National Geographic Trip to Mongolia, Day 3 June 13, 2017
We woke up before the break of dawn, because just as we wanted to photograph the sunset, we also wanted to photograph the sunrise. As I stepped outside my ger to make my way to the bathrooms, I could see the sky beginning to turn pink and purple on the horizon. A few of us brave souls climbed up the mountain adjacent to our camp and settled in to watch nature at its best. It turns out that all of Mongolia is nature at its best.
The light of the sun reflected in the water below, setting it on fire. And then the sky burst into flames as well, orange and red and glorious. And the sun cast our long shadows deep into the land.
And as the sky lightened up, we could see the shapes emerging in the land. The greens popped out. The yellows. The ground became alive as it too woke up and welcomed the sun.
No landmarks, no signposts
We went back down the hill, cleaned up and went into breakfast. Breakfast was a buffet with soup and rice, and it filled our stomachs. We grabbed fresh camera batteries and were ready for our next adventure. We were being met by a park ranger, Ariunaa. She was wearing her ceremonial deel with her binoculars around her neck as she was our spotter, accompanying us to find Argali sheep.
Our caravan set out over the steppes, driving here and there as she kept a look out. I have no idea how the drivers know where they are going or how to get back. There are no real roads. There are certainly no signs or landmarks. You can’t use the gers as they move. Obviously when one grows up here, they learn to identify each bush, but it is a mystery to me how they do it.
And then suddenly we all stopped.
Ariunaa lifted her binoculars and there they were – five Argali sheep, all with large circular horns, climbing the mountain. Argali are mountain sheep, but don’t confuse them with the ones we see in the US. These are much bigger, standing 3-4 feet tall and 4-7 feet long. There are 300 Argali sheep in these mountains and this year they had 60 babies. They were hard to see even with my telephoto lens as they were so far up the mountain. But one of the drivers took my cell phone and photographed the sheep through the binoculars. And thus I have my Argali sheep picture.
And the mountain we were standing on was beautiful in its own right. The rocks were green, covered with a moss. The sky was blue. The air was clear. The light was perfect.
Mongolia is not just brown
On the way back down we made an impromptu stop at a ger with an old Russian trailer next to it. It was a ger with an orange door. The truck was a yellow-green. There was a small white building with a blue roof. And a small wooden building with a red roof. And an orange jeep. Talk about color!
Our intention was just to photograph the truck from a distance, but an elderly woman came out, in her pink floral top covered with a green apron with a yellow strip on the pocket, and wearing a blue hat. She was carrying a large walking stick and her dog was by her side. Color is everywhere.
Of course, Ariunaa knew her and they kissed hello, once on each check. And then Ariunaa began walking her over to us as we began walking towards her.
We were no longer shy and couldn’t wait to meet her, and of course to photograph her amazing face, for she had the most beautiful face, full of lines of wisdom. Her eyes were small but her smile was huge.
Ariunaa translated for us as we bombarded her with questions. Her name is Nyamjav and she has seven cows. Turns out that she has a son living in Seattle and has been to America several times but her visa has expired. This was her spring/summer home and the structures were built by the Russians during their occupation. She posed for us, flashing that beautiful smile. And the cameras clicked like crazy.
We were now brave enough to begin exploring her farm. The white building with the blue roof held a small kitchen, and by kitchen I mean a small stove with a pot on it. There was a large solar panel, leaning against the building. The door of the old wooden building was closed so we couldn’t look in. But the outside was made of different woods that had aged in different colors. Really this place was a photographer’s dream.
We hated to leave but the day was calling and there was more to see. Our new friend and her dog slowly walked back towards her ger and we climbed back into our cars.
The symphony by nature
While we were shooting portraits, Michael, our fearless photography leader had wandered off in search of landscape shots (that is his thing). So some of the cars went to pick him up and the rest of us began heading back to the ger camp. And then we stopped and got out of the car as we were on a hill, overlooking a river (stream?) with a herd of yak at one end and a herd of sheep and goats at the other. On to the side of us were two large (huge!) vultures (I think that is what there were). And other large birds were soaring in the air.
The whole valley lay before us. The sounds were like a symphony – the yaks, the sheep, the goats, the birds. Each with their own timber and own distinctive noise, but together sounding like music. And crickets flying with white gossamer wings. It was hard to know where to look first as there was so much so see. The little flowers growing under our feet. The animals. The long grass growing in clumps. The moguls of earth. The sun. The sky. The water. The reflections.
We stood marveling at the beauty of it all and then finally got back into the car. And as we drove alongside the river, a herd of horses ran by, with the foals trotting behind the mares, and all of them reflecting into the water. I shot through the car window which gave the picture a greenish tint, but nevertheless, I caught them.
And watching yaks, horses and cattle wander by our window.
Later in the afternoon we would finally get to visit a nomad family, but that is a topic for the next post.