The glorious greens & golds of Mongolian mornings; pre-breakfast exploration in the Land of Blue Sky. . . . . .
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There were 3 scheduled "rest days" on my trip in which I was able to spend those days as I pleased which often included some strenuous activity. It was on one of these days that I had the opportunity to go out ibex spotting with a nomad called Tsotgoo & his friend Bysaa. Tim was taking hike in a nearby forest & Tsengee was catching up on one of his favourite pastimes - sleep. This left me alone without a translator once again. . For a bit of background information on fauna , ibex are large mountain goats that roam the high places of the Altai Mountains, camoflaging perfectly against slippery scree, jagged rocks & steep slopes. Argali sheep, the largest sheep variety in the world, also make their home in Mongolia but, due to their large horns, they are a favoured trophy specimen of tourists from around the world that travel to Central Asia to hunt. The second largest population of snow leopards worldwide also live in the Altai & wolves are also commonplace. . The nomads took me for a steep & precarious hike up & around from where I was camped in a forested river valley. Enroute we foraged for wild berries, eating at leisure & staining our hands red in the process. To my astonishment I was shown both wild rhubarb & spring onions, something miraculous in itself as, to that date & applicable to every day that I was in the mountains, there had be nothing remotely edible growing out on the steppe. . We spent the quietly scouting out several good vantage spots where we would sit or lie low on the grass, taking turns at peering intently, through a single pair of binoculars, at a rocky cliff opposite a separating valley. . We were lucky in the fact that the first ibex we sighted was skylining & made for an easy spotting. Visible excitement ensued as we pointed & passed the binoculars between us, all trying to remain quiet in the process. From then on we listened & watched more intently, every so often hearing rock falling as ibex scrambled up to a high point & following the sounds to find the point of origin. We used hand signals to overcome the language barrier so as you share the location of each ibex we personally located. . We spotted approximately 20 all up. . . .
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Where two worlds collide: snapshots of Ölgii, Khovd & Ulaanbaatar. . Only 30 - 40% of the Mongolian population remain nomadic as the the majority have gone on to maintain a more settled way of life. Though Ölgii held some charm in the variety & availability of traditional handiwork & Khovd being home to a boarding school in which the nomad families of Kharkhiraa could send their kids to in order to receive an education, Ulaanbaatar (UB) was something different altogether. . The initial landing in UB after hopping from Adelaide to Sydney, from there to Beijing & so forth, was marred with a feeling of sadness despite the inner rejoicing that I had made it. I realised that UB symbolised something that had not been a part of my decade long Mongolian dreaming; a place where boundaries still existed, barriers came between strangers, consumerism & modernisation taking over from traditionalism. . I have never felt completely at home in the city either &, with the attraction in Mongolia being the wide open, unadulterated spaces of the landscape & the simplicity of nomadic life. UB was the opposite to my decade long dreaming of Mongolia. Glittering skyscrapers mingled with old Soviet style buildings & half-built apartments could not be connected in any way to the white canvas of one-room gers. Though polite, the welcome received as I checked into a prestigious 5 star hotel on my first day was incomparable to the unassuming welcome of a nomad family. The stark contrast between the remote corners of Western Mongolia, with its' wide open spaces & fresh mountain air, and the bustling, busy nature of UB could not be hidden. It was as if two worlds existed in the same country. In the smaller towns & cities outside UB, the two worlds seem to overlap as pictured in the first photo; cars & nomads on horseback sharing the same street. . Returning from the steppe, a place where nomads thrived, to Ulaanbaatar at the conclusion of my adventure, could not have been more of a shock to the system. I was treated to a more intense feeling of this same nature when I decided to solo travel Japan, before flying back home, & landed in the rush called Tokyo. . . . .
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"If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water". . Loren Eiseley . . And yet it is not merely confined to solely this - for there is magic present in all aspects of creation; the landscape, in its' beautiful & untouched wildness, touching even the deepest parts of the human soul. . . . . .
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You never knew what was waiting for you around every corner or ridge as the steppe opened up before you with surprises in the landscape, in the freedom of the ger & in the unexpected invitations to lend a hand at milking, felt making, bringing together a herd or spotting for camoflaging wildlife etc. . Opportunities were endless, waiting & yet it was entirely up to you what part you played; whether you would be the idle bystander, all watching & wondering, or whether you took up your place as an active participant, part of the making of an event that would be once off sighting or invitation. Blink your eyes, hide away inside & you would miss it. The key was have to your eyes open at all times. . The photos pictured, taken during sundown, are a series moments that appeared in one single evening in a space of time than was less than an hour long. I could have been alone in my tent, missing the real world, the nomads' world, that was taking place outside - but I wasn't. . First was the bringing of the yaks to closer to the ger for miking, the mellow sounds of these beautiful animals filling the air as they moved, & the milking that followed. Second is the communal art of introducing a young horse to a rider on its' back for the first time, the nomads letting the creature run across the steppe as it tried to free itself from the weight on its' back. Following it were several riders shouting & laughing as the nomads that were camped with me ran after it, throwing their hats in hopes that this would make the horse run faster. Lastly is a game of net-less volleyball taking place with this same group. . Though I was not allowed to milk yaks, due to their size, I eagerly watched & joined in with the horse chasing & in with the volleyball. I injured my wrist in the playing, pain lasting for the rest of my trip, & was laughed at every time I dived for or missed the ball, but it was worth every moment. . Opportunities present themselves in every corner of your lives & its' up to you to take them. Mongolia was no exception & it caused me to ponder this thought deeper: what are the opportunities presented to me in my Australian life & will I let them pass me by? . . . . .
