Reflections of Mongolia (soon after)

Mongolian Reflections, 2012

Jenni Mitchell (Australia)


It is now a couple of weeks since I returned home to Melbourne after two months in Mongolia. This was my second visit to Mongolia with artist husband Mervyn Hannan. We were in Mongolia to exhibit paintings and further the DESERT SHARING project with our Mongolian friend Tugsoo Sodnom.

In 2006 Tugsoo travelled with us to paint the desert in the South Australian Flinders Ranges. Soon after we held our first Desert Sharing I Exhibition in Melbourne. In 2010 Mervyn and I came to Mongolia and made painting trips with Tugsoo to Khenti in the East and Khorhorin, west.

Desert Sharing is about our love for wild landscapes and our mutual joy in exploring and sharing each other’s deserts and country. We have found many similarities and differences  along the way.

Our most recent visit included a trip to the Middle and South Gobi Desert; managed between the two exhibitions held in the National History Museum and the UMA gallery.

This was the first trip to the Gobi Mervyn and I taken.  We found ourselves many times commenting on the similarities of places we knew well in the Australian landscape; as Tugsoo had done when she visited our outback. Places such as the rocky ranges in Middle Gobi in comparison to the array of scattered rockscapes around Tibbubburra in New South Wales. It was just that the Mongolian landscapes seemed to be that much grander and across a larger distance. A photograph of a mirage in Mongolia can easily be read as that of the Australian desert.

Of course much closer inspection reveals in truth our countries are not at all alike. The familiar landscape, although created from sand hills, rocks and grass plains are as different  as the breadth of distance our countries are apart. The wind may be as strong and the sand in your eyes sting as intensely; but that smell!  The scent on the wind of the Gobi desert, the green of the steppe, I will never forget the pungent aroma. I wanted to bring the herbaceous and  seductive smell home. I have drawings, paintings, photographs and souvenirs as a reminder of my time in the Mongolian countryside. But only in my mind can I conjure again the lovely smell of the landscape. How I look forward to the day when modern technology allows us to record smell as easily as we can capture the visual world today. In Australia we are reminded of the heady summer aroma of gum trees as they emit their oil, and different each variety; the dusky scent of our wild flowers; the purple sarsaparilla, sweet native chocolate lily and the pungent aroma of wattle crumpled in the hand.

And then there are the animals. Sometimes as I travelled through the Gobi my mind would feel relaxed as I am in Australia and the first glance of a herd of distant animals may have led me to casually think Kangaroo or emu. For even here, the shape of the animals out of focus in my thoughts were the same. We have camels in the Australian outback, one hump, not two. We have horses, wild brumbies, goats, sheep, but again these are very different. I knew I was in Mongolia when a herd of gazelle ran like the wind beside our car. Wow! We were also fortunate enough to see a family group of wild sheep, argali with horns; and ibex. That was exciting.

One of the major differences I will take away to digest still is the discovery way down in the middle of the dry Gobi desert a large mountain range, the Zuun Saikhan Mountains; with ice. We do not have anything like this back home. Getting there was more difficult too, as the lack of signage in Mongolia for the visitor can be somewhat distressing; especially when you are a hundred kilometers off track; twice!  Me thinks we have too many signs in Australia. It was extraordinary to travel a few days in the dust and heat and then find yourself needing to unpack the snow gear to walk the Yol Valley to see a frozen waterfall. And at the entrance of this extraordinary valley; a family set about carving stone, wood and embroidering the most beautiful stitch paintings.

We found creatures in the Gobi that similarly are becoming extinct in the Australian desert. The hopping creatures like our hopping mice that came looking for tidbits around our camp at night, in the company of hedgehogs.  Pikas of several varieties stood up, observed us and scurried away as we approached.

