Mongolia Monday- Back From Ikh Nartiin Chuluu!

They almost always see you first. That’s a nanny on the left and a three year old billy on the right. You can tell their age from the ridges on the horns.

It was Siberian ibex this time at Ikh Nart. I’d see them on previous trips and always take photos, but my main goal has been seeing as many argali as possible. This year most of those were 20km or so to the northeast, so it was not possible to walk to where they were, at least for me, and I didn’t have a car and driver this time. I’m good for about 8-10km or so a day, especially if it’s hot. And was it hot! Probably close to 100F on a couple of days and not starting to cool off until around 10:30 at night. We also had a couple of rain storms move through during the eleven days that I was there, one with quite a light show.

The valley were the research camp is located. The ibex were up on the rocks down on the far left hand side

I walked down the valley the first day, followed a slope up to the top, sat down to sketch the scene in front of me, looked around and there behind me I saw that I was being watched by an ibex. Forget the sketching, the wildlife fieldwork was on!

Close-up view of the previous photo. That’s a nanny on the left and a young billy on the right.

It turned out there was a group of around a dozen nannies and kids, one of each wearing radio collars, who were hanging around two adjacent rock formations. The first day there were also two young billies, one two and one three years old, judging from the ridges on their horns. I saw and photographed them in that same location three out of the next four days, shooting hundreds of images, around 900 in all. So you know one subject I’ll be painting this winter….

Ibex nanny wearing radio collar

My main reason for going to Ikh Nart, though, was to have my annual visit with the members of Ikh Nart Is Our Future, the women’s felt craft collective that I support. I had a very good meeting with the director, Ouynbolor, during which we spoke (through a translator) about how things had gone since I last saw her and what she needed me to do for this next year. Coming up will be a larger quantity of the full-color brochures I and staff at the Denver Zoo had produced to explain the collective to visitors to the tourist ger camp. They will also now be produced in Mongolian, not just English. There were also matching product tags in three sizes. They worked well, but a much larger quantity of those will also be needed for next year.

Collective members at work on various tasks

I registered a url for the collective last year, knowing that they wanted to have a website. At the meeting we were able to work out the content and a way to communicate while it’s being put together.

Making felt; the wool is laid out in cross-wise layers, wrapped in a piece of tablecloth, thoroughly soaked with hot water and then saturated with soap, which is the ingredient that melds the fibers together
They got me into the act too, helping to work the soap into the wool

The really special part is that I was able to arrange to go to the soum center (county seat), Dalanjargalan, for a night and a day. I had always met the women at either the research camp or the tourist ger camp and felt that it would be very beneficial to spend at least a little time where they live (when they are not out in the countryside at their gers with their animals) and learn a little about their lives. I got a walking tour that included the local school and shop. I stayed in the home of one of the collective members. Had lunch at the home of another and, in the afternoon, around a dozen members gathered at “the office”, a little building that used to be a gas station, to process their wool, turn it into felt and also work on various items that they will sell. I saw the felt presses that I had helped them acquire in action, along with the good sewing scissors they had requested in 2009. They have quite an operation set up now and work very efficiently and with great care and conscientiousness. I shot both still photos and around an hour of video with my new Panasonic recorder, enough to put together a little YouTube video after I get home.

Collective member with lovely pictorial peice done completely with different colors of felt

My ride back to camp arrived later than expected, around 10:30pm, and the reason was that they had seen and captured two very young long-eared hedgehogs that were crossing the road in front of the car! Hedgehogs are one of the species being studied at Ikh Nart, by a graduate student named Batdorj. Within a kilometer of leaving Dalanjargalan, a third one dashed across the road, this time an adult darian hedgehog, and it was captured too, riding back to camp on the lap of one of the students wrapped in his jacket. I was able to get a lot of photos and also video the next evening before they had radio transmitters glued to their backs and were transported back out to the general area in which they’d been caught. And yes, there will definitely be hedgehog paintings, cards and prints coming up.

Darian hedgehog
Young long-eared hedgehog

I also had time to just wander around the reserve and see what there was to see and it turned out to be….wildflowers! The rains have been very good this year and everything is green, green, green. I’ve been to Ikh Nart in August before, but have never seen so many different flowers and so many that I had never seen there before. It was like walking through a huge flower garden.


Finally it was time to depart. We were taking the train overnight to Ulaanbaatar. Most of our luggage, except for what we needed for the night, was taken back to UB by car in the afternoon. The rest of us caught the 1:14 am train and arrived about 8:30 am. I had never done this before, but managed to get around five hours of decent sleep. We were taken back to Zaya’s Guesthouse, where we got showers and sorted our dirty clothes for laundering. The rest of the day was spent getting lunch and puttering around, catching up on emails. The next day I spent most of the afternoon doing a massive download and back up of all the photos and videos I’d shot.

