Day 7...Sept. 23
Campsite "Jolanda" Valley, Northwest of Onkhotyn Nuur
After diverting to another Kazakh cemetery, and passing a remarkable Turkic-era balbal gravesite, we ended up at our original destination in this larch-filled valley. The local Kazakh name for this valley is Jolanda Valley. It was snowy and the last herders were moving on. Above our camp to the north were ridges of eroded granite boulders that looked like perfect snow leopard habitat, and would prove to be so. Painted a couple mid-sized sketches of larch slopes that day.
Day 6...Sept. 22...Spent painting in Selim Khan's yurt/ger. Kazakh yurts are higher than Mongol gers, and offer ample space for a large painting. The skylight can be adjusted to admit enough light to paint by. The High Pass and the original Shiveet Khairkhan image were competed here. Weather improved by evening. We acquired a third camel.
Day 5...Sept. 21...
Campsite at Selim Khan's Pasture
We set out ahead of the camels, covering a lot of distance quickly on spirited horses that were now used to us and happy to see flat grassy land. Sketched an old Kazakh cemetery. Further up the trail, which more or less followed the river drainage feeding into Ikh Hag Lake, we encountered huge linear patterns of stones laid out in the plains and more recent Turkic-era balbal graves. While the features had been completely eroded, it was clear that these upright stones were balbal, warrior images, not the flat, blade-like deer stones of an earlier era. From there we climbed upwards through areas heavily grazed by goats, and the weather turned cold. Camels struggled to keep up with us and could not use the same paths. We briefly regrouped at Huzgandah Pass, and ate a quick cold lunch sheltered in the lee of a ragged stone outcropping, part of which I sketched as a preparatory study for a painting. A snowstorm was clearly building to the west. As we remounted after lunch and headed downhill, the camels collapsed and refused to go on and one of our Kazakh wranglers horses bolted and joined a herd of yaks. These events ruined any hope we had of reaching our planned campsite. It was becoming very cold and windy. We headed down into a valley at one of the headwaters of the Hovd Gol, the Khorotdug Gol.
We stopped at the first ger, (yurt) we came to, and entered. It was a Kazakh family's ger, one of three, and by far the oldest and most beaten up. As is normal, we were welcomed in with a few words and given Kazakh tea, which, like Tibetan cha, more resembles an oily broth, not unpleasant and most welcome just then. Temperatures continued to drop despite local clear skies, and the patriarch, Selim Khan, announced to us that we would stay in his daughter-in-law's yurt. We set up tents in the lee of the yurt and used it as cook tent, warming station, and art studio.
Day 4...Sept. 20...to Ikh Hag lake.
Campsite: western shore of lake
This morning, before departure, we discovered a petroglyph just at the southeast tip of the moraine that shielded our camp from the wind. It was a very clear cat-like figure with a long curled tail, boxy head, and what could be considered spots rendered on its side. A second figure was less convincing, but may have been a smaller cat. It was hard not to interpret this creature as a snow leopard. Petroglyphs and other stone monuments in this area are very well documented in the book, "Archaeology and Landscape in the Mongolian Altai." by Esther Jacobsen-Tepfer and James A. Meacham, ESRI Press. Given the very open nature of this camping area, I doubt this to be a new discovery. But, it is worth noting as relevant to Rodney Jackson's concerns about ritual commemoration of the snow leopard, and local spiritual attitudes.
We traveled eastwards, back down the valley for several hours, leaving the camels to the lower flatter roads and riding in an among the foothills, which were densely clustered with ancient bronze age and Turkic grave mounds. These densely packed graves are evidence of thousands of years of utilization of these pastures and meadows, yet only recently has this usage presented a threat to snow leopard populations, clearly an indictment of modern economic pressures. Our path led up onto a vast ancient boulder field, a moraine studded with huge glacial erratics that declined suddenly to a sandy shore at the northwestern edge of Ikh Hag Lake. We arrived very late and barely had time to set up camp before darkness set in. The area is remarkably bleak and could've been mistaken for some vast industrialized boulder dump associated with a huge mine. There was nothing of relevance to the site.
Day 3...Sept. 19...Shiveet Khairkhan
Overnight a snowstorm blanketed the area and was still in force at dawn. Shiveet Khairkhan was invisible. I determined instead to paint the mountain which Khenzkhuu had stated, "lost its echo." Painting under extreme circumstances was one of the rules I had set out for this engagement, in order to distinguish this from other painting efforts and make sure the effort and the artwork would be noteworthy. I painted outdoors using handmade brushes until the snow was so heavy and the canvas so wet, that we needed to pull it inside the common tent to dry. The common tent was heated with a traditional Mongolian stove, no different than those in any yurt or ger. Fueled with dung, it gave off a clean dry heat that was to become essential in the coming days. By alternating between the warm dry common tent and the severe outdoor weather, I was able to complete the painting that day. It was rolled for transport the following morning.
Day 2...Sept. 18...Shiveet Khairkhan.
Campsite base of Shiveet Khairkhan
We drove at leisure up the valley towards the sacred peak of Shiveet Khairkhan. The valley floor is grazed heavily and there are occasional permanent dwellings made of narrow logs, stone, and mud, used by Kazakh herders. The main valley could in no way be thought of as wild. We saw the occasional eagle, kept as a hunting animal, which, of course, suggested active hunting of fox, wolf, marmot and the other sources of fur used by Kazakhs.
