Blow by Blow, As Submitted to The Explorer\'s Club Day #1

Day 1...Sept. 17...Olgii to Tsengel.Tsengel Camp


Lat. 48.56'57n





The distance from the regional airstrip in Olgii to our trailhead at Shiveet Khairkhan could be covered in a single day’s drive using our refitted Land Cruisers, but our flight arrived in Olgii in mid-afternoon and we needed to break the journey at the small town of Tsengel. Tsengel sits along the Tsagaan Gol, the White River, at a place where the stream has slowed to a meander through wet pastures which, just a few weeks earlier, would have been miserable with mosquitoes. Yaks, yak-bred cattle, camels, goats and sheep are herded in the meadows west of town where we camped. There was ample ground for a very large group to camp here.

This first evening allowed us time to discuss the strategy for the expedition with the Nomadic Expeditions guide, Baatar Navaansharav, called Baagi. This was especially necessary because the goals of the expedition were not as concrete as many, being mainly the creation of a series of images that would inspire conservation awareness in potential supporters of the local snow leopard conservation efforts. Rodney Jackson, of The Snow Leopard Conservancy, had additionally asked that we look for and document any sacred sites or traditions that might be relevant and useful towards encouraging snow leopard conservation. We determined that we, on horseback, would be capable of transects through the mountains that the support camels could not use, and certainly the vehicles could not reach at all. Still, our camels, while not as agile as horses, could each carry approximately the full load carried by the Toyota Land Cruisers, and gave us greater access to less traveled areas. These proved to be fertile areas for snow leopard signs.

The local Tuvan and Kazakh herders were switching from camels to trucks for their seasonal move from summer to winter pastures. This meant that there were many truck roads that really only saw traffic once or twice a year during the migration. We would follow these at times, as they are obviously the preferred conduits between valleys, but even when the camels followed the truck roads, we would ride laterally as far out as possible from the road to scout. As road use increases, human activity and attention are concentrated more along trackways. Slower, more free-ranging horseback and foot travel has the potential to uncover much more detail. In fact, the speed and visual isolation of vehicle travel almost insures that you will only see what you've already planned to see. We wanted more visual access.

I had given myself a budget of discretionary days with which to execute paintings, but had assumed that we would stretch the large canvases the day before. The guides assumptions were that we would cover as much ground as possible on horseback and arrive at each camp rather late. This would leave no time for stretching, since a late arrival in camp means all energy must be devoted to set up before nightfall. People unfamiliar with painting often miscalculate the prep time and breakdown time involved, not to mention the time spent actually executing an image. All this early discussion led to new logistical thinking, which our guide Baagi, was adept and enthusiastic with. We would need to shorten the marches and sacrifice project sites at the back end of the proposed itinerary. Once all this was discussed and understood, we were ready to go.

The ancient Scythians, who once lived in the Altai, created beautiful knotted carpets, like the famous Pazyryk rug, ancestor of the vast profusion of Khotans, Shirvans, Malatyas, Karabakhs, Dagestans, Kazaks, Bergamas, Qashkais and Bakhtiaris dramatically unfolded in the paths of disoriented tourists who wander, half-hypnotized by history, through the narrow streets of Istanbul. Running patterns of flowers and deer encircle this masterpiece. For a long time people thought that this spectacular rug couldn't possibly have been woven by the Scythians, and figured that it was commissioned from some more civilized rug maker in Persia or somewhere. But now, dye studies have shown that the pigments in the carpet are the same as those in more mundane Scythian felt pieces, therefore establishing that the peripatetic Scythians were indeed capable of sitting down and tying several thousand cleverly placed knots side by side if they had to.

