“Almost There” oil on canvasboard 12×18″ (price on request)
For the first three weeks of November I was at the easel every weekday painting the pieces that I showed the color comps of on Sept. 22 here. I finally decided not to use them for the original purpose and will be entering them in some upcoming juried exhibitions. I’m pleased and proud of them so I want to debut them here on my blog. The one above is from reference I shot at a naadam in Erdenet Soum in 2015. I got to ride in the chase car for two of the races so I got fantastic reference as we drove alongside the horses and riders.
In Mongolia the sweat of a winning horse is thought to be auspicious, so the trainer scrapes it off. The traditional tool for this was the bill of a Dalmation pelican, an endangered species, so now the scrapers are made of wood, often with nice carving on them. One always knows the trainers by the scraper in their belt or sash. I was really struck by the colors of this two-year old, who had already raced. Very pretty.
And here you can see one of the trainers at the same event with his scraper tucked into his sash. This would be his personal riding horse. He (they are almost always stallions or geldings) has a traditional saddle that is well-worn and a common type of bridle knotted from hand-braided rope.
I’ve also kept up with Inktober52, not missing a week so far. Four drawings to go. You can see all of them on my Instagram feed here.
I was coming to the end of my first tent camping trip in Mongolia in July of 2010. We had traveled south to a remote Gobi lake, Orog Nuur…myself, my driver/guide and a cook… and back north into the Hangai Mountains to see a variety of sights, including two mineral spring resorts, a Buddhist retreat established by Zanabazar, Mongolia’s finest sculptor, popular Orkhon Falls and the much visited site of the imperial Mongol capital Harkhorin which is adjacent to the famous monastery, Erdene Zuu, partly constructed of stones from the ruined capital which was sacked my the Ming army after they ended the Yuan Dynasty of Khublai Khan and chased the Mongols back to their homeland.
Our route now took us north, down out of the Khangai Mountains, where, for the last night out, we were going to pitch our tents at Ongii Nuur, a lake known for its birds. It was a gloomy, cloudy day. As we were driving along, I noticed a large ger encampment down and off to the left. I almost said something to to my Mongol driver/guide Khatnaa, but let it go. Then he had to slow down because a bunch of men and boys on horses were crossing the road. I told him about the gers. He made a right turn and followed the horsemen up the slope. And at the top found ourselves in the midst of over a hundred Mongols, many dressed to kill in fancy brocade del, sashes and boots.
Just about the only thing that I had hoped to encounter on the trip (my fifth to the Land of Blue Skies), but had not, was a local naadam, the festival that always has a variety of traditional competitions and activities, including the Three Manly Sports of horse racing, wrestling and archery (I had gotten to attend my first local naadam at Baga Gazriin Chuluu in 2009 and was instantly hooked). Now it appeared that we had finally stumbled onto one on the last afternoon of the last day of the trip.
We pulled up in an area on the hill where a lot of cars and trucks were parked. There were horses all over the place. Khatnaa got out, spoke with someone and came back with the news that the event was a family reunion. Stay or go? We’d inadvertently crashed a private party. I told Khatnaa that it was up to him to do what he thought best. He thought for a moment while I held my breath and then pulled into the middle of a long line of cars, where we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Over the next two to three hours I sat in the big silver Land Cruiser and took around five hundred photos of whatever crossed my field of vision. Our arrival had coincided with the run-up to the horse race and we had gotten there just in time to watch all the preparations for it.
It seemed like over half the men and boys were on horseback, warming up the racehorses, chatting and just riding around the area the same way the rest of us would walk. The trainers stood out with their fancy del, sashes, hats and boots, along with their sweat scrapers tucked in to the back of their sashes. Older men sat on the ground exchanging snuff bottles in the traditional greeting. Kids were happily running and riding all over the place. Everyone was clearly having a great time, as was I getting to watch it all.
Our “cover” was blown when a young couple on a motorbike drove up and offered us fresh, hot khuushuur (fried mutton turnovers). No way we were going to pass on those. I stayed in the car until the first horses were approaching the finish line and then got out and joined the happy crowd.
Afterwards, shortly before we left, I was photographing a lovely black race horse who was being scraped down, as the sweat from the winning horses is thought to be very lucky and auspicious. A woman came up to me, took my arm, led me over to the horse and made a gesture for me to lay my palm on the sweat, which suddenly turned me from spectator to participant. It was a very kind and thoughtful thing for her to do since I was very obviously not a member of this very big family. I was never so glad that I knew how to say “thank you” in Mongolian.
We 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.
The 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.
The opening ceremony included a traditional dance by young Buryat Mongol girls.
Mongol-style wrestling (Bukh)
The finish of the horse race.
