Friday, August 31, 2018

Photography Tour, Horsemanship at Three Camel Lodge, Gobi Desert, Mongolia: August 31, 2018

The first afternoon at Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi Desert we were treated to an awesome display of Mongolian horsemanship. First, we watched as beautiful horses were herded and caught with the uurga (long stick with a sliding noose on the end).

Horse caught in the noose of the uurga
One test of skill and horsemanship is the ability of a rider on a galloping horse to lean down and pick up the uurga or even a box of matches from the ground. Sometimes they missed but no one ever fell. I tried to document every angle to show just how precarious the rider's position. To lean down so low, the rider barely has his foot in the stirrup. The horse looks to be off balance, too, when the rider leans low. It was an amazing test of strength for both riders and horses.

The drive from Kharakhorum to the Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi took us about 10 hours. The "road" is unsigned and unpaved. Our vehicles followed the rutted tire tracks of previous vehicles through grasslands, through hardened mud, through sand. Along the way we saw kites (the birds) in the air and vultures sitting roadside waiting to invite any disturbed rodent to lunch. It has been a wetter than normal year and the desert was covered with grasses and chives in bloom. Undraa told me that people prize sheep that are raised here because the meat is pre-seasoned from grazing on chives.

During the 10-hour drive, we came upon a family stranded by a flat tire and stopped to chat. Our driver, Baagi, went through the snuff bottle exchange protocol with the patriarch of the group because that's what men do when they meet. Dan stepped forward and participated in a one-sided exchange as he doesn't yet have his own snuff bottle.

The Three Camel Lodge was the most luxurious ger stay that we had the entire trip. The beds were comfortable and each sleeping ger had a bathroom ger attached to it so no more getting up in the night to stumble to a toilet. This is one place I'd gladly return.

Sunrise at the Three Camel Lodge

On our first night at Three Camel Lodge, a popular Mongolian musical group, Tengeriin Ayalguu (Melody of the Sky) performed for us using the traditional horse-headed fiddle and the Horn Flute that is shaped like the horn of a yak. The musician playing the horn flute is also a throat singer.

Rain was expected overnight.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Photography Tour, Camels, Horses, and a Ger Visit, Kharakhorum, Mongolia: August 29, 2018

Very near Kharakhorum we visited a group of camels. One of the young camels was hyper friendly and had been taught at least one trick. If you hold a cracker between your lips, the camel will take it. Dan volunteered to be the straight man in this gag. Before I could even snap the shutter, she grabbed the cracker leaving only cracker crumbs and camel saliva on Dan's lips. I think she really liked him because even without the cracker, she kept trying to smooch him.

Alison arranged for us to take photos of a photogenic Mongolian wrangler one early morning. His name is Batmunkh. Unfortunately, on that morning, the light was terrible and while Batmunkh seemed to be enjoying the attention, he was in a hurry to move on.

Late afternoon, we went on another ger visit. This was our first time in a Mongolian ger which is smaller and less decorated than the Kazakh gers.

These gers are occupied by two brothers, their wives, and daughters. Gombo, the older brother is married to Jambal and their daughter is Narangarav. Byambasuren, the younger brother, is married to Ganchimeg and they have a daughter named Maralgoo.

First, Jambal showed us how she milks the mares. The milk is fermented into Airag. The fermentation process destroys the lactose thereby allowing those who are lactose intolerant (like many Mongolians) to drink it. With an alcohol percentage of about 2% it is consumed by all ages.

Jambal milking a mare while her brother-in-law Byambusuren holds the colt
With the milking finished, Byambusuren and Gombo showed off their horsemanship skills. The long stick with the loop of rope at the end known as an "uurga." This is how Mongolian horsemen lasso their horses. Theoretically, the rope is slipped over the head of a galloping horse and the rope slides down the pole to tighten around the horse's neck allowing the horseman to gain control of the fleeing horse.

Gombo Ochir husband of Jambal
Byambasuren, husband of Ganchimeg

During most of our visit, it had been lightly sprinkling. As the rain stopped and the clouds let the sun through, the most vivid rainbow that I've ever seen suddenly appeared.

Gombo with his niece Maralgoo and daughter Narangarav
We were invited into their home where we were offered airag and eventually vodka. We also tried distilled mare's milk--another acquired taste. It is not polite to refuse the offered hospitality so better to put the cup to your lips and pretend.

Narangarav and Maralgoo, age 9,
before they put on their fancy dresses
Snuff bottles and the contents are prized possessions in Mongolia. When men meet, they each offer their snuff bottle to the other. Correct procedure is to admire the bottle, open it, and smell the contents. Then the bottles are returned carefully to the owner who usually wraps the bottle in a cloth and stashes it inside his deel (robe). We watched as Byambasuren exchanged snuff bottles with Baagi (our driver).

There was singing and toasting and gifts were given by us to our hosts. 

Back on the other side of the river and high on a hill near the monument to Chinggis Khan, we watched the sun set over Kharakhorum.

On the tops of hills or next to roads we often saw piles of stones adorned with scarves, skulls, or other bits. These mounds are called "ovoos" and the stones are deposited by Buddhist pilgrims as offerings to the deities. Pilgrims circumambulate the ovoos three times, clockwise, while reciting mantras and adding rocks, scarves, money to the pile. They ensure good luck for the traveler.

Next stop: The Gobi Desert