July 14, 2011

Taimen Camp – Day 7

Whooosh, as I step outside of the camp’s outhouse the sky sounds as if it is ripping apart. I turn my head in time to see the final speeding descent by a Steppe Eagle toward a ground squirrel breakfast. But the mammal escapes down its burrow by milliseconds. The eagle sits over the hole, gathers itself, and is soon heckled by a pair of magpies that appear to be taunting its failure.

Life is everywhere in the brief Mongolian summer. Raptors routinely cruise over our meadow searching for rodents. Great ground squirrel colonies leave holes every few feet that can break the legs of herder’s livestock. Marmots, which resemble giant groundhogs, live in burrows on the slopes. We see roe deer along the river bank, and Osprey and elegant Demoiselle Cranes too. Mergansers and other ducks ride the river, their ducklings finally too grown for all but the largest taimen. Swifts zoom over the water at dusk, showing how they earned their name. The meadows are covered with red poppies and other wildflowers, and even Cannabis sativa grows abundantly here in its native environment.

But there is a down side to this richness. I am never more than five feet from a cowpie, or its horse or sheep equivalent. These oases of fertility dry out and serve as nurseries for biblical numbers of flies. Ironically, we burn the animal dung to keep the flies away. The Mongolian taiga is not for the prissy.

Three days earlier we took a break from data collecting to visit the final day of a Naddam, the Mongolian version of a country fair. We momentarily make a stop not far away from the event and our Furgon refuses to start, forcing our driver, Amaraa, to get to work. I’ve come to realize that a Furgon and its owner have a deeply symbiotic relationship. Furgons break down constantly, but in little, reparable ways, forcing intimacy. Won’t start? Insert the metal bar up front and crank. Steering going? Pop in a ball bearing. Despite these annoyances, Furgon’s come through when it counts, crossing streams and deep mucky bogs that would cripple lesser vehicles, and traveling at highway speeds on roller coaster dirt roads. As the week progresses my respect for the Furgon only grows.

We walk the last leg to the Naddam as Amaraa fiddles with the engine. The native Mongolians wear their finest outfits, from traditional full-body Deel coats to modern-day western wear. We’ve missed the 25 km horse race but the wrestling matches continue. Four local gladiators in traditional garb square off a time in two pairs after a minute of ritual bird-like dancing motions to the crowd. After sampling local foods, Talia Young, one of our graduate students, enters us in the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, held on a scrubby dirt and grass court with bent rims. The women gain third place and the equivalent of $15 US. The fact that there were only three teams did not spoil their placing, they deserved it for sheer sportsmanship. After a long day spent celebrating, we are relieved to see Amaraa come puttering to us in the again-resurrected Furgon.

After witnessing the morning eagle attack I am driven up a different part of the watershed, the Eg River-the direct outlet of Lake Hovsgol, to then raft six miles in search of lenok. Unlike the broad Uur, the Eg is a narrow, heavily wooded river. It’s a pleasure to explore its windy path under the quiet power of the flow, oars used only to aim for the next tongue of deeper water. For most of the day the fish don’t cooperate. But near the end we find a honey hole and pull nine lenok out of it – specimens essential to one of the student studies. The expedition’s success is cumulative, every day we collect more and more material and perform some preliminary processing. Although we are anxious to analyze our data thoroughly in our home labs and on our home computers, we are in no rush for this part of the trip to end.

Read more about John Waldman’s Mongolian Expedition >>