There’s a certain rhythm to creating paintings. I usually have a number of them underway at various stages of completion. Of course, most of them are hanging around unfinished. Then I get to the final sitting on one of them and pretty soon, Ta Da!, it’s done!
I finished one yesterday and one this morning. First, my latest Mongol Horse series painting:
I shot the reference for this one on my camping trip in Mongolia this last July. We had pulled into a soum center, which is the American equivalent of a county seat. My guide went over to some trucks filled with horses and chatted with the men, who were taking a break in the shade since it was a warm day at the northern edge of the Gobi. I stayed in the car, but got some good photos. My goal in this piece was to capture the wonderful quality of light that is one of the things I love about Mongolia.
This is a typical Mongol horse who is being taken on a “Naadam (festival) tour” for the horse race events. He’s a winner since he’s wearing a blue scarf called a khadak. He’s not spiffy looking compared to a thoroughbred, but he can also run 20 miles or more without stopping. I also always like seeing the bi-colored manes, which adds a bit of flash.
I grew up with the redwood forests of northern California and have never been a “desert person”. But I love the Gobi (which means “desert” in Mongolian). This scene was also from my 2010 camping trip. The air was incredibly clear, almost crystalline. And it was obvious why Mongols call their country “The Land of Blue Skies”. This is a small piece that I’ve done for myself to start to understand how to paint an amazing part of the world.
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.”
Continuing on with our series, I’ve always thought it would be fun to do a trip that would start either in the north or south and travel through all six major ecosystems in Mongolia, which run roughly parallel to each other in bands going from east to west.
Here is a map that shows them very well. It’s from a booklet, “Mongolia’s Wild Heritage: Biological diversity, protected areas and conservation in the land of Chingis Khan”, that was published in 1999. It was a cooperative effort between the Ministry of Nature and Environment, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, the Mongolian Biodiversity Project and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. I don’t know if it’s still available, but if you are interested, drop me a note and I’ll see what I can do.
Starting in the north:
1. High Mountain– I haven’t been up into the mountains yet, but I did get the above photo of Jargalant Hairhan, which is part of the western Altai Mountains. The high mountains make up about 5% of Mongolia’s land. The climate is extreme. There are still some glaciers in the Altai Mountains. Animals that can be found there include argali, snow leopard, ibex, Altai snowcock and two species of ptarmigan. The photo was taken during my 2006 trip to Khomiin Tal on our way back to Hovd.
2. Taiga– the southermost part of the vast world-circling boreal forest, or taiga, extends into northern Mongolia. It covers about 5% of Mongolia’s land area. The weather is also extreme with more rain and lower temperatures than most of the country. The most common species of tree is Siberian larch. Animal species include reindeer, wolves, wolverine, lynx, Eurasian river otters, stone capercaillie and three species of owl. This is the famous Turtle Rock, which I photographed in Gorki-Terelj National Park in May of 2005. It was snowing.
3. Mountain Forest Steppe- As the name indicates, this is a transition zone between the mountain forests and the grasslands of the steppes. It accounts for about 25% of the country’s land area. The mountains are of a lower elevation and include wide river valleys. Most of the population of Mongolia lives in this zone. Animal species include roe deer, elk (marel), wolf, red fox, Eurasian badger, Pallas’ cat, wild boar, great bustard, black kite and darian partridge. The image above was taken from Mt. Baits in Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve in July of 2009, looking north into the Kherlen River valley and on to the mountains.
4. Steppe– This is the landscape that most foreigners envision when they think of Mongolia. The famous grasslands cover about 20% of the country. The largest remaining area in Central Asia of this ecosystem is in eastern Mongolia. The climate runs from hot in the summer to cold in the winter, but not as extreme as the zones to the north and south. It provides much of the main grazing land for the herders’ livestock. Animal species include Mongolian gazelle, wolf, corsac fox, Siberian marmot, tolai hare, demoiselle crane, steppe eagle and saker falcon. The photo was taken en route between Ulaanbaatar and a ger camp at Arburd Sands in July of 2009.
5. Desert Steppe- This is the transition zone between the grasslands and the Gobi (which means “desert” in Mongolian). It accounts for over 20% of the land area. Drought is frequent, along with strong winds and dust storms. Many herders live in this ecosystem, however. Animal species include takhi (Przewalski’s horse-reintroduced), khulan or wild ass, saiga antelope, marbled polecat, Mongolian hamster, houbara bustard, lammergeier and cinereous vulture. The image was taken at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in September of 2008.
6. Desert- The Gobi is one of the most famous deserts in the world, but, contrary to common belief, very little of it is sand. It’s mostly gravel and small rock and as you can see, there is vegetation. It accounts for around 25% of the land area. Where there are springs, families have truck gardens and it is well-known that the best and sweetest vegetables in the country come from the Gobi. The weather is, once again, extreme, climbing to well over 100F in summer and dropping to -40F in the winter. Animal species include wild bactrian camel (very endangered), Gobi bear (critically endangered; maybe 30 left), khulan, saiga antelope, argali, Pallas’ sandgrouse, saxaul sparrow and desert warbler. I took this picture in September of 2006. The red rock formations in the distance are the Flaming Cliffs, where the first fossil dinosaur eggs were found.
All this, in a country that is about twice the size of Texas!
For the final installment of my list of “must” reads for anyone interested in Mongolia, I offer three books: One about a place and two about people.
