Assignment #6: A Sense of Place – Suutei Tsai in a Mongolian Ger


Outdoor Photographer’s challenge two weeks ago: an environmental, visual or cultural photo depicting a strong connection with a specific place. Here, our hostess at her ger in the Mongolian countryside prepares a pot of suutei tsai to take the chill off an October night – piping hot milk with a little tea and a dash of salt. 



“Dry and Sunny, a Break from Winter Weather” – OP Assignment #4

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It doesn’t get much drier and sunnier than Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Above, Khongoryn Els, the famed “Singing Dunes,” stretch across the landscape. See nine additional photos from our October 2014 trip below.


As in any desert, no resource is more precious than water.

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Well adapted for this parched climate, over a million Mongolian Gazelle flourish in arid steppe grasslands which include portions of the Gobi. Mongolia’s grasslands are considered to be one of the world’s last, great wilderness areas.

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Red-billed Choughs, a striking member of the crow family, close out the day at Yolyn Am Canyon…

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Earlier in the day a magnificent Siberian Ibex, protective of his harem, kept a wary eye on an approaching photographer.


As we journeyed, we stayed with families in their gers (yurt homes). Here, aruul, a type of cheese, bakes into a hard cake on a tray atop a ger.

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Not only dry but extremely cold and windswept, winters in the Gobi can be unforgiving. The worst of them are know as zud and can wipe out millions of livestock.


The nighttime skies were spectacular.  The Big Dipper hangs over our lighted ger. 

Not all deserts have camels, of course, but they certainly add an exotic element. In Mongolia, two-humped Bactrians are utilized for transportation, meat, milk and the most excellent cream cheese we’ve ever tasted. Here, Barbra’s mount and I exchange inquisitive looks.

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Our eight-day trek through part of the Gobi Desert was one of the highlights of our two-year stay in Mongolia. Not only did we get to briefly experience the lifestyle of one of the world’s few remaining semi-nomadic people, we also got to sample new foods, see exotic animals we’d read about in books as children, feel the Singing Dunes hum mystically through our bodies…  and, yes, riding a camel to seldom-visited sand dunes was a first and it was fun. At Bayanzag (pictured above), the legendary Flaming Cliffs where the first fossilized dinosaur eggs were discovered, we even found a large, fragile skull with teeth intact and a spine radiating out several feet, the fossilized remains of some species that no longer walks the earth. It’s 20° F (-7° C), a north wind swirling falling snow as I write this. A trip back to the Gobi through photographs was indeed a nice break from winter.

Next Thursday: Assignment #5 – Motivational Moments: the things that get us out of bed at 4:00 AM to go out and shoot; or that inspire us to sit for hours waiting for a capture. I already have a few ideas in mind. Stay tuned!

Snow and Flowers: It’s Spring in Mongolia!

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Our most recent heavy snow was just two weeks ago, and we’ve had a few flurries since then. But out in the countryside near Ulaanbaatar, wildflowers have begun to grow in profusion. 

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Snow drops (above) are among the very first flowers to show.

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Notice the small red ant on the right side of the photo. The centers of these particular flowers reveal a tell-tale indication of their age, with the youngest flowers having yellow centers. Most of the early wildflowers are small. But they’re everywhere, and close examination they often reveals intricate beauty…

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…making us wish we knew more about these splashes of color.

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And happy to come across something as familiar as Alaska’s state flower, forget-me-nots.

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There’s wild rhubarb, too, and wild mint and caraway are abundant.

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But it’s the flowers that capture our attention.

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And leave us vowing to take a botany course when we return to Alaska.

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The scene in Ulaanbaatar just over two weeks ago on May 11. 

Black-Veined White Butterfly

Black-veined white (Aporia crataegi), Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

For a few days in late June, maybe a week, these black-veined whites (that’s their name) were everywhere. In the air, in the bills of birds, sipping on purple flowers. And then they were gone. In that one week, they were beautiful…

Connected by Waxwings

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Like drops of bright red sealing wax, pigment is enclosed in the translucent sheathing of extended secondary feather shafts, giving waxwings their name.

In the midst of the 11-minute walk from our apartment to our school in Ulaanbaatar earlier this week we heard a familiar “wheezing” sound from nearby treetops. The friend we were walking with must’ve thought we were crazy as I abruptly spun around and began crossing the road toward the origin of the sound. But Barbra knew what it was about. “Waxwings!” I exclaimed as I approached the tree where they were perched. Barbra confirmed the sighting. “Yep! Look at their crowns.”

