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.

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 3: Khomyn Tal

Entrance to the Khomyn Tal takhi release project
Entrance to the Khomyn Tal takhi release project

Before I left Ulaanbaatar on the Expedition arrangements had been made for me to go to Khomyn Tal for three specific days…in on one day and out on another. I left Hovd with the driver/cook and guide on July 27 for the long run east. It took around nine and half hours and we arrived at dusk. By the time we got to the research camp it was dark. The staff members present let us use a ger for the night, which was much appreciated. The next morning we set up our tents not far away.

Our campsite by the Zavkhan Gol (river)
Our campsite by the Zavkhan Gol (river)

On hand were two of the Mongolian ranger/researchers and one French volunteer, who spoke good English. He explained the routine to me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and had not assumed any particular assistance since I knew from my very short trip there in 2006 there is always much to do. So I thought that we might be driving around the reserve area on our own looking for the horses every day. But a much better plan was suggested, which was that I would go out in both the morning and evening with whoever was assigned for that time slot to either locate the horses and check on them or to follow a pre-determined two of the three family groups for an hour each doing behavioral observations. This was perfect! In return we used the Land Cruiser for three of the drives, donating our petrol and wear and tear. The camp vehicles were a Russian fergon van and a small white jeep, so we could offer more comfortable “accomodation”.

The reintroduction project at Khomyn Tal in Zavkhan Aimag, (which is in western Mongolia) after many years of planning and breeding of takhi who would be acclimated and able to survive in Mongolia through the use of semi-reserves in the French Alps, officially began in 2004 with the shipment of 22 horses. It is the brainchild and inspiration of Dr. Claudia Feh who is still in charge of the project but who, unfortunately, I was unable to meet with. I did go to Khomyn Tal on my second trip to Mongolia in 2006, met her then, and have wanted to go back ever since. So this year I finally made it.

I will be doing an extensive, more science-oriented post reporting on my interview with Florian and what I learned about the project, but for now I just want to share what I saw…these wonderful wild horses and the place they live:

My first look at them
My first look at them; the sheds provide shelter from both heat and cold

One difference between the project at Khomym Tal and the other two reintroduction sites, Takhiin Tal and Hustai National Park, both of which I’ve also been to, is that the horses are quite acclimated to the presence of humans who they know or, in my case, a human who is with someone they know. Dr. Feh told me in 2006 that she didn’t believe there was a reason why they should fear people and being able to approach them closely allowed a visual examination that did not require tranquilizing them with the attendant risks that that entails. This approach clearly has not changed, as you’ll see.

Takhi mare and foal
Takhi mare and foal

So I went out with one of the rangers and sat next to him as he did his behavioral observations, recording certain specific things by voice. And got an eyeful of equine wonderfulness.

Takhi stallion
Takhi stallion
Looking back down the valley towards the river, which is lined with sand dunes on the east side
Looking back down the valley towards the river, which is lined with sand dunes on the east side

The project is located in a remote river valley, with an upland and some mountains. There are local herder families and much effort has been made over the years to create and maintain a cordial relationship.

Takhi family group on hillside
Takhi family group on hillside

After around an hour, one after the other, the three family groups left the sheds. One grazed past us up onto this hillside.

Family group heading down the valley
Two family groups heading down the valley

The other two went in the same direction but on the valley floor. The social organization of the Khomyn Tal takhi, of which there are now 53, seems to differ from that of the other two locations. There are three family groups, each with a dominant stallion and a lead mare. But they merge into one herd on and off through the day and the stallions get along, although I was told that two of them don’t like each other. There is also a “bachelor” group of five, which has two young mares in it, for reasons currently unknown, and one young stallion born with very short ears who lives on his own.

The young stallion
The young stallion with short ears

One of the great things about going out with the rangers is that it was during the part of the day, morning and evening, when the light was terrific.

