Part 5: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition: Enroute North to Erdenesogt Soum

1. departure haze
Departure from Great Gobi A, looking north on a hazy day

Our time in Great Gobi A at an end, we packed up and headed back north the way we’d come. The fuel level in the Land Cruiser was low so the first order of business was to get to a soum center, Bayan-Ondor, to fill up. We also had lunch there. Soyoloo, our cook, went into a cafe and arranged for us to use a table and to get a thermos of milk tea. This worked out very nicely.

Once again I’ve included a fair number of photos to show our route in case it might be of interest to someone else doing research about going there.

2. road north
Heading north
3. mts. and camels
The areas of haze created interesting atmospheric perspective
4. leaving GGA
The boundary sign we passed going into Great Gobi A. I hope to see it again sometime on another trip there.
5. livestock
Not far north of the SPA boundary, we started to see livestock. There was a fairly large herd of goats in the distance. You can see that we are now in an area of more red soil than gravel.
6. gers
We came upon this line of gers with no one around, as far as we could tell, since we didn’t stop. No dogs or any of the things outside that one sees at herder’s gers
7. bags on grid
However, there was this cleared area which had been divided into a grid and bags of something laying within each square
8. gazelles
A little farther on and back into a shrubby area we suddenly spotted two gazelles! I was barely able to get a few grab shots from the car and then they were gone.
9. arachnid
We stopped for some reason that I can’t recall now and someone saw this arachnid. She was over an inch long. No idea of the species.
10. road north
We drove through the afternoon back through the basin and range topography
11. wildflowers
On another short stop I photographed a couple of wildflowers. From the shape of the flowers I think this one is a member of the pea family
12. mountain
We finally had the mountain in view which had been totally covered in snow when we saw it on our way south
13. Bayan-Ondor
Bayan-Ondor, where we got gas for the vehicles and had lunch
15. family
 The man probably was bringing his or his wife’s mother into town to shop and maybe visit with friends
16. ovoo
Then we were on our way to our next stop, Amarbuyant Monastery, which had been destroyed in the late 1930s as had been so many, but was supposed to be undergoing restoration. The Dalai Lama had been there and this stupa was built in his honor.
17. herder and daughter
But we were on a very “local road” and Erdenbat had never been this way, so when we saw a herder and a little girl sitting up on rock keeping an eye on their livestock we stopped to ask directions. We were quite charmed by the two of them as a father out with his daughter,  who he clearly had great affection for. She was very self-possessed, not an uncommon thing to see in Mongolian country kids
18. leading the way
The herder decided that the best thing was to show us the way, so off we went with him in the lead
19. earth road
We finally reached a point where we could apparently go the rest of the way on our own, so we gave them each a gift as a thank you and went on our way through some pretty rugged terrain
20. well
We came upon a well and stopped for Kim and Oliver to see how they work. This one is typical in that a very large commercial tire has been split lengthwise to form the trough, a great reuse of something that would otherwise be thrown away
21. khiid
We came up over a rise and there before us was Amurbuyant Khiid…what was left of it. It had been a major commercial caravan route and a hive of activity. That all ended in 1937 when the Mongolian communist government destroyed it and hundreds of other monasteries in the country to break the political and social power of the lamas
21. old walls
Wall sections like these are pretty much all that is left
22. censor
There were a very few artifacts to see like this incense burner, which would have been outside of one of the temples
22a. temple-stupa
There has been some rebuilding and there are monks and students in residence again. But it felt like rather a sad, isolated place. We asked for and were given a tour of the two temples, but not with much enthusiasm or welcome