All 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.
The legendary grassland steppe. Toson Hulstay is the largest preserved and conserved area of it left. The 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…
You can read Part 1 here. The Expedition schedule was planned to coincide with the naadam (festival) that is held at Arburd Sands ger camp every year to celebrate the camp’s anniversary. Since we were going out to a part of Mongolia, the far western Gobi, where there were very few herders I knew this was the perfect opportunity for the participants to get a taste of Mongol culture and just have a fun time, which we certainly did!
We set up camp the afternoon before, having driven about five hours from Ulaanbaatar.
We had time the next morning to get in some painting and sketching…
Serious preparation and packing for my next trip to Mongolia has officially begun. I’ll be doing my pre-trip gear review Very Soon Now.
In the meantime, coming up this weekend is one of the biggest holidays in Mongolia, the annual Naadam. I got to attend it in 2009 and hope to again sometime, maybe next year. It’s when the very best competitors, both horse and human, are featured in The Three Manly Sports- horse racing, wrestling and archery. Ulaanbaatar pretty much closes down on Friday afternoon. Some head to the countryside to get away from the crowds and craziness, but thousands join in the celebration.
This is the biggest holiday in Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar pretty much shuts down for a few days while everyone celebrates and attends competitions in the Three Manly Sports: horse racing, wrestling and archery.
I got to see all of it, including a local celebration, in 2009. Here’s some photos, ending with a wonderful music video by one of the most famous singing groups in Mongolia, Nomin Talst. The group is no longer together and this video was made some years ago, but it still gets played on the music video channel around this time of year. And it’s one of the things that hooked me on Mongolia. I had to find out more about the kind of people who are shown in it and who clearly know how to have a good time today, while preserving their ancient traditions and sports.
And now….Nomin Talst singing “Minii Mongol Naadam” (My Mongol Naadam):
Coming down to the wire now. Departure for Mongolia is the day after tomorrow. This will probably be my last post until the week of the 25th. In the meantime, enjoy these videos of some of what I’m hoping to see this coming weekend.
“Naadam” means festival in Mongolian. The biggest festival of the year is the one coming up this weekend in UB. Smaller naadams will be taking place before and after the national event and one or two of those are what I’m shooting for since one can get a lot closer to the action.
First up- Archery:
Third- Horse racing:
And, finally, a short video that not only includes the events above, but winter camel racing.
But first, to help everyone get in the mood for Naadam, which begins a week from tomorrow, here’s a terrific music video from Nomin Talst called “Minii Mongol Naadam” or “My Mongol Naadam”. This is a great example of why I love Mongolia:
On Monday, I’ll do my last post before I leave. It will include one video for each of the Three Manly Sports that are held during Naadam: Horse racing, wrestling and archery.
I leave next Wednesday, so the organizing and packing has begun. Over on Facebook, a friend asked what I consider essential, both personally and professionally. FWIW, here it is:
I don’t go there anymore without a Thermarest pad, even for hotel stays. The beds, everywhere, are HARD, seriously hard. My hips don’t do “hard” anymore. I also take my 20F rated down sleeping bag. It’s a rectangle, not a mummy bag, so I can use it as a comforter on a ger bed if it gets nippy.
Drugs for all the basics: cold, flu, sinus plus bandaids, antibiotic cream, sunscreen, Cipro, etc. and medical emergency air evacuation insurance, which I get from my tour company. There’s essentially no western standard medical care in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, except for an SOS International Clinic and something called the Russian Hospital. In the countryside, well, I don’t know much about traditional Mongolian medicine yet.
For anything serious, like a sprained ankle (yes, that can be serious) or a dog bite, you’ve gotta get to Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok, Seoul, you get the idea. And that can run, so I’ve heard, around $10,000 to get flown out, so $40 a month for the insurance is a pretty reasonable deal, I think.
My one major preference that I indulge is the ability to have a cup of coffee when I get up in the morning. This has proved iffy at times at the ger camps when I’ve gotten up early and haven’t been able to score a thermos of hot water the night before. I now take an Esbit stove, which is basically a small metal stand that one can put a small stainless steel camping pot on and that uses solid fuel cubes, which travel in my checked luggage. Heats enough water for two large cups of coffee in about 8 minutes. I buy packets of three-in-one coffee and milk tea at a grocery store in UB before I head out to the countryside. I take a coffee mug, too. Oh, and matches.
A Fozzil bowl that stores flat and snaps together and will hold water. I use it mostly as a place to put my watch and rings and stuff at night, but I can use it to wash underwear and socks in a pinch in warm or hot water that I heated up with the…Esbit stove. The stoves in the gers aren’t really used in the summertime, so I can’t count on access to one of those and wouldn’t want to use fuel for that kind of thing anyway.