Late afternoon on the north side of the valley

So now I’m at Zaya’s, which I highly recommend to anyone coming to Ulaanbaatar. The rooms are sparkling clean, there is free wifi and the location is very convenient, right off Peace Ave. not far from the State Department Store. There is a common living room with a very comfortable sectional sofa and a full kitchen for the use of guests.

I did see argali a couple of times

As for the WildArt Mongolia Expedition, I’m now working on the last bits of planning and arranging, some things having changed since I left the US. Flexibility is important when doing things in Mongolia. It makes some people really angry when something doesn’t go right or on schedule (so this is not a country they should visit), but I’ve found that it creates possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

I’ll be in UB for the next 2-3 days, then I’m hoping for a long weekend at a ger camp I’ve stayed at before. Stay tuned!

Mongolia Monday: Flora And Fauna- Hustai National Park

The next ten or so posts will cover all the places I visited on this past trip, some familiar and well-loved and some new.

The two-week trip with Pokey emphasized the best wildlife viewing places that I’ve found. We headed west out of Ulaanbaatar on a sunny August morning….

and spent two productive days at Hustai, seeing lots of takhi and other wildlife. The wildflowers were still in bloom, too, which was lovely.

These horses were part of a group approaching a water hole right by the road; you'll have to wait for the painting to see the rest...
At first this harem was a long way off
But as we watched from behind a line of rocks, they drifted closer and closer
Finally, they grazed their way right past us in the fading light; it was quite wonderful to have them come so close
Marmots generally run straight for their holes when spooked, but for some reason we will never fathom, this one ran for a long way right down the middle of the road
These darian partridges were a new species for me
Black kite in a birch tree; "Hustai" means "birch" in Mongolian
Cinereous vulture, the largest Eurasian vulture which can weigh up to 30 lbs.
This grasshopper suddenly appeared on our windshield
Saw more spiders on the trip this year than ever before, including this one on a member of the phlomis family
Deep purple globe thistles

Mongolia Monday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 9 – Wildflower Heaven And A Famous Waterfall

After lunch at the lovely spot that ended the previous post, we drove higher into the mountains, up where there were forests of larch trees.


Typical beautiful scenery



Two boys we passed; what a great place to be kid on a horse!


Many of them were a reddish color, which indicated that they were dead or dying of a beetle infestation. Very sad.

We came over a pass that had a very impressive ovoo.


Ovoo made of wood, with khadak


As we came up into the trees, we found ourselves in a wonderland of wildflowers. To my surprise and delight, one of the most common was very familiar – fireweed. It is an introduced plant in the United States and I see it in bloom in many places near our house and along the roadside. Little did I know that there is a little bit of Mongolia in the neighborhood.


Up into the mountains; fireweed by roadside



Large colony of fireweed


It was clearly the perfect time of year to see mountain wildflowers. I grabbed a lot of photos as we went by, but we also stopped a couple of times to get close-ups.








Colony of troilus (orange flowers)



Bedstraw, larkspur. burnet, geranium


The flowers tapered off as we came down in elevation, where we passed this herd of horses.




Soon we were driving across a very large valley with a lot of rock outcroppings. Upon looking at them closely, I realized that I had seen something similar in Hawaii and Idaho- lava flows. It looked as if the entire valley had been filled to some unknown depth from an ancient volcanic eruption.


Orkhon Valley



Wildflowers growing in lava formations



Edge of massive lava flow


We finally approached the site of something that Mongolia isn’t particularly known for… a waterfall. The amount of water going over the edge is dependent on rainfall. Many people apparently go to the Orkhon Falls and are disappointed in how little water there is to see. We weren’t. One consequence of the rainfall that has been a part of this story from the time we were in the Gobi is that the falls were full and beautiful. It was pretty overcast, so we took a look and some photos and left to find a campsite.


At the edge



At Orkhon Falls


Once again, good yak viewing from the comfort of our camp.


My tent, with yaks


A couple of  local herders came by to gather up their animals.


Local herder


The next morning was bright and sunny, so we went back to the falls before departure and I got some lovely photos.


Khatnaa, me and Soyoloo; the kid who Khatnaa handed my camera to did a nice job!


One can now see how deep the lava deposit is.


Orkhon Falls



Ovoo at edge of falls



Orkhon Gol (river)


By an interesting coincidence, another Humboldt County artist friend was not only in Mongolia at the same time as me, but she and some other folks were on a canoe trip. On the Orkhon Gol. They were far downriver from where I was, to the north. The Orkhon Gol orginates in the Hangai Mountains and flows north, where it joins the Selenge Gol, which flows into Lake Baikal.

On our way out of the area of the falls, we saw two black kites sitting on fence posts.


Black kites


Little did I know that this morning was the beginning of one of the most interesting, eventful and unexpected days of the entire trip.

Mongolia Monday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 8 – Khuisiin Naiman Nuur National Park

One of the places I most want to go back to and spend a week camping, painting and sketching is this place. For me, the “Valley of the Yaks” is the whole package. Green mountains, beautiful small rivers, herders, their gers and their animals, raptors like black kites and absolutely no visitor infrastructure at all.


