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 http://www.jennimitchellblog.com and the 2010 journal at http://www.jennimitchell.net.au. More at: http://www.jennimitchell.com.au

June 29 Ulaanbaatar

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On the way to our exhibition we walked into the city from our apartment and visited the newspaper office, Mongol Messenger and the editor said my story will be published tomorrow but without a bionic of my name as story was about me so really I just wrote our story. The UB doesn’t seemed to have published the second story I wrote so its a pity a whole story wasted. Indra asked me to write a story of impressions of Mongolia to be published after Nardam. I will have time to return home and reflect on the past seven or eight weeks

We also visited one of Tugsoo’s artist friends who had the largest private studio I have yet seen in UB. He has been exhibiting in many countries, good money for his work and has large, bright spacious apartment gallery. He had invited us to visit at the opening,

It was another full Ulaanbaatar day with many people visiting the gallery and one other tv interview for Eagle TV and another newspaper. The TV was on one hour after they came and repeated at 11.30pm. We caught the late viewing and it was quite a long story with many paintings and comments by all of us but mostly Tugsoo speaking over our voices.

There are many Mongolian artists who come to gallery and want to have connections with Australia, or have been to Australia. We seem to be gathering a growing number of name cards and I am all but out of business cards.

The weather is getting hot. The elections have been called in favor of the democratic party but with some disputes. Apparently there were some greens seat held.

We left the gallery in the late afternoon and attended an opening of Korean and Mongol art at the history museum. This is where our last show was held. Suurel opened this show. Anyway, we went off to the children’s Park and saw a traditional dance and music show and later dinner with the Koreans. Many speeches later we were invited to exhibit with the group next year in Korea.

We will see…

It is not hard to find an opening or performance in Ulaanbastar. There is at any onetime an array of artistic activities to see. Tourist season is also hitting yo as the artists hit the streets with. Bundles of art in folders to sell tourists for a reduced price and because you are good customer, even a better price. They stand in streets and at cultural venue doorways. It’s all part of the color that is Mongolia.

Just thought I would add this pic from the Gobi desert…

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Camp 7 – The Great Gobi Sandhills

As I write I am sitting on my bed looking out of the ger door into the dying evening light. It must be after 9.00pm. I am sunburnt and finally reached the point of not knowing what day or date it is. Now I am in the desert. It has taken weeks to get here. There is no Internet, no wifi or much of anything commercial or western. It is wonderful. I can write and wait until we get back to UB to wifi and upload the last week or so.

It is also hard to reflect on the last couple of days because I am still in them. From what I can remember we spent a hell of a day yesterday (seems like days ago) driving a couple of hundred kilometers to where we are now.

Yesterday’s adventure included a petrol stop in a remote sum looking for diesel. After we asked and found the gas station a little on the edge we town we had to wake up the owner. When we pulled up there was no sign of any activity. We were out from the ger town. A passer bye tod us the owner lived ‘up there in that ger. he is probably asleep, it was a big night last night’. Tugsoo walked up to get the owner. She was told by one old lady that no such man lived here. A child told her her father was in another aimag and someone told her he was also not there. Tugsoo then suspected a lie and cried she knew he was there. After much conversation the poor man rose from his bed and come down, with daughter carrying the key. He could barely walk and I was concerned he would fall. Unench did the bowser bit and soon we were on our way. I gave the man some lollies which made him smile and he proudly let me take his photograph.

From then in we drove along very rough rocky roads. It took two hours to travel twenty kilometers. The road was so bad and once more there were many forks in the road to choose our route.

We traveling through many family ger camps with goats and camels. One of the most interesting camps had a number of buildings constructed from mud brick and dung. This I was really much more than a camp. Tugsoo says many camps in Western Mongolia are also like this, particularly where the Kazakh live.

We found some lunchtime shade behind a small building that seemed to be a storage hut. There were camels grazing nearby where there was also some green grass and a spring with real running water. This is the first water I have seen for days! And this was also the beginning of the Sandhills.

The Sandhills run for 185 kilometers and continue up against the mountain range. It is spectator to see the growing height of the Sandhills snuggled up against the wild rocky mountains.

After what seemed an endless journey we came to the place where the Sandhill camps begin.
We asked how much and what we can expect and decided to go to the next camp and asked. The cost here is much more than previous nights. Maybe because this is so much more remote. We had expected the camps to be closer to the stunning sand dunes. We wanted to sleep inside of them. Not to be, the next camp and the one after that was even further from the sands, and more expensive so we went back to the first. It is great, we have views of sand dunes from our bed, with camels walking outside our gers and hot showers.