We had many encounters with camel, horse and goat and on two occasions met thirsty horses and camels standing around dry water troughs. The wells were in remote areas and the animals did not seem to have any herders nearby. Rightly or wrongly, we stopped and brought water up from the well to feed the animals. We have been told we must not interfere, but who can walk away from thirsty animals? Another lone black goat with a kid came up to us when we were lunching in a sand hill. Again, we gave her water and food.  Which reminds me of the day I stopped and bought a bottle of water for the dog that chose to follow us along the streets in Ulaanbaatar and across Sukhbaatar Square. I left him with a paper cup of water the bottle and a group of bemused locals. The dogs in Ulaanbaatar are smart too. We would watch the way they have learnt to cross the road; wait for a group of people; stay to the back and cross with the people.

Two years ago we thought the traffic was hectic; but it was nothing on what has happened between visits. All I can add is thankfully it is slow; if not something like at times a moving car park. The outskirts of Ulaanbaatar are more worrying due to the general poor state of the roads and high speed of drivers.  I am surprised there are not more accidents and at times it seems cars are driven like horses! … just that cars are not forgiving.  Although Mongolian drivers seem determined to fill any road space that opens and appear not to give too much importance to road rules; I was surprised at the lack of apparent road rage. The traffic congestion seems to be understood by drivers and has a certain chaotic relaxation tone. Australian drivers these days are more orderly perhaps, but there is an increasing level of anger towards the inconsiderate resulting in Road Rage.

There has been a massive amount of building construction in Ulaanbaatar between visits. Two years ago there were signs of new buildings, particularly on the outskirts towards the airport. Now, there are whole new suburbs with apartments, flash gated communities, with high walls like small private cities. The amount of building construction on the banks of the river was mindboggling and who is to live here? There were also changes apparent now in the countryside with fenced properties appearing in the once endless green steppe landscape. This is an unfortunate similarity to my country. One of the major attractions for me as an artist was the unhindered view of the endless plains, or steppe. These are the changes I am not looking forward to increasing even more in the futre.

While in Ulaanbaatar I was again fortunate to experience the beauty and precision of the Mongolian dancers and musicians. In comparison to Australia Mongolia appears to give much more importance to and recognition of the countries artists. This manifests in the exquisite costumes and perfection of performances. I will forever be in awe of the magic of Mongolian traditional culture.

We have nothing to compare with in Australia. Mongolia is a country of ancient tradition, Modern man in Australia is a conglomerate of a mostly European blood and still too young to develop an inner voice. We have a culture of Aboriginal history dating back 40,000 years with a history also barely understood. The white mans culture in Australia is only 200 years old. It is always interesting for me to look around at my Mongolian friends and how they can trace their ancestry back through Mongolia for hundred and hundreds of years.

Next year, we hope to continue our exchange of cultures as Tugsoo visits us again in Australia and the Desert Sharing Project heads across the Bass Strait to Tasmania; this time for some green relief and experience of a Gondwanaland cool rain forest.

Jenni Mitchell’s Mongolia 2012 journal blog can be read at and the 2010 journal at More at:

Eltham – home again

We arrived back in Tullamarine airport Melbourne on July 5 at 6.00am. Our flight from Korean was thankfully boring and uneventful. It is good to be home. The garden is lush and needs attention and winter has settled in. It’s interesting how quickly we forget the seasons and what being cold feels like. It’s away with the Mongolilan summer clothes and the search for last seasons winter attire again. Where we’re my boots…

Trish kindly came early and open our house, turned on the heater and dusted the last two months emptiness away. How lovely to come home to a lightened warm house with a kind smile for a welcome and a little sartie poodle dancing frenetically all over us. We felt welcomed hme and loved. And Trish had even brought in fresh milk for Mervyn, and rice milk for me. A cup of tea. So good to be home and with the familiar.

I think it is important to go away at times just to realize how good we have it in Australia. I know now we have our own little paradise at home. We have a good house, land for a garden and studios to work in.

We stayed one night and then headed off to Digby to check out our Digby dacha. It has been many months since we have been to Digby. We were greeted with a mice plague!

