Mongolia: 'Land of the Deer Stones'

By Christine Lin
Epoch Times Staff

Nomadic Family, Western Mongolia 2003. "When I travel in the Gobi Desert, I meet families living in their summer gers, white round portable tents with south facing doors, pasturing their herds. Each evening, I would stay with one of these families and in the morning I would take their family portrait in front of their nomadic home." (Courtesy of Elaine Ling)
Petite and full of optimistic energy, photographer Elaine Ling has traveled the world looking at abandoned settlements and deserts through the lens of her Hasselblad film camera for more than 20 years.

Her recently published photo book, "Land of the Deer Stones," takes a peek at several aspects of rural life in today's Mongolia, which, despite its growing capital city of Ulaan Baatar, still supports 2 million people living a nomadic lifestyle.

Ling photographs deserts, not for their sparse imagery, but for their surprising abundance of life. "Just when you think there's nothing happening, suddenly something happens," she said. It is often these moments of seemingly spontaneous activity that Ling captures.

"I'm standing there behind my camera with the [dark] cloth over my head, figuring out where to place the horizon in the frame, and all of a sudden three horsemen come into the frame-and I think, 'Where did you guys come from!'"
Darkhad Horse Tree, 2007. Mongolian prize their fast horses. When a horse dies, the master honors the horse by placing it's skull and hooves at a very auspicious place. (Courtesy of Elaine Ling)
Food preparation day, 2004. The men have the job of the slaughter of the sheep for daily food. The women would skin the wool, cut the meet in strips to hang up to dry. The bones are boiled and placed in a basin which is passed around to family and guests to strip and enjoy the meat that is left on the bones. (Courtesy of Elaine Ling)
Uskiin Uver Deer Stones, 2003. A cluster of deer stones stand in honor of bygone warriors. (Courtesy of Elaine Ling)
Ling's fascination with the desert began after several trips in the 1980s to the American Southwest, whose landscape contrasted sharply with her childhood experiences in Hong Kong before she moved to Toronto at the age of 9.

"Coming from Hong Kong, you feel constricted. You never see wilderness," Ling said.

Since visiting the Southwest, she has photographed deserts in Namibia, North Africa, India, South America, and Australia. The images in her latest book were produced during five trips between 2002 and 2008 to Mongolia's Gobi desert-an area of 500,002 square miles, making it the world's fifth largest desert.

In Mongolia, Ling and her team jostled around in a Jeep pursuing deer stones, which are ancient carved stone pillars that litter the landscape, each standing in honor of a warrior. Little is known of them outside of the research conducted by archaeologists at the Smithsonian Museum.

Photographs of deer stones comprise a small part of the book. The vast majority of the images present the people, land, housing, customs, and historical and religious influences that mark Mongolian nomadic life today. Showing through in many photographs are hints of how that traditional lifestyle is evolving to embrace modernity.

A Foray Into Nomadic Life

Visitors to Mongolia must put all notions of personal comfort aside, as well as all inhibitions.
First off, there's no washing available for person or garments since water is scarce or even unavailable, depending on which part of Mongolia you are visiting. In the Gobi, the jug of water you manage to bring with you is the all the water you will have.

Secondly, every meal will consist of dairy and meat. Don't expect to see anything leafy and green in your bowl. Because nomadic Mongols live on the animals they herd—primarily cows, goats, and sheep—and do not farm, animal products make up the bulk of their diet, supplemented by noodles
Thirdly, there's no privacy. An entire family and its guests sleep in the ger, or Mongolian felt tent, which is one circular space. That space is where sleeping, cooking, and all indoor activities must happen. “I would be sleeping and there would be a piece of meat hanging right [above me] in the rafters,” Ling said of life in a ger. “Everything smells like sheep. Even the money smells like sheep.” But in a land without privacy, hospitality is guaranteed.
Because camps are so few and far in between, travelers depend on the hospitality of families they come across. Each household has an open ger policy. Visitors can drop in and expect to be warmed and welcomed with soup and milk candies. On her travels in search of stone relics, Ling and her company have often been the recipients of Mongolian hospitality, dropping in on strangers' camps at midnight for mutton, vodka, and storytelling. It is this all-welcoming attitude that Ling wishes to share with the world.
“I want to show the viewer the magic of discovering a culture in-depth, and what it's like living with the nomads.” said Ling.

The oversized book features several essays from leading cultural anthropologists, Ling's charming travel stories, and of course, 116 reproductions of her large black-and-white photographs. The book makes for great coffee table display, and the images inspire many questions about a lifestyle with which we in the West are not familiar.

For more information about the artist and her books, please visit www.ElaineLing.com. The book can be purchased at http://lodimapress.com/. (http:// www.ElaineLing.com)

Photo Caption(s) & Photo Location(s) Darkhad Horse Tree, 2007. Mongolian prize their fast horses. When a horse dies, the master honors the horse by placing it's skull and hooves at a very auspicious place.

Food preparation day, 2004. The men have the job of the slaughter of the sheep for daily food. The women would skin the wool, cut the meet in strips to hang up to dry. The bones are boiled and placed in a basin which is passed around to family and guests to strip and enjoy the meat that is left on the bones.
Uskiin Uver Deer Stones, 2003. A cluster of deer stones stand in honor of bygone warriors.

Ulaangom stone man, 2005. These Turkic stone of 800 years stand alone in the vast landscape to commemorate the heroes.

Nomadic Family, Western Mongolia 2003. When I travel in the Gobi Desert, I meet families living in their summer gers, white round portable tents with south facing doors, pasturing their herds. Each evening, I would stay with one of these families and in the morning I would take their family portrait in front of their nomadic home. The camels are the beast of burden who will carry the ger when the family moves from pasture to pasture.

source: http://www.theepochtimes.com
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