught up with us.

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Got more photos of them passing us, although this one was a little blurry, it was the best composed. Then things changed in a hurry…

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The bigger of the two yaks suddenly turned towards the car.

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And started to charge towards it, aimed right at the passenger door. The boy had been smiling, but became quite serious. I wasn’t going anywhere.

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Now he needed to really get his horse moving to catch up. I remember thinking that there was going to be collision with the car door and I would be looking right at those horns from a very, very short distance.

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But he got the yak turning away and started to grin again. At this point he was about 15′ from the car. I and the driver exhaled. There had been no time for him to start the engine and no place to drive to anyway. Best to just stay put, stay quiet and not move. So I just kept, rather fatalistically, I suppose, taking pictures out the open window.

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The yak was now turned away from the car and going in the right direction.

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And the rider herded him towards the other boy and his charge.

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Our yak encounter over, the herders moved their charges on down the valley with a pretty good story to tell when they got home.

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And we drove on to our destination, Jalman Meadows, set high on a bluff overlooking the river and the mountains. You can see photos of my stay there on a previous blog post here.