I started to feel uneasy not long after we started to visit the second temple. Wasn’t sure why. There was a stillness I found unsettling and not just that it was quiet. We were shown a couple of large panels in the main temple that listed all the people who had donated to the restoration, along with the amounts they had given. It added up to millions and millions of tugrik. The surviving old temple was in poor condition and visible repairs were cheaply done, although the interior wood framing and supports looked sturdy and good. The new temple, in the shape of a ger, also had a feeling of being built quickly and cheaply. The ceiling was made square panels a little like the acoustic tiles one sees in America. Some were askew and some seemed worse for wear. In both cases, it felt like no one had noticed and no one cared. The tower for, I assumed, calling the monks to prayer, looked to be in pretty bad shape. A new long, low building, had been constructed (visible in the front of the photo of the complex above). There was also a good array of solar panels to provide power. Our young student tour guides walked us past the newish long living quarters building on our way out, answering some last questions, and a very unfriendly male voice ordered them back inside. The closest school was 60km away and the boys only attended one week a month. The rest of their time was at the monastery taking classes in Buddhist practice. And so we left. We had been given permission to camp somewhere in the vicinity and we drove around looking for a spot. I became more and more uncomfortable and stressed, to the point that I finally had to say that I needed to leave now, right now. Something felt bad and wrong there and I needed to get away from it. It was so very odd and I was clearly the only one who felt it, or at least no one else said anything. Have never had anything like this happen on any of my travels to any place before. But leave we did and found a spot on an open plain to the north with a great view. As sometimes happens a local herder and his wife showed up on their motorbike to check us out and have a visit. We went to their ger the next day.

22b. herder ger
Our “neighbors”, a kilometer or two from where we were camped

As we pulled up the woman came out. She was holding her hand which was wrapped in a plastic bag. We could see instantly that it was terribly swollen, a bite of some kind. I gave her a half-dozen or so ibuprophen for the pain, emphasing that she should take no more than three at a time. Her husband was going to take her to the soum center hospital, probably more of a clinic. It turned out after some chat and a translation from our guide, Batana, that the woman had gotten down on the floor of the ger, reached under a bed to get something and felt a sting. At that point all the Mongols decided that it had been a scorpion. Her life wasn’t in danger, but she definitely needed to see a doctor. They left and we were on our way a short time later after getting water from their well.

22a. mountain
Ikh Bogd Nuruu from the south. Orog Nuur (Lake) is on the other side
23. ovoo
We now drove towards Ikh Bogd Nuruu and worked our way around the south end of the mountain, passing this ovoo on the way
24. road sign
A road sign!
25. mt. south side
We drove back along the north side of the mountain, passing large herds of animals. The hope had been to camp in the area or by the lake but the presence of many herders and their dogs made that unsafe, so we had to settle for stopping a few times for photos
26. lake, herder
And what a photo opp!
27. stupa
After working our way through some extremely rough ground, we arrived at an overlook for Orog Nuur. It was a big deal for me to see the lake again since I had camped there on the south shore in 2010 on my very first tent camping trip in Mongolia. It was also the first time I’d traveled with Soyoloo. So it was special for both of us since it’s pretty remote

We continued on and found a sheltered spot not far from a soum center. It was quite windy, as it had been for a lot of the Expedition. The drivers and guide went into town to get gas and buy snacks.

28. vultures
The next morning, not far from the soum center we came upon this flock of eurasian black vultures and I got a lot of really good reference photos
29. Horses
And it’s always nice to see a herd of horses on the way
30. herder chasing horse
One mare and her foal had other ideas, though, and the owner was still trying to catch up and turn them back when we went out of sight
31. child
Turned out that it was International Children’s Day, which is a very big deal in Mongolia, with celebrations in every town. Lots of the children are all dressed up and as cute as can be
32. girl on bike
There was a fenced area that was obviously for community gatherings and this day it was all for the children
33. road ovoo sign
In the far distance were the mountains we were heading for. And, look, a second road sign!
34. bayanhongor
Closing the loop, we arrived back in Bayahongor, which had been our jumping off point for the journey south. We stopped in town and did some final grocery shopping
35. Erdenesogt
Then we did what I had originally planned to do when we were there before…travel north up the river valley into the Hangai Mountains to Erdenesogt, which is in the far background

We drove up to a high point with an ovoo and wonderful view of the river valley, then backtracked a short way to a special spot where we set up camp for a few days. And that will be next week’s story.

Part Two of Two, In Which Susan’s Ger Is Set Up For The First Time…

1. arrived at site
My ger arrives on-site in Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia.

Last week I shared photos of buying my ger at the Narantuul Market in Ulaanbaatar. This week you’ll see it put up for the first time.

A few hours after all the shopping was done I caught the evening train down to Dalanjargalan Soum, where the Ikh Nart reserve headquarters is located. The reserve Director, Dr. Amgalanbaatar, was kind enough to let me stay overnight in the “dorm” room used for visitors. The next day he and I and Anand, a member of his staff, drove out to the set-up location in the reserve’s grey Russian fergon van. Shavka arrived with his truck and the unloading and set-up began.

