One week from tomorrow I’ll be leaving on my sixth trip to Mongolia. I’ll spend six days in Ulaanbaatar and then will be going out to the countryside with a fellow artist, sculptor Pokey Park. I’ll be showing her the best places I’ve found for viewing wildlife: Hustai National Park, Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
Depending on internet availability, I’ll do a post when I can.
This trip is a little different because I haven’t had to buy any new gear, just make sure I’ve got it packed. And for that I’ve got a list I’ve honed over time.
I’m expecting to see very visible changes in Ulaanbaatar as the economy heats up from the start of various mining operations and a flood of would-be investors pouring in from all over the world. But I know the timelessly beautiful countryside, my beloved earth roads and the hospitality of the herders will be there for me and now I get to share it with a fellow artist.
I’m finishing up the painting of Carolina parakeets and intend to debut it here on Friday, but otherwise, until I post from Land of Blue Skies….daraaa uulzii! (See you later!)
My plan was to go back to Kenya in 2005 for an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored research project “Lions of Tsavo”. But I was leafing through the new Expedition guide and a project I hadn’t seen before caught my eye, “Mongolian Argali”, whatever those were. Oh. Wild sheep. But….Mongolia. Now there was a place that seemed like it might be interesting to travel to. And who knew how long the project would last. Some went on for a decade or more. Others only for a year or two. I called the Earthwatch office, changed projects and, without realizing it at the time, changed my life.
Argali (Ovis ammon) are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A big ram can weigh close to 400 pounds. The horn curl can reach 65″. Their preferred habitat is rocky uplands, mountains and steppe valleys. They are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened and Appendix II of CITES. Accurate population estimates are hard to come by. The most current one is perhaps as many as 20,000 in Mongolia. It is known that the total continues to drop in the western and central parts of the country, is stable in the south, but seems to be increasing in the east.
Threats include poaching, both for subsistence meat and for the horns, which are now in demand in China for use in traditional medicine. It has also been shown that there is a nearly 100% grazing overlap between the wild argali and domestic livestock, which includes horses, sheep, goats and cattle. Predation by the herder’s domestic dogs, particularly on lambs in the spring, is also a problem. Trophy hunting is not currently a large factor, but the license fee income (18,000 USD) ends up going almost entirely to the federal government. Very little trickles down to either the local people or for conservation projects. One response at the local level has been to create reserves where hunting is not allowed.
As you can see below, there is now an Argali Conservation Management Plan. My on-going involvement with the womens’ craft collective comes under item four on the list.
“Additional conservation measures are desperately required in Mongolia. Clark et al. (2006) outlined the following:
• Implement the recommendations outlined in the Argali Conservation Management Plan. • Improve enforcement of existing legislation that would help conserve argali. • Enhance conservation management in protected areas where argali are found at high population densities, and increase the capacity of protected areas personnel and other environmental law enforcement officers. • Work to improve the livelihoods of local communities in areas where argali are protected by local initiatives and re-initiate community-based approaches to argali conservation (Amgalanbaatar et al. 2002a). • Develop public education programmes to raise awareness of the status of and threats to the species. • Continue ecological research, monitor population trends, and study the impacts of threats, including work in the Altai and Khangai Mountains to complement research occurring in the Gobi Desert. • Implement the recommendations from the Mongolian Wildlife Trade Workshop as outlined in Wingard and Zahler (2006).
Until a joint research effort was started by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Denver Zoological Foundation at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in 2001, very little was known about argali ecology, behavior and population status. This was the research that I had signed up to help with as part of the second Earthwatch team ever to go to Mongolia.
It was April of 2005. Spring in Mongolia is a time of cold, wind and dust storms. Daytime temperatures during the team’s two week stay, living in a traditional felt ger, sometimes only reached 32F. I had the time of my life. When they found out I was an artist, one of the scientists asked if I would be willing to go out and do direct behavioral observations. And that’s what I did for the last three days, trekking out alone into the 43,000 hectare reserve with a clipboard, data forms, GPS, cameras, water bottle and snacks, trying to see the sheep before they saw me, otherwise any data I collected was invalid.
Although a lot of the animals were in poor condition coming out of a typical Mongolian winter in which temperatures can plunge to -40F, I saw many groups that included rams, ewes and lambs, gathered some useable data and got some pretty good photographs. It was a perfect two-fer. I was able to contribute to scientific knowledge of a species and at the same time get information that would be invaluable for painting them.
I’ve been back to Ikh Nart five times since then and argali have become a particularly favorite subject. I’ve also seen them now at two other locations: Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
I thought that I would share some of the photos I’ve taken and the paintings that have come out of them. It usually takes around three, often quite a few more, reference shots since I move animals around, change backgrounds or whatever it takes to make a composition work. I’m only going to show the main animal reference that I worked from. This fieldwork is critical. When working on a painting, I’m also remembering what it was like to be at that place, how the wind felt, the utter quiet when I stopped for a break, then trudging along, looking up and seeing that the sheep had already spotted and were watching me.
