Part 2: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition-South Into The Gobi

 

1. BTN goats and ger
Evening light at Boon Tsagaan Nuur

I’ve said for many years that in Mongolia, more than in most places, the journey really is the destination. It’s something most visitors miss with the usual emphasis tour companies have of going from sight to sight on paved roads. Eleven trips in twelve years and I’ve never been bored and have never slept while rolling. It takes time, effort and money for me to go to Mongolia every year and I don’t want to miss a minute of the limited time I have in the countryside. So while this week’s post doesn’t have a lot of incident or excitement, it will give you a chance to see a little of what’s “in between” on the road day to day, this time in the Gobi.

We hadn’t realized it when we set up camp at Boon Tsagaan Nuur, a remote lake in the Gobi, but we were not far from a herder’s ger (see above photo). A short walk towards the lake revealed it settled behind a dune. We found the goats and sheep to be entertaining, but could also see that they had grazed the grass down to the ground in the entire area except for one section that was fenced off, something one sees all too often these days.

1a. spotted goat
Loved the markings and color of this spotted cashmere goat.
3. BTN mt., lake, sheep
After breakfast we picked our way to the lakeshore through wet ground to do some birdwatching. The lake was rough with white caps and backed by a snowy mountain, Dund Argalant Nuruu. It was cold and windy.
2. BTN ruddy shelducks
A pair of ruddy shelducks flew over. That’s the lake at the bottom of the photo.
4. BTN great cormorants
There was also a flock of great cormorants.
5. Black-headed gulls
Black-headed gulls.

There were a number of shorebirds…plovers and a redshanks, but I couldn’t get close enough for decent photos.

6. BT me at lake
Did I say it was cold?

We left the lake driving south around the east shore, a route that I had not been on before, which was great!

7. BTN lake and ger
The lake was a deep indigo blue with white caps from the wind. This ger with a solar panel was the last one we saw for awhile.
8. snowy mt.
As we headed south it got warmer. There was an minor cognitive disconnect between driving through the warm Gobi and seeing heavy snow on the mountains from the front we’d driven through farther north two days earlier.
9. road shot, rocks
We started to climb through the first of a number of rugged passes. Grabbed this shot through the windshield of the Land Cruiser.
10. road shot, rocks
There were some impressive rock formations along the way.
11. apricot tree in bloom
And then we entered a stretch with quite a bit of vegetation, including flowering shrubs. I think this is a wild apricot. I’m usually in Mongolia later in the year when the fruits have already formed, so am not sure. But the pink flowers made quite a contrast with the edgy roughness of the rocks.
12. van, soyoloo
Our Russian fergon support van with our great cook. Soyoloo, waving from the passenger side. Fergons aren’t the most comfortable ride, but they will get you there. No electronics, all mechanical, with the engine between the front seats, which means it can be accessed without getting out of the car, highly desireable when it’s -30F  or 90F outside. And they can be fixed by the drivers, who know them inside out and backward, on the road.
13. gers, mt.
I always try to get photos of gers in the landscape, maybe THE quintessential Mongolian  countryside scene.
14. ger dogs
Also part of the landscape, ger dogs chasing one’s vehicle as a send-off after a visit. The traditional greeting upon approaching a herder’s ger is “nokhoi ga”….”Hold the dog!”. I never, ever, ever get out of the car or van until told to do so by the driver or guide since they can be highly aggressive and are not vaccinated against rabies or anything else.
15. van, lunch stop
View from one of our lunch stops. Blue sky, fluffy clouds, open space that goes on for hundreds of kilometers.
16. lunch stop, herders
But deserted? Not at all. While Soyoloo and our guide, Batana, got everyone’s lunch boxes out of the cooler, this motorbike rolled up, the family either coming or going from the soum center or maybe visiting family or friends.
17. camels!
We spot the first camels! These are domestic bactrian camels. It was great for Kim and Oliver since it was the first time on the trip, but I never tire of seeing camels.
18. horses, mts.
Same with the horses, especially with a backdrop like this.
19. soum center, water
We rolled into a small soum center to get water from the local well. This one was quite a set-up with a permanent building and a window through which one paid.
20. camel and snow
More camels. My “ship of the desert” shot. Three days since the snow storm and these higher southern mountains were still blanketed.
21. mt. pass
We had to get south through a range of mountains to our south to reach our next destination, the soum center of Bayantooroi. The driver started to  look for a camping spot, but then we noticed possible rain clouds coming up behind us. We needed to get out and down to the plain asap since you can see that the road follows the same path run-off from a rain storm would take.
22. saxaul
We did make it down to the upland area and out of the mountains. While the rain ended up missing us to the east, it was very, very windy that night. The next day was calm and we found ourselves in an area with saxaul trees.
23. lunch spot
Our lunch stop was at a large out cropping which had a “terrace” that we climbed up to and where we sat to eat. Nice view looking back the way we’d come.
24. Bayantooroi
The day’s destination, Bayantooroi, where the headquarters of the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area is located. We had to go there, quite a bit out of our way, to get a border permit since we were going to be within 50km of the Chinese border. In the background, on the left, is Eej Hairkhan Uul, the sacred mother mountain. On the first WildArt Mongolia Expedition in 2013, we spent two nights camping at the base of the mountain, doing a day hike up onto it. You can read about that wonderful day here.
25. solar panels
Many westerners have this idea of Mongolia of a somewhat backward, poverty-stricken place and while incomes are low by western standards and there are poor people as is true anywhere, the country is also absolutely up to date in many ways, including an increasing use of alternate energy sources like wind and solar. Bayantooroi is a long way from any major town (I think the aimag center of Altai might be the closest and at least a two day drive, judging from the road atlas I’m consulting) and look at this big solar array that has been installed.
26. basketball
Basketball is quite popular in Mongolia. Every soum center seems to have at least one basket set up somewhere. Bayantooroi has a full two-basket court which some local girls and boys were using.
27. Batana, motorbike kid
Our guide and drivers handled not only getting the border permit, but also arranging for a ranger to take us into the strictly protected area. He lived quite a way out of town, so we had to wait for him to come in to plan the next day’s travel. In the meantime, Batana chatted with another local family getting more information. There’s only so much one can do from Ulaanbaatar. Final contacts and arrangements often have to be made once one is in the field.
28. truck
Everything settled, we now had to backtrack over three hours to where we would turn south into the protected area. The only “traffic” we saw all day.
29. sunset
We reached the pre-arranged location and set up camp for the night. The next day the ranger would come to our camp, impossible to miss in its open location on the upland plain, and lead the way to our destination. In the meantime we all enjoyed this gorgeous sunset.

