We have no easy access to hot water here. And so, when our travel schedule permits, I have been bathing in Lake Hovsgol and the streams that feed it. You have to be pretty dirty to want to bathe. The lake water is only a few degrees above freezing. The streams are only slightly warmer. With air temperatures that come close to freezing at night and a wind chill that makes it feel even colder, it takes a while to muster my courage to get in the water.
The benefits of cleanliness are obvious, but there are other advantages to these aquatic forays. First, they offer a little solitude and time for reflection. With the pace at which we have been working, and the need to be doing everything as a group, it is nice to be on one’s own from time to time. Secondly, they provide welcome opportunities to see the abundant wildlife here. Most obvious during a stream bath are the fish.
Lake Hovsgol holds over seventy species, including trout, grayling, roach, lenok and the huge salmon relative called the taimen. On previous visits I enjoyed catching and eating some of these. On this trip I am simply observing their behavior, as several species are now moving out of the lake and up stream to breed. As I sit on a grassy bank to dry in the sun, I watch half a dozen twelve inch grayling (a salmonid known locally as khadran) finning their way up the channel in which I was washing myself (soapless) just moments ago.
Ironically, although Mongolia has been heavily promoted as an international destination for sports fishing in recent years, Mongolians themselves rarely catch or eat fish. Among the people here there has long been a taboo against harming fish, which are considered sacred. At the center of Mongolia’s national symbol, the “soyombo,” which dates to the seventeenth century, is a ying-yang icon which is said to represent a pair of vigilant fish watching out for the country and its people.
There may have been practical as well as religious reasons for not eating fish. Unlike animal flesh, which dries and does not quickly spoil in this climate, fish must be refrigerated or eaten soon after they are caught. The chemicals that prevent fish from freezing at high altitudes can sometimes cause upset stomachs or diarrhea when the fish is not properly cooked. Only in recent years has smoking fish, a long tradition in Russia, been practiced here.
Just now, across the lake from where we are camping, hundreds of Mongolians have gathered to intercept the migrating grayling. They are mostly city people, up from Moron, who catch the fish in nets and string them on sticks to dry over smoldering fires. The local people frown on such activity, both because it violates the spirit of the lake, and because they say these fish eaters are somehow inferior. “Why are they killing the fish?” asks one of the eastern shore herders. “Have they no animals?”
Thus fortified by a traditional Mongolian meal -- see yesterday's blog post -- we are able to pursue the interviews we have come so far to conduct.
The Academy's Clyde Goulden is gathering data on how the changing nature of Mongolia’s weather is affecting the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. Each interview, a series of multiple choice questions translated and presented by his Mongolian wife, Tuya, takes between 45 minutes and several hours to complete, depending on how much extra information the herders wish to supply.
Toward the end of each session, Goulden asks his informant to speculate on how climactic and grazing conditions will change in the future.
In this isolated area, where belief in shamanism is widespread, several of the older herders say that the bad things people are doing to nature (they specifically mention mining and the cutting of too many trees) are affecting the weather in bad ways. They are certain that the negative trends they have been experiencing in recent years will continue to worsen until there is a better balance between human activity and nature.
Several of the younger people we interview have heard that the world will end in 2012 (Nostradamus). They say there is nothing to be gained by worrying about the future.
We have interviewed about 35 herders since we began our trip ten days ago. All report that the seasons have been changing. Locally, the temperatures have cooled and the winds become stronger, a change attributed by scientists, in part, to the warming of the Gobi desert and the pulling of colder air south from Siberia.
We are now about 20 kilometers from the University of Pennsylvania PIRE research camp and fifty kilometers from the Russian border in a river valley that, like Dalbai, runs perpendicular to Lake Hovsgol and the north-south road connecting Hatgal to Khank.
About 540 people – 48 families – live and graze their livestock here. It's too many for the long-term sustainability of the grazing. Some of the families are still nomadic. Some are permanently settled in log houses, moving only their animals from summer to winter pastures.
We have pitched our tents next to a large log building in which local herders meet periodically to discuss herding matters. Judging from the number of empty vodka bottles outside, they must have some pretty lively meetings.
Our hosts, the family of four whose ger is closest to the “bog” meeting building, are a kind and extremely competent 35-year-old named Enkhdalai, who is the “bog” leader; his wife, Otgonjargal, and their two sons, ages 15 and 11.
This morning, after Otgonjargal and Bayandorj, the 11-year-old, have done the milking, Enkhdalai and his older son, Gantulga, go to a nearby family to secure a goat with which to properly entertain us. In an earlier time, they might have done this on horseback, but Enkhdalai is a modern fellow and successful enough to own a motorcycle. So out they go and back they come with the bleating animal held crosswise in Gantulga’s lap.
