Sketches from Mongolia

In the fall of 2005, the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada took a group of cowboy musicians to Mongolia, the second half of an exchange that had brought nomadic herdsmen and musicians to Elko in 2003 for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. My husband, Hal Cannon, the founding director of the Western Folklife Center, and I joined musicians Stephanie Davis, Gail Steiger, Bruce Stanger and Ron Kane and a half dozen other staff and supporters of the Western Folklife Center for the two week adventure. We spent a week in the capitol city, Ulaanbaatar, and another week on horseback out on the Steppe. Although we spent many hours each day riding, there was still time to sketch and listen in on an amazing musical conversation.

  • After two long days of driving, we reached Tseye’s camp, just in time for coffee.

  • Soon after our arrival, Tseye and his friend Davaa, who would join us as a second wrangler, divvied out the horses. No bigger than Welsh Ponies, these little guys proved to be game, carrying us oversized Americans some 40 kilometers (25 miles) a day and hardly ever breaking sweat.

  • Off in the distance we would often see an ovoo, a pile of rocks around a branch or two. These organic monuments marked places that were felt to have a spiritual presence or where something significant had happened. When you come to an ovoo, you circle it three times, once for the past, once for the present, once for the future. With each turn, you leave a gift: a rock, a bit of money, an offering of tobacco. This ovoo, large and formalized, stood at the top of the Monument of Khans (kings), above Kharakhorum.

  • We spent a night at Davaa’s camp, along the Ikh Chuluut River.

  • Taikhar Chuluu Rock is believed to be ezeti, housing powerful shamanic spirits. It is a place where heaven and earth, time and place converge. There are other, less spiritual explanations for it. A popular folktale holds that a great baatar - a hero - used it to crush a dragon.

  • The shady banks of the Tamir River brought us comfort during a long mid-day break.