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For the past few days, small flocks of Bohemian waxwings have been putting smiles on our faces. On their way to nesting grounds in the conifer forests of Siberia, these flocks don’t hang around long. Until recently the southern edge of Ulaanbaatar near the Tuul River was covered in berry bushes, poplars and willows. Each year, less and less of this habitat remains as Ulaanbaatar’s human population grows…

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…but here and there a small patch of what it used to be remains. Every little bit of this habitat is increasingly critical. Even a few berry bushes edging apartment buildings helps.

If you’ve never seen waxwings in good light, I’m not sure I can adequately describe them. Their primary wing feathers are streaked with pure white and edged in yellow the color of daffodils in sunlight. The just-dipped-in-paint sheen on these feathers is reminiscent of crayon gone over with watercolor paint. But it’s the candy apple tips of their secondary wing feathers that give waxwings their name. The red is not on feathers. Rather, it’s opalescent pigment encased in modified, translucent feather shafts.

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During their nesting season, waxwings often eat insects. The rest of the year, it’s berries, berries, apples, and more berries – sometimes hundreds of berries in a single day. We walk past these bushes every day and never noticed the winter-preserved berries still clinging to them. But the waxwings noticed. They need this fuel as they fly on to Siberia.

You could be almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere and never see a single waxwing. Ottawa, Canada; Sacramento, California; Clarion, Pennsylvania; Sapporo, Japan; – to name a few places where waxwings may or may not be. And, in the wrong light, you might pass right by them and dismiss them as robins or sparrows.

Wheezing. That’s what gives them away. If you hear birds wheezing, look closely. Get them in the right light. You won’t believe what you see.

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The only bird with a brown crest – as though the black eye paint and warrior feathers weren’t distinctive enough.

My first sighting of waxwings occurred many years ago on western Pennsylvania’s North Fork of Redbank Creek. I was fly-fishing in early spring, and as I worked my way around a bend in the stream I came upon a leafless poplar that was as lit up as a Christmas tree with waxwings. I thought I’d never seen anything as beautiful in my life. The paint-dipped tips of their feather seemed to glow in the evening light and I stood motionless in the water, mesmerized till they suddenly filled the sky.

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This photo shows that the waxwing’s red wing tips are featherless extensions of wing shafts.

In mid-winter, they light up the holly bushes on the campus of the College of Charleston where I earned my master’s degree.

In Sacramento, they filled the camphor tree in our front yard – gorging on berries, wheezing their calls to each other, brightening our day.

The birds we encountered in the lower 48 were cedar waxwings, smaller relatives of bohemians. But here we are, many thousands of miles removed from Pennsylvania trout steams, holly bushes in the Deep South and a lovely, mid-town bungalow in California.

Connected by waxwings.

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A pair of waxwings look north against the pale dusk in Ulaanbaatar. They still have hundreds of miles to go before reaching the conifer forests of Siberia where they’ll build their nests and bring the next generation of waxwings into the world. Not many berry bushes here anymore, and a hunk of metal overlooking a construction site makes for a cold roost.

Snow and a Memory of Snow: 10 Photographs during a Spring Snowfall in Ulaanbaatar

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Granite Dancers in Spring Snow  I walk passed this sculpture at least two times a day, every day, but this was the first time I photographed it. On this day, I knew before I left the apartment that I wanted to record it in the particular light that was falling. The snow was a bonus, adding depth and additional movement. Nikon D4, Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED II, 200mm, ISO 100, f/4, 1/200

Watching the snow fall from inside our apartment building, I was reminded of a favorite haiku by Basho. Come! Let’s go snow-viewing/till we’re buried!

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Granite Dancers in Spring Snow, high contrast This is the same exposure as above. I brought up the contrast and saturation and sharpened the edges. This image might be more marketable as a postcard, but I prefer the softer, previous image, which, to me, feels more intimate.

Which do you like?

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Brick Apartment Building in Snowfall, Ulaanbaatar  This is the view out the window of my apartment in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. On most days, it is uninteresting to me, the occasional pigeon roosting on our windowsill notwithstanding. But on this day, the scene was transformed into something magical. I set the ISO low to preserve as much contrast as possible. Then, in processing, I brought up the contrast even more, exaggerating the blue in the window panes and the black of the railings. Nikon D800, Nikkor 50mm f1.4G, ISO 100, f/3.5, 1/125

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It’s Snowing in UB  I’m not entirely sure why, but this photo and the next one tug at my gut in the way really good writing does. For me, there’s something lonesome… longing… in these shots where the focus is almost on the nearest snowflakes but not quite on anything. I imagine someone far from home, perhaps recently moved from the Mongolian steppe, or any place in the world, looking out on a city… no people, no traffic, nothing… focusing on nothing, longing for home. Nikon D800, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, ISO 1250, f/5, 1/1000