I had been given a choice of three locations, all in the vicinity of local herders in case I needed assistance. I was in the reserve itself, but not in the Core Area where, other than the research camp that has been there since 2001, no camping is allowed. I liked this location the best.

Note: You can find a number of sites and videos about putting up a ger. Mine’s a little different, I believe, since it shows one being put up for the first time, so there are first time steps that you normally wouldn’t see.

2. unloading
Unloading everything. That’s the sink stand at the back.
3. unloading
Ger parts on the ground and the furniture coming out. That’s the headboard for the bed.
4. unloading
Some of the furniture, my felt bed pad and the stovepipe.
5. unloading
Anand pulling the traditional hand-braided horsehair ropes out a bag, which will go around the ger to hold the cover on. I’d specifically requested them instead of the, more common these days, cloth straps. It turned out that they were included in the ger “kit”.
6. unloading lattice
The wall lattice (bagana) sections being unloaded. There are four of them, hence a “four wall ger”.
7. pieces in place
Ger parts being laid out on the ground. On the right are the felt cover pieces.
8. threading pole ends
It took longer than usual for set-up since there were things that had to be done first, but that would not have to be done again, like threading loops of braided strands of horsehair through the ends of the roof poles and knotting them in place. I was put to work which was great  but, never having done it before, had trouble getting the hang of how the knot was tied, so only managed one of the 82.
9. threading pole ends
Horsehair thread looped through hole in roof pole.
10. stovepipe hole
In the meantime, Shavka trimmed and fastened onto the toono the sheet metal piece that would hold the stovepipe so that it would never come in contact with the wood.
11. inside door handle
Before the door was set in place Shavka fastened on the interior door handle. It’s toward the center so that when it’s open you can reach out to it to close the door without having to step out of the ger. Great when it suddenly starts to rain or the wind comes up.
12. first lattice
Prep done! The first section of lattice (khana) is put in place.
13. tieing lattice together
Each section is tied together with sturdy cord.
14. installing the door
The door (khalga) is set in place. The lattice didn’t come to the edge of the door the way Shavka wanted them to so he sawed off the ends of each lattice piece to fit. Another task that only needed to done once.
15. roof ring
The toono is handed over the walls to be set up.
16. vertical supports
The toono is laid upside down on the ground and the vertical supports (bagana) are held in place flush, without slots, holes or other connectors.
17. tieing roof to supprts
The toono and bagana are tied together by lengths of the same cord that was used to tie the lattice wall sections to each other. And yes, I really love the decorative painting!
18. first pole
The toono/bagana combination is now held in place by two people while a few poles (uni) are added around the perimeter. The dark cloth band is what holds the door in place.
20. pole and lattice
The horsehair loops in action, attaching the roof poles to the lattice sections.
21. making pole ends thinner
It became clear within minutes of trying to insert the roof poles into the holes in the toono that the ends were too big. Amgaa, Shavka and Anand got out knives and took three or four large shavings off of each of the 82 poles.
22. poles almost done
Once the pole ends fitted the toono holes, the roof went on pretty quickly.
23. door
Shavka adjusts a roof pole. The exterior design on the door was different than any I’d seen before and I liked it.
24. inside roof cover
The first part of the cover (tsavag) to go on was a light weight one that would be visible inside the ger.
26. roof felt
The felt roof pieces (deever) go on. There’s definitely a technique one has to know to be able to flip a folded roof felt into place in one motion.
27. wall felt
Roof felt on, wall felt (tuurga) almost on.
28. plastic cover
If you’ll remember from last week’s post a quantity of plastic sheeting was purchased. Here’s why. It’s a fast and inexpensive way to add rain protection since the felt will soak through if it rains hard enough (the voice of experience from a couple of occasions). We also got what the Mongols call “Russian canvas” with the ger, which is waterproof, but Shavka had wisely decided to use it as a layer between the ground and the sheet vinyl flooring. I bought the wood for him to make a sectional wood floor for me for next year.
29. outer cover
The final step was the outer cover , held in place by two bands of the braided horsehair rope. Choi and his wife, were my “hosts”. They had their ger nearby, Here he is attaching the triangular top cover piece (urkh) which generally left open and pulled back but is closed when it rains. No glass or plexiglass in the toono openings. It was open to the sky, which is what I like.
30. my ger
And here’s my ger the next day, all set up. We started putting it up the day before around 5pm and finished at 10pm. I was moved in by 10:30. The yellow container on the right is one of two I bought so that my host could bring me well water via his motorbike.
31. interior
All moved in. The big rock, along with three more on the outside are to keep the ger in place and stable in high winds. Gers are not otherwise fastened to the ground. No stakes. On the left is my water filter system, which consisted of a LifeStraw 5 liter gravity feed filter which emptied into the plastic container I bought at the market. The wonderful $9 teakettle sits on the one-burner gas cooktop which is on the stove. I love the quality of light in a ger as it comes through the roof.
32. ger interior
The “kltchen” and dining side of the ger. A cabinet is on the list for next year, although the table does have a pull-out drawer where I put my flatware and utensils. Also note that the roof poles provide a useful place to put things like bags, towels and clothes.
24. my and choi's ger
My ger in its setting. On the right you can just see Choi’s ger, about a five minute walk. There was a rock formation between us, so I had visual privacy and could only see the natural landscape. I did have Choi’s goats and sheep coming by on a few evenings and that was pretty entertaining.
33. ger at sunset
Sunset evening in Ikh Nart with my ger.

