On July 5th, we crossed the border into Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, and screeched to a halt beside a stream where a man and a boy were sitting next to a motorcycle. We’d been on the road for a week, conducting interviews and trying to figure out where wolverines might be; it was a painstaking process and, on that particular day, we’d driven 200 km over roads that barely deserved the name. We were dusty, dehydrated, and exhausted. Dispensing with the protocol that I’d developed to make sure people didn’t initially know what we were looking for – to prevent them from telling us, out of politeness, what they thought we wanted to hear – I pulled out a laminated picture of a wolverine, leaned out the window, and showed it to the man.
“Khunnu bar ma?”
It was my sole phrase in Kazakh; it meant “Are there any wolverines around here?” He looked up at me with clear – and clearly amused – gray eyes and said, “Bar.” This meant, “Yes.” Our driver, Baatar, reverted to Mongolian and asked, “Have you seen any recently?” The man looked at the picture, nodded, and said, “Yes, two or three days ago, up in the pasture above my camp.” He traced the stripe on the animal’s side, pointed to it, and said, “It had this stripe, and it went right across a cliff, fast, and disappeared around the other side of the mountain.”
“Can you show us where?”
He handed the picture back, and we were following him back to his ger and, if all went well, to our first confirmed wolverine sighting of the trip.
Hovd and Bayan Olgii are Mongolia’s westernmost aimags, or provinces. The Altai range runs like a spine along the border with Russia to the north, China to the south. Kazakhstan, which doesn’t share a border with Mongolia, is only a few dozen kilometers away, and that proximity explains the ethnic composition of the region. In the 1940’s, when the Soviet Union announced its intention to settle most of its nomadic pastoralist population, a number of Kazakh herders defected to Mongolia. Mongolia was a strong ally of the USSR, dependent on the Soviets for subsidies that supported its development, but the country of Chingis Khan remained independent – unlike the Central Asian republics – and was able to pursue its own policies with regard to pastoralists. Mongolia was a nation of herders, and the Kazakhs who fled to western Mongolia believed that they would be able to pursue a more traditional lifestyle in a country that remained surreptitiously proud of its nomadic heritage.
Their instinct proved correct. The Mongolia government established Bayan Olgii in 1940 as a Kazakh aimag. The Mongolian-Kazakh interface in Bayan Olgii and Hovd, where there is also a substantial Kazakh population, hasn’t always been flawless, but there have never been ethnic clashes of the kind that seem so prevalent in other countries with minority populations. Mongolians may make claims of superiority, but they are over minor issues (“Mongolian milk tea is true milk tea; Kazakh milk tea tastes like cow piss”), and the government has allowed the Kazakhs to pursue their own traditions without any attempts to Mongolize the population. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhs in Kazakhstan maintained that Mongolian Kazakhs were more truly Kazakh than those living in their Russified homeland, where Russian is now more commonly spoken than Kazakh.
For me, though, the situation presented some interesting complications. I’ve worked hard for years to master Mongolian language and customs, and I feel comfortable in a Mongolian context. I’m intellectually Buddhist, and at heart I share the Mongolians’ animist worldview. Heading to Bayan Olgii, I was thrown back into a situation where I didn’t speak the language and had only a vague understanding of the customs. I’d visited Bayan Olgii as a Peace Corps volunteer and felt welcomed despite the lack of language skills, but that was before September 11th and the Iraq fiasco. Kazakhs are Muslim, and who knew how things might have changed in the face of America’s rhetoric about the Islamic world? All I wanted to do was find wolverines and pikas and talk to people about environmental knowledge – if neo-conservative geopolitics interfered with that, I was going to be extremely disappointed and angry.
In the herder’s ger, we sat on low stools while his wife served us milk tea (despite Mongolian assertions, it tasted delicious) and an assortment of dairy products. A two meter long wolf pelt hung on the wall, against a backdrop of tapestries sewn by the women of the family. We sat drinking tea and talking – the herder spoke fluent Mongolian, although his wife didn’t – and as he explained where he’d seen the wolverine, all the dust and exhaustion of our trip melted away. An hour later, I was up in the high pastures above his camp, scaling the cliffs along the outer edge of an avalanche chute in an attempt to get closer to what appeared to be melted out tracks. I couldn’t think of any other animal that would go straight up a snowfield like that, but the tracks were too old to reach any conclusions. Disappointed, I came back down for the night.
Early the next morning, I was back in the high pasture, scrabbling up another cliff. The tracks in this avalanche chute were likewise too old to be conclusive. Frustrated, I inched back down. It was still cold – cold enough so that the snowfields had been frozen solid when I first got up here – but it was starting to warm up, and the sun on the black talus felt good. I glanced down at a lower snowfield and nearly tripped over my own feet. A faint track, lace-like from above, meandered across the field. I was too far away to tell for sure, but I knew anyway. In the Absarokas, I’d watched a wolverine detour across a slope in order to run across a snowfield; I knew with an inexplicable conviction that these were gulo tracks. When I reached the snowfield and crouched beside them, they blossomed like five-petaled flowers across the ice crystals. They hadn’t been there last night and, the snow had been frozen until a half hour ago or so. I’d missed the wolverine by twenty minutes at the most.