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Snow and a Memory of Snow  As in the above photo, the focus is close to the viewer, yet indistinct. For me, these shots evoke a sense of thoughts being elsewhere. A person from snow country could look out the window on snowfall in any city in the world and in a moment be taken back to a memory in a small town or city, a ger out on the steppe, a woodland cabin, or anywhere. Anyway, that’s what I was going for in this image. This is probably the most purposeful, intended image I’ve taken so far. I applied a small technique to get the focal point where I wanted it to be. The image was inspired by the song It’s Snowin in Brooklyn by Ferron, a song I heard just one time on a snowy night in Boulder, Colorado back in 1985 and which has been stuck in my head all these many years till I recently rediscovered it thanks to an Internet search based on a single line from the song. Nikon D800, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, ISO 100, f/1.4, 1/800

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Snow Streaks on Brick  For a brief few moments, a breeze kicked up, gently driving the snow diagonally. I used settings one might employ to capture rushing streams and waterfalls to capture the faint, oblique lines the driven snow was painting on the brick. In processing, by bringing up the contrast and increasing color saturation, I was able to accentuate the blackness of the railings and the blueness in the windowpanes. The splash of light and the yellow pot in the window on the right add a place for the eye to wander to in this photo. Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-70 f.2.8G ED, ISO 640, Focal Length 70mm, f/22, 1/5

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Woman with Green Umbrella, Snowy Day, Ulaanbaatar  I saw her walking down the street toward our apartment when she was in the distance and began thinking about how I would compose the shot. I wanted to create a watery blur, reminiscent of an impressionist painting – evocative perhaps, of Andre Kohl’s studies of women carrying umbrellas. I’m not sure how well the green works, and even as I was framing this shot I was imagining processing it in black and white. Were I to shoot this again, I think I would decrease the shutter speed. (See next picture.) Nikon D4, Nikkor 200-400mm f/4g IF-ED II, ISO400, Focal Length 200mm, f/4, 1/640

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Impression of a Woman with Umbrella This is the above photo processed as a black and white shot. What do you think? I prefer this one, partly for the way the umbrella and the woman’s features are only suggested. Again, a slower shutter speed might have further enhanced the image I was striving for.

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House Sparrows Framed in Spring Snow, Ulaanbaatar We pass by flocks of these friendly little guys each day on our walk to and from school. These are birds of the city – ubiquitous in northern temperate climates the world over. In fact, even in the trees along the river that runs through Ulaanbaatar, this species becomes less common, and by the time one has hiked up the forested mountain on the edge of town, they disappear altogether, so specifically adapted to co-habitation with humans have they become. But on this day, they presented themselves in fresh light, framed in falling snow. I wanted a shallow depth of field because the background could have been a distraction, and so I focused on the female and let the three males blur out a little.  Nikon D4, Nikkor 200-400mm f/4g IF-ED II, ISO400, Focal Length 400mm, f/4, 1/640

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First Kestrel of Spring, Snowy Morning, Ulaanbaatar, March 26, 2015  Mongolia is home to many birds of prey, most of which fly south in late fall. I first spotted this kestrel – a type of small falcon – earlier in the week when it and a harrier were circling above our apartment building. The harrier has since moved on, but I continue to see this or other kestrels in the city. An abundance of sparrows (above photo) and plenty of buildings to use as perches make this a good place for small birds of prey to get something to eat as they migrate to their nesting sites in the mountains.

            The snow was falling heavily when I heard the kestrel’s chirp from high above. I swung my lens skyward knowing I’d only get a shot or two before the glass was covered with snow. Autofocus was useless, so I did my best to manually focus while panning with the bird with a two-pound camera attached to a seven-pound lens. This image is significantly cropped and not very clear. I value it for the documentation of the year’s first kestrel, one of our favorite birds. Nikon D4, Nikkor 200-400mm f/4g IF-ED II, ISO400, Focal Length 400mm, f/4, 1/640

So what do you think?

When it was time to come back in, we were, in fact, buried in heavy, wet snow and a little worried about our cameras. But they held up fine. The next day we hiked down to the river to check the willows, poplars and pines for newly arriving songbirds. I still have to go through those photos. Next time!

Fire and Ice Needles: Dawn, Hustai National Park, Mongolia

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Stalked a group of stag red deer

up a draw to the top of a rise 

where the sun broke fiery and cold

lighting feather grass and ice needles

suspended in the negative something air.

Along the ridge, winter-hard antlers

lit with sunlight

scattered into the dawn.

– Hustai National Park, Mongolia, 2014

Jack Donachy



Mongolia’s Impressive Red Deer

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Red deer stags (Cervus elaphus) in early morning light. Among the world’s largest deer, this species shares an extinct ancestor in common with North American elk: Megaloceros, the massive Irish elk. 

