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: Cinereous Vulture

Juvenile vulture, Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2010

Species: Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)

Vulture nest, Ikh Nart, April 2005

Weight, length: Cinereous vultures are the largest eurasian bird of prey and one of the largest flying birds. They are 98–120 cm (39–47 in) long with a 2.5–3.1 m (8.2–10 ft) wingspan and weigh 7–14 kg (15–31 lb)

Adult and juvenile on nest, near Baga Hairhan Uul, July 2010

Conservation Status: Near Threatened (IUCN Red List)

Nest on the face of Zorgol Uul, July 2011

Habitat Preference: Mountains, rocky uplands, forests

Vulture on nest, Ikh Nart, April 2005

Best places to see cinereous vultures: Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, but common in many parts of the country.

Vulture at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009

Interesting facts:

-They are also known as the European black vulture due to the very dark color of the juveniles. The adult’s head plumage gets lighter as the bird ages.

– It has recently been established through the identification of wing-tagged birds, that a number of juvenile birds from Ikh Nart are migrating to South Korea during the winter. They are showing up at feeding stations.

– It is more common for the species to nest in trees in western parts of its range, but in Mongolia nests on cliffs are more often seen. At Ikh Nart the birds nest in some of the elm trees and a bird was recently photographed on a nest built in a larch tree in the northern mountains.

Mongolia Monday- Wildlife Profiles: Argali

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu argali ram, April 2005: This big old ram let me follow him around for about half an hour.

I’m starting the New Year with a new series on Mongolian wildlife. These will be short profiles with essential information and interesting links. First up is the animal which brought me to Mongolia in the first place, the argali, now one of my favorite subjects.

Species: Argali (Ovis ammon)

Weight, height and horn length: Argali are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A large ram can weigh as much as 375 lbs (65-170km). They stand from  3-4″ (90-120cm) at the shoulder. The horns can measure up to  65″ (165cm).

Argali rams, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, July 2009; I peeked over the ridge (after dragging my oxygen-starved body up a steep slope following my guide) and what should I see...a big group of argali rams, twelve in all.

Conservation Status: Near-threatened (IUCN Red List)

Argali rams, Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009; Same trip as above, but this time the sheep were within sight of the road. I simply stood by the car and took lots of photos of these six beautiful boys

Habitat preference: mountains or large areas of rocky outcroppings in the desert steppe, some open desert; more recently found in mountain steppe (Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve)

Argali rams, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, August 2010; In all my six trips to Mongolia, going out to see argali every time, this sighting was the jackpot....five rams less than 50 yards away and I had them to myself for at least an hour.

Best Places to see argali: Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve; They may also be seen at Baga Gazriin Chuluu and Ikh Gazriin Chuluu, both local reserves (no websites)

Argali ram, ewe and lamb, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, July 2011; Typical sighting of argali up on the rocks.

Interesting facts:

-There are no argali in captivity, neither zoos or reserves. The only place to see them is in their native habitats.

– While the rams do fight it out during the annual rut for mating privileges, otherwise argali don’t have set herds or harems. Who is with who can change through the day. Rams mingle freely with ewes and lambs, form bachelor groups or wander around on their own.

– In July of 2009, I was in the right place and the right time to be the first person to ever photograph an argali swimming a river…the Kherlen Gol, which flows through Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. It was known that they do it, but since almost all the research on them is done at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, where there are no rivers, no one had ever actually seen, much less photographed, it.

Mongolia Monday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 2 – Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Delgeriin Choiriin Khid

Even though I only spent two days there last year, Baga Gazriin Chuluu was a place that I really looked forward to visiting again.

A harem of local horses near our camp

One of the best experiences was visiting the ger of Yanjmaa, who had made boortz soup from scratch for us and served me a bowl of the best yogurt I’d ever had. Would she still be around? Although she had relocated her ger, the answer was “yes” and we had another lovely visit, but also learned something disturbing about the wildlife of the reserve.