Two Travel Towels, each of which fits into its own little bag. I never have to worry about having a towel and I like to have one for my hair. It’s small stuff like this, which is different for everyone, that seems to make travel go more smoothly.
As is true for many places, I always plan to dress in layers. Sturdy pants, light hiking boots or walking shoes, fleece jacket, t-shirts, turtleneck, thermals just in case. Teva flip-flops for going to the shower ger or if it’s hot.
I also always take a couple of del, the long, traditional Mongolian garment. Perfect for a robe in the morning, to wear to the toilet or shower, sit around in in the evening or, and this is really traditional, portable privacy on the road in a country where there are mostly no trees. And it can be really, really flat.
One change from previous trips is that I have lots to do in UB this time with various people. I’ve only had “field clothes” before and always felt like I’d just crawled in out of the Gobi. I really needed a nice warm weather outfit. So, our very own local Bohemian Mermaid, Bekki Scotto, carved out an hour a few days ago before she hit the art festival road and met me behind the Safeway store in Arcata with a rack of tempting goodies to choose from. I bought a couple of her hand-dyed rayon t-shirts, and a matching skirt and scarf to wear in town. She made me promise to get my picture taken wearing her finery in Mongolia.
My iPhone with excellent earbuds. I don’t care about airport delays anymore since I can always zone out to music, play solitaire or Paper Toss if I don’t feel like reading. Or watch my virtual koi pond.
I take a small stack of books, paperbacks that I will mostly leave behind as I go.
A Timbuk2 messenger bag for my non-roll-on piece of luggage, which my purse fits into, so I still only have two items. Clever me. It also holds the laptop, my file folder of trip stuff, all the power and charger cords and USB cables, snacks, a water bottle, a book and…my First Class Sleeper, which is more or less a half-size air mattress that you put between you and your cattle car-class seat back. It provides lumbar support, cushioning and has “pillow flaps” on either side. It has made a huge difference in my inflight comfort and arrival fatigue level. For $29.95. I just wish they’d make it from something that didn’t outgas at first.
My Mongolian-English and English-Mongolian dictionaries, since I’m really trying to learn the language.
All the camera equipment: two Nikon D-80 bodies, 28-300 lens, 80-400 lens, 8, 4 and 2GB memory cards, four batteries, and a charger.
New KATA daypack for carrying same.
MacBook Pro for primary image storage in iPhoto. New Toshiba 500GB portable hard drive for back-up.
Car lighter adapter for charging batteries since not only do the ger camps usually not have electricity, but I’ll mostly be either camping out or in a fairly remote research camp this time.
Sketchbooks, pencils, gel pens, pan gouache, more paper, pencil sharpener, brushes, water-soluble colored pencils, a collapsible water container.
Nikon Monarch 10×42 binoculars.
Final essentials:patience, flexibility, a sense of humor and a willingness to set a goal but let the Mongols figure out how to do it. And my sense of wonder always gets a thorough workout.
I’m now one month from departure for my next trip to Mongolia. I don’t have a specific itinerary yet, and probably won’t until I arrive, but here’s some of the things I hope to do and see this time around:
-I’m one of the administrators for a Facebook fan page called “Buuz”, which are dearly beloved steamed meat dumplings. Mongols make and eat zillions of them for Tsagaan Sar, the Mongol New Year. When you ask a Mongol living in another country what they miss most, “buuz” is often the answer. We have over 700 fans now! And it turns out that the person who started the page, an Italian guy who is married to a Mongol woman, is going to be in Mongolia the same time as me. So we’ve announced a get-together for “Buuz People” in Ulaanbaatar on July 13 at the (no fooling) Grand Khan Irish Pub. Who knows who will show up, but it should be fun.
-It appears that the first weekend of August that there will be a Yak Festival somewhere in the Khangai Mountains west of Ulaanbaatar. Now, how could I miss that?
-I would like to get to a number of Naadam horse races, both the national one and at least one or two local ones to get more painting reference. I also want to get a lot more photos of the herders and their horses.
-There’s not much left of the ancient Mongol capital of Kharkhorin. It was sacked by a Ming Dynasty army and then most of the remaining stone was used to construct Erdene Zuu Monastery. I would like to visit both.
-For wildlife watching this trip, I want to go back to Hustai National Park and see the takhi in the summertime. I didn’t have time to go there last year. And I plan to return to Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve for argali, ibex and whatever else comes within camera range.
I’m tweaking my equipment for this trip and will cover that in future posts. At the moment, I’ve gotten a new wind and moisture proof fleece jacket from REI that I really like so far and a new Kata daypack for carrying my camera equipment in the field. More on both next week.