A Mongolia Journey

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story and photos by Scott Trees

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hat comes to your mind when you hear the word “Mongolia”? Perhaps, like me, you conjured images of a distant, rugged land ruled by the likes of Genghis Khan and his descendants. A time when horses were essential to the survival of the tribes who conquered much of the known world of that era, as both men and women rode the hardy Mongolian horses into battle. Even today, Mongols are considered the greatest horseback warriors in history. Throughout my life, I have read with great interest various stories about Mongolian warriors in the era of Genghis Khan and beyond. A seed was planted. I knew that I must travel there some day to experience the culture for myself. In 2019 I organized my own photographic tour of Mongolia. And so, along with a few other participating travelers, I took a journey halfway around the world to a place on my bucket list. I wanted to see Mongolian horsemen and women – their horses and nomadic lifestyle. And to observe the diverse countryside and contemplate the vast landscape. During the two-week journey I learned not just the importance of horses to the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle, but how sheep, goats, and cattle were also essential to a nomadic culture’s ability to survive in one of the harsher habitats on planet Earth. I was looking forward to visiting a country only 30 years removed from their Democratic Revolution that took place in 1990. And indeed, upon arrival in Ulaanbaatar, there were numerous visual reminders of communist rule. Much of the architecture reminded me of my journey to communist Moscow in 1983 – especially the starkness. The Mongolian transition into a democracy

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TOP:

A typical Mongolian saddle. MIDDLE: A Mongolian nomad and horse trader. BOTTOM: A typical tie line.

FACING PAGE:

A large herd of free-ranging Mongolian horses run on open range.

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The entire journey was full of many interesting experiences: seeing Buddhist temples, the diversity of landscapes, the hospitality of the people and the free roaming herds of livestock.

The Mongolian transition into a democracy coincided with major coal, copper and gold mining discoveries which became a dominant element of the country’s economy. As a result, the traditionally nomadic peoples were moving into the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for better wages. Here they found good jobs, permanent housing and luxuries like constant heat, hot water, food, and other amenities of the modern world. The city looks like many cities of the western world in terms of clothing, shopping, and restaurants. Today, one half of Mongolia’s three million people reside in and around the city of Ulaanbaatar — a vastly different lifestyle from the nomadic culture of only a generation ago. This trip took me south into the steppes of the Gobi Desert and the Kangor Sand Dunes, then west to the Kustai Nuru region dedicated to the preservation of the Prezewalski (Takhi) horses. From there we journeyed further west to the Karakorum region, the capital of the Mongol empire. It was in this city that a boy named Temujiin was crowned, becoming the “King of Kings.” He would go on to establish the largest land empire in history, at its peak covering 12 million square miles. In the western world he would become known as Genghis Khan. Throughout our journey we traveled bumpy back

roads which we shared with camels, sheep, goats, and herds of horses roaming freely. The countryside was dotted with Gers, (westerners use the term “yurt”), the portable circular dwellings of the nomads. Sometimes they are arranged in clusters, but often are solitary. I began to envision what it must have been like hundreds of years ago living with nature and livestock for survival. Some of the noticeable “upgrades” from nomadic times are the “canvas” ger coverings, as opposed to handmade felt, and portable solar panels outside the dwelling for rudimentary electricity. It was not uncommon to see a vehicle or a motorcycle, the latter of which was replacing the horse as a means of moving herds of livestock. It soon became clear to me I was seeing a country in transition. My guide, Oko, explained that many of the nomadic children were sent to schools in the winter. These had been started under communist rule. As a result, they went on to college and then took jobs in the city, thus, making a gradual transition from the nomadic life to that of a city dweller. Oko grew up in the Gobi Desert, but now lives and works as a teacher in Ulaanbaatar. In summers she spends time in her home region and enjoys a brief return to her nomadic life. The

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Mongolian winters are known for extreme subzero temperatures, and Oko was glad to have consistent heat and hot water that city dwelling offers. She lamented that much of the wisdom of the old ways taught by the elders was slowly being lost. One day we were treated to a depiction of how the Mongolian nomad lived several hundred years ago. Riders on yaks warmly greeted us. As we followed them into the traditional ger village, I was struck by the bright colors of their clothing and the overall functionality of the village. For the Mongal nomad, everything needed to survive was provided by their livestock. The wool of sheep was pounded by hand for hours then flattened by a roller pulled behind a horse to make the felt coverings for the gers and some of their clothing. Furs from yaks made ultra-warm coats. The leather from goats was used to make their ropes and tack. Milk came from the goats and some from cattle. And, of course, the Mongolians were noted for their airag, or fermented mare’s milk, which was a daily staple. In summer, they also made a homemade vodka brew that packed a punch! Goats and sheep provided the primary meat source. Much of the nomad’s effort during spring and summer months was oriented towards preparing for the impending long and harsh winter. Being just

top left:

A traditional ger covered in felt as opposed to canvas which is often used today.

top right: middle:

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A Mongolian woman in traditional attire.

A rider wears a yak jacket while riding a yak.


This breed is considered to be the only “true� wild horse extant in the world today, never having been domesticated.

ABOVE :

Prezwalski stallions dueling for mares.

CENTER : RIGHT :

Modern gers covered in canvas.