The word “Gobi” is a byword for dry/arid/trackless/endless desert. In fact, there is a saying, “Dry as the Gobi”, to describe an extreme lack of moisture. Would it surprise you to know that the best, sweetest vegetables grown in Mongolia come from the Gobi? Or that snow leopards live there? Or that there is a forest with trees that have wood so dense that a piece of it sinks when thrown in water? Author John Man realized his dream of traveling to the Gobi (which is the word for “desert” in Mongolian) and then wrote this excellent book, Gobi, published in 1997, about his journey there, along with lots of excellent information on the human history, natural history, geology and paleontology of this remote and fascinating part of the world.
“We stopped to confer, and I unfolded the map on the bonnet. The Flaming Cliffs were definitely west, they had to be…..In the distance, a ger appeared, standing out of the desert as clear as a mushroom on the moon….Inside, the woman of the ger was distilling camel’s milk, boiling it in an immense pot, capturing the essence as it condensed, drop by drop. We received tokens of hospitality: camel’s curd, hard and sharp as parmesan, and a dish of distilled camel’s milk. It was a nectar of transparent purity, like vodka to look at, but with its alcohol content disguised bya smooth and subtle texture.”
This was one of the first books I read after my first trip to Mongolia in 2005 and it was, in part, the inspiration for my own trip to the Gobi in 2006. Re-acquainting myself with it for this review, I saw in the Acknowledgements two familiar names: wildlife artist Simon Combes, who Man encountered in the Altai Mountains when Combes was there gathering snow leopard information for his Great Cats series of paintings and Dr. Richard Reading, who was the scientist in charge of the Earthwatch project, Mongolian Argali, that was my means of getting to Mongolia the first time in spring of 2005. You’ll be hearing more about Dr. Reading in the not-to-distant future.
Gobi by John Man, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1997
Every Westerner who goes to the Gobi is, to some extent, traveling in the footsteps of Roy Chapman Andrews, who organized and carried out his series of five Central Asiatic Expeditions from 1922 to 1930. Andrews was about as close to a real life Indiana Jones as one is likely to find. Dragon Hunter, by Charles Gallenkamp, tells the story of Andrews’ life and his amazing adventures. He made his reputation at The Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi, where he and his fellow scientists found some of the most important fossils in the history of paleontology. Which was ironic, because Andrews was in Mongolia on a mission laid out by his boss at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to find evidence that man had originated in Asia, not Africa; a goal tinged with more than a bit of racism.
“It was agreed by everyone that the primary objective of the 1923 expedition should be The Flaming Cliffs. Shackelford’s unidentified dinosaur skull, the egg-like fragment found by Granger, and prolific array of bleached bones littering the ground and eroding out of the sculptured formations offered an irresistable lure.”
You can see my photo of The Flaming Cliffs at sunset and Mongolian dinosaur fossils on my website under “Mongolia/Mongolia 2006 photos/items 4 and 1
Dragon Hunter by Charles Gallenkamp, Viking 2001
Women of Mongolia is a truly wonderful collection of first person narratives that introduce us to women from every part of Mongolian society: city and countryside, professionals and laborers. I was struck by their strength, practicality and resourcefulness, all of which were necessary for them and their families to survive the transition from socialism to a market economy. The photos in the book may make them seem distant and exotic, but once you start reading, you realize how much we have in common even though the details of their lives are very different from the average American.
A herder woman: “What do I do all day? There’s plenty to do! First I get up at around six o’clock in the morning to milk the cows. My daughter helps me. We have nineteen cows to milk, so it takes around one hour. After that I do various other jobs. I go to bed around ten or eleven in evening. We make everything here. Yes, the wheels of the carts outside are an example. My husband makes them, out of wood. We use the carts to move the ger and our belongings. They are pulled by oxen. I make all the ropes out of horsehair – you can see them on the outside of the ger, holding down the felt.”
An anthropologist: “I recently founded a new Department at the University, so right now I am rather busy. I’m head of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the Academy of Sciences, and also head of the new Department of Anthropology at the National University…The focus of my own work has been craniological study…..How did I get started in this work? I graduated from the Moscow State University in anthropology because that is what the government told me to study.”
Women of Mongolia by Martha Avery, Asian Art and Archaeology/University of Washington Press 1996
And, on a different note: join Lonely Planet Mongolia author Michael Kohn as he takes the train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing and beyond.
I keep a journal on all my “interesting” trips, along with a sketchbook, and thought that I would occasionally share some entries. In 2006, I read The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux on the first part of the trip and was inspired to try my hand at recording something more descriptive, rather than just short “Today I was in western Mongolia, the van broke down and I got food poisoning.” diary-type entries. Here’s what it was like to get clean at a ger camp in the Gobi:
October 2, 2006 1:15pm:
Ah, the joys of clean hair and body. Once it was ready, I went to the shower ger. There was a stone path leading to a wood slat platform. A big metal bowl of hot water was sitting on top of the stove, in which there was a roaring fire. A small stand held one pair each lg. and small plastic sandals. There was a hook for ones clothes. The shower was provided by a pump sprayer just like what one would buy at the garden shop or hardware store with a spray head attached. One fills it (although it was already ready for me) with a combination of hot water from the stove and cold water from a can by the wall. Pump up the pressure and voila! a perfectly acceptable hot shower in the middle of the Gobi. It was still a little chilly, so I had a fire ready to go back at my get, so I am now (more or less) clean, dry and warm, a lovely combination much appreciated on this kind of trip.