So how did it go, my week of living in my own ger for the first time? Really well. There was one very strong storm with heavy wind and rain that pulled part of the cover almost halfway off, but Choi and his wife fixed that the next morning. Wind blew a lot of dust in on the bottom on one side one afternoon, but putting up a section of the interior curtain (which hadn’t been done since there was no cord to string it up with, but I found a way to fake it) so that it fell onto the floor solved that problem. I used my cooktop for heating water for coffee in the morning and tea for visitors. I also had bansh (small meat dumplings used for soups) for dinner a couple of nights. I did a little laundry using the steel basins I’d bought and also managed a standing bath and hair wash.

Food storage became an issue and I lost some items, like a loaf of bread that turned moldy, due to lack of refrigeration. A small solar powered refrigerator with battery storage is on the list for next year. One often sees them in herder gers these days. I was happy with candlelight at night, so not really feeling the need for an “electric” light. My toilet was the great outdoors, which I’m used to, but it was a bit much for a week in one place. My current thought is to have a small vertical wall maikhan (the cloth summer tent) made with a divider down the middle. On one side would be a pit toilet with a seat and on the other a place to take a shower using a sun shower bag.

I slept well (I always do in a ger anyway) and found that I had, in fact, understood what was needed to do this to be happy and comfortable for a week or more. In the evenings I took one of the stools outside and put it close enough to the ger wall that I could sit with back support and watch the sun go down. A nice nip of Chinggis Gold vodka and some Ukrainian chocolate nougat candy (from Roshan, my favorite) and life was just about perfect.




The 2015 WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 1: Altai Argali in Bayan-Olgii

Olgii, the Aimag center of Bayan-Olgii
Olgii, the Aimag center of Bayan-Olgii

The 2015 WildArt Mongolia Expedition, which had the honor of carrying Explorers Club Flag 179, began when I got up at 3:45 am on July 16 for the drive to the airport. We picked up the Mongol student/artist, Turuu, who was going with me for the first two weeks of the trip, and arrived at Chinggis Khan International Airport at almost the same time as our hosts for this first part of the Expedition, argali researchers Dr. Barry Rosenbaum and Dr. Amgalanbaatar Sukh. Barry had generously allowed me invite myself and Turuu to join him and his team for this year’s argali capture attempts. It was about a 2 1/2 hour flight to Olgii and, having a window seat, I was able to get some aerial photos as we flew in.

We were met by two drivers with Russian fergon vans. One was from Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, of which Dr. Amgalanbaatar (Amgaa) is the Director. They had driven out from central Mongolia with the capture equipment, including a very large pile of nets. We had lunch in town and had time to explore the town while Barry and Amgaa took care of some final arrangements.

Russian Fergon vans, the vehicle of choice, and necessity, when heading out into the deep countryside
Russian Fergon vans, the vehicle of choice, and necessity, when heading out into the deep countryside

Bayan-Olgii Aimag has a Kazakh majority and is best known as the home of the eagle hunters. But our mission was Altai argali. I had never seen the sheep that live out in the far west and was interested to see what, if any, differences there were between them and the Gobi argali I have become very familiar with. They are both members of the same species, Ovis ammon.

