By Neil Pederson
With much thanks to our colleague, Dr. Baatarbileg Nachin, field research in Mongolia gets better each year.
Mongolians generally live at a different pace of life than many Americans and merging schedules to conduct field research can prove to be tricky. I have seen colleagues have their sense of pace challenged here. This year, however, we were packed, loaded and on the road a little over 36 hours after touching down in Ulaanbaatar. It was so quick it caught me off-guard; I almost begged for another day of acclimation.
Despite Intellicast.com forecasting generally cool weather leading up to our trip (70s in the day, 40s at night, which, after the late-July heat wave, had me drooling), the weather changed significantly upon our arrival – it was warm and humid (for Mongolia); it must have followed us over.
Not only did the quick departure from UB surprise us, the smooth road between UB and Erdenet whisked us to less than 50 km from Russia in no time. The only thing that made us hesitate was the brewing thunderstorm in the distance.
The storm forced us to stop and pack items on the roof of our rig inside.
(did you see the lightning strikes?)
We got back on the road and crossed a major river with many vendors selling fish. It is a sight I had not seen in 7 visits to Mongolia – “fish for sale!”
We stopped in the large, copper-mining town of Erdenet to pick up one of Baatar’s students, Erden. We also took in a fine meal at one of the best restaurants in Mongolia, …huh, it is so good, and perhaps new, that Lonely Planet doesn’t list it. It was Asian themed and upscale; the clientele were young, good-looking and fashionable.
We quickly made it to Erden’s folk’s home in Hyagalant. The town is a lovely, piney village near the Russian border (piney here is used in the southeastern US sense – the village is well-treed and on a sandy plain in the Selenge River Valley. There is a Coastal Plain or Piedmont feel to the land around Erden’s folk’s home).
Upon finally getting out of the vehicle, I felt a large sense of relief and familiarity. First, it was much cooler than UB. Second, the cool air was a bit more humid than the air we had left. It reminded me of cool, summer nights in the Adirondacks. I seriously contemplated sending home for the family and moving to Hyagalant. Erden’s home was unusual in that it was a two-story, log cabin/house. It was very well kept. As we would learn over the next few days, Erden’s parents are kind, hard-working and fastidious. Erden’s home seemed like a bit of Eden to me.
I think what we appreciated most about our temporary residence was the heavily-used, external kitchen (below).
Per Mongolian tradition, within minutes of our arrival we were invited to the table and served Mongolian tea, bread and cheese.
This tradition and their grounding in time and life is one reason I love coming to Mongolia. Mongolians greet strangers warmly, immediately offer drink and food and settle in for a nice visit. Time matters little. Life unfolds as it should, as it needs. People talk, smile and just relax. In many homes toasts are made, gifts are exchanged upon arrival and best wishes are expressed for whatever your goal for the visit might be. These wishes are sincere. For example, a few days later we drove to the southern side of the Selenge River looking for forests to sample. We completely struck out despite much local advice. Erden’s father truly felt terrible as we left later that day for another forest. I didn’t know what he was saying, but his feelings were obvious.
Anyhow, this outdoor space was the center of activity during our time there. Folks came and went. We had many meals and visits at that table. After success in this area, which will be relayed later, the family’s farm workers came by to discuss the haying season and operations. It turned out to be a spirited discussion:
These visits and experiences are a welcomed reminder as to what should ground our lives – being kind people and moving at a pace that is necessary at that moment.
Another thing I love about returning to Mongolia is the lack of light pollution, especially around the time of the Perseids. I am so much more of a stargazer in Mongolia. How could one not be? This is what night looks like, even in the village of Hyagalant:
After they cleared out their living room to make it our bedroom for the night, we headed for the forest the next morning. Our first stop was a davaa (mountain pass) just outside of town. It looked amazingly like a davaa we visited 2 years earlier, but many kilometers away. The forest was young, but held no prospect for research. However, we did happen on an old marker that Baatar said had Tibetan script on it:
Perhaps this was a road signpost from 100,000 days past?
We then headed to another flat, piney forest on another side of town. While this forest also had large pine and some fire scars, it was not quite old enough for the goals of our study. While driving through the forest, we were brought to an important, local ‘landmark’ – the Hanging Tree.
The story behind this tree is that a Russian general or military leader attempted to make a significant amount of the land around Hyagalant his own, personal Idaho. The locals, expectedly, didn’t take too well to this land grab and went after the leader. They brought him and several of his followers to this tree and hung them.
I’ve been brought to a hanging tree before, a tree from a darker part of American history. These kinds of trees have such a diametrically opposed meaning for me from how I view trees, I am at a loss on how to view or treat them. I mean, it isn’t like they went out of their way to to play this role in history; they are innocent. And, I still cannot believe what people did/do to one another. I cannot fathom it (yes, i read the news and know a bit about history).
I mean, in one sense I do understand this. I’ve been a part of some heated rivalries with those dreaded B’ville Bees; truly fierce. I’ve seen and been a part of heated discussions regarding SEC football or March Madness. I understand tribesmanship. I know how heated things get. But, to take it that far?…..
Anyhow, we were not there for long and, as you can see, the living tree is gone and it will soon return to the soil, be recycled and feed a new, more innocent generation of plants and animals (hopefully).
The next day our trip to the forest was delayed by some rig repair. Most roads in Mongolia are rough. And, to be a driver, you must also be a mechanic and have ears better than an owl. Baatar has all of that.
Not only do you have to be handy, you must be prepared:
Once repaired we headed to the southern side of the Selenge River Valley. We saw many wonderful things, but not enough fire scars. Many of our conversations went like this:
We stopped at a few homes and asked for advice. Here is the end of such a scene – watch for our local host to finish his tea. Even simply asking for advice demands a stop and cup of tea in Mongolia.
Despite these stops we found nothing…so far. Our success, a Goldmine and Field of Onions, will come a bit later. For now, I will cap this post off with scenes from the Selenge Valley and soundscapes of lands without machines.
What is it like driving around the wilds of Mongolia in a Russian jeep? Buckle up!
Did you hear that? Yup, nothing but insects.
More sounds of Mongolian wilderness