There was a zud in Mongolia this past winter, which is a combination of a dry summer and a very severe winter. It was a national disaster that was occurring the same time as the quake in Haiti, so there was very little media coverage until early in 2010. The last estimate I read said that around 10 million head of livestock died.

Yanjmaa told us that no argali or ibex had been seen in Baga Gazriin Chuluu since February.  Before then, she had gone out one morning, and to her surprise, found a large ibex billy in with her domestic goats. He was very weak, so she managed to get him into her ger and onto her bed, hobbling him when he started to thrash around.

Having been a vet before she retired, she tried to treat him by offering him cold water and a medicinal plant, shavag, which contains lots of vitamins. Finally, she moved him back out to the goat enclosure, where he died.

Our first thought was that the argali and ibex had all died, like the ibex, but later on that day, it occurred to me that wild animals sense what is going on in their world and that it was more likely they had all simply left as the weather became extremely severe. In some parts of Mongolia, the temperatures dropped to -50F.

Talking with the reserve ranger, Batsaikhan, the next day, we confirmed that the ibex and argali were gone, around 160 animals total. Khatnaa had told me that he had seen 10+ argali about 20 km east of Arburd Sands, which is about a four hour drive north of Baga Gazriin Chuluu, on July 5, a week earlier. This was outside their normal, known range and preferred habitat.

That evening, Batsaikhan came by our camp to give us really good news. A group of visitors had reported seeing a group of argali just within the reserve! Perhaps they and the ibex will all, or mostly, come back to Baga Gazriin Chuluu now that the weather is good. I hope so.

On our way to find Yanjmaa, we had passed through an area that had a number of vulture nests, one of which was on a cliff near the road with a fledgling cinereous vulture in it. I got some good photos from down below, but Khatnaa climbed up behind the nest and came back with some amazing images. We went back the next day and this time I climbed up with him and found myself just slightly above the nest, about 8 meters away. What a photo op!

Cinereous vulture nest from below

He/she knew we were there, but never showed any stress. The adult had taken off as soon as we got out of the car, so I felt comfortable staying for awhile and taking almost 100 photos.

The young occupant

Later that afternoon, we took a side trip out of the reserve to visit a local monastery, Delgeriin Choiriin Khiid. It was one of the many, many monasteries destroyed in the late 1930s, but is now being rebuilt. There are 15 lamas in residence. I was allowed to take photos in the interior of one temple, which is in a large ger.

Monastery grounds
Interior of ger temple

The next morning we departed for the fabled Gobi.

Mongolia, Uh, Wednesday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 1- Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve

I got back from the Mongolian countryside around 5pm this last Sunday. It’s taken a few days to catch up on things and to let the trip settle in my mind and think about how to describe one of the best experiences of my life.

This will obviously take more than one post. Probably a dozen or more. I shot over 3000 images in 14 days. Fortunately, I also kept a journal. I’ll post some of the sketches from it after I get home and can scan them.

Where to begin? First, this was to be my very own “Nomadic Journey”. Instead of my previous trips where I was really focussed on seeing wildlife and had set itineraries, this time I wanted to get out into the deep countryside and see what Mongolia had to show me. My particular interest this trip was, as mentioned in previous posts, to learn more about the Mongol horses and the herders who breed, ride and race them. I also hoped to find a couple of local naadams to attend.

I had the same excellent guide/driver, Khatnaa, who I traveled with for the first nine days of my AFC Flag Expedition last year. But nstead of the Mitsubishi SUV that survived the hail storm we’d gotten caught in, he had acquired a new Toyota Land Cruiser Prado just a month ago, so we’d really be traveling in style.

In addition, since this was a tent camping trip, Soyoloo joined us as the cook. She proved to be a superb professional and a lot of fun as well. Watching her taught me quite a bit about what it takes to keep people well and safely fed in remote locations. Not to mention keeping track of the water supply.