Next week we’ll travel far, far south, deep into the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area, one of the most remote locations in Mongolia. No towns, no herder families, no mobile phone service. I could hardly wait!

Introducing the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project!

bankhar

I am truly honored and excited to announce that the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project will now be a featured conservation organization for this year’s WildArt Mongolia Expedition! Accompanying the announcement are photos I’ve taken of bankhar over the years.

dog and herder

To quote from their mission statement: “The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to help slow down and reverse the desertification of the Mongolian Grassland Steppes, and to preserve and protect traditional Mongolian culture. We strive toward these goals by resuscitating the traditional use of the livestock guardian dog known as the ‘Bankhar dog’.”

Khomiin Tal to Hovd2006-09-23

“Lethal predator control (shooting, trapping, poison) and retribution killings of predators are major threats to predator populations in Mongolia. The use of the Livestock Protection Dog has been shown to reduce predation on domestic livestock by 80-100%, eliminating the need for lethal predator control and allowing predators to target natural prey species instead of domestic ones.”

dog pack

The predators in question are snow leopards and wolves. Desertification means the the herders must move their animals to higher elevations, into snow leopard territory, with the risk that entails. Wolves have always preyed on domestic animals, but environmental degradation has contributed to decreasing populations of wild prey species such as the gazelles, which has in turn increased their predation on livestock. Add climate change, which is resulting in unstable and more severe weather, and the struggle for herder families to survive, much less thrive, has become increasingly difficult. Yet the Mongols have always felt themselves to be a part of nature and believe that wildlife, including predators, has as much right to live as they do, a dramatic contrast with attitudes one often encounters in the US.

WAME 2013

The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project addresses all these issues, but of particular interest to me is how the program reduces the killing of the endangered snow leopard and also wolves, who seem to be holding their own and who play an important role in Mongol culture since the Mongols believe that they are descended from a blue wolf and a doe.

bankhar argument – Version 2

The herders have always had general-purpose guardian dogs. The difference is that, as is done in a number of other countries, the program’s puppies are bonded with the livestock from the earliest age and, once placed, stay with the sheep and goats 24/7. Even though the project is still relatively new, it has already been proven to work. The herders don’t lose animals and the predators, a critical part of a healthy ecosystem, survive.

Dog Hustai – Version 2

Our last stop on the Expedition will be near Hustai National Park (one of the three takhi/Przewalski’s horse reintroduction sites in the country), where local herder families have “adopted” puppies bred by the project. We will meet with them, learn about their lives, experiences and the place of wolves in Mongol culture, reporting back what they have to say. We’ll also meet with project staff and learn first-hand about what I believe to be a very important conservation initiative, one that I’ve had the pleasure of being in contact with from the beginning.

bankhar front viewYou can learn more about the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project here.

