Volume 3: Land of Blue Sky
After years of careful planning and preparation, the first in a long list of eager travelers embarked on a private version of Quest for the Snow Leopard, an exciting Mongolia tour set in the most remote section of the Altai Mountains.
We asked Joseph Rohde, plein air painter and executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, to share some of his personal journal entries on his exclusive Mongolia tour to paint the rarely-seen ‘ghost cat.’ In a bid to conserve the habitat and the species, Rohde has sold the paintings entirely for fundraising, exhibiting the remaining paintings for sale in Ojai, California on May 17th.
Rolled up the finished painting and hit the road. The horses and camels don’t necessarily walk along the same paths, so we sort of split up and travel in tandem a lot of the time. We, on horseback, are able to ride off into the hills looking for ancient mounds and deer stones, which we find everywhere.
The camels, loaded up with hundreds of pounds of supplies apiece, plod along paths that are more level and rise slowly. Even so, they can keep up with us in speed because they are so much bigger than the horses. Sometimes we see them a mile off, slogging along while we cowboy it up on the high slopes.
Great horses, too! Very compliant, very lively when needed, very easy to control. Love the Australian trail saddles which we, the foreigners, are on, but the local Kazakh and Mongolian saddles also look pretty comfortable, as they have these thick cushions on them. Baagi, our guide, is fantastic, very smart, very scholarly, but lots of fun – totally into our constant hunt for yet another ancient tomb or petroglyph.
One thing I really notice about Mongolia that is different from the Himalayas, where I have traveled a lot, is the scale. The Himalayas are tall and rugged, but the footprint of the space is small. Here, we travel in one day across an area that I would spend two weeks in if it were Nepal. Everything is huuuuuge! The landscape is really beautiful in a very stark and somber kind of way.
It’s fall, of course, so there isn’t a lot of green except here and there around the streams and ponds. Mostly the grass and heather run from silver-golden to a series of reddish tones, sometimes very rust-red. Here and there are a few yellow flowers and bright red tundra-like tiny plants. The rocks of the surrounding mountains are sometimes almost purple. Skies, when clear, are brilliant blue.
Lots of birds of prey, eagles, buzzards, hawks, falcons, lammergiers. Ducks, geese, swans in the water. Getting used to seeing yaks and camels again, which I can’t get enough of because I just love the way they look. The camels make a very funky sound that is quite unexpected, sort of a puppy-kitten yelping sound. This is all the more weird because the camels are like the size of dinosaurs. Our horses saddles barely come up past the bellies of these giant hairy creatures, made doubly tall by all the stuff piled up on them.
Another thing about Mongolia: the land seems very stable, unchanging. I am told that many of the glacial moraines we see are not from the “recent” Ice Age that ended 10,000 years ago, but from some other much more ancient Ice Age before that.
The graves and stone monuments that were raised up as much a five thousand years ago are just sitting there as if they were put up, maybe in your grandpa’s time. If some ancient nomad picked up a stone the size of a cantaloupe and moved it to help form a circle in the grass, and did that when Homer was writing the Illiad, or when the Egyptians were raising up the pyramids, that stone is sitting right there where he put it.
The Mongolia Tour: More Information
Stay tuned for the 2 follow up journal entries to Joe’s Mongolia tour! For more information on Rohde’s incredible travels and his quest for the snow leopard, tune in to his personal blog or his Facebook page.