There’s this saying about combat flying- hours of boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror. At a far less dramatic level, painting seems to have a similar rhythm sometimes. We spend days or weeks working on paintings and, suddenly, some get finished, signatures go on, photos are taken and, ta da. we’re ready to move on. I finished this painting a couple of days after the one I posted last Friday.
This piece is a scene from the mountain blessing ceremony that I had the good fortune to attend at Baga Gazriin Chuluu. There had already been an anklebone shooting competition, but the horse race was the event that everyone dropped what they were doing for. The Buddhist monks who had been sitting in a tent, chanting, came out and joined their families and friends. For at least a hour before the race, the kids had been warming up the horses by walking them in a big circle, sometimes singing as they rode round and round.
The horses were two-year olds, all stallions. As it turns out the Mongol word for horse, “mor” includes the fact that the horse in an ungelded male. That’s the default. Then there are geldings and mares. Being young colts, the race was a short distance- 7km. (The main national Naadam race for fully adult horses is 56km.) As with all Mongol horse races, after warm-ups the jockeys rode their mounts out to the starting line at a walk or trot, followed by a few vehicles which I assume included the starter and some of the trainers.
Everyone went out of sight behind a large rock formation. We all waited at the finish line, a small pile of rocks which held up a pole that had a colorful red scarf flying from it like a flag.
Pretty soon the crowd stirred and, looking out, we could see the dust from the horses. In just another minute or two they started to reach the finish line. I got as many pictures as I could.
The trainers checked the horses over and some scrapped the sweat off them, although none were lathered up or even looked particularly tired. Then the jockeys spent most of the next hour circling the wrestling competition, cooling down their mounts. That’s when I got the image I used in this painting.
I’ve also included the reference photos since I think too many animal artists just use whatever setting the animal is in when the picture was taken and don’t consider other options. In this case, the background was pretty boring. But, a short distance away were these really great rock formations.
The young rider:
The background:Put them together and….
The rocks were deliberately placed so that the boy would be against the large shadow area. I kept things on a diagonal so that the background would be at a different angle from the main subject and keep the composition from being too static. After going 14km, the rider was still having to pull firmly to keep his mount at a walk. I wanted all the elements of the painting to support that pent-up energy.
Here are four more new paintings to go with the two I posted last week. I had a problem with the background in the last one and thought I’d show how it was and how I changed it.
Here is one of the takhi (Przewalski’s horse) that I saw when I was at the Khomiin Tal reintroduction site in western Mongolia in September of 2006. It was first light a group of horses were coming down out of the hills to graze.
This was a harem stallion that I saw at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu last fall. He was also the model for Mongol Horse #2. It amazes me that, given the extreme environment that they are exposed to year in and year out, that these tough small horses grow such long manes and tails. But they do.
I saw this Rocky Mountain bighorn lamb with his mother near Tower Campground in Yellowstone National Park a couple of years ago. They were by the side of the road, which lacked interest as a setting, to say the least. So I moved him.
This argali ram, along with five others, gave me an eyeful on my first morning at Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Mongolia in July. I wanted to work on capturing the quality of light without worrying about painting too many animals, so decided to start with a small painting. I had one idea for the rocks as you’ll see below but, on further review, something wasn’t working. Time to get out the scraper. What do you think was wrong? Answer below the second image.
There were a couple of problems. One, in getting into the grooviness of painting the rocks, I completely lost track of my light source. The rocks are in full light, but are on the same plane as the ram. Buzzz. Second, I tried to use what I knew to design the rocks more or less from memory, which resulted in a boring, distracting (what an awful combination!) set of shapes. I went back to the rocks that were in the original photos and saw that they were much less rounded, which provided a needed contrast with the curves of the ram.
I’ve been back a week now. Something special happened on this, my fourth trip. A lot of things came together for me and I was able to experience Mongolia and connect in ways that I hadn’t on previous trips, even though something kept driving me to return.
Some of it was simply gaining a familiarity that made this trip by turns exhilarating, relaxing and just plain fun, instead of low-level stressful. A lot of it was the two people I traveled with, Khatnaa, my guide for the first nine days, and Gana,with whom I traveled to Ikh Nart, who answered my questions with consideration and honesty, and helped me start to understand what it is to be a Mongol. But, mostly, I felt like the land itself let me in and then offered up treasure after treasure.
I’ll share some of those treasures over the next few posts. Today, it will be images of where Mongolia really starts – the land.
In the evening after the mountain ceremony, we went for one last drive and ended up poking around the ruins of an old monastery that is tucked up into a narrow canyon. The entry point and the site itself has many aspen trees growing in and around it, some with blue scarves (khadak) tied around them. It was a very peaceful place. After all the normal, but sometimes noisy activity that had been going on around the ger camp, we chose to just sit up on some flat rocks in the quiet, watching the sun go down. It was a very nice way to end my stay at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, knowing that the next day was a long road trip ending up back in very noisy UB.
We left for UB around 9am the next morning. Back across the steppe.