Great light and takhi
Great light and takhi
Takhi in morning light
Takhi in morning light

When doing behavioral observations rangers like Florian must follow the horses wherever they go and whatever the weather. The weather part could be pretty uncomfortable in the winter and spring, but the scenery, well…

Florian following a family group
Florian, in black jacket, following a family group

There is other wildlife around, like Mongolian gazelles. I had to crop in quite a bit so you can see them at all. Zooming in on my iMac, I’ve got what I need for one or two nice paintings.

Mongolian gazelles
Mongolian gazelles

I got to see and record quite a variety of behaviors, including these two young stallions. I found it interesting that the foal just stood close to them until the serious bumping and then a kick happened. But he still didn’t move very far.

Young stallions having a bit of a tiff
Young stallions having a bit of a tiff

I didn’t go with Florian the first time he followed the horses because I wasn’t sure how far it would be and was afraid that I might inadvertently affect his observations as a stranger. But the second time we were at the sheds and when the horses started to move off, he said to come on along. Oh my goodness.  Ok. So off I walked on a parallel path with two family groups, around thirty horses who paid no attention to me. We all just walked along together on a lovely summer morning.

Takhi mare and foal
The mare is known as “the old mare”. Incredibly, she is one of the original horses shipped to Khomyn Tal in 2005.
Some of the younger horses were feeling frisky
Some of the younger horses were feeling frisky

I took the next photo for a personal memory of what it was like to, literally, walk in the hoofprints of the world’s only surviving true wild horse.

Hoofprints
In their hoof steps
Takhi stallion
Takhi stallion; I followed along behind and next to him. I believe he is also one of the original group of 22.

There was finally an opportunity to have my picture taken holding Explorers Club Flag 179 with takhi in the background. It would have been nice to have been closer, but the ranger’s observation routine took precedence.

With Flag 179
With Flag 179

In some ways it was a difficult stay. The mosquitos were really bad where we were near the river and it got very hot for a couple of the days, so exploring much on foot was limited. I did do some sketching and managed one watercolor, the view from my tent. You can see the sketches I did of the horses here.

View from my tent- watercolor on cold press paper
View from my tent- watercolor on Saunders Waterford cold press paper

The time to depart arrived, but not before we were invited to lunch by one of the rangers who had his family with him. His wife made us a tasty boortz soup (homemade noodles with bits of dried mutton or goat meat in it). Then we were on our way. I didn’t see any of the horses, so just enjoyed a last look at the scenery.

Black rock mountains
Black rock mountains

But this was just the first stop, albeit a most special one, on the second phase of the 2015 WildArt Mongolia Expedition.

What's over that hill?
What’s over that hill?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition 2014, Part 5: Toson Hulstay Nature Reserve (Gazelles!), Har Yamaat Nature Reserve And Back To Ulaanbaatar

The legendary grassland steppe,
The legendary grassland steppe, Toson Hulstay Nature Reserve, Dornod Aimag

At last I was going to see a part of Mongolia that I’d been wanting to for years….the eastern steppe grasslands. Even though Toson Hulstay Nature Reserve covers almost 1.2 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, it’s a remnant of an ecosystem that once spread from the Pacific Ocean to the plains of Hungary.

