Edge Species

The first part of the Mongolian Wolverine expedition narrative is here

Miki, our field assistant, had called a friend of hers to meet us at the airport in Murun, the aimag capital. While we waited in the tiny terminal with its comically miniature baggage conveyor belt – irksomely  devoid of luggage for about 30 minutes, despite the fact that the tiny plane was parked just a few feet away and only 25 of us had flown in  – Jason stared at Miki’s friend’s baseball cap.  Finally he said, “Kind of weird.”

“What?”

“His hat.”

I looked at it; tan, nondescript, except for the words “Edge Species” embroidered across the top.

“It’s like, it must be fate or something. ‘Edge Species’ – it’s a perfect description for a wolverine.” After a second, he added, “I kind of want that hat.”

Edge Species. Geographically, the phrase was more than apt. Wolverines in Mongolia live primarily along borders – to the west, in the Altai, where Mongolia runs up against Russia and China, and to the north, where the mountains of Hovsgol spill out into the vast Siberian taiga, and where the Siberian taiga rolls down into Khentii aimag. For both major wolverine expeditions this summer, I’d been required to get border permits from the Border Protection office in Ulaanbaatar. In Bayan Olgii, I’d been barely three miles from Russia; the wolverines whose tracks I found are undoubtedly dual citizens. In Mongolia, I’ve always had the sense that I stand at the edge of something, the psychological effect of knowing that Siberia stretches north to the Arctic circle, wilder and bigger and less trammeled than almost any other ecosystem on earth. The closer we got to the Darhad valley, the more wolverines seemed to embody the feeling that I was about to fall off the edge of the known world.

Off the edge of the map: the Darhad Valley and Siberia

The people, too, are edge groups. Khalkh Mongols are the dominant ethnicity in Mongolia, and their territory stretches through most of central Mongolia; the Khalkh dialect is the standard for proper speech, and some minority groups claim that pretending to be Khalkh lends advantage in job and school applications. The wolverines in the Khangai Range, which sweeps through central Mongolia, interact – to the extent that wolverines ever interact with humans – with Khalkhs. But the rest of Mongolia’s wolverines are in minority territory. Kazakhs make up the majority of the population of Bayan Olgii, and a range of Mongol tribes – the Dorvod, the Turguud, the Uriankhai, the Zahchin – inhabit the Altai. Hovsgol is home to the Darhad, who are descended from Tuvans. The Dukha or Tsaatan, reindeer-herders who still speak a Turkic language, inhabit the farthest northern tip of the Darhad Valley. Khentii has a significant Buriat population, a group whose territory historically stretched from what is now northern Mongolia all the way to Lake Baikal.

Understanding local environmental knowledge is an important part of the project, and the ethnic diversity meant that we would have the opportunity to gain different perspectives on wildlife. But it also presented some challenges, the reality of which hit me as we traveled north the next day. People had accents. Heavy, heavy accents. My Mongolian, nurtured amongst my Khalkh friends in Ovorkhangai aimag, was repeatedly complimented as being “very clean.” I’d no sooner say “thanks,” than whoever was talking to me would launch into an explanation or description of something that was no doubt of vital importance, but of which I could barely make sense. It sounded as if they were speaking Mongolian with a Scottish brogue, all slurred vowels and elongated s’s. I would have felt that my Mongolian wasn’t as good as I’d thought it was, but when I looked to Miki for translation, she whispered that she couldn’t understand them either.

With the dawning realization that the Hovsgol trip was going to push the boundaries of my abilities even further – that comfortable Kharkhorin, inhabited by my good friends and acquaintances, was a far cry from this wild frontier where Jason, Miki and I were now jouncing over roads that maybe didn’t deserve that designation – we crested a rise and saw our destination for the first time. Directly in front of us, an array of ovoos, shrines to the Owners of the land, stretched along either side of the road. Below, through a thick curtain of trees – the southernmost sprawl of the Siberian forests – was the Darhad, at last.

Offering to the mountain Owners at Eliin Pass, the gateway to the Darhad.

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