Our destination was the Hokh Serkhiin Nuruu Strictly Protected Area, about a three hour drive south of Olgii.

Heading south on the earth road
Heading south on the earth road
We passed some really great scenery
Stunning scenery in the Altai Mountains

We arrived at our destination, a Kazakh “homestead” in a wide valley with a stream running through it.

Our campsite for the next three days
Our campsite area for the next three days. Our dining and gathering ger is on the left.

The first order of business was to prepare the last bits needed to set up the nets.

Stakes to be used with the capture net supports
Stakes to be used with the capture net supports

Then it was time to head out to the capture site. I had the pleasure and privilege of being designated “the photographer” since I had good camera equipment with me, so I was able to move around as needed and document the whole process.

Loading the support poles
Loading the support poles

Barry had briefed everyone (he had a number of volunteers with him) on what to expect….how the nets would be set up and why, how the sheep would not be “driven” but slowly and carefully moved along in the desired direction by local Kazakh horsemen and the many ways the argali had found in previous years to evade the nets.

Unloading the nets
Unloading the nets

The nets were set up in two rows about two hundred yards long at the low point of the level area between hills.

Setting up the nets and the sun goes down
Setting up the nets as the sun goes down

This took some time. It took “teams” of three or four people working together. One on either side of the net to raise the supporting posts, one at the end to hold the rope taut and someone to hammer in the stakes.

Adding an end support rope
Adding a support rope

Then, after all that work, setting up four hundred yards of netting, the order came from Barry to drop them to the ground! Which made sense once one thought about it, not taking a chance on an animal getting caught and trapped during the night. Of course, this took mere minutes compared to the set-up.

Setting up the nets
Setting up the nets

Back at camp the next morning there was a meeting between the researchers and the local Kazakh horsemen who had been hired to find and bring in the sheep.

Getting organized
Getting organized

Then we went back out to the capture site. I took this photo to try to give some idea of how long the net line was.

Back out at the nets
Putting the nets back up

A couple of local herders with very sharp eyes and binoculars had been scanning the surrounding hills for argali and did so again the next morning while the nets were raised again. They did this every day and sheep were located almost every time.

Looking for argali
Looking for argali

A single ram was spotted, silhouetted against the sky. There were two ewes grazing on a hillside far up. Also this herd of ewes and lambs. Taken with my 80-400mm lens, so they were a long way off.

Argali ewes and lambs
Argali ewes and lambs

Once the nets were in place, everyone took a pre-determined position.

My spot
My spot, on the ground behind a clump of grass that was at one end of the nets and between the rows

The first morning the horsemen found and started to drive a group of seven argali rams, but they did what the rams do, which is split up and dash in different directions. I started to understand why captures are challenging with smart animals who have survived because they know so many ways to escape.

The second morning the spotters went out and came up empty. I went back in the afternoon with Barry and the Ikh Nart crew and joined in helping to set up the nets.

Word had come back an hour or so earlier that the horsemen, who had ridden a long ways into the mountains in their search, had finally found the big herd that was believed to be in the area. Barry initially decided to delay because it was sunny and hot. Argali can become hypothermic and die within twenty minutes of capture in those conditions. But then it started to cloud up and Amgaa got things moving. Barry went back to camp in one of the vans to get the volunteers.

One could feel a frisson of excitement and anticipation. Everyone in the valley around the nets was on the ground and had to stay absolutely still. The previous attempts had the volunteers, strung out at 40 yard intervals on either side of the end points of the nets and up onto the slope where the argali were supposed to show up, laying flat and face down for over two hours. Their job was to get up when signaled via walkie-talkies to block the sheep from that escape direction.

Waiting behind my clump of grass, camera aimed at where I was told the sheep would appear
Waiting behind my clump of grass, camera aimed at where I was told the sheep would appear

This time it was a little over an hour after everyone was in place and…


The huge herd just poured down off the hill. Anand, one of the rangers from Ikh Nart, who was acting as a spotter and not far from me yelled” Susan, get down!” So I ducked even lower behind my grass clump.

But wait…

Then things started to happen very fast. The sheep on the slope started to pull up.

And off they go..
And off they go

Anand called my name again and pointed past me. I turned and saw this…

Thirty argali ewes and lambs
Thirty argali ewes and lambs

They must have split off as the main herd was running up and over the mountain. They came out from between it and the next hill at a dead run. All I could do was sit and shoot as many photos as I could as they went by, maybe thirty yards away.