The camp was set up in the lee of a curved glacial till, beyond which rose a series of grass-covered moraines littered with glacial erratics leading to the "prow" of Shiveet Khairkhan. Our camel guide and horse wrangler, Dalaikhan, showed up that afternoon with two camels, not three. The third camel had a hurt foot. We would attempt to carry the loads of two Toyota Land Cruisers on two camels. This would later prove problematic at high altitudes. Dalaikhan helped to stretch the first canvas. This involvement would set a pattern in which all the support staff on both legs of the journey became very engaged in supporting the art effort. My intention was that this first image would be a view of Shiveet Khairkhan. I had made two preliminary sketches to support the composition. However, late in the day it began to cloud over and snow.
This evening we had a long conversation with a local Tuvan hunter, Khenzkhuu, whose sister was a local shaman. He was a lucid and eloquent subject. He continually shifted between traditional cosmological explanations of the snow leopard’s value and modern material, rationalist arguments.
Like every other local informant we spoke to, he blamed the period of market transition from socialist economy to capitalist economy for the decline in snow leopard numbers, as well as other game. He cited the dire need of local people to make up for lost subsidies enjoyed under the communist system, and the resultant overkill of every animal with market value, from marmots to saiga and of course, snow leopards. He also cited the rise in goat herding, for the cashmere trade, as a problem, only the first among many to do so.
Khenzkhuu imparted to us a series of other perceptions related to the snow leopard, which I note here as being relevant to Rodney Jackson’s inquiries about myth, oral tradition and notions of sacredness.
He stated that the leopard was seen as a messenger of Tenggri, the sky god, a central figure in Mongolian shamanism. The leopard is part of a cross-axial cosmogram of four animals, each with their own quadrant and apposite. The snow leopard, messenger of Tenggri, lives atop the mountains, transitioning between high and low. So many mountains are sacred that this association itself is sacred. The word "sonlep" came up, meaning climber. These comments reminded me of Maya attitudes about the jaguar as a spiritual intercessor between upper and lower worlds, since it lives in trees, walks on the ground, and swims in the underworld’s chthonic waters.
The snow leopards apposite is the bear, grounded in the forests below. While we had no discussion of the bear, I assume bear mythologies of the local Tuvans are similar to other Siberian mythologies, and that it is associated with humans, a kind of surrogate human. This terrestrial axis of leopard and bear is crossed by another, the owl and the eagle. The owl, of these two, is seen as possessing more occult, darker powers, associated with night. The eagle's realm is the daytime sky. The eagle is associated with Tenggri and confers shamanic power on certain people.
The old way of hunting was seen as part of the spiritual order of the Altai, a mode of existence inside the system, rather than a mode of harvesting cash value from the system. He stated that the change in attitude transformed people from "hunters" to "killers." This upset the "Bayankhangar" or nature spirits. Khenzkhuu was careful to also note that it upset the normal ecological balance of the environment. He noted that the snow leopard was not dangerous, that it's extinction in areas was purely due to commercial pressure. The discussion carried a sense of "karmic" responsibility. He made comments like, "Hunters knew this was wrong."
The snow leopard is the guardian of the night. He has a "right" to be out at night.
The ibex is "given" to the snow leopard as his prey. Therefore, overkill of ibex offends the snow leopard.
He mentioned in several contexts a theme we had heard before, that killing a snow leopard brings bad luck or karmic disorder. This comment elicited a discussion about a common oral tradition that the snow leopard is protected by a kind of curse or spiritual equation. Killing a snow leopard brings retribution. This extended beyond individual retribution. One interesting comment linked the local effects of global climate change to this offense to Tenggri.
One anecdote in particular was very vivid. Khenzkhuu stated that when he was young, the mountains to the north were full of snow leopards. He saw them "all the time." When the snow leopards left the mountain, he noticed that the echoes of the mountain died as well, became dull, muted. This was a literal expression of the lack of resonance which I was interested in artistically with the whole premise of "The Leopard in the Land."
Khenzkhuu asserted that the snow leopard is spiritually very sensitive, easily offended and driven away, after which the land loses some kind of spiritual essence, vis a vis the echo anecdote. This idea that the leopard is "offended" rings vividly true with anecdotes from people who encounter them, including myself in an encounter in Nepal. The leopard's response to being seen, interrupted, or approached is often strangely calm. People, including myself, just get a "look" that really could be interpreted as annoyance, and the leopard turns and walks or bounds away, but never "flees" frantically.
He commented on the shamanic practice of communing with snow leopard spirits and of shamans speaking with and as the snow leopard.
Our Tuvan hunter advised us to head into the Altai Tavan Bogd mountains to the south if we expected to find snow leopards. This had been our plan, anyway, to travel into the Tavan Bogd, but his confirmation was encouraging, and as it turned out, accurate.
While many of Khenzkhuu's comments focused on shamanic and mythic properties of the snow leopard, he showed a high awareness of completely modern ideas such as climate change and the brute force of the market. When asked what he thought would be effective ways of protecting the snow leopard, he gravitated towards penalties and education, but when asked about negative impacts of the loss of leopards he gravitated towards spiritual and folkloric impressions. This fusion of influences is indicative of a current cultural state in which herders and hunters live within the rhythms of natural systems, yet have access to modern media through cell technology and satellite television.