It was the second morning out on my one-week camping trip last August.We had stayed the previous night at the ger of my driver and his family, who lavished on me piles of white foods…aruul, airag, urum (dried yogurt, fermented mare’s milk, clotted cream) and more.
As we were heading west towards what I had been told was a beautiful lake, I spotted a large herd of yaks not too far from the road. Puugii, who turned out to be a great driver, pulled over and stopped. I got out to take pictures and almost immediately saw three herders coming our way at a gallop. They pulled up, all dressed in del and boots, looking very dashing, and stopped. What a photo op! I asked Puugii to ask them if I could take some pictures. There was a little hesitation, but then they nodded and I got to work, knowing already that I would be getting multiple paintings from this encounter.
I didn’t realize until I got home and took a closer look that this mal chin (herder) was checking me out with a look of calm appraisal.
You can see the other two paintings I’ve done so far here (the portrait at the bottom) and here.
Going to let the pictures tell the story today. Here’s a collection of some of the photos I’ve taken of Mongol herders. Included are all of the Five Snouts, plus camels. Now I’m sitting here missing tsagaan idee (white food): airag (fermented mare’s milk), aruul (dried yogurt), byaslag (cheese), orom (sliced dried cream) and tsotsgii (cream, just cream, eaten using aruul as a base to put it on; heavenly). Bi ter bukh dortei! (I like it all!). Mongol friends-correct my sentence if it is wrong.
After the dramatic trip down the mountain and then arriving at our campsite just before dark, it was lovely to wake up to sunshine the next morning on a grassy hillside. Even better was the parade of horses and yaks that came right by where I was sitting as I was having morning coffee. Lazy animal watching and reference shooting again.
I found out over breakfast that we were camped near Tsenkher, another mineral spring resort. We drove to one of the ger camps, where the manager treated us to tea and snacks, arranged for us to take showers and for me to do a last small round of laundry.
We then drove north out of the mountains to the large town of Tsetserleg, where we visited a hillside temple in front of which was a very tall, new statue of the Buddha. I had been wanting a new del, so we searched around the container market, but didn’t find one that was what I was looking for. Getting to poke around a town a little was fun, though.
I thought our next stop was the famous monastery of Erdene Zuu, but Soyoloo’s cell phone rang and, the next thing I knew, we were back at her sister’s home. We were invited to join them and share a meal that is dear to the hearts of many, many Mongols….bodog or marmot BBQ. We arrived just as they were ready to begin stuffing the carcass with hot rocks and meat. Once the marmot was ready, we all piled into cars and went to a lovely spot on a nearby river for a picnic dinner.
The entire process was a pretty involved affair and I took around 150 images. I’m just going to show a couple here and do a separate post later on, which the status of marmots in Mongol culture certainly justifies.
I was honored with the liquid that was poured out of the body cavity, which I drank and found quite good, then the tongue, which I ate and found quite good, and the first cut of meat, which I ate and….found quite good. We all washed down the feast with vodka (all together now), which was quite good.
It was late afternoon by the time we said our good-byes and were on our way. We camped on a hillside along the road to Erdene Zuu. It was warm and humid. There were lots of mosquitos, so we lit a dung fire again. I use earplugs, so I slept ok, but Khatnaa and Soyoloo were kept awake by loud and numerous grasshoppers.
Our first stop after breaking camp were the ruins of an old Uigher city, Har Balgas. As it happened, there was an archaeological dig going on, which was interesting to watch and I got to chat with the archaeologist in charge.
Not too much farther on, the stupa-lined walls of Erdene Zuu Monastery came into view. Not only is it adjacent to the site of the ancient Mongol capital, Kharkhorin, but it was built using stones from the old city, which was destroyed by a Ming Chinese army after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, which had been founded over one hundred years earlier by Chinggis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. A stone turtle is the only artifact left where the city had stood.
I had gotten careless and went into the complex with no hat, sunscreen or water, so by the time this photo was taken, I wasn’t feeling very well. It was extremely humid and hot. I was ok once we were back at the car and I drank a lot of water, but this was probably the closest I’ve ever come to heat exhaustion or worse. Very foolish. But Erdene Zuu lived up to its reputation as the top tourist site in Mongolia. The temples are magnificent and I was sorry that no photography was allowed inside them.
Our route now took us north, where, for our last night out, we were going to camp at a lake known for its birds. As we were driving along, I noticed a large ger encampment to the left. I almost said something to Khatnaa, but let it go. Then he had to slow down because a bunch of men and boys on horses were crossing the road. I told him about the gers. We followed the horsemen.
