The WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 14: The Incomparable Gachen Lama Khiid

The old temple
The old temple.

I had first come to Gachan Lama Khiid on my two-week camping trip in 2010. I had never heard of it and was completely enchanted. So when the idea was floated about taking a different route back for at least part of the return to Ulaanbaatar, I thought of coming back and sharing this place. No one knows about it, really, not even many Mongols. If you google it, my previous post from 2010 is pretty much what comes up.

I think the old temple, the only structure besides the main gate which was left after the destruction of the monasteries in the late 1930s, is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. This time we were able to talk to the lamas and a staff person who live and work and worship there and learn more about it. A new temple has been built and we were allowed to enter and take photos in it and also the old temple.

The old temple is badly in need of restoration. One side is so unstable that it is propped up with timbers. There are a large number of exquisite works of art on the walls, most of them in need of attention. One can see areas of wood rot in parts of the structure. The monks came up with a restoration plan and sent it to the appropriate government ministry two years ago, but have not yet gotten a response. I promised them that I would see what I could do. This post is partly to keep that promise, but I will also be following up once I’m back in Mongolia this June (there was no time left last year and the monks are almost impossible to contact due to poor mobile phone reception). I documented as much of the damage as I could and have posted some of those images here as reference and to show some of what needs to be done. Honestly, this place should be on the list of World Heritage Sites.

A final note: The monastery is not set up for visitors. I’m not sure what facilities are available in the soum center nearby. If you go, plan to have everything you need and be respectful. Namaste.

We arrived after dark and it was very cold. And going to get colder as we were up in the Hangai Mountains almost due north of Bayanhongor. People were found and we were not only given permission to camp right on the monastery grounds, but allowed the use of one of the outbuildings for cooking and eating. The next morning we emerged to morning light that cast a magical glow on the temples…

The old temple
The old temple.
The surviving gate
The surviving gate; a new enclosure is being built around the complex.
Stupas with the river in the background.
The "kitchen"
The “kitchen”. Soyoloo, our cook, and Tseegii, our guide, making breakfast for everyone.
Entrance to the "kitchen"
Entrance to the “kitchen”.
Corner detail
Corner detail showing the delicate fretwork.
Blue elephant
Blue elephant.
Blue guardian
Blue guardian.
Carved and painted lotus
Carved and painted lotus.
Doorframe carving
Doorframe carving.
Corner animal and bell
Corner animal and bell.
Schematic of monastery before most of it was destroyed.
Schematic of monastery before most of it was destroyed.
Sign over door in three languages: Tibetan, Mongol bichig script, Chinese
Sign over door in three languages: Tibetan, Mongol vertical script, Chinese.
Buddhist symbol set of deer and wheel over door
Buddhist symbol set of deer and wheel over door. It is said that the first creatures to come to the Buddha when he sat under the Bodhi Tree to teach were two deer.
Timbers supporting one corner of the old Temple
Timbers supporting one corner of the old Temple.
Wall painting.
Wall painting.
Wall paintings.
Wall paintings.
Old temple interior.
Old temple interior.
Main altar in the old temple.
Main altar in the old temple.
Wall paintings.
Wall paintings.
Lama throne.
Lama throne.
Altar figurines.
Altar figurines.
Wall paintings.
Wall paintings.
Wall painting of the monastery in the winter. This one was everyone's favorite, including me.
Wall painting of the monastery in the winter. This one was everyone’s favorite, including me.
Door panel painting at the interior entrance to the old temple. Also a favorite.
Door panel painting at the interior entrance to the old temple. Also a favorite.
Altar in the new temple.
Lama throne in the new temple.
Ritual objects.
Ritual objects.
Temple bowl
Temple incense offering bowl.
The main altar in the new temple.
The main altar in the new temple.
Another view of the altar.
The right side of the altar.
A very old lock and keys.
A very old lock and keys.
Monk showing us a ceremonial staff.
Monk showing us a ceremonial staff.
Old table with stunning lacquer work.
Old table with stunning raised lacquer work.
Old door latch.
Old door latch.
The old temple.
The old temple. Unfortunately, we had to leave before the sun got to the front. But at the link above there’s a photo of it in full light.
The new temple.
The new temple.



Mongolia Monday- Fun With My Mongolia Photos

Chinggis Khan, Parliament building, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Chinggis Khan, Parliament building, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

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”.

