The WildArt Mongolia Expedition 2014, Part 1: Ulaanbaatar to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve

A river of pink...
A river of pink…

I’ve been back home in California for a week now after eight great weeks in Mongolia . I’ve downloaded and started to categorize over 9000 images. All my journal and sketchbook drawings, along with the watercolors I did, have been scanned or photographed. Now it’s time to share both the WildArt Mongolia Expedition 2014 and then some of the other special places and experiences I had. You can find general information on the Expedition here.

The Expeditiion’s first stop this year was the Steppe Nomads Eco Camp, located in the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, which is about two hours east of Ulaanbaatar. This is my third time there and, as expected, it was a great starting point.

Close-up of the flowers.
Close-up of the flowers, which are a species of wild primrose (Primula farinosa)
Baits Uul
Baits Uul. There are around 60 argali in the reserve, mostly up on this mountain.
Mongolian toad
Mongolian toad. There are not many species of amphibians in Mongolia, but this toad is found in a variety of places in the country.
Kherlen Gol.
Kherlen Gol. The river that runs through the reserve.
This was a special sighting along the endangered whooper swan and a family of bar-headed geese.
This was a special sighting along the river….an endangered whooper swan and a family of bar-headed geese.
We also saw a pair of demoiselle cranes, one of the species on our list.
We also saw a pair of demoiselle cranes, one of the species on our list.
My first reacion
My first reaction when I saw dandelions for the first time in the country here at Gun-Galuut in 2009 was sadness that this “weed” had also invaded Mongolia. Then I remembered….here they’re a native!
Beautiful bi-color iris (Iris lactea)
Beautiful bi-color iris (Iris lactea)
Wild iris growing by the river.
Wild iris growing by the river.
Nyambayar Batbayar
Nyambayar Batbayar, a leading crane researcher who has been a Facebook friend of mine for years, was one of the leaders of a group from the International Crane Foundation who were also staying at the ger camp. Nyambaa, who you will meet again a couple of posts from now, was trying to photograph barn swallows in flight. I just happened to be able to catch him with the rainbow in the background.
We passed a couple of small lakes
We passed a couple of small lakes on our way north after leaving the reserve. There were horses on both sides of the road, so a great photo op!
Mongol horse foal.
Mongol horse foal. There were a lot of foals to see and photograph.
Then this local herder rode by...
Then this local herder rode by…
This small lake, which one passes
This small lake, which was on the opposite side of the road from the one with the horses, is known for the number and variety of birds that can sometimes be seen on and around it. This year there were whooper swans nesting out in the middle. In the background is the Baganuur coal mine. When I first came to this area in 2009, the waste piles were off in the far distance. I was shocked at how close they have come to the lake and the road. This photo sums up one of the major conservation challenges Mongolia faces: balancing the needs of people for fuel and the economic development that resource extraction like mining provides and the needs of wildlife and those same people for a safe and clean environment. Learning about these issues and how art can be of service is really the main goal of my WildArt Mongolia Expeditions.

Next time, we’ll be heading up into the Han Hentii Mountains, on our way to Binder Aimag and the International Crane Festival.


New Paintings Debut! “Quiet Moment (Mongol Horses)” and “Goviin Boroo (Gobi Rain)”

"Quiet Moment (Mongol Horses)"   14x18"  oil
“Quiet Moment (Mongol Horses)” 14×18″ oil

These two Mongol horses were part of a large herd that I saw at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve in August of 2011. The mosquitos were pretty bad, so they were spending the day standing  in a large shallow pond surrounded by a wetland area. Although it is a nature reserve, the local herders are allowed to use the valley as they always have during the times when the ground-nesting cranes aren’t incubating eggs.

Herd of Mongol horses at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve
Herd of Mongol horses at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve with the Steppe Nomads eco ger camp in the background. The reserve is only a two-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar

The reference for “Goviin Boroo (Gobi Rain)” was taken in July, 2010 on my amazing two week camping trip. The rains were really good almost everywhere that year and the Gobi, contrary to how most westerners picture it, was green, green, green in many places, including this area near Orog Nuur, a remote Gobi lake where we spent the night.

