Western Mongolia: Ancient rock carvings reveal remarkable tales

Images of animals are carved into the rock face on a ridgeline in Western Mongolia's Soljir Mountain. There are galloping horses and deer with branched antlers, wolves and wild boar are pictured mid-stride. By far, the most numerous are of ibex, whose curved horns are so exaggerated they're almost as long as their bodies.

But there are also images of people. Hunters are seen firing arrows at plains herds; family units are represented, too, several contain pregnant women. And then there are images depicting sexual trysts. "So this is what porn looked like before the internet," remarks a woman in our group.

Considering they date to the Bronze Age (3000BC-1200BC), the petroglyphs, or rock carvings, scattered across these parts of the Soljir Mountains are amazingly well preserved.

"These ones were only found last year, but they are everywhere around here," says Timur Yadamsuren, our guide during a nine-day Intrepid Travel tour through Western Mongolia. "It's amazing to think that my ancestors probably did these."

Everywhere we step, the petroglyphs we find are more impressive than those we've already seen. And like Yadamsuren says, they are everywhere. Only after we return to our vehicles from the top of the mountain ridge do we realise that the rocky materials used to make a circular livestock enclosure at a nomadic farmer's empty winter camp are smothered in petroglyphs. Earlier, we'd walked straight past them, oblivious to their existence. Now that we know these petroglyphs abound, it feels like being on a treasure hunt. And they're not confined to one area.

Yadamsuren  describes petroglyphs that portray Gobi bears, the rarest member of the Ursidae family, somewhere in the west of Mongolia where they no longer exist. And of ancient petroglyphs depicting ostriches and elephants.

"Basaan Dorj says he's seen a mammoth near here," he adds, his eyebrows raised. As he expects, I'm suitably impressed.

As a leading petroglyph expert in this region, Dorj is a handy companion to have during our visit to the region. He once worked as an accountant in a city, but like most Mongolians, he comes from nomadic stock, and returned to his roots after his position was made redundant due to a downturn in the country's economy.

Life on the land suited him, he realised. And the discovery of countless petroglyphs in the mountains he grew up in piqued his interest. That interest blossomed into an obsession that has seen him contribute towards a dozen books on the subject. Study groups from overseas solicit his advice and guidance.

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He's also advocating for UNESCO to add the petroglyphs to its World Heritage list. Other petroglyph sites are already listed. Petroglyphic complexes in the Altai Mountains, in Bayan-Ulgii Province, illustrate the cultural development of Mongolia over a period of 12,000 years. The earliest images reflect a time when forests provided a habitat for hunters of large game. Later images show a transition to herding, then nomadic, lifestyles.

Later, Basaan Dorj leads us to a petroglyphic gallery that depicts horses and people and deer huddled together. One figure looks like a moose. Another resembles an ant. And though it seems unlikely, one appears to be a drawing of a cat. Could it be a snow leopard? A sabre-toothed tiger? It might be. With mammoths once roaming these parts, anything's possible.

THE DETAILS

Mark Daffey visited Mongolia courtesy of Intrepid Travel.

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FLY

Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Sydney or Melbourne and code shares with Mongolian Airlines for onward connections to Ulaanbataar. See cathaypacific.com

TOUR

Intrepid Travel's expedition range specialises in remote adventures such as Mongolia: Wilderness of the West. Travel nomad-style through mountains, deserts and steppes. Starting and ending in Ulaanbaatar, the 15-day expedition is priced from $5635. See intrepidtravel.com

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