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition 2014, Part 2: Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve to Binder Soum

Ovoo with prayer wheels
Ovoo with prayer wheels

We left Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve after breakfast and drove northeast into the Han Hentii Mountains. It was good to get off the tarmac and onto earth roads again.

Khokh Nuur
We stopped for lunch at Khokh Nuur, a VERY important historical site since it’s where Temujin called the khural (council or meeting) that declared him Chinggis Khan, leader of all the Mongols.
Sometimes the roads were more water than earth...
Sometimes the roads were more water than earth. Summer is the rainy season in Mongolia and it had been raining a lot just about everywhere in the country, so a great year for the herders and their animals since it meant lots of good grass.
It was a glorious drive deep into the Mongolian countryside on a perfect summer day.
It was a glorious drive deep into the Mongolian countryside on a perfect summer day.
It had been raining a lot so there were streams to ford.
Since it had been raining a lot there were streams to ford.
We camped by this lake.
We camped by this lovely lake the driver of my Land Cruiser, Erdenebat, knew about.
All set up and relaxing in camp.
All set up and relaxing in camp.
At one of them, which was more mud than water, a man and woman on a motorbike came along
The next day at one small crossing, which was more mud than water, a man and woman on a motorbike came along right after us. They were kind of stuck because she could have gotten very dirty or injured if the motorbike fell over in the mud and it was too wide to safely step across.
One of our drivers, Puugii, solved the problem.
One of our drivers, Puugii, solved the problem.
A helping hand and she made it across just fine.
A helping hand and she made it across just fine.
Scenery.
Scenery.
More scenery. I'd never been to the Han Hentii Mountains before and now I understood why they are such a popular destination for the Mongols. So beautiful.
More scenery. I’d never been to the Han Hentii Mountains before and now I understood why they are such a popular destination for the Mongols. So beautiful.
One of the drivers got a little to close to this yak and had to run for it. The other drivers loved it.
One of the drivers got a little to close to this yak and had to run for it. The other drivers loved it.
We stopped for lunch and almost immediately spotted this pair of demoiselle cranes!
We stopped for lunch and almost immediately spotted this pair of demoiselle cranes!
Local dogs often show up out of apparently nowhere when one stops to eat. They wait patiently until you leave most of the time.
Local dogs often show up out of apparently nowhere when one stops to eat. They wait patiently until you leave, most of the time. They often seem friendly, but have not been vaccinated against rabies and are not used to being petted or touched, so it’s best to keep one’s distance.
As we drove on, we saw this large flock of demoiselle cranes.
As we drove on, we saw this large flock of demoiselle cranes.
We were heading towards the site of a major new crane study. My driver had directions, but couldn't follow them
We were heading towards the site of a major new crane study. My driver, Erdenebat, had directions, but couldn’t follow them because the valley floor was too wet from the rains. So he picked his way along the mountain slopes, using a compass to keep our heading correct. It was quite a feat of navigation that I didn’t appreciate until he explained to me what he had been doing and why.
Along the way we saw the pair of endangered white-napped cranes.
Along the way we saw this pair of endangered white-napped cranes.
The crane research station
The crane research station is new, so there is only one ger so far. From this vantage point they can scan the surrounding countryside for miles for up to six species of cranes.
The research project is a collaboration between Mongol, Russian and Chinese scientists. The Mongol scientist in charge is Nyambayar Batbayar
The research project is a collaboration between Mongol, Russian and Chinese scientists. The Mongol scientist in charge is Nyambayar Batbayar who took the time to give us a great briefing and answer all our questions. He is also the Director of his own NGO, the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia.
We left the research station and headed towards our next destination, Binder, crossing this old-fashioned timber bridge.
We left the research station and headed towards our next destination, Binder, crossing this old-fashioned timber bridge.
It is a bit of an adrenaline rush to drive out onto something like this...
It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush to drive out onto these bridges if you’re not used to them.
Binder Nuur (Binder Lake). We were able to camp on the lakeshore.
Binder Nuur (Binder Lake), which was a short distance from the soum center town of Binder. We camped on the lakeshore.
We immediately saw many white shapes, which proved to be over 60 whooper swans.
We immediately saw many white shapes, which proved to be over 60 whooper swans.
Full moon sunset over Binder Nuur.
Full moon sunset over Binder Nuur.

We came to Binder for the first-ever International Crane Festival. And that will be the subject of my next post.

 

 

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 15: And Back To Ulaanbaatar

On our way back south to Bayanhongor from Ganchen Lama Khiid, we saw lots of yaks.
On our way back south to Bayanhongor from Ganchen Lama Khiid, we saw lots of yaks.

