Sunday, May 11, 2014

April adventures, part 1: wild horses, sand dunes, and camel rides

In early April I went on a day-trip to Khustain Nuruu National Park and Elsen Tasarkhai.  Khustain Nuruu is a protected area for Mongolian wildlife, specifically designated for the reintroduction and preservation of takhi (wild horse indigenous to Mongolia, or Przewalski's horse) in 1993.  The national park is home to numerous plant and animal species beyond the takhi, and is only about 100km west of Ulaanbaatar.

Our main goal for the Khustain Nuruu trip was to see takhi.  Horses have been a huge part of my life since early childhood but I had never seen a true wild horse until this trip.

The takhi (Prezswalski's wild horse) up close in the Khustai Nuur National Park and Nature Preserve.  The takhi has distinctive coloring, mane, and skeletal structure compared to modern domesticated horse breeds.  This fellow looks like he's sprung to life from the Lascaux or Alta Mira cave paintings to me.  Except his expression is much sassier.

Our group was extremely lucky in that we found takhi herds without much effort.  Moreover, we ran across multiple herds clustered around a frozen river.  I expected to see a handful of individual takhi that day.  Instead, I got to see dozens of takhi, including foals.

Herd of takhi uninterested in posing for pictures but not nervous enough around humans to move very quickly.  Despite the onset of spring, this river's ice crust was thick enough to support horses and people.

The same sassy fellow from the first picture.  I think he was the stallion of this little herd and mostly annoyed that a bunch of humans were following him and his ladies.  He regularly turned back like this to let us know that he knew what we were up to and that his patience was wearing thin.

No more pictures!  Mr. Sassy lets his troupe know that it is time to go.

Takhi coloring: variation on a theme

Mr. Sassy still has his eye on us from across the river

Takhi weren't the only amazing animals we saw that day.  Several smaller herds of red deer dotted the hills in close proximity to the herds of takhi
Something spooked the deer and they formed an impressive procession up and across the hill.  A picture doesn't quick capture their movements, but as they made their way across our field of vision I was struck by how their procession reminded me of the deer depicted on eponymous deerstones from the Bronze Age.  The entire scene of takhi and deer seemed rather timeless, or at least to draw the viewer into a space bound by different temporal constraints.

Mr. Sassy is on the lookout as we continue to follow his retinue over the river and up the hill (Photo courtesy of Renee C.)

 After we had had our fill of wild horses, we made our way north back out of the park towards the main western road.  Just past the park's borders we happened across a horse race.
Surprise horse race just beyond the entrance to Khustain Nuruu National Park.  We all got a good spattering of dust as the horses and their riders galloped past us.

After lunch at a tsainii gazar (literally "tea place", more like a cafe) along the main western road, we headed south and then west through Uvurkhangai province towards Elsen Tasarkhai.  Elsen Tasarkhai are the sand dunes along the Orkhon River in Central Mongolia, notable in that they are surrounded by non-desert environment.  "Elsen Tasarkhai" roughly translates to "sandy split/division".  It was about four hours from our lunch spot to the dunes but we were on a mission to find and ride camels.  As the sun began to set, it seemed like we wouldn't be able to make it in time.

And then there were camels...

Camels waiting for us at Elsen Tasarkhai
Mongolia is home to wild and domesticated Bactrian camels.  The timing and narrative of Bactrian camel domestication is not well understood, although it is clear that Bactrian camels were a part of cultural and economic life in Central Asia and parts of China based on historical evidence.  Little archaeological (specifically zooarchaeological) research has been conducted on the camel in Central and East Asia, including Mongolia.  A very promising avenue of research would be the story of the camel in Mongolia, as I would be unsurprised to learn that it was a significant domesticate starting before the first historical empires in the region.  Old reports do indicate that camel bones have been found in some archaeological contexts, like the monumental Xiongnu royal burials at Noyon Uul, but I've never personally come across camel remains during archaeological excavation in Mongolia.  It would be tremendously exciting to recover camel remains at Baruun Mukhdagiin Am!

Closeup: camel saddle and septum piercing, which is the means by which one steers a Bactrian camel
I consider myself to be a fairly confident rider.  I grew up with horses and had structured horse experiences for years as a member of the United States Pony Club.  However, camels are not like horses at all.  When I was in high school, my primary horse was a very tall, large hunter-jumper who dwarfed all of the other beings on my mom's farm.  Mikey, however, was nothing compared to these knobbly-kneed, long-necked, shaggy rocking chairs! 
This camel herder (temeechin) changes the camel's septum piercing for one more suitable for riding/steering.  From where I stood, that looked like a painful process!
It was my dearest wish to ride a camel in Mongolia while they still had their fuzzy winter coats.  I was in luck, as early April was still cold and these camels hadn't begun the molting process that prepared them for the hot summer sun.  As you can see in the above photos, the camel saddle is wedged between their two humps.  The saddle itself is little more than strips of carpet with stirrups, but the humps serve to hold you in place in a very comforting way.
And we're off!  The camel herders had us in group of three connected by lead lines.  They walked alongside us on foot, meaning that there was little to do but sit back and relax (Photo courtesy of Renee C.)
 Getting on a camel requires that the camel is willing to kneel/sit down on the ground, as only Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain could mount a camel standing at full height.  Because a sitting camel has its legs folded under it, the rider gets to rock spectacularly forward, then backward when the camel rises to a standing position.  That was really the only unsettling part of my ride, those 10 seconds flashing back to many a trip to an unlicensed parking lot carnival in my childhood.

At first I was disappointed because we were grouped into threes and led by Mongolian handlers.  Although I can admit that I was a bit unsure of how to guide, steer, and control a camel, this part was still a bit boring, as we didn't get above a walk.  Our little caravan made its way across the flat sands up onto the towering dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai.
Hooray for sand and camels! (Photo courtesy of Ninj)

It was a good day, sand in the face and all (photo courtesy of Ninj).
 After the dunes, I felt more confident in my camel-riding skills and managed to extricate my 'reins' and camel from the caravan.  The septum piercing is tied at one end to a long lead line that doubles as a single rein.  This style of riding is challenging for me, as someone who grew up with and was trained in the English style of keeping contact with the bit (of course there was no bit here!) and holding the reins in a particular position using both hands.  That said, my camel and I did fairly well in terms of negotiating our route and speed.  Sitting the camel's walk was a piece of cake; the camel's gait was much smoother than I would have guessed based on their long, knobbly legs.  The trot was bouncy but it would have been impossible to post while wedged between the humps.  Someday I'd like to ride a proper camel gallop!

A strange, creaky noise had been following our group from the beginning of the ride.  We first brushed it off as some sort of rusted metal scraping against something that needed oil, as some of the lead lines had metal components.  When I rode off by myself, I realized that horrible noise was coming from my camel!  He was grinding his teeth in irritation, which somehow made the whole thing much worse.
Miss Independent: by the time we headed back to camp, I managed to separate my camel from the group leadline and ride on my own.  My camel was quite good and we managed a few stretches of proper trotting along the way (Photo courtesy of Ninj).
 As the sun set in earnest, we rode back to the herder's ail (encampment) and dismounted, saying goodbye before piling back into the van for the long, dark drive back to Ulaanbaatar.   Early April had brought an excellent day full of new ungulate experiences and later in the month was to bring the next round of excitement: the biggest springtime horse race in Mongolia.

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