Pothole Filled Road
A road through Mongolia stretches into the distance. The road is covered in potholes and is virtually impossible to traverse. This image represents challenge, adversity, isolation and emptiness.
In the three weeks I spent crossing Mongolia I saw more horses than cars. Men, women and children; entire families traveled on horseback. Seldom were the roads paved, and sometimes when they were, as in the above image, it was easier to travel alongside than on the tarmac. It wasn’t uncommon to simply cut across vast stretches of grassland blazing our own trail. We traveled in Russian made four-wheel drive vans. Flat tires were a daily experience, seats broke loose form their mounts, engines overheated and Vodka made it all easier. We arrived in our first camp in the Gobi desert in the midst a horrendous dust storm and left in a freezing snowstorm.
Hotels were the exception rather than the norm. Mostly we slept in Yurts, tents made of felt from the wool of sheep stretched over circular wooden frames. Most of the yurts were heated by wood burning stoves and were actually roomy and comfortable…unless the fire went out. A few times we slept in our own tents…I much preferred the yurts!
In one camp, we watched them round up horses and “break” them, a task that left more than one Mongolian wrangler bloodied. An interesting difference from American cowboys is that they had their lassos attached to the end of long poles. The Mongolian men would ride alongside the galloping horses and with the pole maneuver the lasso over the horse’s heads, rather than throwing the lassos. After the round up we were treated to a mutton feast. They offered to let me kill the sheep but I declined. Our Mongolian hosts told us that their method of putting down the sheep was the most humane of any method. They slit open the sheep's abdomen, reached in, and squeezed the heart until it stopped beating and the sheep passed.
In addition to mutton (which even cooking for hours buried in the ground over hot rocks did nothing to tenderize), we were treated to hot vodka straight out of the still, fermented mare's milk (drink fast…it spoils quickly) and Yak curd (truly an acquired taste).
We attended a festival featuring bareback horse racing. In one of the divisions the contestants were young children only a few years old. To see them bouncing crazily on the back of the horses, clinging onto the manes, as they galloped by was truly something. The festival also featured wrestling by massive men in fur briefs and boots. It appeared to be a more svelte form of Sumo wrestling. Archery and folk dancing rounded out the event.
In addition to the opportunity to photograph horses, yurts and the occasional solitary Monastery, I managed to shoot camels, kites (a species of raptor), a desert fox, wild burros…and lots of vast, wide-open expanses. As I seem to experience everywhere, the people were overwhelmingly warm and friendly. I left Mongolia with a new sense of appreciation for the comforts of home as well as a deep appreciation for the people of that exotic and ancient land.