Meeting friends on an unlikely grass and dirt track

A woman is thrilled to see a picture of a deceased relative. "We have never had a photograph of him," she said. "Thank you for bringing him back to us!" (Photo by Robert Peck)

Mongolia is an enormous country – about the size of Western Europe – but in some ways it has all of the best characteristics of a small town. On our way from Hatgal to Ulaan Uul, a hard but spectacularly beautiful nine-hour, 145-kilometer drive over a winding grass and dirt track, we passed a total of four vehicles : three motorcycles and a Russian van.

It turned out we knew the riders in or on half of them.

As is fairly common in this part of the country, where driving conditions can be challenging and subject to changes in the weather, we stopped to consult with each of the travellers, and they with us, to ask about the road and seek intelligence on which rivers were flooded and whether or not bridges were possible to cross.

In the case of the Russian van, our interpreter, Tuya, the person who has arranged most of the logistics for the trip, knew one of the occupants. This was a good thing, for our chance passing occurred just as we were bogging down in a section of track that was more wetland than road.

Tuya’s friends happily piled out of their van and helped push us out of our troubles. This is not to say that they wouldn’t have helped us anyway, friends or no, but it helped that after a mucky, mud-spattering push, we could all visit and exchange more than road news.

The second friendly encounter was with a motorcycle-riding herder well known to Ulzibadrakh, our driver. Like us, the herder was on his way to the Nadaam festival in Renchinlhumbe. He welcomed us warmly and invited us to visit his family on the way back. “I will kill a goat for you,” he said. “we will all have a horhog together.”

If meeting friends while traveling in places where others are few and far between is so common, I am hopeful that meeting them where they live will be even easier. One of my goals on this trip is to see if I can reconnect with people I met here in the Darhad valley 17 years ago. So far, the indications are that this will be possible.

On our second day of driving in the Darhad – the 60-kilometer trip from Ulaan Uul to Renchinlhumbe – we met more travelers. The road is now becoming busy with “traffic” heading north for the Nadaam gathering in Renchinlhumbe. This means that instead of seeing another vehicle every two hours, the encounters doubled, with almost everyone headed in the same direction.

Of those we stopped to speak with, almost everyone knows someone in one or more of the photographs we show them. “He is my uncle. … She is my sister’s husband. … He is my friend,” they call out excitedly as they pass the small black and white prints from person to person. “Can I have this picture?”

I am tempted to oblige, but quickly come to appreciate that giving pictures to friends and relatives of my subjects, while temporarily gratifying, will deny me the chance to reconnect with the subjects themselves. Before I realize the pitfalls of my early generosity, I have lost almost a quarter of the prints I have brought to return to my sitters.

Until quite recently, when access to outside markets and a new economic prosperity for the elite have made cameras a bit more common, photography was the province of the professionals. In remote areas like the Darhad, except for the rare itinerant photographer who could be hired to take a family portrait, very few people had photographs of themselves.

And so it is more than curiosity or nostalgia that draws people to the pictures I have brought. For many, these are the only photographs of loved ones they may ever see – or have. Ultimately, they will go on display in the honored northern end of the owner’s cabin or ger.