On their way
On their way…

It was definitely a letdown for everyone, even though the researches (and I) know that nothing is guaranteed with wild animals. But I got some fantastic images of those argali who ran past me, one of whom was wearing a radio collar, so she was one who had been captured by Barry last year.

The next morning we went out for one last try. Word had come in that two groups of argali had been located. At 10:15am I was in “my spot”, this time knowing that I was so close that I would use the Nikon D750 body with the 28-300 lens, not the 80-400. My instructions had been to stay put until the sheep hit the nets, then I was free to move around wherever I wanted to. But by 12:40 all the horsemen and motorbike riders were back, having found no argali. So it was back to camp and the end of capture attempts for this year for the researchers, sorry to say.

No matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, heat and epic numbers of mosquitos notwithstanding. For three days I got to be part of an important research effort since Barry’s work in Bayan-Olgii is the only other place in the world besides Ikh Nartiin Chuluu where research is being carried out on this species. I was able to see Altai argali who, while the same species, do differ in color and markings from the Gobi argali.

There was the usual group photo session. I asked if I could pose with the Kazakh horsemen. Someone said something to them and they walked off, so I figured the answer was “no”. But, silly me, they had just gone to get their horses and line up for this great shot.

Kazakh horsemen, Susan and Flag 179
Kazakh horsemen, Susan and Flag 179

I also wanted one of me and Barry and the Ikh Nart crew, which first got a little silly.

24. ikh nart group 1And then we got the “real” one.

From left to right: Moogii, Baagii, Dr. Amgalanbaatar Sukh, Susan Fox, Dr. Barry Rosenbaum, Chuka, Anand
From left to right: Moogii, Baagii, Dr. Amgalanbaatar Sukh, Susan Fox, Dr. Barry Rosenbaum, Chuka, Anand

It took awhile to get everything set for departure, so what the heck…

Waiting for the ride to Hovd
Waiting for the ride to Hovd

Turuu and I were able to hitch a ride with the Ikh Nart folks for the four hour run to Hovd, where we would join up with a guide and driver/cook for the next stage of the Expedition.

It was a stunning drive. Lots of grab shots from the van.

Earth road going south
Earth road going south
For reasons known only to itself, this Siberian marmot ran alongside and then in front of the van for quite a distance, to much laughter from everyone
For reasons known only to itself, this Siberian marmot ran alongside and then in front of the van for quite a distance, to much joking and laughter from everyone
Crossing at a ford
Crossing at a ford
More scenery
More scenery
Herder's ger
Herder’s ger
We stopped at this small commplex of standing stones for a break and photo op
We stopped at this small complex of standing stones for a break and photo op
Finally night fell and we finished the drive in the dark, arriving in Hovd at midnight
Finally night fell and we finished the drive in the dark, arriving in Hovd at midnight

Turuu and I stayed at a local hotel for a couple of nights, meeting up with our guide and driver/cook over lunch and planning the next week’s route, which included Maikhan Nature Reserve and Jargalant Hairkhan Uul. And they will be the subject of next week’s post.

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 Painting Debut! “Rock Hoppin’ ” -Siberian Ibex

Rock Hoppin'  20x36"  oil
Rock Hoppin’ 20×36″ oil

I went to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve last year with a plan to focus on getting good, paintable Siberian ibex reference. Boy, did that ever work out. On three out of four mornings, I shot over 1000 photos and watched ibex for at least five hours. They were a couple of groups of nannies, kids and juvenile billies who were hanging around some of the rock formations at the west end of the valley where the research camp is located, only a 30 minute walk.

I’ve got a lot to chose from, but loved the “rock hopping” that occurred when this group, who I had already been watching for over an hour as they rested, grazed and interacted, got up and started to move off when the big nanny did. So here she is, cautiously and seriously leading her group to wherever she’s decided they will go, while the youngsters goof off and play follow the leader up and down and on and off the rocks.

