Category Archives: Summer 2010

Oceans of Ancient Wood and Coming Full Circle

We have just made it back to Ulaanbaatar after 11 days of in-country travel and field work. While being a bit field worn from working on a lava field for 6 days, we are simultaneously thrilled and in good spirits. It is a bit too early to say, but it seems that Summer 2012 in Mongolia was a success*. It certainly felt like a success to me on the day we came full circle from 2010.

Amy, John, and Sanaa were a day ahead of us and, with John being down with a case of Chinggis’ revenge, Amy and Sanaa spent a full day on the lava field revisiting and re-visioning how we would sample over the following week. The hopeful goal was to collect enough wood to push the chronology near 2000 years in length while having enough samples over the last 1000 years to be able to say something with statistical significance. Sanaa and Amy intensely studied where to find wood and what pieces might be from an earlier era. They accomplished this while collecting 24 cross-sections of deadwood. It was an impressive and hugely helpful first day.

It was necessary to study the characteristics of the deadwood and its geographic distribution across the lava field because, honestly, our first discovery is pretty much the definition of, “a blind hog will find an acorn every once in a while“. During Amy’s and Sanaa’s first day of discovery in 2012, Sanaa came up with the term ‘ocean’ for the large, open areas of lava that are virtually devoid of trees. Because the ocean as a whole can be considered a kind of desert, we found that term ‘ocean’ was correct: this part of the lava field truly resembled a desert. Thus, over the course of our fieldwork, the first verse and drifting characteristics of A Horse with No Name came to mind. The heat was hot. There were plants and birds and rocks and things. Oh yeah, there were a few rocks.

A 360 pan of a large ‘ocean’ of lava. Can you spot Amy and Kevin? Photo: N. Pederson

Together we learned that it was on the margins of these oceans that we could find what appeared to be ancient wood. It wasn’t until the penultimate day, however, that we had any sense of what we had accomplished.

Continue reading


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

last P.I. standing

By Amy Hessl

Neil looked good when we left UB on Aug 21, but he was a dead man walking.

We waited almost an hour to cross this bridge, as the family who keeps it in working order was busy building a new ger.  As we watched and waited, several more travelers – on horseback, motorbike, car and truck – accumulated on either side of the bridge.  Finally the pressure must have been too great – the family collected several thousand tugrik from each of us and opened the gate.  I’m guessing they made about $20 that morning. But hey, it was a big bridge.

The next day, we had the honor of stopping in Byaraa’s home village where we had a wonderful lunch of hot Mongolian soup, tse and airag.  Byaraa had not been to visit his village in three years and it was like watching the all-star quarterback come home.  He was greeted with loving looks by every passerby – especially the young girls!!! Byaraa is shy though, so no more about that. But seriously, what girl could resist?

Thank you to Byaraa’s grandmother for a delicious lunch!  Continue reading

now for some culture

By Neil Pederson

yesterday was a ‘free’ day in the capitol, Ulaanbaatar. the day started with breakfast at the Amsterdam Cafe near the State Department Store. the cafe is the early morning hangout for tourists and their Mongolian hosts. having an “English breakfast” – eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, bacon and toast, and an assortment of coffees and teas and pastries, it makes it a popular hangout. having free internet must help, too. [btw, i started drinking ‘coffee’, mostly in mocha form]. we came to the cafe yesterday morning to meet a Mongolian artist and her agent; the cafe displays artwork for purchase. from there we went back to the artist’s studio/apartment. i went along because i enjoy meeting Mongolians and seeing different parts of the city.

upon arrival, we were greeted by the artist’s husband and boy. the husband, “Tom” [which means ‘big’ in Mongolian], is young, has a shaved head, is thick and muscular [a typical Mongolian build], a chin curtain with a short braid hanging from his curtain. he is also covered below the knees and from shoulders to his wrists with tattoos – he is a hip, young Mongolian, but would fit in Brooklyn no problem. he gladly showed off his tattoos of Chinggis, other historical Mongolians and scenes. his tats  were made by his wife.

their boy is an excitable young man. he was walking around the apartment with his backpack on. he was excited about his first day of school – kindergarten – on September 1st. all Mongolian students begin school on Sep 1st, from kindergarten to university. it is a big show, esp on the national news. the boy also got excited seeing the pile of US dollars his mother earned yesterday morning! his mom had to catch his hands quick.

Amy & the Artist

The artist is a sweet, quiet and soft spoken woman. her art, like much modern Mongolian art, blends the traditional with the contemporary, often western contemporary. unlike her apparent personality, her artwork is quite bold. some of her paintings are almost as big as she is. much of her artwork is very colorful. Continue reading

Best. Rainbow. Ever. [or, everyone gets a brain worm once in a while]

By Neil Pederson

We are back from our >1800 km road/field trip. We drove for 2 days, conducted fieldwork for 3 days and then drove back over 2 days. We had to get back b/c Byamba has to prepare to go back to Colorado State U to begin classes on Monday.

We scrambled to get to Tsetserleg by nighttime the first day, but transmission issues with our rig delayed our departure from UB. As the sun set, a wind and lightning storm met us. It signaled a change in the weather. Temps were in the 80’s in UB as we packed. By the next morning they were in the 40’s. The extreme continentality of Mongolia made its presence known.

We stopped for breakfast in Tsetserleg. We got the full treatment by a former classmate’s of our Mongolian colleague. Not expecting to know this person, I didn’t recognize this woman I met in the same town 11 yrs ago. It was a great and warm reunion.

From there we finally made it to our first sampling site, through a high pass and to nearly the western end of the Khangai Mtns, ~ 400 km west of Tsetserleg.

The weather continued to deteriorate for field work – it rained and the temps dropped to the 30’s. It snowed at high elevation and it spit snow on us during our first day of sampling. We completed out work, despite the Siberian larch being mostly rotten; we had to core about 5-6trees to get one solid tree. Byamba and Bilaa made a nice fire history collection.

The larch outside our camping site reflected this change in the weather and perhaps foretells and early and cool autumn.

We drove back east stopping at the famous, Sologotyin Davaa, site of the first temperature sensitive chronology in Mongolia. It is over 1000 yrs long and reflects global warming. Ironically, it burned recently. Continue reading