What all this means is that we had the freedom to travel where we wished and camp where we wanted. I’m totally spoiled now. Mongolia really is the greatest camping destination.

The ger camps require advance reservations since they only keep food on hand for the guests they expect to have and it’s not possible for anyone to “run to the store” to get more food for unexpected guests since the closest shop could be over 40km away.

I spent some time chatting with Jan Wigsten from Nomadic Journeys the day before departure. He observed that people come to Mongolia with a list of places they want to see, often based on a guidebook driving tour, and that by doing so completely miss the point of one of the things that makes traveling in Mongolia so special. This country isn’t really about places, as spectacular as the landscapes are, it’s about people and their connections. The places end up being kind of a bonus.

I mentally filed that away and ended up with a number of compelling reasons to recall it over the next two weeks.

We left Ulaanbaatar around 10am the morning of July 10, the first day of the national Naadam holiday, heading south towards Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. We spent our first night camped near a bend in the Tuul Gol, a little southwest of Hustai National Park.

Pick a spot, any spot

The next day, we stopped for lunch at Zorgol Uul, a sacred mountain. On the backside, away from the road, was a sheltered area with trees festooned with khadags, the blue ceremonial scarves. A pretty special place for a meal, to be sure.

Zorgol Uul

While we were eating, two steppe squirrels suddenly appeared, rearing up on their hind legs and pushing at each other with their front paws and then tumbling around on the ground. Naadam squirrel wrestling!

A short time later I spotted two chasing each other. Naadam squirrel racing! We didn’t miss Naadam after all.

Steppe squirrel

Arriving at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Khatnaa drove up and back down a small canyon looking for a camping spot. Here’s what he found…

It'll do, I think

We spent three nights in the reserve.

Next post: Where’d the argali and ibex go? Could we find Yanjmaa again, who made the wonderful boortz soup for us last year? And an amazing encounter with the world’s largest vulture.

In the meantime, I’m off to Hustai National Park the day after tomorrow for two nights to see the takhi in the summertime.

New Painting! After the Race; Scraping Sweat

When traveling in Mongolia, one often sees the herders out taking care of their animals. Often they’re wearing western clothes, but a lot of them wear del, the traditional long garment. It’s very practical and makes them look very dashing. What isn’t quite so dashing are the ubiquitous baseball caps, however inexpensive and practical they are. So when I was at a mountain blessing ceremony at Bag Gazriin Chuluu and was walking around after the horse race, this gentleman really stood out with his red and yellow hat. I have no idea who he was, but he was scraping sweat off one of the horses with a special blunt, flat blade. I believe the sweat from a winning horse is considered to have the strength of that horse in it and so is very auspicious. The blue scarf is a khadak, which is used for offerings.

Here’s the step-by-step for “After the Race; Scraping Sweat:

Brush drawing with pencil preliminary
First pass of all-over color, plus shadow shapes; notice background goes in opposite direction of horse
Next color pass; starting to define the drapery of the del
Needed another element in background, so I added the rocks in mid-ground on the left to anchor horse and man
One of the two main pieces of reference on the iMac; I like his gesture in this one but needed another for the horse's head; there was a third reference shot for the background
All elements in place; everything is staged for the final push; spent yesterday finishing the background and making lots of tweaks and corrections to the horse; notice that the background has now been divided into two planes for more visual interest
After the Race; Scraping Sweat 22x28" oil on canvasboard

An Olympic Drawing Opportunity

If you’re watching the Olympics you know that it sometimes seems more like ads interspersed with some sporting events than the other way around. I’ve also realized that I don’t know how argali sheep are put together as well as I need to, especially the legs, and I’ve got a major takhi painting coming up

Put the two together and I’m getting some good sketching time in. I’ve got all my images from my last two trips to Mongolia on my MacBook Pro, sitting in iPhoto, which happens to have a great enlargement function. I’ve set the laptop on a small folding table (are they still called “tv trays”?) and am using a 9×12″ sketchbook.