What more would we want, camels, moving sands, sunshine and good company.

After we settled ourselves we took a short drive to as close as we could without getting bogged in the deep sand and walked up onto the dunes and watched the sun fade.

Feel like we have finally arrived at our destination. Travelled all this way to sit by the Gobi sand dunes as here we are. We are not going any further south west than this point.

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Mongolian Hats, History Museum, Temple and Ger Town assault

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This morning we collected the hats we had commissioned from the ladies in this art studio. They are special because they have been made to size for us and will be a lovely addition to our collection of Mongolian Hats.

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The top hat is a female hat and the bottom one male. The women working in this studio make beautiful hats as well as flags. Everything is cut out and sewn by hand and machine.

Afterwards we took a taxi into the exhibition at the History Museum. Have I mentioned the taxis? Don’t think so… Taxi is simple in Ulaanbaatar; just stand at the curb with arm out and wiggle your fingers. All cars in Mongolia can be taxi. You have car, you are taxi and can by law pick up and charge a fare. Usually the fare is by kilometer so if big traffic jam no extra for the time. And usually average fare between 2/3000tg. If you wanted to get an official taxi with a proper light you will be waiting a long time. They exist but are rarely sighted. Sometimes the taxi can be newish car but usually on the mor aged side and usually a young male driver though we have had one female. This time we have had Tugsoo with us most the rides which makes it easy for directions.

We caught up with Sauurel the museum director today. He is out of hospital,and was disappointed he was unable to open our show. We are making plans to have a couple of days painting with him after we return from the Gobi desert. He had also wanted to accompany us to the desert but is unable to take the time away from the museum.

Tugsoo took us around town to visit a few more galleries, some open and some not. We were near the ger town below the large Buddhist Temple Gandan Khalid. We left Tugsoo here and proceeded to walk to the temple, remembering my time here two years ago I wanted to visit again. I had very good memories of the beauty of this main Ulaanbaatar temple and monastery. Here is a photog of the path leading up to the temple.

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Mervyn had just gone ahead while I photographed this hole in the pavement. This is quite typical around the city and why you need your witty about you ALL THE TIME. Often the man hole covers are set into the path and more difficult to see, at least this one was offset and raised. It would not be of any benefit to be blind or intoxicated.

There was a wild sky and lightening when we reach the temple. Seems such a pity cars are now allowed to park inside. If you look back towards the mountains it is possible to see the beautiful layout of the original plans with the many small buildings and temples that make up the grounds. Many people are feeding the pigeons and it was just about closing time when we reached the main temple housing the enormous golden Buddha. We didn’t go in this time as the approaching storm made us think better to head home. Tugsoo had given us directions on how to get back to our district 11.

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We began walking down through one of the ger town lanes next to the monastery when we noticed a man coming up behind us. He began speaking to us and it seemed obvious he wanted something and he appeared pretty drunk. As he approached he kept talking to us quite wildly and we said the only bits of language we knew that implied no. He was saying he wanted us to go into another lane and we indicated we were going the opposite direction. As we approached the T intersection he grabbed hold of MervynS sleeve as if to steer us in the opposite direction. We kept heading to the right and he shouted to us to turn left. He stayed with us hanging on to Mervyn as we crossed the lane. Then he had hold of my leather bag that Mervyn was carrying and would not let go, either would Mervyn. All the while he was talking instructions in Mongolian to us and the alcohol on his breath was strong. We were saved by a car load of men who pulled up beside us and could see the assault talking place. They yelled at the man in Mongolian and obviously knew him. He didn’t want to give up the bag and took some talking to to let go. He then headed off in the direction he was trying to steer us.

This was pretty disturbing for both of us. And we are extremely aware of our bags and things where ever we go. I hate to thin where this may have ended if the little white car had not stopped and disturbed the potential assault. And my iPad was in the bag. If we had intended to go into this area I would have heeded my own advice and not taken any valuables with me.

We decided to head back towards the city and walk back to district 11 from where we were more familiar. Here is a photo of one of the many Children’s fun activities around in the celebrations for Children’s Day which is apparently tomorrow, not yesterday as I had originally posted, yesterday.

Also a photo of a pink university from yesterday’s walk.

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