A few weeks ago, there was a photo exhibit in my city from Ulaanbaatar tucked away in a small set of rooms in the back of our culture center. I would have never been able to find this place by myself, nor would I have known about its existence had a friend of mine not invited me to go with her while I was visiting her family in the countryside. We climbed a few stairs, walked through an exercise class, past an empty stage, down a narrow hallway speckled with doors, and into an open white room at the very end of the building. The photos showed life in Mongolia circa 1922, and were the oldest photographs of Mongolia to be captured. They weren’t taken by the Russians, surprisingly. Instead, there were taken by a man by the name of Roy Chapman Andrews.
I had never heard of the gentleman, but he was a sort of jack of all trades: an explorer, adventurer, naturalist, historian. He came to Mongolia in the early 1920s in search of dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He eventually found some petrified dinosaur eggs, but had to cut his expedition short due to some intense sand storms that started raging in the Gobi. He spent some time in Urga, the capital, before it was Ulaanbaatar. All along his adventures, he brought along his tripod-propped camera to take pictures of the native Mongolians he encountered, so that he might share their way of life with others not so adventurous. He would return again many times in the 20s and 30s, but this exhibit had the pictures from his ’22 expedition. His photos made their way back to America, and eventually back to Mongolia, where they are kept in the capital to this day.
Roy Chapman Andrews, unbeknownst to me, was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, and the movies that bear his name. If you look at certain pictures of him during his digs, the resemblance is uncanny. It was interesting to see this aspect of his work, as well as how he embodied that old fashioned sort of adventurer spirit when the world still seemed so massive, filled with pockets of darkness that needed illumination by intrepid souls. At the event, they had a short movie about Andrews’ time in Mongolia, complete with old footage, edited together like something you would see before a movie in a news reel. It was all so fascinating to see in the flesh.
The photos we saw were all reproductions of the originals. There were a few people there: a camera crew to record a segment for the local news about the exhibit, a few students, us, and a history professor from the local university. It was interesting in that we were allowed to take photographs of the exhibit, and many took liberal numbers of pictures on their cellphones as keepsakes. It was a wonderful glimpse into the past life of Mongolia. It’s amazing to see how much things can change in 90 years.