These are drawn with a fine felt tip pen with no preliminary pencil work. I either get it or I don’t. None take more than about five minutes, so there isn’t a lot of time invested. The purpose is to hone in on areas that I don’t understand as well as I should. Purely process, not result. Plus, I keep in mind that photos flatten objects, so I need to compensate for that when drawing three dimensional animals.

I started with a page of takhi, plus a cow I saw at Hustai.

Then I moved on to argali. One of the challenges is to keep the legs and body in proper proportion since the legs are really skinny and long. There isn’t a lot of muscle definition to play with, like with horses, so one has to nail the overall shape.

I’m struggling with the horns, too. They move back and around in space and I’m suspicious of how the camera might distort them. What I really need is to draw from the live animals. But there are none in zoos that I know of and in the wild you’re lucky to watch them from 600 meters (over 600 yds.)

Ideally, I’d have my Leica Televid spotting scope, which would solve the problem, except that it is entirely impractical to haul it around in the terrain where the argali are, at least for me. So it’s photographs and a pair of domestic ram’s horns that I brought back from England some years ago. I don’t have access to taxidermy mounted argali, but the problems there would whether or not the horns are typical, how good the quality of the mount is and is it a Mongolian argali.  Notice that I started on the left with only basic shapes and didn’t worry about modeling or “color”.

The best images I have of argali so far are a group of six rams at Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. They were considerate enough to have parked themselves in the open within sight of the main road through the reserve in great morning light. I would have been lucky to have spotted them, but the local man living in the reserve who my guide hired to go out with us both mornings that I was there saw them right away. Here’s a long shot from where we stopped. They’re right back against the rocks, in the middle.

I’ve circled them in red.

Piece of cake, right? Here’s what I got when I zoomed in with my Nikon Nikkor VR 80-400 lens. These are 10mg files, so they can take quite a bit of enlargement and stay sharp. I’ve got about 84 images total to work with. There’s something useful in all of them. Love these guys.

Here’s a close-up of the three rams in front. A perfect Exhibit A of the subject of a previous post about why you have to get out there and do the fieldwork. There’s no other way to get this kind of reference (Buying it from someone else doesn’t count). Game ranch animals won’t do it either. They’re out of context and, unless you’ve observed the species in the wild, you have no idea whether or not any behavior that you see is “real”.

And closer yet of one I drew last night. Everyone was fat and sassy and in great condition. Notice that the younger ram is much browner than the older ones. His behavior was different, too. He was a little more skittish, kept more space between himself and the others than they did between each other and was last in line when they all finally moved up into the rocks.

Great stuff! Action, a terrific pose, rim light. Here’s the page of sketches that include this ram.

Give it a try! It’s a great way to keep training your eye.

Some Of My Latest Drawings

I’m in the middle of a rather large painting (no, not the argali one; a subject for another post; short, short version: got stuck, needed to let it sit for awhile), so I thought I would post a few drawings that I’ve done recently and then get back to the easel. It’s juried show painting season, so I’m trying out different reference images to see if I think they’ll make a painting. These were all done with Wolff’s carbon pencils on Canson Universal Recycled Sketch paper, which turns out to be quite a nice combination.

Ibex billy; from Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009
Bactrian camel, Arburd Sands, Sept. 2008
Bactrian camel, Arburd Sands, Sept. 2009
Takhi stallion "Temujin", Hustai National Park, Sept. 2008
Takhi mare, Hustai National Park, Sept. 2008
Takhi foal, Hustai National Park, Sept. 2008
Takhi foal, Hustai National Park, Sept. 2008

The New Big Painting, Cont.

Sometimes having another, educated eye can really help. Since this is a big painting which will require a big time commitment, I decided to consult with another wildlife artist who I have taken a workshop with and whose judgment I trust. She knows me and knows what my goals are for my work. I sent this image to her on Friday and got her response this morning.

