Thursday, August 6, 2015

5 Days of July: Day 1 - Camels and Kittens

2015 has been a busy summer largely spent in Ulaanbaatar.  To break up my urban routine, I organized a 5-day vacation out to the 2015 yak festival in Bat-Ulzii, the danshig in honor of the 380th anniversary of Undur Geegen Zanabazar, and the site of my first archaeological expedition to Mongolia, Tamiryn Ulaan Khoshuu.  I thank Kenny L. and Reade L. in advance for their gorgeous photos in this and subsequent 5 Days of July posts!

Day 1 was focused on getting out of Ulaanbaatar (about 2 hours behind schedule, but who's counting) and covering as much terrain as possible.  It was a sweltering July day on the long road west.  Our furgong - decommissioned Soviet army van - was like a sauna on wheels.

The sweaty drive from UB to points west

About 4 or 5 hours from UB, we broke up our journey with some camel riding in the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai on the border of Bulgan and Uvurkhangai provinces.

View of the Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes and the mountains of the Khungun Tarna Protected Area in the distance
We arranged to ride with Bilge, the good-natured patriarch of a camel herding family that lives near the sand dunes in summer.  When we rolled up to their encampment, no one was home.  A few minutes later, a parade of camels and riders loped along the flat towards us:

A Bactrian camel with a summertime coat and carpet saddle.  Temee is 'camel' in Mongolian.

Bilge and his relatives sorted us by size and selected our camels.  As is typical, our young camel guides didn't want us steering ourselves at first, and had us connect the line/reins from our camel's septum piercing into a camel train.  All of Bilge's riding camels are gelded males (aht) between 5 and 12 years old.  The older the camel, the larger it gets.  The 12-year-old camel, ridden by the tallest man in our group, is at least 6 inches taller at the shoulder than all the other camels.

This camel's septum piercing is held in place with plastic bottle caps
Unlike horses, which can be controlled by a bit in the mouth, camels are like yaks and cattle, in that they are controlled by a septum piercing (puncture in the flesh between the two nostrils).  My experiences with horses lead me to believe that horses have much more sensitive mouths than their Artiodactyla neighbors (horses are odd-toed ungulates and thus belong to the Order Perissodactyla) and do not need the full intervention into the very sensitive nose that camels, yaks, and cattle seem to require.

Horses can be subdued with a small rope loop around the upper lip called a twitch, which I have seen used during veterinary and ferrier visits.  In the US, horse handlers will use this non-invasive method to calm and often practically immobilize a horse by tightening the twitch around its upper lip to distract the horse (although some argue that it causes the horse's body to release endorphins, explaining the unusual and immediate calm that comes with twitching).  All of this indicates that the nose, especially the mucous-membrane-lined nasal passages, are very sensitive on these kinds of animals.

In Mongolia, I have seen camel and yak septum piercings made either of wood or metal.  The piercings themselves may be held in place with bottle caps, rubber rings, or other similar items.  My educated guess is that the older a camel is, the more sturdy his septum piercing (usually gelded males are the ones ridden), as the septum becomes less sensitive over time.

Camelback view
Riding a Bactrian camel is an entirely different experience than riding a horse.  Wedged between the two humps, it's difficult to imagine how one would fall off a camel - although I'm sure people have managed it.  The camel needs to sit, otherwise you don't have a prayer of getting into the saddle, and then you need to hang on as it stands, raising itself like a two-part hydraulic lift onto all fours.

Ready to set off into the dunes.  This photo is from when I was still 'city pale'.
The riding itself is pretty mellow.  While camels can trot and supposedly gallop, they mostly walk, giving the rider a feeling of being in a creaky rocking chair.  To get a camel to speed up, the rider commands, "Khog!", and uses the line as a crop along the camel's shoulders.  If you're not a pro, you may not get much reaction from your camel!

Day 1 group photo.  Note that one camel is significantly larger than the rest due to his age.
In addition to their towering size, Bactrian camels are fascinating, thanks to their knobbly knees and claw-like toes, which are double-jointed (must be seen to be believed).  Kenny commented that they are almost like mammalian dinosaurs, which is a pretty apt description of their impossible necks and legs.

Drinking from a *really* dirty puddle

You can tell if a Bactrian camel hasn't had a drink in awhile: its humps will sag and flop over.

Looking out from inside the Elsen Tasarkhai dunes

Close-up brought to you by Covergirlcamel
Although the sparse summer coat is less glorious than the luxurious winter coat, the Bactrian camel will retain its amazing long and thick eyelashes all year.

Sheep and goats graze on the swampy flat just after a rainstorm
Elsen Tasarkhai is literally a sandy cut through the steppe between Khungun Khan and the hills east of Kharkhorin.  Immediately adjacent to the dunes the grass is green, providing fodder for camels and other domesticated herd animals.

Bilge's family had recently acquired a kitten.  This unsurprisingly monopolized our attention when we were not on our camels.

The camel herding family's kitten: expert ger-climber

Although very cute, the kitten was almost entirely indifferent to our presence, preferring to scamper about the camels, furgong, and ger:

Kitten and camels, just like this post promised
Just one more

After our ride Bilge invited us into one of the ger for some airag, which was strong and tasty.  We chatted for awhile and he kindly offered us the opportunity to help milk mares for airag production.  To my chagrin, we needed to press on before the sun set, and we were forced to decline the generous offer.  As the sun began to sink, we headed further west on paved road, as we needed to cover as much distance as possible in order to reach the yak festival in Bat-Ulzii by the next morning.

Sunset and on the lookout for archaeological features

Sometime after 9pm, we stopped on the rolling hills west of Khujirt to make camp for the night.  Midsummer sunsets are late and spectacular in Mongolia:

Finally out of the furgong for the day!
With a day of camels and kittens under our belts, we went to bed late with the promise of an early morning leading up to our ultimate goal: yaks!

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