A group of Prezwalski horses in pasture

south of Siberia, the North winds bring ultra-cold snowstorms. Throughout the areas we visited, we saw small herding pens that were built to house livestock, particularly newborns, during the winter. The walls were made of whatever was available in the region, and cracks were packed with dried dung. Oko explained that during particularly harsh winters, it was not uncommon to lose 10 or 15% of the livestock, as well as the people caring for them. For a small family unit, this could be a devastating loss. Fortunately, I was there during the summer, when the countryside is varying shades of green. The grasslands of the Gobi looked like a vast sea. Other parts of the country reminded me of Colorado with mountains and pine trees. Everywhere I went the people were hospitable and friendly. We stayed in ger camps for most of the journey and enjoyed visits to several private ger homes of the nomads. Generally, there was one ger in which the family lived and a second for the cooking. It was not uncommon to see additional gers for other clan members. Modern utilities introduced propane stoves, but most still had the traditional, small, wood stove that was also used for heat in the winter and for boiling hot water. However, the primary fuel for heating the small gers is coal. A H W > 114 < F A L L 2 0 2 0


Of course, you can’t come to Mongolia and not experience their horses. This was a key element for my journey. The Mongolian horse is a breed native to Mongolia and has been around since the time of Genghis Khan. Indeed, they were a key factor supporting the 13th century conquests of the Mongol Empire. They live outside all year and must contend with extreme temperatures ranging from 85°F in the summer to minus 50°F in the winter. Winters are very diffcult as they must forage for food and can lose up to 30% of their body weight. During particularly hard winters they can starve to death. During the bitter winter of 2009 – 2010, 188,000 horses perished. They weigh on average 500600 pounds and are an average of 12 to 14 hands high with a stocky build. Conformation is not stressed as strongly as it is in Western culture. Breeders like a large head, roman nose (because

dish-faced horses are considered to have diffculty grazing), and a thick mane and tail. It is preferred when walking they leave hind footprints that fall upon or outside the fore footprints. They are noted for their great stamina and can gallop for six miles without a break. When pulling as a team, they can draw a load of 4400 pounds for 30 miles a day. Because they live much the same as wild horses, their hooves are hard and strong with little if any need for hoof maintenance. Their diet consists mainly of grass, and they require little water. Horses in different regions of the country display different traits. In the desert their feet are larger than average. Mountain horses are short and strong. The eastern provinces are considered to produce the fastest horses in the country. Interestingly, only a small group are domesticated, and a significant number of horses are considered wild. They can roam

up to seven miles a day in search of food. I found the domesticated horses to be much like other breeds. They were easy going, not all that afraid of people, and loved a good wither scratch. When riding, their short stride took a bit of getting used to, as did the saddles! I was particularly interested in attending one of the horse festivals which took place in the Khashaat village not far from Ulaanbaatar. During this annual event, riders from the surrounding region come to compete and show off their horsemanship skills. This includes picking up their uurga which is a long pole with a noose at the end and is the chief instrument the Mongols use to catch a horse. This event is based upon how the warriors picked up their bows, or anything else they might drop to the ground, during battle. Of particular interest were their saddles, which were little


more than cantles with straps that held the stirrups tightly to the sides of the horse. When I actually rode a horse, I was struck by the fact the stirrups did not move and were tied to the sides of the horse by an underbelly strap. This was so that when they gallop their horses at full speed, they can stand up. Apparently, the feeling is akin to flying on the back of your horse! It is also extremely effective for shooting a bow and arrow off the back of a horse. We were riding to the Tuvkhon Monestary which is a UNESCO world heritage site. My horse made the trip with novice riders daily and of course wanted to see if I knew anything about riding in order to understand just how much he could get away with! He quickly found out that I had ridden a horse before. The uurga I mentioned previously is used in another competition in which a group of horses are released from a corral, and a man on foot uses this device to lasso a horse. It’s a pretty slick tool to use, and once lassoed, they have to pull the roped horse to a stop.

Then, with what appeared to be a flick of the wrist, the rope would come off their neck. Apparently, hanging on is critical to the sport because for those that fell on the ground there was NO letting go. I saw one poor fellow dragged behind his captured horse for some distance on his belly before he was finally able to sit up and plant his feet! All this with the roar of crowd urging him to not let go! They also have a version of a bronc ride. A horse is captured, and then several men hold the horse so the rider can get on, bareback, often with no halter. While the Mongolian horse is small, about 12-14 hands, they can certainly buck! Traveling on, Mongolia is noted for its reintroduction and preservation of the Przewalski herd of horses,

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also known as Takhi. These very rare horses are endangered and native to the steppes of central Asia. This breed is considered to be the only “trueâ€? wild horse extant in the world today, never having been domesticated. The region in which they are kept is a massive, verdant preserve dedicated solely to their well-being with human contact kept to a minimum. I took everyone very early in the morning to avoid tourists, and I have to say that seeing these horses being horses was truly an emotional experience. The entire journey was full of many interesting experiences: seeing Buddhist temples, the diversity of landscapes, the hospitality of the people and the free roaming herds of livestock. There is so much more to see and experience in this country with a rich cultural heritage. I look forward to the next journey.

Scott Trees has spent the majority of his career photographing horses around the world. Today he has expanded into offering photographic tours to different parts of the world. His work and information on his tours can be found on his website, www.treesmedia.com. A H W > 117 < F A L L 2 0 2 0