Five wonderful weeks in Mongolia just flew by. I managed to spend three of those weeks in the countryside: two weeks doing the “wildlife watching” tour with nationally-known sculptor Pokey Park and then a week of camping with a guide/cook and driver.
Lots of great reference and stories to match will be posted here in the weeks to come, but for now I’m still catching up and working on a couple of new projects, about which more later.
In the meantime, here’s a collection of the photos that have me in them, most taken by our great driver/guide, Khatnaa, who brought his own camera and who definitely has an eye as a photographer.
I’m going to have to once again interrupt my current series to share some news and the accompanying memories-
I got word last week that Choidog, the subject of my painting “Choidog and Black”, which is currently in a national invitational American Academy of Equine Art show in Lexington, Kentucky, passed away in late March. He was about 80 years old and was healthy until the very end. Choidog was one of the legends of Mongolian horse training, having won the national Naadam race three times.
I first encountered him on a fall 2008 trip to Mongolia when my husband and I stayed at Arburd Sands ger camp, which is operated by one of his sons and daughters-in-law. We were invited to his ger by them for the family’s annual foal branding. It was a magical afternoon, which you can read about here. He was every inch the proud Mongol horseman and we knew that we were in the presence of someone special.
At the ger camp, there was a book, “Horse People”, by Mattias Klum. One chapter was about Choidog and his family. I glanced through it, only casually interested, since my focus at the time was almost exclusively on wildlife.
Last July, on my Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition, I had the opportunity to see him again, as his ger happened to be only a kilometer or so from Arburd Sands ger camp, where I was staying for one night on the way to a nature reserve. He didn’t have much to say to me and directed almost all his conversation to my male guide, but that was fine because it let me just sit and quietly watch him as he lay at ease on the bed opposite.
This time, I searched out the “Horse People” book at the ger camp and read, really read, the chapter about Choidog.
Later in the trip, I was visiting a young horse trainer and his wife at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. Once again I was in a ger sitting on the floor drinking suutei tsai (milk tea) while a conversation went on around me since I don’t speak much Mongolian yet. I noticed a magazine tucked up between the roof felt and a support pole. There was a photo of a man on the cover and it looked like, even from across the ger, Choidog. I finally had the Mongol scientist I was with ask about it. The young man took it down and handed it to me saying “You have sharp eyes”. It was a much younger Choidog and the magazine, which was for and about Mongol horse trainers, had a feature article on him with photos from the Naadam races he had won in the 1960s.
When I got home, I found a copy of “Horse People” on Alibris. One passage that struck me was Choidog saying that “In Communist times each family could only own 75 horses. The rest went to the state. Now we can own herds of 300-400, if we can manage it. There’s no limit. In communist times it was strange for someone to have his own herd.” This was in about 2002.
I was told, at the time we were there in 2008, that he had between three and four hundred horses. When I mentioned this to the young horse trainer at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, his eyes got rather wide and he remarked that that was a lot of horses.
The chapter ends with this passage: “He can mount his ‘favorite black’ stallion and thunder off into the unending pastures, just to feed his heart. “To run on horseback in the morning is high exhilaration.” he says, eyes shining. “It is to feel alive, completely awake.” ”
Back at the Bayangol Hotel this afternoon. I’m sorry we didn’t get to western Mongolia, but our time at Arburd Sands was fantastic! The ger camp is owned by a local herder family and is located amongst a 20 km long stretch of sand dunes, which form a sort of northern border to the Gobi. The head of the family, Choidog, is one of the most famous and honored horse trainers in the country. His 40-something son, Batbadrach, won the national Nadaam horse race two years running when he was 8 and 9 years old. They currently have around 300 horses.
The ger camp is pretty laid back. Activity options include trekking around the dunes and surrounding countryside, horse riding and camel rides. David and I opted for a one hour horse ride the first day (and a camel ride the second). I asked about the Mongolian saddles and it turned out that they had a modified one for me to use. It didn’t have the big silver studs on the sides of the seat, but did have a thin felt pad. Otherwise it was basically the same saddle the Mongols have used since the time of Chinggis Khan. And it wasn’t uncomfortable at all for just a hour, even given that I have hardly ever ridden a horse. So, here’s David and I, ready to ride. It was great!
My horse, who has no name except maybe “Brown Horse”, and I did quite well. He was willing to trot and was easy to “steer”. I had sat on horses while they moved a few times in the past. This was the first time I ever felt that I was really riding. I was able to stand in the saddle a few times to see what it felt like since the Mongolians ride that way from childhood. They must have thighs of steel. The stirrups are tied together under the horse’s belly, which does make standing quite a bit easier than it would be otherwise.
The herd of bactrian camels, which belong to other local families and our camp hosts Batbadrach and his wife Desmaa, numbers around 30. Some are trained for riding. Others pull carts loaded with camping gear. All but one of the riding camels were out on a trek with other visitors, but we got to take turns riding him. It was just as much fun as in 2006. Photo by David.
The herd tended to be around camp in the morning and late afternoon, so I got lots of pictures of them in great light. Here’s one:
Yesterday morning, we were asked if we would like to go to an annual family event, the branding of the year’s foals. Of course we said yes, but not knowing what to expect. What we got was one of the reasons why travel is so worth the time, money and intermittent hassle- being present at something that was not a set-up for tourists, but getting to share part of a Mongolian country family’s way of life that has continued without interruption for over a thousand years. I was able to record it all and have some of the best photos I have ever taken. Here’s a few highlights:
I had asked to take the women’s picture at the after-branding party and Choidog got up from his spot on the floor and joined them, putting on his hat, which was presented to him by the president of Mongolia and has a silver horse on the top. I looked through the viewfinder and it was a total National Geographic moment. Even now, looking at it on this post, I can hardly believe that I was so fortunate to have taken this picture. I’ll be sending copies to all of them. Sodnam is Choidog’s sister, Lhamsuren is Batbadrach’s mother and Surenjav is the mother of one of Batbadrach’s friends and also his brother’s mother-in-law. It’s a big family. Desmaa couldn’t tell us how many grandchildren Choidog has.
To conclude- at the ger camp for the first night was a Swedish travel writer named Steven. We all sat together for dinner and had a great time exchanging stories. He had come to Mongolia by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The next day he was asked if he was going to come back to Mongolia. He said yes in a very strong, definite way. I asked how long he had been here. He replied “Four days”. Yup, he’s got it bad, just like me.