The last day of the 2014 WildArt Mongolia Expedition had finally arrived. One more night in the countryside and then back to Ulaanbaatar. The day took an unexpected turn that led to a perfect final evening….

We stopped at one last herder's ger and, along with a very nice Land Cruiser, there was also this equally nice Mongol horse, ready to ride.
We stopped at one last herder’s ger and, along with a very nice Land Cruiser, there was also this equally nice Mongol horse, ready to ride.
The big sightseeing stop for the day...what can only be called a temple dedicated to the Mongol race horses.
The big sightseeing stop for the day…what can only be called a temple dedicated to the Mongol race horses, located near the Aimag center of Arvakheer. As we drove up to it I realized that we had camped a few hundred yards behind it on our outward bound trip, not knowing what it was. I had assumed it was some kind of Buddhist installation and, in fact, that was one facet if this amazing site.
The main structure is this semi-circle
The main structure is this semi-circle, surrounded by stupas and flanked by statues of what I assume are famous race horses. I really want to go back here for at least a half-day sometime just to hang around, sketch and do some watercolors.
Not exactly what I expected to see...
Not exactly what I expected to see at a place dedicated to horses.
Statues of famous race horses.
Beautifully sculpted statues of famous race horses.
In one corner was this pole with khadag suspended from it.
In one corner was this pole with khadag suspended from it.
In the front to one side was this pole with khadag
The center pole.
Behind the "temple" was this extraordinary sight- a fence utterly covered with khadag and, on the ground, hundreds of horses skulls. On the plain in the background is where we had camped.
Behind the “temple” was this extraordinary sight- a fence completely covered with khadag and, on the ground, hundreds of horses skulls. On the plain in the background is where we had camped.
A large and very colorful wedding party showed up while we were there. Here are two of men...lookin' good.
A large and very colorful wedding party showed up while we were there. Here are two of men…lookin’ good.
We traveled on north and came upon an extensive wetland complex in fabulous light, complete with yaks, horses and endangered whooper swans.
We traveled on north and came upon an extensive wetland complex in fabulous light, complete with yaks, horses and endangered whooper swans.
Concerned about
Concerned about it being very cold this last night out, the drivers told us that they had called the Nomadic Journeys ger camp in the area, Delger, and had arranged for us to stay there in gers instead of camping in our tents. As the light faded to night, we made a long run through sandy areas with no directional signs, arriving at the camp after dark but to a warm welcome.
The next morning
The next morning we could see the lovely spot the camp was in. It turned out that this was the day the camp would be packed away for the year. Whew. The previous evening we had all gathered in the cozy, warm kitchen ger along with our host, camp manager Ariunbold, eating noodles, drinking vodka and having a great final dinner together.
One of the camp dogs. I was told they are there to keep wolves away.
One of the camp dogs. I was told they are there to keep wolves away.
We said our good-byes and began the final leg of the Expedition, passing this attractive row of shops.
We said our good-byes and began the final leg of the Expedition, passing this attractive row of shops.
A last photo op...horses crossing a river!
A last photo op…horses crossing a river!
And the final stop, now not far from Ulaanbaatar, to see this statue of a shaman, facing south and festooned with khadag.
And the final stop, now not far from Ulaanbaatar, to see this statue of a shaman, facing south and festooned with khadag.
Ulaanbaatar ahead
Ulaanbaatar ahead in the sunshine. I liked coming into town behind this truckload of horses. The countryside and the city.

And so ended the 2014 WildArt Mongolia Expedition. We met every goal that I had set for both habitats and endangered species. We are the only western artists now to have gone to Takhiin Tal, the first takhi release site, where we saw both takhi and khulan, and Sharga/Darvi  where we saw over thirty saiga antelope. We met the scientists working to conserve these  species and saw snow leopard habitat, complete with ibex. We forded flooded rivers, camped under Gobi skies, visited and hiked an important sacred mountain, attended a local naadam, stumbled upon an ambler horse race, explored a very special monastery, and painted and sketched as we went.

Now there will be a special group exhibition of paintings from the Expedition, featuring myself, Tugsoyun Sodnom and Oidoviin Magvandorj. It will be at the Union of Mongolian Artists Gallery in Ulaanbaatar from June 27 to July 8. There will be an opening reception on the 27th.

I want to say a very special “Thank You!” to Nomadic Journeys and their staff, who made the Expedition possible and contributed greatly to its success. bayarlalaa

———

I head back to Mongolia on May 28 for eight weeks. There will be another WildArt Mongolia Expedition, this time to the northeastern mountains and the famous steppe grasslands to try to see and photograph six species of cranes, three of them endangered and also Mongolian gazelles. So stay tuned!