Mongolia Monday- Back From Ikh Nartiin Chuluu!

They almost always see you first. That’s a nanny on the left and a three year old billy on the right. You can tell their age from the ridges on the horns.

It was Siberian ibex this time at Ikh Nart. I’d see them on previous trips and always take photos, but my main goal has been seeing as many argali as possible. This year most of those were 20km or so to the northeast, so it was not possible to walk to where they were, at least for me, and I didn’t have a car and driver this time. I’m good for about 8-10km or so a day, especially if it’s hot. And was it hot! Probably close to 100F on a couple of days and not starting to cool off until around 10:30 at night. We also had a couple of rain storms move through during the eleven days that I was there, one with quite a light show.

The valley were the research camp is located. The ibex were up on the rocks down on the far left hand side

I walked down the valley the first day, followed a slope up to the top, sat down to sketch the scene in front of me, looked around and there behind me I saw that I was being watched by an ibex. Forget the sketching, the wildlife fieldwork was on!

Close-up view of the previous photo. That’s a nanny on the left and a young billy on the right.

It turned out there was a group of around a dozen nannies and kids, one of each wearing radio collars, who were hanging around two adjacent rock formations. The first day there were also two young billies, one two and one three years old, judging from the ridges on their horns. I saw and photographed them in that same location three out of the next four days, shooting hundreds of images, around 900 in all. So you know one subject I’ll be painting this winter….

Ibex nanny wearing radio collar

My main reason for going to Ikh Nart, though, was to have my annual visit with the members of Ikh Nart Is Our Future, the women’s felt craft collective that I support. I had a very good meeting with the director, Ouynbolor, during which we spoke (through a translator) about how things had gone since I last saw her and what she needed me to do for this next year. Coming up will be a larger quantity of the full-color brochures I and staff at the Denver Zoo had produced to explain the collective to visitors to the tourist ger camp. They will also now be produced in Mongolian, not just English. There were also matching product tags in three sizes. They worked well, but a much larger quantity of those will also be needed for next year.

Collective members at work on various tasks

I registered a url for the collective last year, knowing that they wanted to have a website. At the meeting we were able to work out the content and a way to communicate while it’s being put together.

Making felt; the wool is laid out in cross-wise layers, wrapped in a piece of tablecloth, thoroughly soaked with hot water and then saturated with soap, which is the ingredient that melds the fibers together
They got me into the act too, helping to work the soap into the wool

The really special part is that I was able to arrange to go to the soum center (county seat), Dalanjargalan, for a night and a day. I had always met the women at either the research camp or the tourist ger camp and felt that it would be very beneficial to spend at least a little time where they live (when they are not out in the countryside at their gers with their animals) and learn a little about their lives. I got a walking tour that included the local school and shop. I stayed in the home of one of the collective members. Had lunch at the home of another and, in the afternoon, around a dozen members gathered at “the office”, a little building that used to be a gas station, to process their wool, turn it into felt and also work on various items that they will sell. I saw the felt presses that I had helped them acquire in action, along with the good sewing scissors they had requested in 2009. They have quite an operation set up now and work very efficiently and with great care and conscientiousness. I shot both still photos and around an hour of video with my new Panasonic recorder, enough to put together a little YouTube video after I get home.

Collective member with lovely pictorial peice done completely with different colors of felt

My ride back to camp arrived later than expected, around 10:30pm, and the reason was that they had seen and captured two very young long-eared hedgehogs that were crossing the road in front of the car! Hedgehogs are one of the species being studied at Ikh Nart, by a graduate student named Batdorj. Within a kilometer of leaving Dalanjargalan, a third one dashed across the road, this time an adult darian hedgehog, and it was captured too, riding back to camp on the lap of one of the students wrapped in his jacket. I was able to get a lot of photos and also video the next evening before they had radio transmitters glued to their backs and were transported back out to the general area in which they’d been caught. And yes, there will definitely be hedgehog paintings, cards and prints coming up.

Darian hedgehog
Young long-eared hedgehog

I also had time to just wander around the reserve and see what there was to see and it turned out to be….wildflowers! The rains have been very good this year and everything is green, green, green. I’ve been to Ikh Nart in August before, but have never seen so many different flowers and so many that I had never seen there before. It was like walking through a huge flower garden.


Finally it was time to depart. We were taking the train overnight to Ulaanbaatar. Most of our luggage, except for what we needed for the night, was taken back to UB by car in the afternoon. The rest of us caught the 1:14 am train and arrived about 8:30 am. I had never done this before, but managed to get around five hours of decent sleep. We were taken back to Zaya’s Guesthouse, where we got showers and sorted our dirty clothes for laundering. The rest of the day was spent getting lunch and puttering around, catching up on emails. The next day I spent most of the afternoon doing a massive download and back up of all the photos and videos I’d shot.

