Volume 4: Nomadic Hospitality
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.
Hospitality: Mongolia is mostly empty. We are traveling through mountains and valleys that are miles long, across thousands and thousands of acres of space. Every so often we will come across a few gers (yurts), or one of the very southwestern-looking flat-roofed Kazakh ranch buildings. Like…maybe five to ten in a twenty-mile day.
That’s a very small number of people in a very large area. You would think this might lead to a culture of isolation and extreme individualism, but actually it all seems very communal. You basically don’t need an invitation to just walk into somebody’s yurt. You have to be polite, say hello, sain bainuu and all that, but it is a bit as if the first quadrant of the ger is public space.
We were traveling over a high pass when a very very cold system began to blow in from the further western mountains along the Chinese and Russian borders. Camels quit. Horses ran off. We really needed to hunker down somewhere…so Baagi points down the valley to these three little Tic-tacs, which turn out to be gers in a meadow, and says, “We’ll go there.”
Down we ride and pretty much barge into this nice Kazakh lady’s yurt. She is sewing on a hand-cranked sewing machine by the light of the smoke hole above and the fire in her stove. She looks up as we enter: me, a white guy in a Mongolian robe with huge ethnic earrings dangling from my left ear; Jim, another white guy with a huge video camera; and Baagi, who is a big guy, Mongolian, whom she has never seen before in her life.
You can bet she’s never seen a crew like the three of us together. She is completely unfazed, more or less automatically reaching over to put some tea out, some biscuits and some cheese, and goes back to sewing, having the most perfunctory of conversations with Baagi now and then.
We sip her yak butter tea and eat her shortbread-ish biscuits and fry-bread doughnut thingies and gnaw on her cheese like we are old buddies. Then the dad comes in and gives us one of the other gers to be our private headquarters until the cold spell passes. “You cannot travel! You must not travel! My ger is yours!” (Actually his daughter-in-laws ger, and she didn’t get a vote.)
Imagine three total strangers walking into your kitchen, popping open the fridge and sitting down to a nice PB and J. Then imagine turning over a third of your house to them for some indeterminate period of time. That is hospitality.
It’s as if, despite the huge distances that divide each family, they are all part of one big family, and we are like friends of the family. I suppose without this practice nobody would survive out here. It’s one thing to be welcomed in as the temperature drops into the teens. What about when the temperature is forty below? That’s gotta feel real good.
In the end, we turned over some foodstuffs and some other collateral for the hospitality and I did a nice portrait sketch of the patriarch and his family in their ger, in return for a wonderful stay and the completely unforgettable experience of being welcomed, fed, and hosted in grand nomad fashion.
The Mongolia Tour: More Information
Stay tuned for the final follow up journal entry (tonight!) to Joe’s Mongolian 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.