August 1, 2011

Taimen Camp – Day 11 / Lake Hovsgol

Fetching Water for Camp

Fetching Water for Camp

With temperatures reaching the 90s, we break camp early—at midnight instead of the next morning—to avoid overheating the heavily loaded Furgons.  The road to our destination, Moron, is horrible, all tree roots, twists, and ruts.  Not far from camp the lead Furgon stops when it spots a bear in the moonlight.  My Furgon is almost out of gas, so the driver pounds on doors and gets someone to open up the service station in the nearest town, Erdenet, at 1:00 AM.  At 2:00 AM we have a fuel filter problem and at 4:00 AM we have a tire blowout.  I am in a deep sleep so I am unaware that at 6:00 AM our drivers are so exhausted they just stop in the road and pretty much pass out in their seats.  Many of the passengers then get out of the cramped Furgon.  At 8:00 AM I wake up to see bodies all over the grass, as if we’d experienced a terrorist massacre.

Moron is unmemorable, save real beds and hot showers.  The next morning we drive toward Khotsgul, the “entranceway” to the Lake Hovsgul region.  The almost Swiss alpine ambiance of the lake is generating a growing tourist trade and, because of this, a rare-for-Mongolia, wide, graded highway from Moron to Khotsgul is being built.   Although only partly passable, this cuts our trip from six hours to only three, much appreciated because we have 12 adults and endless gear stuffed into the van.

The drive to Khotsgul affords the typical grand vistas, complete with a herd of Bactrian camels.  But as we enter the narrow valley at the lower end of the lake, the temperature drops from the water’s chill and we enter Khotsgul, a pleasant village full of ger camps and other visitor accommodations. At the dock our “research” vessel awaits—what appears to be an early 20th Century ex-Soviet subchaser. The transport of this ship to Lake Hovsgul brings to mind Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo in which a steamboat is winched over an Amazonian mountain; I can only imagine the difficulties in dragging almost 60 feet of steel vessel on dirt roads from Lake Baikal, where it spent an earlier phase of its life.

Because of supply issues, the ship doesn’t embark till evening.  As we head north, the lake opens as if entering the sea, steep chocolate and emerald mountains bordering its western shore.  The sight is completely incongruous with the hundreds of kilometers of sere landscape we’ve already passed through—as though all of the water that would normally be distributed across that terrain ended up in this one gargantuan gash in the earth.  We’re all excited to be here but our steppe-living Mongolian support staff is positively giddy at the dramatic change in habitats.  The cool air is refreshing; Hovsgul never warms up, with snow lasting on some shores till June and with three feet of ice forming in winter.  This ice was tempting for transport with the lake serving as a north-south route for fuel deliveries, the practice ending when 40 trucks accumulated on the lake bottom.

For the first few days we camp in a wild cove on the less rugged eastern shore, where we continue to collect fish specimens and process earlier samples.  One evening I make a run with Olaf and Tom to collect transect data using remote sensing on densities of creatures deep in the lake.  We “ping” many targets near the bottom at more than 100 meters but can’t identify them.  Later netting and additional computer processing may reveal their identities.

John Waldman and a large Taimen specimen

John Waldman and a large Taimen specimen

Finally, a speedboat arrives to begin my long journey home, my expedition is ending.  I say my goodbyes to everyone else, all of who will remain for another week, and am carried across impossibly deep-cobalt blue and azure waves, showing why Hovsgul translates in Turkic to “Blue Water Lake.”  I look forward to analyzing our samples back in the lab this autumn and in helping to understand the history of life in the Lake Hovsgul-Lake Baikal watershed.  I’ve also made a start in collecting taimen samples for an eventual broader study of the stock structure of Mongolian populations.  Moreover, I feel deeply refreshed at having been removed from the endless superficial stimuli of western life, and I’ve yet to fully comprehend what this expedition will mean to me, in keeping with Buber’s thought that “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

But I also am concerned at what I’ve seen.  Mongolia is hurtling towards some environmental tipping points.  In UB construction is everywhere.  New roads are opening up remote locations.  Industrial mining by foreign companies is frenzied and wildcat mining for gold is polluting waterways.   And few regions of the world have felt climate warming as acutely as Mongolia, with significant shrinking and loss of fresh waters.  Taimen are sensitive, apex predators. We lose eagles before we lose pigeons and starlings. The survival of taimen, one of the world’s iconic fishes, will be a true test of Mongolia’s environmental stewardship.