Here’s a step by step of “Rock Hoppin’ “:

Ibex group at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu
Ibex group at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; one of the dozens of photos I shot of this group as they moved off from left to right, the nanny leading the way and stopping at times to evaluate what’s ahead. Most of my reference showed only the rocks, but I wanted some sky also, so chose this photo for the upper left hand part of the painting, particularly that unstable formation at the top, which gives a feeling for the habitat the ibex like best.  There had been a lot of rain and the reserve was as green as anyone could remember. Wildflowers were everywhere. The photos one usually sees of this species are from way up above the tree line in mountains where there is very little vegetation. I liked showing them in a different and more colorful habitat.
Preliminary graphite study
Preliminary graphite study
After doing a compositional drawing, I did a graphite transfer to the canvas and then re-stated the drawing with a brush
After doing a compositional drawing at the final size, I did a graphite transfer to the canvas and then re-stated the drawing with a brush. There had been a fifth ibex in the lower right, but something didn’t seem right design-wise and the solution seemed to be to remove that one, which I did. Then there was still something not right. I realized that I needed an adult ibex, the nanny who was leading the group, not a juvenal billy. This not only let me use a larger animal, which was visually more interesting, but made the painting behaviorally accurate, which is very important to me. I’ve developed a painting procedure that lets me make minor to major changes at any time in the process. I never have to put pressure on myself by “guessing right” at the beginning and then finding myself stuck when something isn’t working.
First color pass
First color pass, just laying in major shapes to make sure it all works. I used three pieces of reference for the ibex and at least three for the rocks. I planned the placement of the smallest ibex so that his/her head would be against the sky, which was not the case with the reference photo.
Modeling the ibex and the rocks
Modeling the ibex and the rocks. I’ve defined the shapes of the shadows on the rocks and can now see the pattern those create. I made sure there were large rocks pointing in from the right so that everything wasn’t moving off the canvas.
Detail of head in progress
Detail of a head in progress. From the base of the horns to the tip of the nose is 1 3/4″. I kept the shapes simple, but accurate. Detail per se is of no importance to me.
Detail of kid in progress
Detail of kid in progress. It was important to get the great gesture correct and show the muscles working.
Almost done.
Almost done. After this photo was taken, I punched up everything as needed, both ibex and the rocks and finished the grass, which has about six layers of warm/cool, light/dark colors, plus the summer flowers. I also refined the branches of the wild apricot shrubs. I basically did a repaint over the whole thing pulling up the light areas and adding color variations to the rocks, including the lichens, which give a warm touch that picks up the colors of the ibex and ties them to the landscape.
Detail; finished ibex, rocks, grass
Detail; finished ibex, rocks, grass. The grass was an almost acid green since it was so fresh. I knocked it back a little in intensity since it didn’t look quite believable in a painting. I also consciously varied the colors of the ibex and the proportion of light to dark on the bodies.
Rock Hoppin'  20x36"  oil
Rock Hoppin’ 20×36″ oil

Mongolia Monday- WildArt Mongolia Expedition Supporter ASSOCIATION GOVIIN KHULAN

log goviin khulan I want to introduce you today to one of the supporters of the WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Association GOVIIN KHULAN, which is run by French khulan researcher Anne-Camille Souris. We’ve corresponded via Facebook for a couple of years and were able to meet and chat in person in Ulaanbaatar during my trip last year.

Anne-Camille also works with Mongol artists through her International Art for Conservation project.

International Art Goviin Khulan ©In the past she worked at Takhiin Tal, one of the destinations of the Expedition, studying takhi. Very few researchers were  carrying out research on khulan compared to takhi, so she switched species. There are also khulan at Takhiin Tal, which is in the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area. She has offered to lend her expertise in both these wild equids, for which I am greatly appreciative.

You can find out more about khulan here. And below is the information Anne-Camille sent me about her organization and its work.

Khulans2008_2_A-C SOURIS_S.FOX_FB

“The Association GOVIIN KHULAN is a French non-profit organization that works in the southeast Gobi, Mongolia, to protect the endangered Mongolian Khulan (Equus hemionus hemionus) and its habitat in partnership with local rangers and communities.

The Mongolian Khulan – also known as Mongolian Wild Ass – is an endangered wild Equid and is one the 5 recognized sub-species of the Asiatic Wild Ass. The Mongolian Khulan represents the largest population of this species in the world. However, its population has known an important decrease by as much as 50% since the end of the 1990’s and about 15 000 individuals are now left in the wild.

The Association GOVIIN KHULAN has built a multidisciplinary approach to ensure protection of this endangered species on a long term: a) research, b) local and international information, education and awareness, c) involvement of local communities, d) partnership with local rangers,  e) technical and professional support to rangers and citizen conservationists/scientists, f) partnership with Buddhist monks, g) reinforcement of links between Mongolian culture and traditions with nature protection, and h) community development & animal and environment ethics (in progress).

