I thought I’d start off the New Year with the subject that’s most near and dear to Mongolians’ hearts – horses.
Here’s an old photo from the late 1920’s, taken on one of Roy Chapman Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expeditions:
Here’s a horse I saw this past September:
And here’s the herder who owns the horse. Other than the head gear, not much has changed. The long robe or “del” is the perfect garment for the climate and environment. And while I have seen herders wearing the traditional pointed hat, they tend to be mostly the young men. Baseball caps are what one usually sees. The older men often wear snappy-looking fedoras.
On Friday I’ll be debuting my latest Mongolian horse painting!
Well, I certainly enjoyed the last two Mongolia Monday posts and hope you did, too. Thanks again, Simon!
Today it’s back to a subject that has become near and dear to my heart- the takhi or Przewalski’s Horse. I always liked horses, even though I was deathly allergic to them as a kid, but have never been, ahem, drawn to them as a subject until I saw takhi for the first time at the Berlin Zoo in October of 2004. I didn’t even know they were there. I just happened on them in the far nether reaches of the zoo. Seven of them, looking like they’d just stepped out of a cave painting.
I remember that I plopped down on the nearest bench, probably with an idiot smile of delight on my face, to sketch and photograph them. They were enchanting.
I did some research when I got home and found out that they were being reintroduced into Mongolia. So when I signed on for an Earthwatch project there, I arranged a three day trip to the closest site, Hustai National Park. It was spring, which meant cold, windy and and occasional snow, but I saw the horses and got some decent photos. The next step was to get back to Mongolia, which I did in late September-early October of 2006. By then, I’d found out about a third, new release site in western Mongolia, Khomiin Tal, and managed to get out there. There is also a series of three articles I wrote for Horses in Art. One on Hustai National Park, one on Khomiin Tal and one on the domestic Mongolian horses. Look under “Writings” for those.
Then, this last May, I was at the Denver Zoo and saw takhi there. They looked much different from the Berlin animals, as you can see. There are a number of reasons for this that have to do with being kept in captive conditions, which can lead to much heavier bone structure and skull defects. The animals for release come from semi-reserves where they can live and eat more normally.
I’ve been drawing and painting them since that first trip to Hustai, but have hardly scratched the surface of the picture possibilities.
Here’s one of the first paintings, which is available as a limited edition giclee. When I showed a photo of it to a Hustai biologist on my second trip there, she immediately recognized the mare by her mane, which reinforced my desire to paint individuals of a species.
Followers of this blog know how adamant I am about doing fieldwork. I think this next piece illustrates why. There is no way this painting would have happened if I hadn’t been there at Khomiin Tal to photograph both the horses and the habitat. I’ve seen a few other paintings of takhi and so far none of them really looks to me like it was done from reference shot of reintroduced horses in Mongolia. They are pretty obviously captives in Europe or North America. The light’s not right, the land isn’t right and, mostly, the horses themselves aren’t right. But I sure can understand the compelling desire to paint and draw them anyway!
Here’s the most recent painting, a stallion at Hustai. I wanted to really show the valley that is the core habitat of the population of, now, over 200 horses in 15 harems and to try to capture the interesting shape of the shadows on him.
This 10″x 8″ study is going to be listed for sale on EBay tomorrow or Wednesday. It was amusing to watch the foal work out the motor coordination required to scratch that itch.
Lastly, I did a batch of drawings a couple of weeks ago and I rather liked the way these came out. The photos were taken at Hustai this past September. It was late afternoon and this one foal was having “crazy fits”. I’m always looking for animals in action and he/she certainly delivered.
One of the most rewarding parts of travel is finding out how many ways there are to address the everyday challenges of life which are perfectly valid, but really, really different from how one does things at home. If the traveler is open to new experiences with an attitude of neutral curiosity, he or she might find that “difference”, in and of itself, is not threatening. Pity the impervious person who spends fair sums of money and time to travel and comes home utterly unaffected and unchanged. What an opportunity for the enrichment of one’s life wasted.
Mongolia is such a great place to get out of one’s own bubble. Customs and practices that haven’t changed in 1000 years exist happily alongside 20th/21st century technology. So, the country family holds its annual foal branding and a city relative records the occasion with her cell phone camera. Perfect.
(I would also like to note here that I have zero tolerance for those who want to deny more traditional cultures modern equipment, technology or goods because it will somehow “spoil” them. Selfish, romantic nonsense. The thought that a people like the Mongols could somehow be “spoiled” by integrating the modern world into their lives is ridiculous, IMHO. Lack of western technology does not equal stupid. Grant people the right to make up their own minds and choose what makes sense to them.)