Among the many things I learned from Hatnaa about Mongol culture is that, out of respect for the spirits who dwell there and the fact that the top of a mountain is the closest one can get to Tenger, the sky, you never say the name of a mountain while you are within sight of it. One refers to it as “Hairhan”, which is a term of formal respect. So I asked him what the guides say to the tourists who inevitably ask what the name of this or that is. They parse the issue by saying that the mountain’s name is Hairhan. Which is absolutely true, in a sense, but allows them to honor an important custom. Near the mountain there were a couple of people herding their animals.
Finally, we came in sight of Bogd Khan, the sacred mountain which lies to the north of Ulaanbaatar and is also the world’s first nature reserve, having been set aside in 1778. Still on my list of places to visit. On the other side was the end of this wonderful road trip and a long, hot shower.
My guide/driver, Khatnaa, picked me up at the hotel at 9am and off to the countryside we went. I’m just going to hit the highlights here due to time constraints. I’ll cover each location more in separate posts after I get home.
We were about 40 minutes out of UB when we came upon a Kazakh man on a bicycle with his two year old golden eagle perched on the top of stack of parcels. What a way to start the trip!
We arrived at the Gun-Galuut (pronounced “goon-galote”) after a pleasant two-hour drive. Lovely tourist ger camp overlooking the valley of the Kherlen River. Here’s my ger-
We got settled in. I walked down to the river and sat by it for awhile, caught up on the Journal and got organized for the upcoming fieldwork.
The next four days took on a basic pattern of getting up at 6am, out the door by 6:30, game drive until about 9, back for breakfast, do what needed doing, back out after early dinner by 6:30, drive until light gone between 8:30 and 9. Fall over. Repeat.
The first morning, while Khatnaa was scanning the hills, I took a look along the river and, halfway through the first sweep from left to right spotted four young argali rams on the other side of the river. We were off to a good start. Here’s a selection of other images. I’m saving all the best stuff for the paintings, but these will give you an idea of what I saw.
Domestic bactrian camels
After four fabulous days at Gun-Galuut, we drove back through UB, where I picked up a copy of a bird guide and we ran a couple of other errands. Then it was south to Baga Gazriin Chuluu, with a one night stay at Arburd Sands. It was windy and there were dark clouds around. We stopped for lunch and could hear thunder in the distance. Then it got interesting.
We found ourselves out in the open on the steppe in a violent rain and then hail storm. It was so bad that Khatnaa turned the car so that the back was to the wind to protect the windshield. The sound of the hail hitting the top of the car was really loud and left dents. All we could do was sit tight and wait it out.
All the dirt track, or as Khatnaa called them, earth roads had become rushing rivers of water. Amazingly, he was able to pick our way across this safely and without getting stuck in his Mitsubishi Pajaro diesel SUV.
Finally, the hail stopped and we were able to go on. Khatnaa had only been to Arburd Sands once a number of years ago and when he became unsure of the route, he stopped a couple of times and asked for directions. These kids put on a wrestling demo for me while I waited in the car. They were really showing off their moves.
We started to see raptors by the side of the road once we got out past the storm front.
We also passed a number of ovoo. If it was a major one, we stopped, got out and circled it, adding a stone or small tugrik bills. Khatnaa honked at smaller ones as we went by them. More on ovoos in a future post.
We arrived at Arburd Sands and found out that the storm we had sat through had hit UB, causing the worst flooding in many years. At least 21 people died. If we had not gotten out of UB when we did, we might not have made it out of town at all.
Arburd Sands ger camp is a seasonable sustainable operation which is planned so that it leaves as little a mark on the land as possible. They use solar and wind for power.
There was an amazing display of thunder and lightning that evening, stretching from east to west. But it only rained during the night. No hail. The next morning we continued on to Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. But, as I am coming to realize is routine when one travels in Mongolia, there were interesting things along the way. Like when Khatnaa stopped at this well and, following the ancient Mongol tradition, drew a couple of buckets of cool water for the animals.
Meanwhile, the goats were seizing another, albeit temporary, opportunity to take advantage of the shade under the car.
We traveled across the rolling steppe, passing an enormous and impressive mountain, a small lake and many country people and their flocks of animals. Finally, in the distance, we could see our destination, Baga Gazriin Chuluu.
We arrived at the ger camp and went through the usual routine of settling in. Here’s my view through the door of my small, but comfortable ger.
Khatnaa, as the guides usually do, started to chat up the camp staff. He found that one man, Onroo, had lived full-time at the reserve for three years and had a pretty good idea of where the animals were to be found. He went with us both mornings and proved to be indispensable.
Some of the fantastic rock formations.
Sometimes the going got interesting as we worked our way around the reserve.
The main species of interest here are argali, ibex and the cinereous vultures.
These animals were so tolerant of our presence that we were able to get out of the car and take pictures of each other with the sheep in the (somewhat distant, about 800 meters) background.
They’re at the base of the rocky hill to my right on a line with my cap.
I ended up having a couple of wonderful cultural experiences also, which included a ger visit where I got to watch soup made with boortz, dried meat, and where we were served that and cream, aruul, yogurt and milk tea and also getting to attend a “mountain washing” ceremony that included chanting Buddhist monks, a horse race, wrestling and anklebone shooting.