Historically, red deer ranged from the British Isles east through Mongolia and other parts of Asia and south into northern Africa. Until about two decades ago, their numbers in Mongolia were strong with some 130,000 individuals taking advantage of forest, steppe and mountain habitat. In recent years, however, poaching has decimated red deer herds in this country as their antlers command increasingly high prices as an ingredient in traditional medicines in China and elsewhere. Even National Football League players in America have been implicated in purchasing these medicines. Elk and red deer grow new antlers each year. When the antlers are growing, they are covered in soft tissue and are said to be “in velvet.” This is when the antlers are valuable.

Here’s the problem for the elk and deer. Some studies indicate there may actually be health benefits gained from using medicinal antler and regardless of the science, a lot of people believe they derive benefit from the antler. The trade is annually running over 1.5 billion U.S. dollars, and it is destroying populations of these magnificent animals. Although no recent population surveys have been conducted, it is believed that there are now fewer than 10,000 red deer in Mongolia.

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On a recent trip to Mongolia’s Hustai National Park, we encountered a herd of approximately 100 mature male red deer. Separated by sex during the winter months, females were miles away in a different part of the park. These stags will drop their anglers in early spring.

Among deer, only Alces alces – called moose in North America and Eurasian elk in Europe and Asia, North American elk (wapiti), and sambar deer are larger. Adult male red deer attain weights between 550 – 770 pounds (250 – 345 kg). Some subspecies grow even larger. The extinct Irish elk, Megaloceros, which occupied much of the same range as modern-day red deer, was believed to have attained a weight of 1,500 pounds (700 kg) and had truly massive, moose-like antlers – perhaps contributing to its demise. Because of their value as a food and game species (these are the “harts” and “stags” of European hunting lore), red deer have been introduced to New Zealand, Australia, Chili and Argentina.

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We stalked these deer stooping and crawling for about half a mile (1 kilometer). Suddenly nearly all of them stood up – 100 animals including the ones outside the frame of this photo -, made nervous by an approaching rider on a horse.

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Rutting season occurs in autumn. The rest of the year females and young form distinct groups away from the mature males.


It’s not just poachers that prompt vigilance among red deer. This wolf track spotted near a herd of females and young was fresh.

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Some scent on the air kept causing the largest of these three males to look back. 

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Dozens of stags stream over a break in the hillside. In a land where nomads and their herds have shared the landscape with wild animals for millennia, the countryside would seem empty without the red deer. As Mongolia’s human population continues to grow, it will become increasingly necessary that places such as Hustai National Park are protected if the deer are to continue to thrive.

Takhi – A Success Story in the Land of Chinggis Khan

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Magpie and takhi (Przewalski’s horse) – old friends reacquainted in a scene that has played out for many thousands of years but that was sadly interrupted in those decades during which the takhi were extinct in the wild. 

In 1967, somewhere on the arid steppe of Mongolia’s Western Gobi Dessert, the last small herd of wild takhi was seen. Two years later, only one horse remained. And then Equus przewalskii vanished completely from the wild. Although closely related to modern domestic horses, takhi were never tamed. This differentiates their status as “truly wild” from the ferrel mustangs of America which are descendants of domestic horses.

In their natural environment, wolves were their main predators, and the dry, harsh, cold conditions of the steppe would invariably claim victims each winter. But the main cause of the demise of the takhi was probably due to its being hunted for meat.

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Takhi form small family groups comprised of a lead stallion, two or three mares, and their offspring. These family groups loosely intermingle with other families as well as with bachelor stallions which often travel in pairs or groups of three. Stocky and with zebra-like manes, takhi are comparatively small, standing only about 48 – 56 inches tall at the shoulders. They have 66 chromosomes, two more than any other species of horse. 

By 1970, the only living specimens existed in a few zoos and private ranches. Extinct in the wild, it seemed only a matter of time till their official extinction from the planet would be announced.

Then something truly remarkable occurred. In a cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian biologists, the horses were reintroduced to Mongolia’s Khustai (Hustai) National Park where they’ve been thriving even since.

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On a morning bright with ice needles in the air and a fresh dusting of snow on the ground, takhi and female red deer (Cervus elaphus) share a piece of rugged terrain in Mongolia’s Khustai National Park. 

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In full winter coats, these wild takhi are as beautiful as they are tough.

We counted ourselves as lucky to have spent a few days in Khustai during some of the coldest stretches of winter. The deeply rutted dirt roads were quiet, wildlife was abundant, and the horses seemed only mildly curious regarding our presence.

takhi in summer field

Takhi can readily be viewed in summertime as well. We can’t say which season is more beautiful. There are wild horses in this world still. That is beautiful.