Khulans2008_A-C SOURIS_S.FOX_FB

Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Beatrix Bulstrode on Mongolian Bactrian Camels

beatrix bulstrodeFirst in 1911 and again in 1913, an intrepid British woman, Beatrix Bulstrode, traveled in and through Mongolia. The result is one of the great travel classics of all time “A Tour in Mongolia”. I’m only 78 pages in and have already found enough material for 3-4 blog posts. She was a wonderfully droll writer in the the English tradition, coming up with unforgettable phrases like “desperately unsportsmanlike” to describe her Finnish missionary traveling companion’s offer to throw a number of Chinese out of an inn to make more room for Mrs. Bulstrode. She refused for the reason stated above, and so  joined them and nine or ten Mongols either sleeping on the raised heated bed the Chinese call a k’ang or tucked into every available corner.

These days, tour companies like the one I work with, Nomadic Journeys, uses camels for cross-country trekking trips.
These days, tour companies like the one I work with, Nomadic Journeys, use camels for cross-country trekking trips. They carry all the baggage, tents, food and even a ger for use as a kitchen and dining hall.

As she headed north out of Kalgan up onto the Mongolian plain and the Gobi, she passed camel caravans going south. She had a wonderful ability to pick up information and write about what she saw in a vividly compelling way. Here is her description of the bactrian camels:

“The staying power of camels is proverbial. The caravans in Mongolia march from twenty-five to twenty-eight miles a day, averaging a little over two miles an hour, for a month, after which the animals require a two weeks’ rest when they will be ready to begin work again. Their carrying powers all the same do not bear comparison with the ox-cart. The ordinary load for the Bactrian, or two-humped Mongolian, camel is about 2 cwt. For riding purposes, though despised by the horsey Mongol, a good camel may be used with an ordinary saddle for seventy miles a day for a week in spring or autumn without food or water. The points of this particular species are a well-ribbed body, wide feet, and strong, rigid humps. The female camel is pleasanter to ride and generally more easy-going than the skittish young bull camel, who in the months of January and February is likely to be fierce and refractory. I have heard it said that if a camel “goes for you” with an open mouth, you should spring at his neck and hang on with both legs and arms until some one renders you timely assistance and ties him up. Generally speaking, however, they are not savage. They make as though to bite, but seldom actually do. The female might, in fact would, try to protect her young; and the cry of a cow camel when separated from her calf is as pathetic as that of a hare being run down by the hounds.”

My first time on a Mongol bactrian camel. Western Mongolia, Sept. 2006
My first time on a Mongol bactrian camel. Western Mongolia, Sept. 2006

There will be more excerpts by Beatrix in the future. Stay tuned.

Mongolia Monday- My Cashmere Goat Drawing In Switzerland

Cashmere goat,  graphite on vellum bristol
Cashmere goat, graphite on vellum bristol

Back in January, I received an email query from a graphic designer in Switzerland. She had come across the above drawing that I had done of a Mongolian cashmere goat while doing a Google Image search and wondered if I would allow my “stunning sketch” to be used for hang tags on cashmere products that are to be sold in Switzerland’s largest department store. We quickly negotiated a rights and usage fee and I sent her an image to her specifications.

But I’ve learned how this kind of thing can go after working for fifteen years as a freelance graphic designer back in the 1970s and 1980s, so I haven’t announced it even though it’s pretty exciting. My fee was deposited in my Paypal account day before yesterday, so here is the design mockup that was emailed to me showing how my drawing will be used.

My drawing of a Mongolian cashmere goat on the proposed hangtag
My drawing of a Mongolian cashmere goat on the proposed hangtag

Of course I have no idea where the cashmere they are using originates, although the odds are that it is Mongolia, which produces the world’s highest quality, but no matter where it came from, a Mongol goat will be used to help sell it.

People do ask if artists ever sell anything off the internet and I have sold originals that way. But this is another aspect….designers looking to license images for specific uses. Fortunately my commercial illustration training and background gave me the knowledge I needed to professionally negotiate an arrangement that served both our needs. I got a nice fee for a single use of a drawing that I had already done and they got an image that serves their client. Without the internet there’s no way they would ever have found it or me.