The mice had been partying through out the houses even the bedding had to be washed and dried before we could go to bed sometime in the early morning! Lesson: – never leave a house vacant for so long. All of the cupboards with food, or even without food had been raided. It could not have been worse. We through out all our food and washed and cleaned everything. It was too disgusting to make a cup of tea and all I could think of was selling the cottage as it seemed too far and too difficult at that time of night to contemplate keeping!

Anyway, the next morning after it was all clean and snug again and we after that blissful quiet country sleep I was once more pleased to have our little cottage. It is safe for the next while… And we vow somehow to come down here more often.

As I write it is Tuesday and we will leave tomorrow for ELTHAM. Much of our Digby the has been spent doing nothing. Relaxing and contemplating the past two months in Mongolia. There is much to do to catch up back in ELTHAM, but that can wait…


Mongolia to Korea July 3/4

The last day of Our two month journey to Mongolia. We had an restless sleep last night, Mervyn was sleeping sitting up because he was coughing too much and I, well, just could not sleep.

In the morning we rechecking our packing and adjusted every thing again to get correct weight in our bags. We were just a little over and hoped that would be ok. A lot over means the dreaded excess baggage. Tugsoo came down and suggested we really aught to post our painting home instead I’d paying excess on them. There are 10 kilos in the works on paper and photographs. So off to the post office we went and the strange shape didn’t concern the ladies who know us now. Cost, $130 instead of $400 at $10 kilo excess baggage on korean airlines. And onelessbaggsgeto worry about. It should follow us home in about ten days. The ladies are great, they scotch taped the whole package to waterproof the cardboard outer case.

More rest then lunch with Tugsoo’s family. And we watched a movie of dollops choice. Toy farm or so,etching like that. She had already watched once today. She is starting to say a lot of English words. She wants very much to learn English. She is only four and I am certain by our next trip she will be speaking good English.

Apparently there were two more newspaper articles published today about our show in Mongolian newspapers. Unfortunate that we were. Unable to get any to being home. I am hoping Tugsoo will send them on.

The family came to the aiort to see us off on our midnight flight. They decided it would be better to get out of city early because of the traffic and head out to the hill and enjoy the last moments of Mongol countryside.

Well, was that a surprise. We drove out up into the beautiful lush green hills to the national park only to see the development of large houses that would not look out of place in the wealthy suburbs of Melbourne. Large McMansions some three and even four stories taking several block sizes to bu old. There were new apartments being built. Houses and houses under constructional there were paddocks that did not look anything like Mongolia anymore. Fences everywhere. Steel picket fences, timber fences, dry stone rock fences, cement block rendered fences. Some with a ger sndno house inside the fence. It appears as if the community here had come out and out a tape about a plot of land and made their claim. All the the bu idling work is illegal. All of the houses and apartments are build in the national park. This is what the Mongol political corruption is all about. My friends say these houses are owned by political party members and embers of parliament. Some want the houses to be demolished. The law forbids houses to be built on this national forest and still it goes on with a ferocious intensity. The houses are on cleared land and I wondered what came first because the back houses are in the thick treed forest.

In this forest live all of the wild Mongolian animals. Bears, wolves, deer and the small creatures. The land houses sit on have the remnants of herders flocks of sheep, some cows and horse roaming through the building sites. It all appears incongruous.

We drove up through the houses to the gates of the old soviet hotel Tugsoo wanted to show me only to find guards and a gate barrier. Nope. We were not allowed any further. The guard said th ey were repairing the road, but his comment seem thin on the truth. What was happening further up the hill? We may never know.

We go elsewhere,Tugsoo said. We came back down through the many builders carrying soil and materials by hand and w it’s buckets. We went up another hill and this one was so beautiful… Till we noticed the white marks in the grass and tape carving up the landscape. This alley too soon will be an illegal housing lot. This is the new Mongolia. Welcome…

At the back of this road we came upon a ger camp. It was the best kept ger camp We have visited. Historical, clean. There were gers constructed of the earlier time ger with the higher roof and these gers were highly decorative. Missing was the broken glass, papers and rubbish strewn around other ger camps. The largest ger on the world claims fame here too. The camp is set beneath a forested hill.