Bactrian camels with Zurgul Uul in the background, Bayan Onguul soum
Bactrian camels with Zurgul Uul in the background, Bayan Onguul soum
Horse trainer, Dalanjargalan
Horse trainer, Dalanjargalan
Gers on a stormy day, en route from Ikh Nart to Gun-Galuut, 2011
Gers on a stormy day, en route from Ikh Nart to Gun-Galuut, 2011
Decorative carving on old temple, Gachen Lama Khiid, Erdenesogt, Khangai Mountains, 2010
Decorative carving on old temple, Gachen Lama Khiid, Erdenesogt, Khangai Mountains, 2010

Mongolia Monday- shine jiliin mend hurgeye (Happy New Year!)

Sunrise, Orog Nuur, the Gobi
Sunrise, Orog Nuur, the Gobi; the new year and my next trip will take me and the WildArt Mongolia Expedition on new roads, but we might get back to this place again

Thanks to my Mongol friends on Facebook, I’m picking up some Mongolian here and there, like the phrase in the title. I see written Mongolian in both the Latin alphabet and Mongolian cyrillic every day and sometimes I can read all or most of a sentence now, which is fun.

Earth road into the Hangai Mountains
Earth road into the Hangai Mountains; happiness is a Mongolian earth road leading out into the deep countryside, knowing that something wonderful might be just over the next rise or around a bend

There’s plenty coming up for me in 2013. I’ll be entering a number of juried shows, including a few new ones. All my entries will be of Mongolian subjects. In March, I’ll be flying down to Tucson for the opening weekend of the Sea of Cortez exhibition at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. In April I will be going to the 2nd Annual Plein Air Convention and Expo in Monterey, California and shortly thereafter flying back to the east coast for the spring board meeting of the Society of Animal Artists. I’ll also be doing an event in New York to promote the upcoming WildArt Mongolia Expedition, but the exact date hasn’t been set yet. In June there will be a WildArt Mongolia event in the San Francisco Bay Area, final date also to be determined. And, as currently planned, I will leave for my annual trip to Mongolia around the beginning of August. The Expedition is scheduled for late August/early September. I’ll have a couple of weeks at home and then it’s back to the east coast again in early October for the opening weekend of Art and the Animal at the Bennington Center for the Arts and the fall board meeting. I’ll be posting more on all of these events as the dates approach.

Mongolia Monday: 5 Photos Of Favorite Places- Hangai Mountains

I visited two very different parts of Mongolia in 2010 on my two week camping trip: the Gobi and, directly to the north, the Hangai Mountains. Today I’d like to share five of my favorite photos from the mountains, which I hope very much to explore more in the future. I think you’ll see why…

Gachen Lama Khiid, Erdensogt Soum- this has to be one of the great undiscovered places in Mongolia, an old monastery located north of Bayanhongor in Bayanhongor Aimag. I could spend days sketching and painting this beautiful temple and the stupas overlooking the river valley. There are more photos and the story of our visit here.
We had spent the night camped out on a hillside with a lovely view. The next morning I crawled out of my tent to the sight of local herders moving their yaks out to graze. Being in plain view, we soon had visitors, including this older gentleman. He perfectly sums up the dignity and presence of the Mongol country people. He also knew I was taking pictures of him...
We had to come down out of the mountains proper to circle around to get back in to our next destination. There was a small temple just outside a small soum center. I peeked inside and was treated to this riot of color, all kinds of candy and other food left as offerings. I don't know the story of the statue, but wish I did. More on the day I took this photo and the one above here.
Our destination that day was Khuisiin Naiman Nuur National Park, a series of nine ("naim" in Mongolian) mountain lakes, only accessible by car by driving up the length of this incredibly beautiful valley, which is where we camped for one night. I could have stayed there two weeks. More photos here.
We wended our way higher into the mountains reaching a pass where we found this fantastic ovoo made of wood and festooned with dozens of blue khadag (offering scarves). The tradition is to walk three times around it clockwise and leave some kind of offering or token, even if it's only a stone that one has picked up from the ground. Ovoos are always on high places and passes. The creation of them dates back far beyond the arrival of Buddhism to the ancient beliefs of Tengerism (or what westerners call "Shamanism"). More photos of the beautiful, wildflower-filled mountains here.

New Painting Debut! “Yak Herder-Hentii Mountains, Mongolia”

Yak Herder-Hentiii Mountains, Mongolia 18x14" oil (price on request)

And here’s the step by step process by which I created this painting:

The reference photo I used of a local man who hauled water to the Jalman Meadows ger camp where I was staying with another artist this past August.
I started out with a raw sienna toned RayMar canvasboard and began with a loose brush drawing for placement and position of the head and features. I've already changed him into a del instead of western clothes.
Next I established the light and shadow areas.
I re-drew the features and started to add some color.
I went darker with the background and launched into modeling his head.
I was using two or three other photos for the del and continued to model his head, paying particular attention to the features, value relationships and the various colors in the shadows.
At this point I realized that the del was opening the wrong way due to the other photos i was using and that I needed much better reference for it
I'd had del made for myself and my husband in 2009. He was kind enough to model for me in his.
I decided to finish the bottom to the edge of the canvas and I also lightened up the background. So, once more, "Yak Herder-Hentii Mountains, Mongolia"

Mongolia Monday- “Summer”, A Poem By D. Natsagdorj

Herder and yaks, Hangai Mountains, July 2010

When gorgeous summer starts,

on the gorgeous Hangai ranges,

the cuckoos sing out sweetly-

oh, how lovely this world is!