For reference, the first version from the previous post:


The next version. I also decided to make the sheep on the right a juvenile to provide variety for the horns, along with adding some of the body and changing the head position.

Argali 2

Here’s the critique:

“These guys remind of me of desert bighorn – horns and heads large for lightly built bodies (though desert bighorn have much thinner horns). The mouth on the rear youngster is a little uncertain (what’s he doing?). I’d like to see more suggestion of muscle in the body – particularly hindquarters – of the main ram. His front left leg feels a little stiff – I like the movement in his overall gesture, but the knee and pastern don’t flow as well. He seems a little over at the knee on his right front. I know sheep aren’t built like horses, but sometimes (to borrow from Bob Kuhn) the artist has to make changes that look better, even if they’re not as accurate.

The front partial ram head/horns ought to be larger to indicate perspective; his body seems larger, as it should, but head/horns don’t seem as large relative to his body as the main ram’s.

Painting all those rocks will be great fun! I love rock and snow – so graphic. Everything in the composition leads us to the right and the main ram’s head – should be striking. You might consider turning his head towards us a little to keep the viewer from zipping out to the right – but it should still work as it is too.”

This are exactly the kind of technical notes that I was hoping for from someone who only knows what I’ve showed them, not what I think I’m trying to do.

This afternoon I did the re-drawing, erasing where needed. The muzzle of the ram on the left head got a little too big. I’ll fix that tomorrow, but otherwise it’s all working. As far as the first observation of the critique- in fact, the argali are very solidly built compared to desert bighorns. The big argali rams also weigh twice as much, 200 lbs. vs. 400 lbs. But both have very slender legs in relation to the bodies.

Argali 3

Now I have some good visual variety. The three argali are all different sizes and angles. I have the directional flow that I want, but I need to make sure that the viewer’s eye doesn’t “flow” off the right hand side. The stacked rocks will be the “stopper”. I’ve minimized the horizontal planes and added some shrubs and more small trees, aspens that I saw at Baga Gazriin Chuluu.

The next step is the value study. Value is light and dark relationships, separate from color. I already know that the area of highest contrast will be the main ram’s head against the sky.

UPDATE 8-25-09:

The re-drawing is done. I ended up changing the whole head and neck of the ram on the left side and straightening the foreleg of the main ram a little more. One of the lessons I learned when I worked in the sign shop doing hand-drawn lettering was the difference that, literally, the width of a #2 pencil point was between right and wrong. When I saw it for the first time, it was like a big, bright light came on. It was so obvious. And it’s true when drawing animals or anything else. I will always be grateful to the owner of the shop for giving me the opportunity to train my eye to discern differences that fine. The acceptable tolerance was 1/64 of an inch when drawing letters a few inches high.

I still see little things in the drawing that bug me, but I’ll deal with them when I do the brush drawing on the canvas. Being bugged about something is one of the ways that I know a painting isn’t done yet. And when nothing bugs me anymore, I’m done, which really means that I’ve solved all the problems. The itch to fix what I can see isn’t right is one of the things that drives me on a painting. I Just Can’t Stand It.


I also lightly drew some more rock towers on the right for my “stopper”. They will be simple shapes in aerial perspective.


I lied. I did one more overlay this afternoon with a mechanical pencil (HB lead) to really refine the drawing and get it ready for the value study. Every version allows me to be more decisive about tricky shapes like the horns. Plus, I wanted to more thoroughly work out the background and foreground. And I still wasn’t happy with the ram on the left, so he got re-drawn. Again.

I’m using Canson tracing paper for the first time and, wow, is it nice. I used to use whatever was cheapest, but no more. All but the last drawing, which I’ll post tomorrow, was done with a Sanford Draughting Pencil. They were Eagle Draughting Pencils when I first started buying them many years ago and appear to have been owned by at least two other companies between then and now. Fortunately, they’ve never been “improved”, so they’re as good as ever.