Monthly Archives: September 2010

clips of Mongolian science and environmental news

a feature on Bolortsetseg Minjin, female paleontologist

recap of the 2009-2010 dzuud

an essay on over-grazing and desertification

government cabinet conduct a meeting in the Gobi to discuss global change and protecting Mongolia’s natural resources

ministers meeting discussing the nation’s environmental future


the one that got away…for now

By Neil Pederson

the main portion of the 2010 field season went out like a lamb yesterday, no Mongolian pun intended. we traveled the Millennial Road to check out a site I spotted a few weeks ago and look for other sites that might help fill in a part of the northern portion of our climate network. on the third viewing from afar, it looked better than the first two. however, what we could not see was a fence on the eastern end of this rocky, elevated valley nor the chained gate on the dirt road leading into the site:

fences and, especially with gates, are new things in Mongolia. most land is open to the public, so to speak. it turns out that the owner is a famous lama and sculptor. our leader on this trip, Professor Dima [pic below], compared the owner to Zanabazar, a famous artist and lama in Mongolian history. also, the modern lama-artist is building a new monastery on his little cul-de-sac in this corner of the world.

the owner went back to town that morning, but we were allowed on site by the owner’s gatekeeper because Dima said we wanted to take pictures of the unique rock formations and the trees sitting on the rocks. after getting in we asked permission from the construction workers to do the same. it was agreeable to them for us to tour the site. but, given the elevated status of this site and our unusual appearance and request, we decided to hold off on any sampling until we get permission to sample by the owner.

after a wonderful autumn hike while scouting out the site, autumn was in the air and yellow birch leaves were on the ground, it was hard to drive away with no samples. it was a nearly ideal site in a great location for our research needs.

there is always next yr, correct? Continue reading

caught the Tengri bug

By Neil Pederson

our last extended field excursion went off without a hitch. No major mishaps or illnesses to report. Well, I did catch the Tengri bug.

It was mostly paved road to our first stop – smooth sailing all the way. We stayed at the home of our colleague’s best friend from college. Like always, the hospitality was the tops – ceremony, pre-dinner foods, two kinds of main dishes and the best room in the house was ours for the night. The conversation was great. It mostly centered on the differences between the American & Mongolian diets. It was an insightful, warm and fun conversation. Perhaps the biggest conclusion was that the Mongolian tea – milk, black tea and salt – makes perfect evolutionary sense – it is their Gatorade. It must help them combat the arid environment. Most interestingly, the concentration of salt increases as aridity increases, moving east to west across the country. It might be that with climate change and increased moisture availability western Mongolia, future tea will be characterized as having less salt (our hosts at dinner last night explained there is less salt in eastern Mongolian tea because of the minerals in the water that occur as a result of the limestone bedrock; guess Inner Bluegrassians already know this? They also explained that western Mongolian is tea is better because of additional ingredients. This is an observation I agree with – you’ll have to go west Cari to get the good stuff).

Our other interesting conversation was based upon ‘burial’ rituals in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. The book “Wolf Totem” explains how Mongolian culture is strongly influenced by wolf culture. The great Mongolian Armies of the 13th century, if not earlier versions, adapted some the tactics that wolves use to hunt. So, I asked if it was true that Inner Mongolians bury their dead as described in the book. These rituals begin with taking a stripped corpse and putting it on the back of a cart. They run the cart up into the mountains. When the corpse falls off the cart, that is its burial location. The burial, however, comes next. Wolves come and, uh, hmm, bury the corpse by ingesting it. The interesting thing is that, in the book, this is portrayed as an honor. Most importantly for the surviving friends and family is how quickly the corpse is buried. The faster it is buried, the better that person is thought to have lived and the quicker they will reach their version of heaven.

Our host said this was generally true. He went on to tell us that on the steppes of Mongolia they do something similar to this – they put the corpse under something [a special cloth? sheet?] and have the large vultures bury the deceased. The faster they are buried, the better the lives that they lived and faster they come back to human life. The longer it takes for a steppe Mongolian to be buried, the longer the journey back to human life for that person. First they might come back as a dog and then a cow or yak and then a horse, etc, before they come back as a human. Apparently family or friends paint or mark the good ones and look for them to come back. They search their children for marks or mannerisms of favorite ancestors.

Which, of course, led to a brief discussion on blue spot or blue mark (which is a great song, btw) or the Mongolian spot. This is a common blue birthmark in many Asians and, interestingly, native Americans. Our colleague’s 3 yr old girl apparently has a lot of spots on her back and it bothers her a bit. According to wiki, these spots go away by age 5 or so.