A green haze hangs in space, a delusion of mirages,

and a horse neighs, longing for home.

A rain of flowers purifies the face of the world,

and young people cram their minds with one another.

Jockeys ready for the race, July 2010

In summer, the mountains teem with fresh waters.

Mongolia takes pleasure in her three manly sports, and

children sing their horserace song through the valleys.

These swift and gleaming horses are admired by all.

Festive melodies echo across the vast steppe.

Livestock graze the countryside, and

the scent of airag fills everyone’s nostrils.

Everywhere is so lovely, such happiness everywhere!

Airag, Arburd Sands, September 2008

New Painting Debut! “Mongol Horse #7- Getting Warmed Up”

Mongol Horse #7-Getting Warmed Up 18x24" oil on canvas

This was the first painting I started after the long travel layoff. I wanted to keep it simple, so I chose this beautiful paint horse standing with his back to the morning sun. In my reference he was standing with a hill behind him, which wasn’t very interesting, so I “moved” him to a  background that let me do a landscape, too. The setting is the Hangai Mountains of central Mongolia, a lush and scenic part of the country that isn’t anything like the vision most people have of the Land of Blue Skies.

Mongolia Monday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 8 – Khuisiin Naiman Nuur National Park

One of the places I most want to go back to and spend a week camping, painting and sketching is this place. For me, the “Valley of the Yaks” is the whole package. Green mountains, beautiful small rivers, herders, their gers and their animals, raptors like black kites and absolutely no visitor infrastructure at all.


Gers in the valley



First yaks we saw


We drove more or less to the end of the road, which was at the top of a steep slope. There was, of course, an ovoo. Getting out and looking over the top, I noticed two things right away: A drop dead gorgeous mountain lake, one of eight in the park (“naim” means “eight” in Mongolian”) and that the road continued down, and I do mean down, the other side at about a 45 degree angle. Needless to say, almost no one is crazy enough to drive it even though it is the only road in the park that provides access by car to any of the lakes. The only other way to get to them is to walk or ride a horse. We climbed up the slope, joining quite a few Mongol day-trippers. Even though nothing in particular was going on, there was a festive feeling in the air.


One of the lakes of Naiman Nuur National Park; road to right, after it's leveled out some





I took my lake photos and also got some more good wildflower images, then it was time to drive back down the hill and find a campsite. We passed some Mongol guys who were sitting and chatting by the side of the road. As we went by, one of them, who had obviously noticed that I was a westerner, yelled out “I love you!” Almost without thinking, I yelled back “Bi mongol dortei!”, “I like Mongolia!”. For some reason, Khatnaa and Soyoloo thought this was hilarious, burst out laughing and high-fived me. Khatnaa then decided that I had to learn another Mongol sentence: “Bi argaliin udad dortei” which means “I like dung smoke.”, a reference to our stay at Orog Nuur in the Gobi. I think I ended up having to repeat it at every ger we visited after that. All in good fun, of course.

The time had now come to find a spot to camp for the night. I was looking a little longingly at a place right down next to the river, certainly a prime spot that one would gravitate to in America. But up on higher ground was a dirt ring where someone had set up a ger. That’s the spot that Khatnaa picked and when it started to rain pretty hard later on, it was obvious that he had made the right choice and my choice might have gotten us quite wet if the river level had gone up very much.


Campsite after the tents had been taken down; what a view!


As I sat enjoying the late afternoon light, suddenly I had to grab my camera body with the long lens. A herder had come down the other side of the river and was rounding up his yaks. I reeled off about 170 images from the comfort of my camp chair.


Local yak herder


After dinner, we all sat and chatted until suddenly the wind kicked up and then it started to rain. Bedtime.

The next morning was beautiful and I got some more long range shots of the same herder milking some of his yaks. Soyoloo and I took turns washing each other’s hair down by the river.

I hated to leave, but promised myself that I would return and have more time.