To weave a carpet, a Scythian needed wool. To get wool, he or she, for nomads are pragmatic about such things, needed herds of sheep. If some theoretical ancient Scythian herded sheep, he must have occasionally woken up on a cold Altaian morning to find that a snow leopard had eaten his sheep. He probably then went out, like angry herders still do today to find that snow leopard and kill it. This was able to go on for thousands of years, long after the Scythians shuffled off their mortal coils, without appreciably diminishing the number of snow leopards. That is due in no small part, to the simple fact that the mountains and steppelands of Asia were for the most part, empty.

Today, the growth of population and changing husbandry practices have pushed the herdsmen higher into snow leopard country. Thus, the encounters are now more frequent and usually worse for the snow leopard than the well-armed, pissed off herdsman. People like The Snow Leopard Conservancy are working to mitigate exactly this problem. These days, there are programs in most countries to compensate herders for their losses rather than just let them go all vigilante on the snow leopards. There are also aid programs to help herders build more snow leopard-proof corrals so the hungry critters have to slink off and kill a gimpy mountain goat like they're supposed to. Most interesting is a program to vaccinate livestock so the flocks are healthier and more animals survive, meaning that even if snow leopards eat some, there's actually a net increase in the herd. I don't think anybody wants to see the snow leopards disappear, not even the herders. Not even the greedy idiots who slaughter them illegally for their parts. The leopards are part of the land. Like the threads of color woven into that ancient carpet, the leopards are inextricable. Pull them out and the weaving unravels, the deer and the flowers lose their shape, the carpet is undone.

Photo credit: here

I grew up on a island with no large native animals except wild pigs, which aren't truly native either, and which I never once saw until I was an adult. As a kid I collected frogs, lizards, fish, and bugs. I once raised a mynah bird back to health. I had a pet cane toad. When we moved from Hawai'i to California, which I was overjoyed to do, one of my main desires was to see big, wild creatures. I have never, to this day, overcome a sense of wonder at seeing a common mule deer. A few years later I was out at what was then Twentieth Century Fox Ranch with my father, a cameraman. The ranch comprised forty thousand acres of natural California hills and valleys, purchased just after World War I, pristine except for old, rotting film sets. While the film crew worked, I was to make myself scarce. Standing near a scrub oak, away from the group, I saw a flash of tawny yellow in the shadows of the woods. It was a mountain lion, which then appeared in full view, walking as casually as ever just beyond the bustle of the production. It was thrilling to be in the presence of something that could eat you. Being out in the wilderness is like that. It's strangely calming and exhilarating to be entirely vulnerable, yet integrally connected to something eternal and invulnerable. There may or may not be a mountain lion, just as there may or may not be a snow leopard, but there will always be a force uncaring, beyond our control, that can eat us.

Photo Credit: here

A few results from the expeditiion. The ending gallery show was a sucess, we ran late due to being stuck in the Gobi waiting on our plane to return to the Baatar. While waiting we enjoyed a meal overlooking the city of Dalanzadgad. There were a couple hundred people over the course of the day. It was really great to see the works displayed so nicely, Gantuya (gallery owner) is a consummate expert at her craft. We gave her less than three days to conceptualize the organization of the space, restretch ten large canvanses, frame twelve other works of art, arrange food, entertainment, and potential buyers and the result was truly beautiful. The last time we saw the paintings they were loose flaps of canvas on a floor, here they were lit and presented splendidly. People seemed to really sense the wild undercurrent and feel that in the paintings. Jalsa Urubshorow provided the khoomi singer and performance artist, both of which went on late enough for us to catch as we scrambled in fresh from the airplane, still in our Gobi expedition clothes. They added depth, weight and even spectacle to the evening. As the evening wound down, we made speeches, I was touched by the sincerity and enthusiasm expressed by Jalsa, Gantuya and Dr. Munkhtsog. Though too brief, the evening showed what this work could do and be. I'm anxious to see what we can do back home. Check out the rest of the painting on the Facebook page here.

First Camp Jargalant 

Putting up our ger nomads, this area was full of snow leopards.

Night before heading to Snow Leopard camp.

Painted from a sketch I did sitting exactly where the snow leopard we tracked sat.

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