In a country like Mongolia where water and liquids of any kind are scarce, and where any source of nutrition is valued, it is important that nothing be wasted. And so, when animals are killed for eating, everything is consumed, including the blood.
From a distance, the wide, u-shaped river valley that runs east to west into Lake Hovsgol looks like any of the half dozen or so valleys along the eastern shore of the lake. But the Dalbai valley has one unusual feature. Here, a small population of western scientists and students are working with their Mongolian colleagues to better understand the complex vegetative systems that make up Central Asia’s extensive steppe grassland.
Running up the pale green hillside -- in an area officially designated a long term ecological research (LTER) site in 1997 on the recommendation of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences -- are a series of fenced grids. There, protected from the encroachment of grazing yaks and horses, experiments are being conducted by up to 30 American, French, English, and Mongolian students. The effort is part of a study jointly sponsored by the National University of Mongolia and the University of Pennsylvania.
Over dinner in Ulaan Bataar a few nights ago, I asked Peter Petraitis, a Penn biology professor and the principle investigator on this project, why Mongolia is the place he chose to pursue his research. Why not Wyoming, Montana, or Colorado?
“Mongolia offers an intact ecosystem where grasses, animals, and people have been together for millennia,” he replied.
“Unlike the American West, where most of the grasses are introduced and cattle have been a factor for little more than a century, Mongolia’s herding traditions have been part of the natural balance from before the time of written history.”
With help from the Academy's Clyde Goulden, whose Mongolian research began in the early 1990s, Petraitis and his academic colleagues at Penn approached the National Science Foundation to ask for support from the Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE).
Less than an hour north of Hatgal, we stopped at a beautiful part of Lake Hovsgol’s shoreline called Alagstar. It was here, looking across to the snow-capped Horidol Saridag mountains, that Clyde Goulden and I camped during our first visit to the lake in 1994.
The site then was deserted, the water pristine. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. Today the same site is covered by a large tourist camp – one of three that stand within a quarter of a mile along this part of the shore. Still others are visible in the distance.
When we stopped to re-photograph the site this morning, we met a herder who, to our surprise and his, remembered us from our 1994 visit. I was skeptical about his enthusiastic greeting at first, thinking that he had either mistaken us for other foreigners he had seen in the years since, or that he was just being friendly because that was in his nature. But as we spoke over a cup of tea in his ger, I grew more and more certain that his claim to know us was real.
Without prompting, he described the specifics of our visit recalling details only someone who had been there would know. Among other things, we had sampled the lake for fish using chest-waders and a seine net, equipment he had never seen before or since. He told us exactly where we had camped and how long we had stayed.
Remembering a picture I had made of our campsite so long ago, Clyde asked Monkhbat about the snow on the mountain.
“When I was a boy, there was often snow there all summer,” he said. Now it rarely lasts past June. Of course there is meteorological data to support his recollection, but this is the first tangible example we have had of the accuracy of human memory in documenting climate change. A comparison of my photographs from then and now gives graphic testament to the warming trends and lack of rainfall this part of the world has been experiencing since the 1990s.
The road north from Hatgal, at the southern tip of Lake Hovsgol, to Dalbai, our research area 45 miles up the lake’s eastern shore, is considered by drivers who have traveled widely here to be the worst in Mongolia.
That’s saying a lot. In wet weather it is a gooey mud track that can cling to cars and trucks like glue, or suck them down like quicksand. When the mud hardens, as it has in time for our drive, every rut, gully, hole and mound created by a previous vehicle hardens into a cement-like obstacle course that must be navigated over, around or through.
This uncertain surface, which is still spotted with large sections of treacherous slime in low areas, forces the driver to break and accelerate, twist and turn, and erratically maneuver like a drunken driver in a demolition derby.
Imagine the worst dirt road you have ever been on, multiply it by a factor of ten, sprinkle it with boulders, logs, and pools of mud as large as swimming pools, and you begin to approximate the surface of the road we were driving for a little over seven hours.
Had it been raining, it would have taken ten… or longer. Bobbie, our driver, said on a previous trip he was stuck so often it took him three days to travel less than a mile.
When I finally climbed from the car, after a slamming up and down on the hard parts and fish-tailing through the wet, sitting three-across in a back seat made for two, wedged in place with backpacks, camera bags and flying bags of food for most of the day, I felt as though I had been traveling inside a mechanical bull.
The hour-and-15-minute prop plane flight north and west from Ulaan Bataar to Moron, a bustling provincial capital of about 40,000 people, is much like a flight anywhere until we come within a few miles of Moron.
Then the pilot announces that the runway is closed for repairs. Not to worry, he reassures us, he can land on the grass nearby – and so he does, quite smoothly.