The one thing that I had hoped for on the trip, but had not been able to find, was a local Naadam. Now it appeared that we had stumbled onto one the last day of the trip. We pulled up into an area on a rise where a lot of cars and trucks were parked. There were horses all over the place. Khatnaa got out, spoke with someone and came back with the news that the event was essentially a family reunion. Stay or go? We’d inadvertently crashed a private party. I told Khatnaa that it was up to him to do what he thought best. We stayed. And tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Over the next few hours I sat in the car and took around 500 photos. Our arrival had coincided with the horse race and we had gotten there in time to watch all the preparations for it.
Our “cover” was blown when a young couple on a motorbike drove up and offered us fresh, hot khuushuur (fried mutton turnovers). No way we were going to pass on that. I stayed in the car until the first horses were approaching the finish line and then got out and joined the crowd.
Afterwards, I was photographing a lovely black race horse who was being scraped down. A woman came up to me, took my arm, led me over to the horse and made a gesture for me to lay my palm on the sweat, which is lucky and auspicious. It was a very kind and thoughtful thing for her to do since I obviously was not one of this very big family. I was never so glad that I knew how to say “thank you” in Mongolian.
All day it had been cloudy and humid, with some squalls of rain. By the time we were on the road down to Ogii Nuur, it had gotten really windy. Khatnaa and Soyoloo managed to wrap a tarp around a picnic structure to provide shelter from the wind to cook our dinner. At dusk, it died down enough to set up camp on the lakeshore. We were all pretty tired.
The weather was much better the next morning and we got in some good birdwatching. Khatnaa had gone up to one of the ger camps along the lake the previous evening and made arrangements for Soyoloo to use their kitchen to prepare our breakfast, which was very kind of them. The owner of the camp was there and turned out to be a retired Mongol army officer, who still needed something to do, so he had started a couple of ger camps. We had a nice chat with him and his wife and then left for the final leg of the trip.
Soon we were on tarmac, leaving the earth roads I love behind. There were a few more sights to see, like a dune complex where local herders were offering camel rides and our lunch spot next to the road where I got one last round of good horse and herder photos.
By mid-afternoon we were in Ulaanbaatar, pulling into the hotel parking lot. I had left UB on July 10. It was now July 25. I still had trips to Hustai National Park to see the takhi and to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu and, as much as I looked forward to going to both places, I was sorry to have my camping trip come to an end. It was one of the best experiences of my life. My goal was to simply go into the countryside without a set itinerary and let Mongolia come to me. It did, in ways I would literally never have dreamed of. Bayarlala!
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We continued on into the valley and a huge freestanding rock came into view.
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.
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.
Sort of an odds and ends Friday as the year winds down. The deep freeze is over here in coastal Humboldt County and it’s back to nice normal rainy weather with nighttime lows in the 40s. I’ve been getting in some good easel time of the past few weeks. Here’s a new argali painting from reference that I shot in July at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. I watched this group of rams work their way across the rocky slope for almost an hour. “Uul” is Mongolian for “mountain”.
I’ve also decided that I want to paint not just the domestic Mongol horses, but the people who ride them. Which brings me back to wrestling with human figures, as described in an earlier post. I get a better result if I can scan the drawings rather than photograph them and also wanted to really hone in on accuracy, so these are smaller and done with a Sanford Draughting pencil, but on the same vellum bristol (which erases very nicely). The heads ended up being only 3/4″ high, which is pretty small, but it reminded me of a story from art school that I thought I might pass along.
One of my teachers was Randy Berrett, a very good illustrator who chose to work in oils. This was kind of masochistic, in a way, because it added a layer of complexity when he had to ship out a wet painting to meet a deadline. In any case, he was showing some examples of his work in class and one was a really large painting of the signers of the either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, I can’t remember which. Someone asked why he painted it so large. Randy’s answer really struck me at the time and has stayed with me. It’s something worth remembering when planning a painting. He said that he wanted the heads to be at least an inch high and that requirement controlled the final size of the painting. I’ve sized more than one painting on the basis of that criteria since then.
The first drawing combined two pieces of reference. One of the horse and one of the man. In the latter, he was in front of the horse’s head. In the former, I didn’t like the pose of the horse. Moving the man back works much better. The sweat from a winning horse is considered to be good luck. There are special scrapers made to remove it.
Part of the reason I did the previous two was to see if the images “drew well” and to work on horses coming forward at a 3/4 angle. The final two are head studies, in which the heads are 1 1/2″ from forehead to chin.
Finally, the folks at Eureka Books in Old Town, Eureka have decided to hold a special art show. Here’s the Call for Entries.