Within minutes of our first drive around the reserve we spotted the Mongolian gazelles, the wildlife for which the reserve is best known and the main species it was created to protect.
Within minutes of our first drive around the reserve we spotted Mongolian gazelles, the wildlife for which the reserve is best known and the main species it was created to protect.
Then we saw this single gazelle
Then we saw this single male gazelle.
Not long after, we spotted this good-sized herd.
Not long after, we spotted this good-sized herd.
This is Batmunkh, one of the six rangers who patrol the reserve.
This is Batmunkh, one of the six rangers who patrol the reserve.
The next day we saw an ever larger herd.
The next day, on our way to the new visitor’s center, we saw an even larger herd! As you can see, we had cloudy weather and the gazelles were usually quite a distance away, so not the best conditions for getting good photos, but still wanted to share one of this big group. They are known to gather in mege-herds of tens of thousands. There are 40,000-60,000 gazelles in the reserve.
This group was nice enough to stop on the ridge.
This group was nice enough to stop on the ridge.
The new visitor's center near the soum center of Holonbuyr
The new visitor’s center near the soum center of Holonbuyr. It is also used for community events and children’s activities, along with education about the reserve, its wildlife and plant life.
One of the banners that adorned the walls.
One of the banners that adorned the walls. The Nature Conservancy has been involved in supporting the reserve for many years.
Batmunkh showed us part of a large collection of botanical specimens.
Batmunkh showed us part of a large collection of botanical specimens.
Photos of local people.
Photos of local people.
On the way back this young tolai hare ran down the road in front of our car for quite a distance.
On the way back a young tolai hare ran down the road in front of our car for quite a distance.
This group of gazelles paralleled us for awhile and were fairly close. Taken through the driver's side window while we were rolling. I actually got pretty good at it.
This group of gazelles paralleled us for awhile and were fairly close. Taken through the driver’s side window while we were rolling. I actually got pretty good at it.
Our campsite, not far from a spring. Chosen to provide some shelter from the wind. It was stormy the whole time we were there.
Our campsite, not far from a spring. Chosen to provide some shelter from the wind. It was stormy the whole time we were there.
My tour company person set up a meeting for me with Ganbold, one of the rangers. Through my driver, Erdenebat, who speaks good English, I got a great briefing on the reserve and the gazelles. I'll be writing it up as a future blog post. I loved both rangers love and enthusiasm for the reserve and their jobs protecting it.
My tour company person set up a meeting for me with Ganbold, one of the rangers. Through my driver, Erdenebat, who speaks good English, I got a great briefing on the reserve and the gazelles. I’ll be writing it up as a future blog post. I was very impressed by both rangers’ love and enthusiasm for the reserve and their jobs dedicated to protecting it.
One of the dozen or so lakes in the reserve.
One of the dozen or so lakes in the reserve.
Off across the steppe...
Off across the steppe on an earth road…
We saw some truly spectacular clouds.
We saw some truly spectacular clouds. Summer is the rainy season in Mongolia and this year most of the country got thoroughly drenched, which was great for the herders and their livestock.
Saker falcon, an endangered species, perched right near the road.
Saker falcon, an endangered species, perched right near the road.
Another big herd, the largest yet. What a send-off for our departure!
Another big herd, the largest yet. What a send-off for our departure!
Another close-up.
A close-up. They all cut across the road in front of us, flowing like a stream.
One last herd.
One last herd.
And an individual female in nice light.
An individual female.  And with, her the gazelle “show” was over.
Crossing the Kherlen Gol on our way to our next stop.
Crossing the Kherlen Gol on our way to our next stop.
Rainstorm on the steppe.
Rainstorm on the steppe.
Our final destination for this year's Expedition off in the distance....Har Yamaat Nature Reserve.
Our final destination for this year’s Expedition off in the distance….Har Yamaat Nature Reserve. The weather was looking pretty good, compared to where we had been.
Rock Formations at Har Yamaat.
Rock Formations at Har Yamaat.
We drove up to this high point where we could see the Kherlen Gol in the distance. But what captured our attention was the riot of wildflowers.
We drove up to this high point where we could see the Kherlen Gol in the distance. But what captured our attention was the riot of wildflowers.
Wild lily and Pasque flower.
Wild lily and Pasque flower.
Wild poppies.
Wild poppies.

We went back down the slope to a sheltered spot and set up camp. It was a pleasant evening, perfect for our outdoor dining. About 10pm it started to rain…and rain….and rain. It was raining hard in the morning. We had to eat breakfast sitting in the cars. Everyone pitched in to get the tents packed up. I think we set a record for the trip breaking camp. I was wondering what it would be like getting back down the mountain to the road, even though we were in Land Cruisers with a go-anywhere Russian van as our support vehicle. As it turned out the “earth” road was grassy enough that that part was no problem. However, once we arrived at the main road west…