Late afternoon on the north side of the valley

So now I’m at Zaya’s, which I highly recommend to anyone coming to Ulaanbaatar. The rooms are sparkling clean, there is free wifi and the location is very convenient, right off Peace Ave. not far from the State Department Store. There is a common living room with a very comfortable sectional sofa and a full kitchen for the use of guests.

I did see argali a couple of times

As for the WildArt Mongolia Expedition, I’m now working on the last bits of planning and arranging, some things having changed since I left the US. Flexibility is important when doing things in Mongolia. It makes some people really angry when something doesn’t go right or on schedule (so this is not a country they should visit), but I’ve found that it creates possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

I’ll be in UB for the next 2-3 days, then I’m hoping for a long weekend at a ger camp I’ve stayed at before. Stay tuned!

Mongolia Monday- “Ikh Nart Is Our Future” Update

I’ll get back to The Camping Trip, but I really want to share the news on the women’s felt crafts collective. Notice the change from “cooperative”. There are a number of words used in Mongolia for legally constituted groups, each of which has different requirements. I need final confirmation from him, but my scientist friend Amgaa, who has been instrumental in helping me help the ladies, believes that this is the correct term, which is almost surely a holdover from socialist times.

Stuffed toy camel in progress

I spent a fun and productive week at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. There will be more about my argali and ibex sightings in a future post, but for the moment I’ll just say that I finally, after five trips there, got the reference photos I’ve really wanted – both species in great light and close enough for me to really capture details like head structure. Paintings to follow.

I’ve been so anxious to see Boloroo, the collective director, the other women and to find out how things are going for them.

Boloroo and Tuvshin

I’ll quote from my journal:

Tuesday, August 10-
Great reunion with Boloroo and some of the other ladies. Learned that what started last year with 14 ladies from one Bag (the smallest administrative unit in Mongolia; “bag” means “small” in Mongolian) has now expanded to 30 members in four of the five bags in the soum (the equivalent of a county). Some of the new members came along and it was fun to meet them.

Tuvshin (Boloroo’s son, my little buddy from last year) is now a sturdy almost 2 year old. One lady who was pregnant last year came with her baby and husband, who brought a nice little ibex carving to sell. (I’ve got a probable donor for good quality steel carving knife blanks. I’d like to encourage the men, too.)

Two folding tables were set up and covered with lots of merchandise. The collective has expanded beyond felt crafts, too. One lady now has a knitting machine and brought a variety of tops and sweaters to sell.


Selenge (the research camp manager and my translator) had me explain it all to the Earthwatch volunteers. By close of business, close to half of what had been brought had been sold.

A wonderful follow-up in every way to last year’s launch.

And customers

I was also able to have a private meeting with Boloroo, Selenge translating, about ideas for the kinds of things I think would sell in the US and some possibilities I’m working on for sales outlets. Many of the women will be perfectly happy to make slippers, stuffed toys and small, simple items to sell to visitors who come to Ikh Nart. But I’ve seen a level of talent and creativity in some of the women that I want to encourage. They can take their work, with practice, to a very high level of fine craft and therefore command much higher prices.

I watched Boloroo switch from visiting mode to business mode and am really impressed by how thorough and professional she is. I am so very fortunate to have gotten involved with a group that has her as the leader.

One of the new members and her family

I had also brought over a stack of sketchbooks, plus pens and pencils, so that young local artists would have the materials they need to create designs for things like purses. I believe this is better  than having a westerner like me do them, although I’ll be happy to help if asked.

Office interior

The following afternoon, I visited the soum center, Dalanjarglan, for the first time. Boloroo was there and we got to spend three hours together. She showed us the collective “headquarters”, a small free-standing building which used to be a gas station. It turns out that she bought the building herself. Amgaa had a banner sign made and donated some large informational posters from a past presentation about Ikh Nart. These have been hung on the interior walls. I saw the felt presses and they are clearly getting used regularly.

The felt presses

I had also paid for training earlier in the year in UB for Boloroo and one other lady, Lhagvadelger, the Bag Governor’s wife. Boloroo is now doing training herself. I also learned that there are four more levels of training available, so I will be looking for funding to cover that in the future.

Boloroo and I in front of the "Ikh Nart Is Our Future" office building

In UB a couple of weeks ago, I paid a visit to Tsagaan Alt, a store run by the Mongolian NGO from whom we got the felt presses and training. Everything they offer is of very high, consistent quality. Eventually, the collective will be able to sell their work there.

Selenge is going to try to keep up with what is going on with the collective and send me occasional reports.  Stay tuned. The ladies are clearly just getting started.