Now, my Tengri bug. Apparently, I caught it in 1998. It lay dormant for 13 years. The sacred Orkhon Valley and prevailing weather conditions triggered a massive episode of Tengri. Wow, was the sky beautiful on this last trip. We sampled trees near the only waterfall in central Mongolia on the margins of the day, at dusk and dawn. This made the sky simply brilliant. It was hard to take one’s eyes off the sky, shadows and colors. It was brilliant. The intervening night was crystal clear as well. In fact, I noticed for the first time [or did not remember from prior observations] the ‘k’ shape in the Milky Way. It was stunning. It was definitely a top ten sampling day.

What does Tengri look like? Here is one example:

for the complete gallery, go here and be sure to view on ‘Slideshow

Two other notes from this part of our trip: Continue reading

Epic Stoicism

By Neil Pederson

Ok, picture is worth 1000 words, correct? Time between trips is short, so I’ll come up with at least 10k words pictorially. It was a great trip, though it started with a strong cold, a head injury, an impending winter storm that threatened to shut down the country that morphed into an alteration of plans, getting lost for a bit from all the ninja roads [illegal miners] and then a stuck truck [see pix below]. However, traditional medicine for the head injury, incredible hospitality from Sanaa’s family again [this pic is from Summer 2009], some wet feet, but no snow storm, Eternal Blue Sky, old-growth forest with some incredible fire scars, mission accomplished, a healthier head and sinus system, a scenic ride back to the capitol and the best pizza in Mongolia in Darkhan? Really?

I have a post in mind based on Emerging, but no time for that at this time.

So, two quick great Mongolian interactions from today:

–       at my favorite breakfast joint and free wireless location [where I am posting this – Café Amsterdam], the waitress tried to play a small joke on me. Obviously having been there almost every day when in town and trying to say hello, thank you and goodbye in Mongolian each time possible helped create this situation, but the experience was a bit unusual for interaction with a Mongolian ‘stranger’ [Mongolians are much like New Englanders, short, cool and helpful only as needed at first then, when they trust/like you, very, very warm]. When I went to pay, she said, “tomato soup, pastry, coke and a milkshake?” I said, “teem”. Then I said the Mongolian version of ‘yeah’, “tcho” [blowing air out stiffly] and then stated I even knew the subtleties of Mongolian and proceeded to say the 3-4 ways you can say yes & yeah. She adds up the bill, holds it to her chest and says, “Arav hoyle tao’ick”, though I am not sure of the spelling of anything save Arav. I tried to backpedal and say that I knew little Mongolian to which she replied, “Arav hoyle tao’ick” and smiled. Smiling by a Mongolian you do not know is a bit unusual, as you will see in the posed photos of Mongolian children below. Mongolians can be so stoic and expressionless at times it borders on nervy. I then asked her to repeat it, which she did. I then started thinking and almost figured it out. I asked her to repeat again, which she did more slowly. I then stuttered, “twelve-thousand, five hundred” to which she replied with wide eyes, a wider smile and nodding head and then sped off. When she returned, she apologized, “ooch la raa, it was 11,500”, to which I replied, “oh, I was right and you were wrong!!” The wait staff smiled and laughed and we all said goodbye, me in Mongolian, they in English as we left.

–       we went for a late dinner tonight at the Great Khan Irish Pub. As we were finishing up, we asked if there would be a band tonight; we saw a drum kit on stage. The waiter said yes. So, we decided to stick around to see the band called The Lemons. They set up quickly and launched into their set. It was interesting – sounded like poppy, British/American rock from this decade. The guitarist/singer has a good voice like one of these newer poppy rock bands. The rhythms were very familiar. The rhythm guitarist wore a corduroy sports coat, jeans and glasses close to horned rim. The bassist stood in the back corner, came out to utter some background vocals and scurried to back to his corner; he laid down some tasty bass lines, though. The singer was short, skinny, had a speckled, silver guitar and wore full-on sunglasses [“I wear my sunglasses at night”].

Ashley commented he was the skinniest Mongolian she had seen yet. I then launched into my “you know why skinny white boys play the guitar or pick up two turntables and a microphone, right?” lecture from a few classes I’ve taught. Well, you know why, right? A guitar or two turntables and a microphone are simply male plumage. Apparently it is completely universal – see here, here, here and here. Continue reading