The drivers had to deal with quite a few kilometers of this.
The drivers had to deal with quite a few kilometers of this. Each made his own choices on how and where to pick his way through it.
But we just kept moving on.
But we just kept moving on and no one got stuck. By this time Ogii’s white Land Cruiser was thoroughly beige.
We finally out ran the muddy roads and made good time to Ondorhaan, recently renamed Chinggis Khan Hot (City.
We finally out-ran the muddy roads and made good time to Ondorhaan, recently renamed Chinggis Khan Hot (City). I got a kick out of seeing the zebra tire cover in the middle of Mongolia.
The city entrance if you're coming from the east.
The city entrance if you’re coming from the east.
We stopped for a break and were treated to one more crane sighting! A pair of demoiselles with two chicks.
We stopped for a break and were treated to one more crane sighting! A pair of demoiselles with two chicks.
Scenery heading east.
Scenery heading east. With horses.
For the last night out, we stayed at a tourist ger camp near Avarga, the first center of Imperial Mongolia. Very comfortable gers to stay in and a huge elaborately decorated dining ger.
For the last night out, we stayed at a tourist ger camp near Avarga, the first center of Imperial Mongolia. Very comfortable gers to stay in and a huge elaborately decorated dining ger.
I had a little visitor who was plucking loose pile from the carpet for its nest. Species unknown.
I had a little visitor who was plucking loose pile from the carpet for its nest. Species unknown.
One last look at the quintessential Mongolian landscape that I've grown to love so much.
One last look at the quintessential Mongolian landscape I’ve grown to love so much.
We stopped for lunch by this ovoo and a herd of horses wandered by.
We stopped for lunch by this ovoo and a herd of horses wandered by.
Full-circle back past the Chinggis Khan statue and on to Ulaanbaatar.
Full-circle back past the Chinggis Khan statue and on to Ulaanbaatar.

And that concludes the story of the 2013 WildArt Mongolia Expedition.

I’m leaving on Saturday for a road trip to Wyoming. I plan to spend four days in Yellowstone National Park, a day in Jackson for the annual Fall Art Festival and then on east to Dubois for the Susan K. Black Foundation Workshop. Five days, 175 artists, nationally-known instructors…it’s going to be very special week. I hope to post on the blog a couple of times, but will largely cover the goings-on via Twitter and posts to my Facebook fan page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition 2014 Has Returned!

gazelle headerWe returned to Ulaanbaatar on June 21 and I immediately had to throw myself into preparations for the 2013 Expedition group art exhibition, which will be the subject of my next post and is open now at the Union of Mongolian Artists Gallery until July 7.

The 2014 Expedition was a great success! Here’s some of the highlights. There will be a series of posts once I’m home.

We saw cranes in the Han Hentii Mountains and attended the first-ever International Crane Festival in Binder Soum. We received an excellent briefing on the major crane study which has now gotten under way and in a future post I’ll cover what the researchers are doing, how they’re doing it and what they hope to learn. Below is one of the study subjects, demoiselle cranes with two chicks.

demoiselle cranesThe crane festival was wonderful. There was a show of crane art created by local school children, an opening ceremony with dancers and singers, a horse race, Mongol wrestling and an anklebone shooting competition.

crane festThe opening ceremony included a traditional dance by young Buryat Mongol girls.

buryat dancers 2Mongol-style wrestling (Bukh)

binder wrestlersThe finish of the horse race.

horse raceAnklebone shooting.

shagaAll to celebrate crane conservation! I also got to meet Dr. George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, who was there with a group of researchers and supporters.

Our next major destination was Tolson Hulstay Nature Reserve, home to between 40,000 and 60,000 Mongolian gazelles. We saw them, a couple of times in large numbers, every time we drove out into the reserve, which also has a dozen small to medium-sized lakes. I fell in love with the grassland steppe and will certainly be going back there. I was able to interview one of the six rangers and get a lot of good first-hand information that I’ll be sharing in a future post.

Mongolian gazelle. Below and at the top of the post.

gazelles 2

The legendary grassland steppe. Toson Hulstay is the largest preserved and conserved area of it left. steppeThe rainy season had started early. Great for the herders and their animals, who look to have a very good year with excellent grazing. But for traveling by car, it got a little interesting sometimes…

car crossing earth roadBut of course it was worth it!