You know you’ve had a rigorous few weeks in the field when you return to Ulaanbaatar to discover that all your pants fall down around your ankles. This was the situation that I found myself in after a month-long marathon from the far reaches of the Darhad valley in northern Mongolia to the high peaks of the Altai in the west. The trip covered thousands of kilometers in search of wolverines and ideal sites for a camera-trap study. The travel, the wolverine data, and the new friends made, were all fantastic, but by the time I arrived back in the city to meet up with friend and fellow NRCC Research Associate Lydia Dixon, I was worried that I might soon weigh less than my camping equipment, which would be inconvenient and probably also unhealthy. There was a quick solution to this problem, however: a visit to my friends in Kharkhorin, the town where I’d served as a Peace Corps volunteer. Mongolians are overwhelmingly hospitable, and feeding guests is as much a national pastime as horse racing. When in need of fattening, go sit in a Mongolian household for about an hour, and your clothes will fit again.
Visting Kharkhorin also seemed like a good introduction to the country for Lydia, who was in Mongolia for the first time. And the eastern reaches of the Khangai Range, which are low and dry, are not wolverine habitat, which meant a short vacation from research. I anticipated a wolverine-free four days, enjoying time with friends.
We took the bus out to Kharkhorin and arrived in the middle of the most ferocious downpour I’d ever seen in Mongolia. Soon we were sitting at my friend Otgoo’s house, her four-year-old daughter regaling us with stories of the past year. Otgoo brought in a massive bowl from which a roasted sheep head glared at us, perched atop a rib-cage and a pile of stuffed intestines, a knife balanced at the side. Two bowls of airag, fermented mare’s milk, followed. Otgoo’s husband arrived home and, on learning that Lydia was interested in doing wolf research in Mongolia, opened the refrigerator and pulled out the skull of a wolf he’d shot in the fall, offering to let her take it home if it might be useful to her studies. Lydia handled food and wolf skull with impressive equanimity, and I sank gratefully back into a community that had been home for two years and which still maintains a strong hold on my sense of identity.
Just outside Kharkhorin, a valley leads back into the Khangai and up towards the town’s Ovoo, the shrine to the mountain spirits. I spent much of my time in Kharkhorin running around in the mountains that rise just beyond Khangai Ovoo, and a pilgrimage up to the peak is part of every trip to Mongolia. Lydia and I set out up the valley two days later, joking that if we were lucky, we would see a wolf and a wolverine during the hike. As we rounded a bend in the valley, the blue khatag scarves of a shamanic offering site appeared, tied around nine posts arranged across the valley floor. Someone had put up a new sign that read, “The Khangai Range is home to ferocious spirits, and therefore do not enter if you have a black spirit.” Further up the hill, a horsetail standard blew in the breeze, perched atop a pole rising from a new stone construction. I was pretty sure I knew who was responsible for all of these items; the town shaman was a friend of mine, had a strong environmental conscience, and was concerned about the ongoing plundering of resources from the mountains – which are, technically, part of the Khangai Nuruu National Park but which are poorly protected.
Drawn towards the stone construction, we walked uphill, and the shape soon resolved itself into a large stone has – a swastika, representing old Mongolian Buddhist and Shamanist beliefs. The pole bearing the standard rose from the center of the swastika, and something was tied around the middle of the pole. For a second I thought that the past month of constant wolverine focus must have gone to my head, that I was hallucinating; it seemed an almost impossible coincidence. And then Lydia said, “Is that….?”
I looked at her; she was looking at the thing tied to the post, and if she could see it, then it meant that I wasn’t imagining things, and that it was, yes, really, a wolverine pelt.
We were leaving town the next day and unfortunately I didn’t have time to trek out to the shaman’s house to ask him about the pelt’s origins and the symbolism of tying it to the standard. But I have some idea of what might be going on. Last year I talked to the shaman about wolverines and he mentioned that they could be considered Losiin Amitan, an animal that is representative of the Owners of the mountains. The word “ferocious” on the sign is, in Mongolian, dogshin, which is a word that people frequently use to describe wolverines. In trying to establish a measure of protection for the Khangai, the shaman is probably drawing on the fierce spiritual properties of the wolverine, their reputation for implacable vengeance, and the alleged ability of Losiin Amitan to travel between the worlds of humans and Owners and carry out spiritual tasks. I don’t know this for certain, but there are other suggestions that wolverines do play some role in shamanic ritual. In this mileu, it’s easy to start to believe that the persistent appearance of wolverines, no matter where I go, suggests some greater agency at work among the mountains of Mongolia. Regardless, I’m looking forward to learning more about the cultural significance of the species.
In the meantime, I’m happy to report that on my return to the city, I was able to wear all of my clothes without fear of them falling off while I walked down the street. A successful trip, all around.