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Dear Tsengee... . Thankyou for always radiating warmth from your actions to your eyes; for offering joy in each & every situation. You played papa bear as you made sure I was always comfortable & never lacking in anything. There was not a soul that was as cuddly as you were - though please don't be offended that I describe you as being so, for you were pure sunshine in human form. . You made me laugh like no one else, often laughing as much at yourself as you did at me like that time you attempted to teach me both Russian & Mongolian - of which I failed at both. Though you left me puzzled at your obscure Mongolian riddles, you wowed me with your ability to read my thoughts & emotions. Your gentleness was displayed in all you did & yet you were a beacon of strength & energy. Thank you for carrying my trekking poles everytime I decided to ride my horse & for never complaining though you had your own to carry. . I can never forget the day when you compared yourself to a rock sinking when asked if you were going for a swim or the day you dumped a baby goat in my arms & joked about it all afternoon. How could I forget how you held my icy hands in your warm ones, rubbing them gently, when I did something stupid & stood under glacial runoff. Or the numerous times you had to translate how old I was & that no, I was not yet married. Even as I write I recall the time you saved me from peeing my pants by translating to the nomad guiding my horse that I was busting for the loo. After 15 minutes of me trying to act out "I need the loo", the nomad picked up the walkie talkie & tried to explain to you that I really needed something but didn't know what. I remember shouting "Tsengee, can you tell him I need to go to the toilet?!" when we caught up to you, feeling utter relief as I was finally able to dismount & relieve myself. Little did I imagine that you would share, with laughter, this event to Tim at dinner. In this case it would not be fair if I failed to mention the occasions in which you drank too much vodka & desperately tried to hide it the morning (I'm sorry, but your efforts were not convincing). . . Ah Tsengee, thankyou for making my trip so memorable! . I miss you.
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Inner conflicts. . . Every morning that I woke to find myself in Kharkhiraa Gol was a daily reminder that I was living out a dream birthed more than a decade prior. As I would zip open the entrance of my tent to welcome in the day each morning, drawing in my first breath from the no boundaries world outside, this realisation would hit me harder than ever. Yet this reminder would repeat itself in an endless cycle morning after morning, the impact of these moments never lessening throughout my time in Western Mongolia. . I have always been envious of those people who seem to have a breezy way of acting upon & fulfilling their dreams. True that I've ticked off the item on the top of my bucket list, but yet I hunger for so much more. I've spent time in glorious Mongolia as a temporary visitor, but now I am haunted every day thinking about how much I would love to be a permanent resident. But could I ever really be a nomad; live as they do & survive the harshness of steppe life? Even if living in their midst, could I ever truly be one of them? Am I just lost in a web of naivety, stuck in a day dream & holding onto something that can never be? Even a write this I feel my heart breaking a little. . This deep love & longing to be as a native citizen of a country not my own, is conflicted with a desire to travel to the remote wildernesses around the globe & visit the people who call these harsh environments home. The pull of adventure & discovery has buried it's claws deep, but yet I found myself drowning as I try & sort through the logistics. What I am missing? Here is where the envy sets in as I watch & learn about those who seem to follow through with their dreams with relative ease, seemingly not caught up with logistics, planning & finances. Not that this is their reality, but rather this is my perspective. . These feelings were shoved aside in the mornings I spent in Kharkhiraa Gol, as the realisation of achieving a dream took first priority my mind, but this feeling was fleeting & I find myself currently discontented, longing for a lifestyle change. Somehow, though, the "how to" of achieving the seemingly impossible evades me. . . . So where to from here?
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During the days spent in Mongolia I was able to experience life outside the world of visiting gers & taking tea. I had chances at managing flocks, milking goats & lending a hand in the process of felt making. As simple as these involvements were, they were times of both joy & sadness in knowing I was just "passing through" & largely unskilled in what was a normality for them. . Tim, having only organised distances that needed to be completed each day & sometimes special detours to places of significance of great beauty, allowed for the beauty of the spontaneity to occur. Pictured is a story of one of these moments. . In the first photo, you can see sheep & goats out near the river. There was a ger to the left & this was what caught my eye first. I expected to head right down to it but Tim sat down instead, looking down on the animal herd & observing the scene in silence. A nomad was picking sheep out from the group, clipping excess wool from underneath their tails, whilst his children were keeping the herd together. The silence lasted for a few minutes before Tim suddenly stood up & said "Let's go help". I kicked myself at not even thinking that I could be involved, but this was a different world. This was not Australia where if I jumped a fence & started helping a farmer round up his herds, I'm sure I would get more than strange looks. Here we slid right into the action, preventing the animals from splitting from the main body, with no obstruction. No raised eyebrows nor harsh words to mind our own business. It was a comfortable transition from observing to physical involvement. . Tsengee surprised me in the confusion by suddenly dumping a baby goat in my hands, my reaction being to yell "Tsengee, what do I DO with it?!". He spent the afternoon jokingly letting me know that I had been gifted a goat but I had rudely returned it to the flock. . The boy pictured is 6 years old & I marvelled as he tried tirelessly to catch a sheep on his own, his exhaustion showing as he sits on one of his successful catches. He looked younger still as he struggled to mount his horse, but yet he rode way expertly (with no saddle) back to the ger where we were welcomed in for tea. .
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