We stayed here for dinner.the Restaurant ger was clean and decorated its the many skins of wild animals. Most of them I am saddened to report were the grey and white skins of snow leopard. At first I could not believe these skins could be real as their were too many. Hundreds! They had come from confiscations at customs we were told.

During dinner we were also accompanied by a wonder traditional young man playing the horse hair fiddle and singing a throat song.

July 3 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

This morning we packed and replaced our bags several times relocating items until each bag appeared to weigh somewhere around what is the maxium baggage allowance for Korean airlines. We are much the same as when we arrived with our exhibition of works. Expect to pay same as our flight Australia to Mongolia.

There was quite a bit of food left in the cupboards which I donated to the lady under the stairs for herself and the two small children who live with her. I feel sad about her situation and try nt to think too much about the hundreds of people who live in utter poverty here and whom would think our lady fortunate to have the space under the stairs in the apartment block.

I heard a out a scheme yesterday that helps women in hardship fund a ger on condition they also learn to grow food. One of the criteria in the scheme is that the applicant needs to own their own land. So what happens to the people under the stairs?

Tugsoo, Unench and daughter Dooloo came and picked us up to take us to their country dacha ger this afternoon. We had such a wonderful day in the summer sunshine looking at the green grass filled hills. Saaina, Tugsoo’s husband is living in the ger at the mo,ent while the rest of the family are in our apartment upstairs.

After lunch we drove down to the river and enjoyed the edge and watching a horseman ride his horse into the river and many people playing along the banks. We came across a group of young people with a car all smashed up and bogged in an awful muddy piece of road. It looked as if they were tagging and hooning around. Never the less Unench was able to winch them out with his strong prado vehicle.

A little further on we came to a green plain with a herder shifting his flock of goats. He was on a horse as well as leading another horse with foal. He sat still on his horse for me to photograph him. I will not be able to upload pics until I get home and to my camera.

So now we are here at the final night in this apartment… Watching Q & A on a grainy tv on Australia network after a great dinner at the Wang restaurant in Chingis khan hotel.



July 1 2012 Ulaanbaatar

The realization we are leaving here in a day or two has just hit us as we headed into the UMAGallery to pack up our exhibition. The last few days have been a little difficult as we begin the wind down being in Mongolia and think again of Eltham. Not much food shopping anymore and we are working out how to get all the stuff home. Yes, still stuff as well as the boxes we have sent by UB Post. It’s is far cheaper to send goods to Australia by regular post as to pay the $40 excess baggage fee at the airport. We will probably still have excess baggage as we have the paintings to bring home.

This morning we three visited the nearby monastery to do as the monk artist yesterday suggested. He had told me I needed to visit the monetary 58 times and pray. Tugsoo had offered to continue the good work on my behalf after we leave.

The process was a little different to what I had understoodl I was led to believe we would see a monk and he continue the good words of guidance. Instead, Tugsoo and I lined up at a glass window where several women were taking money. It seems you have to tell the ladies what you wish to pray for and pay what you think is reasonable and say how many times the monk will say a prayer for you. Tugsoo suggested I pay 5000tg approx $4.00 and the monk will pray ten times. My prayers will be read tomorrow morning. Oh, I was a little disappointed. I had expected a meeting with a priest and a sense of enlightenment. This instead was just a monetary transaction. All I received was my receipt with the tg amount and the number of prayers. I understand it is up to each individual to offer the amount of money and number of prayer times.

After this transaction we were ready to head into the city. I wanted more. I headed into the beautiful temple and Tugsoo and walked around the large carved hard red wood timber rosary that lay at the feet of the enormous gold Buddha. As I caressed each giant red wooden ball I was reminded of the small redbud balls carved years ago by hand by Grace. She would have really loved to have seen these giant red sculptures. The wooded balls were shiny from the many human hands that had touched them.