One of the rivers


We re-traced our route back down the valley. On the way, we stopped for more yak photos. I had, not unreasonably, thought that the bigger ones with horns were the bulls. Then I saw an actual bull. He was absolutely huge and had no horns. The herders remove them because, armed with what are essentially two long, sharp spikes, a bull yak would be a very dangerous animal to have around.


Bull yak on right



Yaks, gers, windmill, car


The gelded yaks, like the ones above, are called “shar”, Mongolian for “yellow”. It seems to be the term applied to any gelded livestock. I don’t know why yet.

We also passed a number of herds of horses. It looked like the airag supply was good.




Back out of the valley, we passed this little riverside drama, but didn’t stay to see what happened next.


Someone made a poor decision


We drove past a family who was setting up housekeeping. I thought this was a good photo of a ger without the felt covering, plus, what a lovely spot to live!


Soon to be home, sweet home


We also went by this small monastery, located outside of a soum center.


Small monastery, with stupas


Continuing on, we were soon going up in elevation and I started to see forests for the first time. We stopped for lunch on a hillside covered with wildflowers.


Lunchtime view


Next week: wildflower heaven and a famous waterfall.

Mongolia Monday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 7 – A Quieter Day, But One With Its Own Rewards

We came south down out of the mountains and into a small soum center, stopping at a petrol station. There was a truckload of horses parked near us and Khatnaa spent some time chatting with the men while I snuck a few photos from inside the car.

Horse transport, Mongol-style
Khatnaa chatting with the herders

Our next stop was in front of a fenced compound, which turned out to be the home of Khatnaa’s cousin and his family. We spent a few hours visiting them, being fed a feast of airag, buuz and other goodies. Since this was a very special social stop, I left the camera in the car. Not only did it seem inappropriate to even ask to take pictures, but I’ve found that sometimes I simply want to fully be a part of whatever is going on and using a camera creates a barrier that makes me an observer instead.

We finally went on our way, richer by a container of fresh, delicious airag.

It was fairly late in the afternoon by the time we left, going north back into the mountains. We crossed over a pass and on through a valley, finally stopping for the night on an open slope. The next morning we were visited by a young local herder, who was obviously nervous, but unwilling to pass up a chance to meet us. He did seem to have a quiet, confident way about him and I asked Khatnaa to ask him if he had been a jockey in naadam races. And the answer, as I expected, was “yes”.

View from our campsite, with yaks

There were small groups of horses and yaks around, so I got some good photos just sitting in our camp. Then a well-dressed older gentleman rode over to us and stopped for a chat. He really was the quintessential Mongol herder.

Local herder

We finally got all packed up and on the road, crossing a river as we drove up a beautiful green valley. But suddenly, the green turned white. Khatnaa stopped the car immediately and I saw that the ground on either side of the car was carpeted with tiny white flowers. We got out and took in the beauty of the scene. Khatnaa spoke with Soyoloo and then said to me in English that it looked like the very first light snow in October and one didn’t see this large an area of the flowers very often. Even though it was cloudy, the fields had an airy, delicate quality which was quite magical.

Carpet of white flowers
Close-up of flowers; don't know the species

Our next stop was at a small temple which stood on the outskirts of a soum center. The statue and offerings on the inside were quite extraordinary, at least to me.

Temple on outskirts of soum center
The occupant of the interior of the temple, with offerings

Driving on, we were soon going up in elevation again, stopping for lunch at a turnout in the road that, at first, looked good simply for its lovely view. But once out of the car and walking around, I found that we were in the middle of an alpine rock garden, filled with delicate flowers, like yellow poppies, which were delightful miniatures of the kind one finds in western gardens.

Lunchtime view
"Rock garden"
Miniature yellow poppies
Asters and unknown white flower

Coming back down into a valley filled with gers and livestock, we passed the remains of one of the illegal “ninja gold mines” that are disfiguring the Hangai Mountains. These mines have also affected the run-off which fills lakes like Orog Nuur, causing them to be dry now, more often than not. Very sad in a country that has traditionally had such a strong land ethic. But understandable when there are not enough jobs and people have families to support.

Illegal gold mine

As we continued on, we saw two young men on horses riding in our direction. We stopped and Khatnaa got out to chat with them while I took photos from the car (do you see a pattern here? :0) . I don’t know where they were going, but they were all dressed up and looking good.

Local lads

We continued on into the valley and a huge freestanding rock came into view.

Another river to cross
As we came around the bend...

Driving up to it, I could see that it was festooned with khadak, the ceremonial blue scarves. We stopped for a short time, walking around it.

Sacred rock (I didn't get its name)

As it turned out, just past this local sacred landmark was what I will always think of as the “Valley of the Yaks” and which I think is one of the most beautiful places I saw on my trip.