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.