July 11, 2011

Eight days – NYC to Taimen Camp

Taimen Camp – Day 3

It’s Day 3 at the Uur River and I hear a faint rumbling sound from behind a mountain. Airplane or thunder? It was the heavens threatening, but I realize that in three days I have yet to see a single aircraft—not even an international jet up high. This corner of Mongolia truly is remote, it took a remarkable eight full days to make it to Taimen Camp from New York. Propagating flight delays contributed, but most of the travel time was the product of extreme distance and tedious slogging.

For the trip’s final two days 11 of us rode crammed with gear in our laps in a Russian Furgon—picture a vintage Volkswagen Van on steroids—but one that can drive through walls.

I coped with my own discomfort by gazing at the grand vistas of the Mongolian steppe as it slowly transformed to mountainous taiga forest. Our Mongolian driver coped by endlessly blasting the same music tape by the still popular 80′s dance band, Modern Talking. We rolled into Taimen Camp at midnight, after a 15-hour road day.

This last leg featured more than 100 kilometers of ligament-loosening dirt road and having to rescue a van blocking our way that had fallen partly through the floor of a single lane wooden bridge.

Despite my exhaustion from both the journey and the 12-hour time difference, the next morning I emerge early from my ger, excited for finally having made it to this exotic locale. The view doesn’t disappoint. A Steppe Eagle circles overhead, searching for ground squirrels as I survey Taimen Camp. Situated on the broad floodplain of the Uur River, its main cabin and several gers sit in a verdant valley occupied by a small number of herders and their many horses, cattle, and sheep. But as I walk down the road and broaden my gaze, I experience a feeling that I will have repeatedly in Mongolia—that of being ringed by a vast landscape of sunlit mountainsides and meadows, but that at times are completely without sound or motion, the sense of catching a glimpse of the planet before the existence of mankind—indeed, a kind of a primeval serenity rarely felt in the western world. If there isn’t a word for this, there should be.

Uur Valley

A panoramic shot of the Uur river taken from a mountain above the researchers' camp. Credit: Olaf Jensen

The first morning is devoted to setting up camp: unpacking food and sundries, hooking up generators and solar units, carrying water from the river, inflating a raft, and organizing field sampling gear. I am then privileged to witness a primal scene, one which is a mainstay of Mongolian nomadic life. For our main course for many meals to come, a sheep is purchased. Then the clearly terrified beast is expertly slaughtered, using the traditional Mongolian blood-saving technique of making a fist-sized incision in the chest and squeezing the animal’s heart. The sacrifice made by animals in their provision of meat never was more apparent.

After lunch, there is no holding us back and we drive to a promising gravel bar upriver to begin sampling. The protocol is an angling scientist’s fantasy—there simply is no more efficient means to collect the larger fish species of a shallow, rocky, fast flowing river than with hook and line. Guilt thus resolved, my colleagues and I land numbers of two of the three gamefish of the Uur, lenok (a primitive trout with an unusual bottom-oriented mouth) and Arctic grayling (a gorgeous trout relative with a sweeping dorsal fin), carrying them dangling to a flock of eager students who work them up for their various research projects, while we make our next casts.

In the evening the students begin to work up ecological field samples in the lab, mostly sorting invertebrates. Late that night we sit down to a meal of entrails, the traditional first use of the sheep’s fastest spoiling body parts. I am one of several of us who become sick, though whether the culprit is the meat, the fresh vegetables, or the water, will remain a mystery.

The next morning in brilliant sunshine Olaf, Dr. Tom Hrabik of the University of Minnesota, speed up the Uur in our jet-outboard powered johnboat captained by Gonzorig, our superb Mongolian river guide. We are on the hunt for taimen. The river winds, opening on one stunning vista after another, with livestock herds scattered here and there on the hills and riverbank and only an occasional ger or log cabin in view.

We hop out of the boat at several promising pools and cast but the taimen are off their feed this day. Not long before we need to return to camp I hook a lovely, crimson-colored two-footer. Working it up includes sedating it, measuring its length, taking a tissue sample for DNA analysis, injecting a plastic tag under its dorsal fin, photographing its head spots for study of their use as a “natural” fish tag, and then surgically placing a radiotransmitter in its body cavity. Olaf turns to me and says “Since you caught it, you get to name it.” My answer: “Modern Talking.” We watch as Modern Talking revives and slowly swims off, offering not a dance beat but instead steady radio signals that should provide information on the habits of taimen for years to come.

Read more about John Waldman’s Mongolian Expedition >>