Gers in the valley



First yaks we saw


We drove more or less to the end of the road, which was at the top of a steep slope. There was, of course, an ovoo. Getting out and looking over the top, I noticed two things right away: A drop dead gorgeous mountain lake, one of eight in the park (“naim” means “eight” in Mongolian”) and that the road continued down, and I do mean down, the other side at about a 45 degree angle. Needless to say, almost no one is crazy enough to drive it even though it is the only road in the park that provides access by car to any of the lakes. The only other way to get to them is to walk or ride a horse. We climbed up the slope, joining quite a few Mongol day-trippers. Even though nothing in particular was going on, there was a festive feeling in the air.


One of the lakes of Naiman Nuur National Park; road to right, after it's leveled out some





I took my lake photos and also got some more good wildflower images, then it was time to drive back down the hill and find a campsite. We passed some Mongol guys who were sitting and chatting by the side of the road. As we went by, one of them, who had obviously noticed that I was a westerner, yelled out “I love you!” Almost without thinking, I yelled back “Bi mongol dortei!”, “I like Mongolia!”. For some reason, Khatnaa and Soyoloo thought this was hilarious, burst out laughing and high-fived me. Khatnaa then decided that I had to learn another Mongol sentence: “Bi argaliin udad dortei” which means “I like dung smoke.”, a reference to our stay at Orog Nuur in the Gobi. I think I ended up having to repeat it at every ger we visited after that. All in good fun, of course.

The time had now come to find a spot to camp for the night. I was looking a little longingly at a place right down next to the river, certainly a prime spot that one would gravitate to in America. But up on higher ground was a dirt ring where someone had set up a ger. That’s the spot that Khatnaa picked and when it started to rain pretty hard later on, it was obvious that he had made the right choice and my choice might have gotten us quite wet if the river level had gone up very much.


Campsite after the tents had been taken down; what a view!


As I sat enjoying the late afternoon light, suddenly I had to grab my camera body with the long lens. A herder had come down the other side of the river and was rounding up his yaks. I reeled off about 170 images from the comfort of my camp chair.


Local yak herder


After dinner, we all sat and chatted until suddenly the wind kicked up and then it started to rain. Bedtime.

The next morning was beautiful and I got some more long range shots of the same herder milking some of his yaks. Soyoloo and I took turns washing each other’s hair down by the river.

I hated to leave, but promised myself that I would return and have more time.


One of the rivers


We re-traced our route back down the valley. On the way, we stopped for more yak photos. I had, not unreasonably, thought that the bigger ones with horns were the bulls. Then I saw an actual bull. He was absolutely huge and had no horns. The herders remove them because, armed with what are essentially two long, sharp spikes, a bull yak would be a very dangerous animal to have around.


Bull yak on right



Yaks, gers, windmill, car


The gelded yaks, like the ones above, are called “shar”, Mongolian for “yellow”. It seems to be the term applied to any gelded livestock. I don’t know why yet.

We also passed a number of herds of horses. It looked like the airag supply was good.




Back out of the valley, we passed this little riverside drama, but didn’t stay to see what happened next.


Someone made a poor decision


We drove past a family who was setting up housekeeping. I thought this was a good photo of a ger without the felt covering, plus, what a lovely spot to live!


Soon to be home, sweet home


We also went by this small monastery, located outside of a soum center.


Small monastery, with stupas


Continuing on, we were soon going up in elevation and I started to see forests for the first time. We stopped for lunch on a hillside covered with wildflowers.


Lunchtime view


Next week: wildflower heaven and a famous waterfall.

Mongolia Monday- Wildflowers, Part 2

Continuing on from last week:

Once again, the identifications are my best guess based on the field guide “Flowers of Hustai National Park”. Corrections more than welcome.

Except where noted all plants photographed at the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.

Caraway, carum carvi?
Caraway, carum carvi?
Eyebright, Euphrasia tatarica
Eyebright, Euphrasia tatarica
Goniolimon, Goniolimon speciosum ?
Goniolimon, Goniolimon speciosum ?
Globe thistle, Echinops latifolius
Globe thistle, Echinops latifolius
Haplophyllum, Haplophyllum dauricum
Haplophyllum, Haplophyllum dauricum
Hyssop, Lophanthus chinensis
Hyssop, Lophanthus chinensis
Hyssop growing near Kherlen River
Hyssop growing near Kherlen River
Milk vetch, Astragalus galactites
Milk vetch, Astragalus galactites
Onion, Allium odorum
Onion, Allium odorum
Orostacys species
Orostacys species
Persicaria species
Persicaria species
Pink, Dianthus versicolor
Pink, Dianthus versicolor, Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve
Ptilotrichum, Ptilotrichum canescens
Ptilotrichum, Ptilotrichum canescens (yellow flower)