I’ve said for many years that in Mongolia, more than in most places, the journey really is the destination. It’s something most visitors miss with the usual emphasis tour companies have of going from sight to sight on paved roads. Eleven trips in twelve years and I’ve never been bored and have never slept while rolling. It takes time, effort and money for me to go to Mongolia every year and I don’t want to miss a minute of the limited time I have in the countryside. So while this week’s post doesn’t have a lot of incident or excitement, it will give you a chance to see a little of what’s “in between” on the road day to day, this time in the Gobi.
We hadn’t realized it when we set up camp at Boon Tsagaan Nuur, a remote lake in the Gobi, but we were not far from a herder’s ger (see above photo). A short walk towards the lake revealed it settled behind a dune. We found the goats and sheep to be entertaining, but could also see that they had grazed the grass down to the ground in the entire area except for one section that was fenced off, something one sees all too often these days.
There were a number of shorebirds…plovers and a redshanks, but I couldn’t get close enough for decent photos.
We left the lake driving south around the east shore, a route that I had not been on before, which was great!
Next week we’ll travel far, far south, deep into the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area, one of the most remote locations in Mongolia. No towns, no herder families, no mobile phone service. I could hardly wait!
We were sorry to have to leave Takhiin Tal so soon, but ahead of us, with luck, would be sightings of the world’s most endangered antelope, the saiga. At one time there were millions. Poaching reduced their numbers in Mongolia to a low of 760 at one point. Biologists had calculated that below 600 the species would no longer viable. A turnaround came when the World Wildlife Federation helped set up the Saiga Ranger Network, based in Darvi Soum. That was our next stop, where we hoped to be able find and speak with the Network coordinator Batsaikhan Baljiinnyam. But we had quite a drive ahead of us…
Thus ended quite a day. Our mission on the morrow was to find Batsaikhan and learn about saiga conservation.
I’ve seen these camels a number of times now at a ger camp that I stay at, Arburd Sands. Nowhere else in my travels in Mongolia since 2005 have I ever seen one with a white face like this. He’s big, too. His legs have the same kind of spotted markings. These two were part of a large group belonging to a local herder. They were grazing and hanging around quite near to the camp. I sat and sketched them one morning along with taking a lot of photos.
Here’s one of the pages of sketches I did in 2012 which includes the white-faced camel in the upper right.
On my second trip to Mongolia in 2006, which I did on my own through Nomadic Journeys, I wanted to go out to the west to visit Khomiin Tal, the third location where takhi/Przewalski’s horse has been reintroduced. I flew out to Hovd, which is around 1000 miles from Ulaanbaatar, met my guide and driver and headed east about 130 miles, most of it on earth roads. I knew nothing about anything in Mongolia at that point and it was all a brand new and exciting experience.
An unexpected sight was Khar Us Nuur National Park, which has been set aside to conserve and protect a complex of three lakes and their connecting channels. It is also one of the great birding hot spots in the world. But it’s difficult to get to the lakeshore in most places due to the thick reed beds. We camped on the shore of one of the channels the last night out in the countryside. Here are some of my favorite photos of a place I’d love to go back to sometime.
There is a previous post about great wildlife watching places in Mongolia that includes Khar Us Nuur. You can read it here.
First 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.
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.”
There will be more excerpts by Beatrix in the future. Stay tuned.
I’ve been having fun using a variety of photo effects on some of my iPad drawings using the Camera Awesome app on my iPad. I thought it would be interesting to do the same with a selection of my Mongolia photos. Here’s five I did this morning to see what I could come up with. I like it. So much of what one sees in Mongolia has an iconic, storybook quality that the images really lend themselves to “special effects”.
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.”
Going to let the pictures tell the story today. Here’s a collection of some of the photos I’ve taken of Mongol herders. Included are all of the Five Snouts, plus camels. Now I’m sitting here missing tsagaan idee (white food): airag (fermented mare’s milk), aruul (dried yogurt), byaslag (cheese), orom (sliced dried cream) and tsotsgii (cream, just cream, eaten using aruul as a base to put it on; heavenly). Bi ter bukh dortei! (I like it all!). Mongol friends-correct my sentence if it is wrong.
I think that in order to communicate with some immediacy one single day that had enough incident for three, I’m going to simply quote my journal entry for July 15, adding images as needed.
“What an amazing day. Went south-west with Orog Nuur as our goal. Khatnaa knew there was the Taatsin Gol 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 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.”
Once across, we were really able to roll for awhile on good earth roads.
At this point we knew that the lake, Orog Nuur, was 2/3 full and that the river flowing into it was impassible due to run-off from the mountains. But we had also been told that there was a road on the opposite side of the lake.
Khatnaa spotted a ger and drove over to it. I usually just stay in the car while he asks directions, but his time he gestured me to get out and said “Let’s visit.”
We ended up spending around two hours with Batsuuri and his family.
When we entered their large, comfortable ger, the first thing I noticed was two boys sitting on the floor watching Star Wars:The Phantom Menace on a small flat screen tv. Batsuuri was sitting on the floor, a couple of older girls were going in and out and Javhlan, his wife, was just starting, I found out later, to make suutai tsai (milk tea). I’ve drunk a fair amount of it by this time, but had never seen it made before.
A bowl of small squares of fried bread and sugar cubes was placed in front of us. The movie ended and the two boys, both Mongol but one had blond hair, started playing with a bunch of nails they had pulled out of a bag. I watched them happily amuse themselves for over half an hour, arranging the nails in various patterns and finally using a closely lined up row of them as a little hammered dulcimer.
At one point a wrestling competition came on the tv and I knew that we were going to be staying for awhile because Khatnaa is a BIG wrestling fan.
Javhlan asked if we would like to try camel milk airag. We all said yes. It was delicious, of course.
As we sat, and Khatnaa and Soyoloo chatted with our hosts (Besides camels, they have about 300 other animals. They lost 10-15 in the zud, nothing, really.), Javhlan made a meal of rice with meat in it and we ended up having dinner with the family.
Then it was time for her to milk the camels. They have 40 camels, seven of which had babies. So I found myself with another amazing photo opportunity.
I was wearing one of (local Humboldt County artist) Bekki Scotto’s hand-dyed rayon t-shirts and had Khatnaa take some pictures of me standing in front of the camels. I think Bekki will like that.
Once the milking was over it was time to leave, but it turned out that there is more than one road around the lake. Batsuuri offered to take us part of the way on his motorbike. Khatnaa provided petrol from a jerry can he had in the car. They had almost finished syphoning when who should pull up but one of the three vans! They had taken the main road to the river, found it flooded and had come back to the only ger for miles to find out if there was an alternate route, so Batsuuri showed them the way also. Once he’d gotten us to the correct road, we waved goodbye and drove on into a large saxaul forest, much of which was in light, almost white, sand. Many stops for pictures. And berries!
Finally we could see the lake, Orog Nuur, in the distance. The passing clouds were creating gorgeous spotlite areas on the mountain range to our left.
We made one more quick stop at a herder’s ger and then found a track down to the lake. We parked, got out, walked down to the shore and Khatnaa announced that we had arrived at “bird heaven”. Indeed. The shoreline had birds from one end to the other. The lake edge had even more mosquitos. I observed that it looked like we had also arrived at “mosquito heaven”, which Khatnaa thought was pretty funny.
But we sure weren’t going to be able to camp there. So we moved away far enough to be out of the worst of it, put on insect repellent that Soyoloo had handy and set up camp.
It ended up being cook’s night off since we were all pretty full from the meal at Batsuuri’s. Lunch had been a delicious white fish from Khovsgol Nuur. We all had some leftover fish with rice and a few cookies and we were fine.
In the meantime, the mosquitos were getting pretty annoying. We had no netting, so , once again, Mongol ingenuity rode to the rescue. Khatnaa went out and gathered a small bag of animal dung which he piled up and set smoking with a small blowtorch. We put our chairs in its path. Problem solved. Until the breeze kept changing direction. Soyoloo came up with a brilliant solution. She turned a metal flat-bottomed bowl upside down and had Khatnaa got a small dung fire burning on it, which meant that instead of moving our chairs to stay in the smoke, we simply moved the smoke. We dubbed it our “nomadic dung fire”.
We sat until dark, watching a lightning storm across the lake from us, a spectacular sunset to the north and listening to the Javhlan CD I’d brought from UB, finishing off the last of the bottle of Chinggis Gold vodka and chatting about all kinds of things. A perfect ending to a perfect day.”