Which brings us to today’s theme- how to get around, round, round in Mongolia. We will proceed from western high-tech to (for westerners) the picturesque.
Love the seat cover!
The Mongolians might be the greatest mechanics in the world. Travel stories by writers who have gone there are filled with accounts of impossible repairs in the middle of nowhere. Lack of money, parts, towing services (Ha!) and the need to find a way has bred an amazing level of ingenuity, which I have personally experienced with awe and respect. But those are stories for future posts.
You travel in these to ensure you get there, not because they’re comfortable. Four gear shift levers and counting.
My guide had talked about “the boat” (!?) when we were leaving Hovd for Khomiin Tal. Our last night out I found out what he was talking about. He’d purchased this inflatable boat when he was in Germany and this was his first chance to try it out.
There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of running water in the towns I’ve been in, so one sees it being hauled in these carts. It makes you think about your use of water and be more mindful of what it took to provide it.
Lots of people have to walk to where they need to go, but, of course, the quintessential way to get around in Mongolia has always been on horseback.
I like this picture because you can really see how she is riding standing up in the saddle. The stirrups are tied together under the belly of the horse to keep them in place. Ah, THAT’S the secret.
I don’t know about other artists, but after a long trip it takes a little internal shove for me to get going again. I need to shake the rust off, get in the groove, just….start…..working.
I also spent some time thinking about my work procedures. I love to paint and tend to dive in, flail around and pull it together, or not. I’ve got some ideas about what I want my work to look like and have come to conclusion that I need to spend more time on the preliminaries, especially for larger works. That means drawing, drawing, drawing. Plus value and color studies as needed.
Winter is when I try to push my work to the next level and experiment and, since the first winter storm of the year arrived yesterday, I guess it’s time.
This week I’ve done a pile of charcoal drawings of the Mongolian horses, which I got fantastic reference photos of. I’ve always struggled for some reason with poses where the horses have their heads down, grazing, so I decided to get a handle on that once and for all. What worked was doing the body first and then adding the head. I’d been doing it the other way around, to my eternal frustration.
Here’s a selection of some I feel came out ok. They are done with a 6B extra soft General Charcoal pencil on 2 ply Strathmore Vellum Bristol and are unretouched. I’m always looking for what will add to the illusion of three dimensional structure and a body in space and what will help me get a handle on the anatomy.
These took 15-20 minutes each.
I also want to get some action into my work, so here’s a couple of running horses.
No idea if any of these will find their way into paintings, but I enjoyed doing them.
ART THOUGHT FOR THE DAY
“Artistic growth is, more than anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy: only the great artist knows how difficult it is.”
Back at the Bayangol Hotel this afternoon. I’m sorry we didn’t get to western Mongolia, but our time at Arburd Sands was fantastic! The ger camp is owned by a local herder family and is located amongst a 20 km long stretch of sand dunes, which form a sort of northern border to the Gobi. The head of the family, Choidog, is one of the most famous and honored horse trainers in the country. His 40-something son, Batbadrach, won the national Nadaam horse race two years running when he was 8 and 9 years old. They currently have around 300 horses.
The ger camp is pretty laid back. Activity options include trekking around the dunes and surrounding countryside, horse riding and camel rides. David and I opted for a one hour horse ride the first day (and a camel ride the second). I asked about the Mongolian saddles and it turned out that they had a modified one for me to use. It didn’t have the big silver studs on the sides of the seat, but did have a thin felt pad. Otherwise it was basically the same saddle the Mongols have used since the time of Chinggis Khan. And it wasn’t uncomfortable at all for just a hour, even given that I have hardly ever ridden a horse. So, here’s David and I, ready to ride. It was great!
My horse, who has no name except maybe “Brown Horse”, and I did quite well. He was willing to trot and was easy to “steer”. I had sat on horses while they moved a few times in the past. This was the first time I ever felt that I was really riding. I was able to stand in the saddle a few times to see what it felt like since the Mongolians ride that way from childhood. They must have thighs of steel. The stirrups are tied together under the horse’s belly, which does make standing quite a bit easier than it would be otherwise.
The herd of bactrian camels, which belong to other local families and our camp hosts Batbadrach and his wife Desmaa, numbers around 30. Some are trained for riding. Others pull carts loaded with camping gear. All but one of the riding camels were out on a trek with other visitors, but we got to take turns riding him. It was just as much fun as in 2006. Photo by David.