From Moron we drive north on a rough dirt track that, thanks to a massive influx of foreign aid, is in the process of being transformed into a graded, if still unpaved, highway. The construction project, which is being carried out by four different construction companies, including one from North Korea, is a response to the new boom in domestic travel that has seen the once isolated and pristine Lake Hovsgol transformed into one of Mongolia’s fastest growing tourist destinations.
This summer, even as the physical obstacles to travel to the lake are being reduced by the somewhat smoother driving, the logistical ones are increased by a severe shortage of fuel. The problem is country-wide. On our trip to Hentie and around Ulaan Bataar, we found many gas stations closed. Acquiring fuel almost anywhere in the country now requires special permission.
The English language newspaper in the capital claims that all of this stems from a heavy-handed attempt by Russia to coerce Mongolia into giving it a monopoly on retailing gasoline. Russia already provides 90 percent of the petroleum used here, but until now, most of the retail distribution has been handled by Mongolian-owned companies. The Russians want to cut out the middlemen. In any case, for whatever reason, fuel here, as everywhere, is being tightly rationed.
Here is a photo from our interview with a herder named Badamdorj. We are near Dadal in northern Hentie Aimag.
As we talk outside his cabin over cups of milk tea, he explains that there has not been a significant rainfall in the area since April. The grass is dry and stunted, just at a time it should be putting on its greatest summer growth.
Unlike the dominant ethnic group in Mongolia, the Khalkh, who make up about 86 percent of the population, the Buryat people live in permanent structures built from local pine. Their ancestors migrated to parts of northern Mongolia from Burytia (Siberia) at the time of the Russian revolution.
There are many myths surrounding the life of Genghis Kahn, yet despite his fame and near universal reverence in Mongolia, few facts about his life can be verified. Historians do not even know exactly where he was born or died. Inspired by the great stash of treasure that is assumed to be buried with him, several American and Japanese-financed expeditions have attempted to discover his last resting place, so far without success.
If the site of his death is unknown, discovering Telmujin’s birth place is even more of a challenge. That has not prevented the people of Hentie Aimag from claiming the honor. They base their claim on The Secret History of the Mongols, a 13th-century account. It had been lost for centuries until a Chinese copy was rediscovered in 1866. In addition to their pride in linking their province with the nation’s greatest hero, officials in Hentie have pinned most of their dreams of future tourism on the association.
Though banned during the communist era, many sculptures of Genghis are now in the aimag (province), including an enormous mounted one that stands about ten stories high on the road leading out of Ulaan Bataar (erected in 2009). Another much smaller one is outside the administrative building in Ondorkhaan, and a third in one of the struggling tourist camps in Dadal. This last was erected in 1962 when any recognition of Genghis was discouraged. It cost the man who made it first his job, and later, his life. But the monument still stands.
I prefer the memorials that seem to have grown from oral tradition and a heart-felt reverence for Genghis’ spirit, as opposed to those created for political or purely commercial reasons. Dadal has two such monuments, although you could never find either without the help of local herders.
Just north of the town, on a dirt track that winds up a steep grade through an open forest of Siberian pines and glowing white birches, is a large pile of stones and a teepee of long poles festooned with blue and yellow prayer flags. Along with a bolder incised with his name, this “ovoo” marks the symbolic birth place of the great kahn. Provable or not, there is a moving quality to this monument. It feels both timeless and totally genuine.
A kilometer or so away, in the lowest part of the valley that rolls gently down and away from the “ovooo” ridge, is a disk-shaped depression with a small spring from which Genghis is said to have drunk as a young boy.
We are now as far north in Hentie Aimag as we will go on this trip. We have reached the small town of Dadal on the edge of Onon Balj National Park. We are about 80 kilometers -- or 50 miles -- from the Russian border. To go farther north would require special permission from the government (there is a border patrol post here), but the document granting us that permission is still in Ulaan Bataar due to a bureaucratic delay.
Still, there is plenty to see and do in Dadal.
We think of Mongolia as either Gobi Desert or grassland steppe, but there is a narrow section along the northern border of the country that is characterized by taiga forest. Taiga is the Russian word for forest; it is dominated by coniferous trees. In Canada, this kind of ecosystem is called the boreal forest.
Dadal is such a place. Culturally and ethnically this little town of 2,600 people seems more Siberian than Mongolian. The residents, all Buriats, live in log houses and dress as Russians.
In socialist times, Dadal was a local tourist destination with resort camps to which hundreds of worthy overworked workers were transported from nearby provinces in open trucks to endure government-sponsored vacations. Those camps were abandoned with the collapse of the old government , but new tourist camps are now being built in hope of recapturing that era with tourism from abroad or from newly affluent Mongolians.
So far they haven’t had much success. Except for ourselves, there are no tourists here at present, nor is there the ability to support them should they come. When we ask the director of the park about a place to stay and a hot shower, he laughs and points to the Onon River.