"Goviin Boroo (Gobi Rain)"  18x24"  oil
“Goviin Boroo (Gobi Rain)”
18×24″ oil

I loved the layers of clouds, the streak of sunlight on the grass and the complimentary colors of green and red and knew I’d do a painting of the scene at some point.

You can read about the camping trip by selecting Mongolia 2010 from the drop-down categories menu.

Mongolia Monday- New Painting Debut! “Loose Horse Ahead”

Loose Horse Ahead 18×24″ oil

Yes, even with the craziness of preparing my WildArt Mongolia Expedition Kickstarter project, I continue to work at my easel. And I just finished this one late last week.

Pokey Park and I and our guide/driver were exploring the wetland area of Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, when we saw a local herder coming past us. One of the impressive things about Mongol riders is that, even at a very young age, they can ride a horse going pretty much at any gait or speed standing up and utterly still.

He rode on past us and we continued birdwatching and picture taking. Not too much later though, back he came, catching up with a brown horse, saddled and bridled, which had clearly gotten loose. In the meantime, a good-sized group of horses were heading for some open water. The brown horse dodged behind them with the rider right after him. Up came his urga (the long pole with a loop that is used instead of a rope lasso) and in short order the brown horse was captured.

Got him.

For the painting, I wanted to show Mongol horsemanship, which most people haven’t seen. The bonus, of course, was the great morning light and the setting. And…you may have noticed that the rider in the photo is wearing backwards baseball cap, but not in the painting. I’m interested in painting the Mongolia of today, but the baseball caps just don’t do it for me, however practical they are for the wearers, so I leave them off. But everything else is as I saw it that beautiful morning in August 2011.

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- Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve

We arrived at the Steppe Nomads ger camp at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve with a broken rear spring on the Land Cruiser, not sure what this meant for the remainder of the trip. While Pokey and I settled in, Khatnaa got on his mobile phone and called the Nomadic Journeys’ office to sort things out. We got laundry done and took welcome hot showers.

That night, at dinner, Khatnaa explained the situation. He would need to take the car out to the tarmac road (13km on earth road each way to get to and from the reserve) the next afternoon to meet up with someone from UB who would bring the new spring out. Then it would have to be installed. How long? Half a day. Did we want the office to also send out a new guide and driver to finish the trip or would we wait for the repair? That decision took about two seconds….we’d wait and finish the trip together. In any case, Pokey and I weren’t sorry to have a break to simply hang around camp and relax.

Khatnaa then said that the car was drivable, with care, and we would go out the next morning at 6am, which is exactly what we did. I was impressed by what he considered staying on “easy” roads. We parked and took a good, long hike down to where he thought we might see argali, which we spotted off in the distance almost as soon as we stopped to glass the mountain.

We also got great photos of a big herd of Mongol horses and cranes, but really had to dodge the mosquitos. Back at the ger camp around 1pm, Khatnaa grabbed a quick lunch and took off. To our surprise and pleasure he was back at 5:15, after having to replace BOTH back springs because the replacement was longer than the original one. Dinner was quite festive with beers all around.

We only had one day at Gun-Galuut, but it was a full one, packed with great scenery and animals.

Steppe Nomads Tourist Camp
Morning coffee in front of my ger in my comfy Mongol del and felt slippers
Early morning light along the Kherlen Gol with Baits Uul ahead on the right
12-13 argali grazing; look in the middle among the shrubs for the white dots which are their rumps; why good binoculars are a must
Riverside view
Local herder's gers with a line of grey herons in front
I believe this is a Japanese quail chick
The horses we got great photos of, with the ger camp in the background; they were in the water to get away from the mosquitos
Endangered white-napped cranes
Small toad
Wetland and mountain, with cranes
More of the horses; in the afternoon a breeze had come up which kept the mosquitos away, from us at least
Sometimes the action got pretty hot and heavy
First time I ever saw a caterpiller in Mongolia

That evening Khatnaa told us that the next day’s drive wouldn’t be a long one, so we would go out into the reserve in the morning and leave after lunch. We went around the “backside” of the mountain, the side away from the river, parked in a draw, got out and almost immediately spotted four big rams running over a ridge to our right. I only was able to get a couple of butt shots before they were gone. But, within minutes, we spotted an argali ewe and lamb to our left. And then a large group moving up the draw directly in front of us, but a pretty long ways off. It’s estimated that there are less than 100 argali in Gun-Galuut, so we saw a fairly good percentage of the population in two tries.

Argali Ewe and lamb
Good-sized spider

We drove to the next draw over where we hoped the argali rams had gone, but saw no one. Pokey wanted to do some sketching, so she stayed with the car while Khatnaa and I hiked up onto the mountain again. Coming around a ridge, the view opened up to the entire river valley. We found a couple of rocks to sit on and simply enjoyed the scenery for a half hour. It was so quiet, except for the occasional animal. No cars, no planes, no radios, no voices. Just. Quiet. One of the things I treasure about being in the Mongolian countryside.

View of the Kherlen Gol valley, looking east
Of course I had to have my picture taken
Back down on the wetland, we spotted a whooper swan
A beautiful butterfly
And on the other side of the river, a pair of demoiselle cranes
On our way out of the reserve that afternoon, we stopped by this small lake to photograph another whooper swan
This enormous coal mine at Baikhanuur is visible from the road to and from the reserve

Next week: Onward to Jalman Meadows in the Hentii Mountains

Mongolia Monday- The Journey Is The Destination, Part 2

The next leg of the artist’s tour was from Ikh Nart to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. I had only been there once, in 2009, driving east from Ulaanbaatar. This time we were going to go almost straight north…we hoped.

Great bustard we spotted not long after we left the reserve. It was the first time I had ever seen one.

We got back to the main tarmac road between Ulaanbaatar and China and traveled on it for awhile. Then we passed a spot where a dirt road went off to the right at an angle. Khatnaa started to drive on, spotted a white van coming toward the tarmac, stopped, backed up, got out and walked over to them as they slowed down and then stopped. After a short conversation, he came back to the car, backed us up and off we went onto the earth road. He had been able to get enough information about weather and road conditions that he felt ok about  taking the “local road”. As usual, this made me very happy.

Why you don't just pick up a rental car at the airport and head out into the countryside in Mongolia on your own. You can now get a good road atlas, but it's deceiving because this is what the roads are like all over the country except for a very few wide gravel roads and a slowly increasing amount of tarmac on main routes.
We drove through a small soum center.
As we headed north, there was a dark storm front to our left and fluffy white clouds and sunshine to our right. The road going north was running right along the front. We were out in steppe countryside with no one else around...not a single other car, not even a ger.
After some spatters, we found ourselves traveling in pretty heavy rain for about 15-20 minutes and then came to a stream that we had to cross. Now I started to wonder what the road conditions would be up ahead of us.
The light was really spectacular, though, as we went up some in elevation and started to see gers again. It had stopped raining where we were, but was still stormy to the west and north of us.
Dropping down into a valley and, crossing it, we encountered something I'd seen before....really hard greyish dried mud combined with many very deep potholes. Khatnaa, with extreme care, had almost picked our way through it when we felt the rear end on the passenger side drop down hard, accompanied by a noise that didn't sound good at all. He pulled over on a level spot and crawled under the car. The verdict? The spring (new and Chinese-made) was broken. What to do? We drove on very carefully. VERY carefully.
What Khatnaa knew, that I didn't, was that over the rise that you can see almost in the middle in the above photo was our destination, the Steppe Nomads ger camp at Gun-Galuut. With much creaking and care, we made it over the pass and across the valley to the camp.

Next week: what happened next….

Home Again. And Album Of “I Was There” Photos

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.

Lunch up in the mountains of Hustai National Park
Mongol horse ride #1 at Arburd Sands ger camp
Stupa at Zorgol Uul, a mountain not far from Arburd Sands
Probably my favorite photo from the trip; I met these women in 2008 when my husband and I went to Arburd Sands and I was thrilled to see them again this year; Lkhamsuren, on the right, is the widow of famous horsetrainer, Choidog, whose son, Batbadrakh, is now family patriarch; Surenjav, next to me, and I somehow connected in 2008 even though we couldn't talk to each other due to the language barrier. She's 92 now and is Batbadrakh's brother's mother-in-law. Being Mongolia, neither expressed any real surprise at this western woman who they met three years ago walking into the ger one morning to say "Sain bain uu"
Orphaned argali lamb at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve research camp
Happiness is a nice ger and comfy del at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve
After the second longish hike up a steep slope in one morning, I was rewarded with this great view of the valley of the Kherlen Gol; Chinggis Khan almost certainly knew and rode through this place
Mongol horse ride #2 at Jalman Meadows ger camp, up north in the Hentii Mountains, and overlooking the valley of the Tuul Gol, which also flows through Ulaanbaatar
The second night of the camping trip, I got to stay overnight with a herder family for the first time. It happened to be the home of my driver, Puugee, who on the right. Next to me on the left is Hashchuluun, his wife, then a lady who I did not catch the name of and, finally, Puugee's oldest son, one of three