We were given at the door a little packet of holy water in a plastic sealed bag. This was to be used in the evening to wash. Tugsoo said it was ok to add more water to the concentrate. We were also shaded in a sealed bag some ground cypress to burn. I think and hope it is cypress for it looks and smells very similar to marijuana. You can s mell if often burning in small cal drums around the city and in particular at the black market.

I had also been told yesterday not to receive gifts from anyone offering a patterned cloth. It was ok for me to buy and pay for a patterned item, but not to receive as gift. If I did receive it I was to pass it on to someone else. I would also benefit from white and green cloth. I bought a white and green silk from the Buddhists, and a green set of beads.

As we left the temple and headed by foot into the centre to the gallery a dog began to follow us. He was limping a little. He had kind eyes and Mervyn and I liked the company. I did not have any food to give him. Mervyn though the dog just liked to be with us for the company too. He crossed roads with us and stayed within a foot step or two. I gave him a pat but also remembered we had not had our rabies injections. Dogs here we have been told can pass on rabies just by licking you and it is not a good thing to catch. So we all kept a healthy distance while enjoying each others company. At one point we crossed the road or ‘j’ walked really and had to step over one of the small iron fences in the street. oh dear, momentarily I had forgotten our friend and as I stepped out of the way of the traffice saw the dog looking st how he was to get over the fence. Now if it was our poodle sartie he would have just jumped; or slipped tween the iron bars. Our friend dog was too large. It happened just near us was a bit of fence with a iron rod missing. I showed our friend dog the whole as as the traffic started bearing down he got it and stepped though. We were all together again stepping though the rough streets and deadly man holes without covers together.

We passed a golden statue of a man in boots. The sculpture was leaning against a pole. I was surprised to see the dog see the bronze boot and shy away. It was as if he knew what a boot can do…

We made it to Sumbucca square and Togsoo went off to gallery while Mervyn and I went in search of last minute shopping such as the Mongol Messenger and the artists book we looked st yesterday. I also admit, I did want to buy a fury camel I had seen some weeks ago. Tugsoo had said to visit a bookshop across from the square. We had hoped our friend dog might meet up with the other dogs that hang out in the park by the city square but no. Our friend dog was still with us. This time he stayed close as we all together negotiated the road. We went into a book shop and he sat and waited. Did not find the book. It was hot now. The street too sunny and for friend dog too, he was looking a little tired and hot but he kept with us and waled in any shady patches in the street. At another road crossing (with lights) he sat Dow in the green grass under a tree and we thought perhaps now he had enough and may stay in the cool. The lights turned green and up he came with us.

Across the other side of the road was a small stall selling drinks and sweets. I bight a bottle of water, and a paper cup. The water was cool. I poured a cup of water for friend dog and held it out to him. He would not drink. I put the cup down on the path and he drank gratefully. It was time to leave each other. I put the cup to the edge of the street in the shade. Friend dog seemed to know it was for him and we parted ways. He sat with the cup of water and did not follow us any more.

There was a man selling street paintings on the corner too. He was smiling with amusement as he watched me buy water for the dog. He seemed a kind person and i like to think they two shared some time together.

Eventually after eating Indian food for lunch at a great little restaurant we came across, buying last minute items we, we made it back to the gallery to pack up our show. Already the next batch of artists were waiting for us to leave so as they could hang the next show.

It didt take too long. Back at our apartment we repackaged the works and Mercyn took all of the canvases off the stretchers and rolled them up again in readiness for our flight on Tuesday.

Dinner with another Mongolian Tugs poet, and Tugsoo as well as two Soroptomist members from New Zealand. We met Tugs yesterday when she delve us around to the Mongolian artist collectors gallery apartment.

Two more sleeps to the airport…