Friday, April 25, 2014
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North to Dadal

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.

North to Dadal

The general store and hotel in downtown Dadal. (Photo by Robert Peck)
The general store and hotel in downtown Dadal. (Photo by Robert Peck)

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.

There is one hotel in down town Dadal. Like the rest of the buildings in town, it has no running water. It consists of two rooms above a general store, where we seek out the proprietor. The store offers a limited supply of staples: salt, sugar, flour, cookies, vodka, and some locally made butter. The only thing available in quantity is vodka.

Despite its small size (about 10 by 30 feet), the store is a busy place, for it also serves as the local health clinic. A white coat hangs by the door and a first aid kits stands by to help treat what the vodka can not.

Leaving sales to two other family members, the owner escorts us up the outside steps to inspect the hotel part of the operation. The better of the two rooms has a wall of windows overlooking the dusty (unpaved) main street below. Four lumpy sofa-beds are distributed around the edge of the room.

“There is a pool hall next door, and a bar” the proprietor observes by way of advertisement. “Would it be noisy?” we ask. “There is a lock on the door,” she replies.

The accompanying restaurant, the only one in town, is a dismal and deserted place just a few doors away. The smell from the kitchen suggests that the meat stew on the menu has been on offer for a few days too long.

Before taking up the park director’s generous offer of beds in a bunkhouse beside his office (at $2.50 a night), we visit one of the new tourist camps on the edge of town. It is perched on the floodplain of a boggy lake. Mosquitoes and horse flies blanket the windows of the car as we enter the large empty parking area. It seems tourism here may have to wait a while.

As we join a local family for dinner, we can hear the clock-like call of a cuckoo coming from the pine forest north of town. It is a reminder that we only have a few days left to complete our research in Hintie Aimag, before we must return to Ulaan Bataar.

About this blog
The age of exploration is not dead. Over the next six weeks, Robert Peck and colleagues from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania will be traveling in Mongolia, reconnecting with herdsmen Peck met 17 years ago and checking for evidence of climate change. Peck will chronicle his travels in the land once ruled by Genghis Khan on a blog at www.philly.com/treks


Robert McCracken Peck, senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Peck is a writer, naturalist, and historian who has traveled extensively in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. He has been honored by the Academy, the Explorers Club, and other organizations for his contributions to exploration and the interpretation of natural history. In 2007, the U.S. Department of State and the White House chose him to represent the United States at Mongolia’s 800th birthday celebration. Peck is the author of Land of the Eagle: A Natural History of North America (1990), Headhunters and Hummingbirds: An Expedition into Ecuador (1987), and other books and papers.

Clyde Goulden, Director of the Asia Center of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Goulden’s research in Asia began in 1994 when he and Academy colleagues were invited to initiate studies on a large lake in northern Mongolia, Lake Hovsgol. His work at the lake has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank. He is associated with a research program to study the impacts of climate change on the lake’s watershed and the nomadic herders of Mongolia.

Tuya Goulden, researcher and international travel liaison
Tuya Goulden moved to the United States in 2006 from Mongolia and is a citizen of the U.S. In addition to college degrees from Mongolian universities, she has a master’s degree in tourism management from George Washington University. Goulden has been active in organizing expeditions in Mongolia for scientists in from the Academy and other universities. She is a research assistant for the Mongolian NSF-PIRE project on climate change impacts and serves as the translator for interviews with Mongolian nomadic herders.

Dakin Henderson, videographer
Henderson, a Boston filmmaker, has produced fiction and non-fiction short films, music videos and science-education documentaries. His films have won awards at Colorado College, the Shoot Out Boulder competition and the Ecological Society of America EcoFilm Festival. He currently works with the award-winning production team, Vital Pictures. Visit his website at www.shaxentertainment.com.

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