Sunday, October 4, 2015

Off to find the herders: Our trip itinerary

For several days in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia's sprawling capital, we've been getting the necessary provisions and travel documents. Now, Glyde Goulden, a senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, his wife Tuya (who will serve as our interpreter) and I will drive east into Khintii Aimag, a province.

Off to find the herders: Our trip itinerary

Mongolian boy with horse, met on a previous expedition. (Photo by Robert Peck)
Mongolian boy with horse, met on a previous expedition. (Photo by Robert Peck)

Editor's note: Robert Peck has left for Khintii Aimag, where he is unlikely to find internet connectivity or even, perhaps, electricity. He will resurface soon; meanwhile, this is an itinerary he wrote before he left. 

For several days in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s sprawling capital, we were busy getting the necessary provisions and travel documents.

Then, Glyde Goulden, a senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, his wife Tuya (who will serve as our interpreter) and I planned to drive east into Khintii Aimag, a province.

There, we will be interviewing herders as part of a long-term environmental study sponsored by the National Science Foundation Program for International Research and Education (NSF-PIRE). Our goal is to record first-person accounts of changing weather patterns from people who have no previous information about climate change, but who live close to the land and so are in an ideal position to observe first- hand what is happening.

If all goes according to plan and our car isn’t blocked by the rivers now swollen with winter snow melt and spring rains, we hope to visit between fifteen and twenty semi-nomadic herding families, sharing hot buttered tea, goat’s milk cheese and fermented mare’s milk (the national drink of choice during the long days of summer) as we gain knowledge from their years of experience.

On about June 28, after roughly a week in Khintii, we will return to the capital, then fly north and west to the town of Moron (the provincial capital of Hovsgol Aimag). From there we will drive three hours north to Hatgal at the southern tip of Lake Hovsgol.

If time and the availability of fuel allows, we will then drive on another seven or eight hours north, along the eastern shore of Mongolia’s largest lake on a mud and dirt track that has been described by those who know it well as the worst road in the country.

At a place called Dalbai, about two thirds of the way up the 100 mile-long lake, we will meet our colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania who have established a research site where, with their Mongolian colleagues, they are conducting a series of experiments aimed at recording the effects of a warming climate on the local vegetation.

From July 8 -16, accompanied by Tuya Goulden, our interpreter, and Dakin Henderson, a Boston-based videographer who has joined us to gather film footage for an upcoming exhibition at the Academy’s museum, I will be searching for herding families I met and photographed in 1994 and 1995 in an isolated section of Hovsgol Aimag called the Darkhaad Basin.

Known for its small population of indigenous reindeer herders called Tsaatan, and for its widespread practice of shamanism, the Darkhaad is a restricted part of Mongolia for which advanced permission to travel must be obtained from the government. We will remain there for the Naadam festival. Research and travel plans for the period following Nadaam are still to be determined.

Finding reliable sources of electricity, let alone internet connections, may prove challenging in all of these areas, but I will try to send reports from the field as frequently as the opportunities permit.

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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

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

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