Mongolia Monday- It’s My 400th Post! 10 Of My Favorite Mongolia-related Websites

Hard to believe it, but I have reached 400 posts. I started my blog on December 10, 2007. It doesn’t seem like it has been that long. It’s become part of my weekly routine and a fun way to share my art and my travels.

I also really appreciate the support and comments that I get from my readers. Thank you!

Now, on to Mongolia Monday! Today I’m going to post links to 10 of my favorite sites, ones that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in learning about Mongolia or who is planning to go there.

Procession of the horse tail standards, Naadam, 2009

1.– has consistently been the best place I’ve found for keeping up with what is going on in Mongolia. There is also the UB Post, which is better known, but the load time on the site is glacial.

Peace Avenue, Ulaanbaatar, September 2009

2. Asian Gypsy:– He doesn’t post nearly enough, but this is definitely my favorite blog written by a Mongol. I get the email feed so that I don’t miss a post.

3. Weather Underground:– Want to know what the weather is like in Ulaanbaatar? Here it is.

Lightning storm at Arburd Sands ger camp, July 2009

4. Altan Urag:– One of the best known groups to come out of Mongolia, Altan Urag (which means “Golden Lineage”, a reference to the family and descendents of Chinggis Khan), describes themselves as a “folk rock band”, which means an amazing synthesis of modern western and traditional Mongolian music, including morin khuur and khoomii (horsehead fiddle and throat singing). Their music can also be heard in movies like “Khadak” and “Mongol”. And their website is waaay cool.

Morin khuur, Union of Mongolian Artists gallery, Ulaanbaatar

5. Ganbold:– Ganbold, who currently lives in the USA, is a graphic designer and artist with a very impressive client list. I had clicked on a banner ad he had placed on a Mongol site and really liked what I saw. Then, sometime later, a “Ganbold” left a comment on this blog. I clicked the url in the commenter info. and. low and behold, it was the same person! We’ve stayed in touch on and off since then. The home page of his website is, literally, a work of art. Click “Enter”. Highly recommended for bird lovers.

6. Budbayar Boldbaatar:– I absolutely adore his work, but Budbayar is also standing in for the many, many excellent artists that Mongolia produces and who deserve to be known to the world.

Palace of Culture, Ulaanbaatar; home to the Mongolian Modern Art Gallery

7. Circle of Tengerism-– One thing that many westerners do know about Mongolia is what we call “shamanism” and the Mongols call “Tengerism”. “Tenger” is Mongolian for “sky”, also known as The Eternal Blue Sky or Eternal Heaven. This ancient belief system has survived centuries of persecution and suppression and today is an active part of the culture of the country.

Shaman's drum- Mongolian Modern Art Gallery, Ulaanbaatar

8. Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve-– My entry point into Mongolia in 2005, Ikh Nart is where I’ve been able to become actively involved in conservation and working with local herders. The reserve is home to the world’s only argali research project.

Argali ram- Ikh Nartiin Chuluu

9. Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve-– Very different habitat from Ikh Nart, but also home to a population of argali sheep. This reserve was set up by the local government and is administered by a community association. Visitors can ride a horse or in a yak cart, try Mongol archery, take a boat out on the river and hike the surrounding area.

Camel ride?- Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve

10. Nomadic Journeys-– Finally, a tip of the hat to the tour company that I have relied on to get me around Mongolia since 2006. The website not only describes their trip offerings, but is a wealth of information about Mongolia, the country, land, people and wildlife.

Tahilgat Hairhan (a sacred mountain), Tsenkher Tenger (blue sky) and Gazar Zam (earth road); Minii Mongol (my Mongolia)

Mongolia Monday- The 6 Ecosystems

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!