The herd tended to be around camp in the morning and late afternoon, so I got lots of pictures of them in great light. Here’s one:
Yesterday morning, we were asked if we would like to go to an annual family event, the branding of the year’s foals. Of course we said yes, but not knowing what to expect. What we got was one of the reasons why travel is so worth the time, money and intermittent hassle- being present at something that was not a set-up for tourists, but getting to share part of a Mongolian country family’s way of life that has continued without interruption for over a thousand years. I was able to record it all and have some of the best photos I have ever taken. Here’s a few highlights:
I had asked to take the women’s picture at the after-branding party and Choidog got up from his spot on the floor and joined them, putting on his hat, which was presented to him by the president of Mongolia and has a silver horse on the top. I looked through the viewfinder and it was a total National Geographic moment. Even now, looking at it on this post, I can hardly believe that I was so fortunate to have taken this picture. I’ll be sending copies to all of them. Sodnam is Choidog’s sister, Lhamsuren is Batbadrach’s mother and Surenjav is the mother of one of Batbadrach’s friends and also his brother’s mother-in-law. It’s a big family. Desmaa couldn’t tell us how many grandchildren Choidog has.
To conclude- at the ger camp for the first night was a Swedish travel writer named Steven. We all sat together for dinner and had a great time exchanging stories. He had come to Mongolia by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The next day he was asked if he was going to come back to Mongolia. He said yes in a very strong, definite way. I asked how long he had been here. He replied “Four days”. Yup, he’s got it bad, just like me.
At last we come to the most important “Snout” of all for Mongolians, the horse. I was told that Mongolians sing about three things: the land, their mothers and their horses. The classic Mongolian musical instrument is the “morin khuur” or horse-headed violin. Here are some that I saw at the Mongolian Artists’ Union gallery in Ulaan Baatar.
Horses have inspired Mongolian art for a very long time. I happened on this delightful modern “horse art” in the courtyard of the Museum of the Chojin Lama in Ulaanbaatar.
And here’s the explanation that was nearby. This was in September of 2006 and I have no idea if they are still there, but the museum is on the list for the upcoming trip, so perhaps we’ll be lucky and get to see them again.
I find that there is often confusion between the, more or less, domestic Mongolian horse and the takhi or Przewalski’s Horse, which is the only surviving species of true wild horse. They are different species. There are domestic horses who have physical traits that indicate a past cross with the takhi, which were extinct in the wild as of 1969. I’ve seen a number of Mongolian horses with some combination of upright, brushy mane, a reddish dorsal stripe, a light eye-ring or muzzle and maybe tarsal and/or carpal stripes on the legs.
As one travels about the countryside, the herder’s establishments are a blend of old and new. Motorbikes, solar panels and satellite dishes aren’t uncommon, but everywhere there was always at least one horse saddled, bridled, hobbled and ready to ride at a moment’s notice. Mongols are, after all, the original horse culture.
The Mongolian horses are beyond tough. They are left to roam at large most of the year and manage to survive weather, down to -40F in the winter, that would kill most other horses. I have read at least two accounts of western writers who traveled across Mongolia by horse and who described the morning saddle-up as “a rodeo”.
One evening at Ikh Nart, we watched a young Mongolian man capture a foal with an “urga”. Mom was not amused and kept a close eye on things.
One of the things that amazed me when I saw them for the first time at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu was that even though it was spring (and anyone who has been to Mongolia knows what that means weather-wise: cold, wind, dust storms) and most of the horses were terribly thin, many had long- flowing manes and tails that were gorgeous.
This was one of my favorite pictures from my first trip in the spring of 2005. The young herder was perfectly happy to have his picture taken with me as long as his horse was included. No problem.
And here a close-up of the saddle. The silver bosses on the side are to “encourage” the rider to ride standing in the saddle.
Finally, another one of my favorites; a herd of horses coming down to the stream to drink at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu.
My understanding is that, to this day, around half of Mongolian population of 2.9 million people still live as the Mongols always have, as herders. Their animals are, of course, central to their lives and provide income, food, clothing and shelter. There are five species: horses, goats, sheep, cattle and bactrian camels. Collectively the Mongolians refer to them as The Five Snouts or also Five Jewels.
I thought that I would post a few photos of each for the next five weeks, at which point I will be on my way to Mongolia (Aug. 24 departure).
Let’s start with two-humped bactrian camels, made famous by the movie The Story of the Weeping Camel. They provide wool and milk. I don’t think they are used for food very often:
I saw this pretty white camel by the road on my first trip in 2005.
This string of camels was at a ger we visited near a salt deposit in western Mongolia.
On our way back from Khomiin Tal, there was a large herd of animals along the north shore of Khar Us Nuur, including lots of camels.
And finally, I photographed this big guy on our way back to Ulaanbaatar from the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve.