Trekking

Wolverine practices route-finding using maps of uncertain quality.

Forty-three topographic maps of dubious quality are currently piled on the coffee table in my apartment. The Russians created these maps in the 1970s, and there are rumors that the Communists intentionally made them a few degrees off, to thwart invading armies and, latterly and perhaps unintentionally, wildlife biologists. I am worried about these maps. I can navigate, but what do you do if the maps are wrong? I’ve spent the last few weeks staring at them, staring at Google Earth, and wondering how many herders are in the Khangai backcountry, and whether they’ll be able to direct us if we get lost.

At this point, there’s not much we can do; we leave in three days, to trek about 250 miles through the Khangai, surveying for wolverines and pikas and interviewing the herders we find. My original hiking partner, the one with whom I wrote the proposal and who had some backpacking and wildlife experience, bailed immediately due to other obligations, and finding another hiking partner – someone who could foot the bill to get to Mongolia, since the grant covers only in-country hiking expenses – has been a challenge. This year, with a mining boom gripping the country, tickets are ridiculously expensive, and so are in-country living and transportation costs. It’s been a bit of a shock, and it’s meant that the only real option has been finding someone who is already here. A friend of mine, Marissa Smith, who is doing her anthropology PhD research in the city of Erdenet, agreed to give it a try, even though she has never been backpacking before. Her work focuses on the intersections between urban and rural communities, the ways in which Mongolian professionals in the city maintain critical ties with the countryside, so this is a research trip for her, too. I am impressed by her spirit, but a little concerned at being the only one with any kind of backpacking experience, especially since my own experience is mostly limited to places with reliable maps.

Wolverine conquers a big pile of borts, dried meat. Knife for fending off wolves in foreground.

Still, in the past few weeks, we’ve gone through all of our available sources – guidebooks in several languages, interviews with people who have relatives in the countryside near our route, discussions with ex-pats who run ger camps or tourist operations in the area – and the lack of exact knowledge promises to lend the adventure of discovery to the trip. We hear rumors of monasteries and sacred trees, meditation sites of old mendicant Buddhist monks, ice age petroglyphs depicting ostrich and mammoth, strings of bronze age tombs scattered through the valleys. We have the coordinates for hidden hot springs. We know where talus slopes host pikas, and we have GPS layers showing the densest concentrations of argali and ibex. We have a single small map that tracks traces of snow leopards across the range. We have the wolverine snow model, and the phone numbers of various tanil – acquaintances – in the countryside. We should be okay.

Wandering the mountains has an honored history here. Supplies for traditional mendicant Buddhist monks, National History Museum, Ulaanbaatar. Note wooden frame backpack against wall. (Photo: Dan Sirbu)

List of supplies for mendicant monks. We are omitting ” Tibetan large pot,” but otherwise the equipment seems pretty constant. (Photo: Dan Sirbu)

As we ‘scotched’ our 43 Russian maps – a ghetto version of laminating in a country without laminating machines, involving rolls of clear packing tape and a great deal of patience – Marissa commented that so far, backpacking trips bring to mind being involved in a coke packaging operation. This analogy is a first for me; let’s hope the rest of the trip doesn’t resemble drug dealing. I was also vehemently informed by the Ovorhangai Aimag Fire Department that I would definitely be eaten by wolves, because twelve people had recently been pulled off motorcycles and devoured. I pointed out that I wouldn’t be on a motorcycle, but that didn’t seem to reassure anyone. I did buy a very big knife, just in case.

This will probably be my last post before we set out, so here’s some information for people who want to try to keep track of us as we go.

Below is an image of our approximate route, starting in Tsetserleg (“Garden”) and ending in Uliastai (“Place with Aspens”), with each week’s distance marked in a different color. Chuluut (“At the Rocks”) and Khangai (“Rich Land”) soums are two small towns that we will visit to resupply. Ikh Uul (“Big Mountain”) and Tosontsengel (“Oily Happiness” – I can only assume this refers to the oil used in butter lamp offerings, although fat in general has positive connotations here) are potential bail off points if we run into any trouble in the very sparsely populated western part of the range. We will probably catch a ride, if there is one, to Uliastai from the vacation camp beneath Otgontenger, due to time constraints. I set up a Spot page, where you can allegedly see our progress in real time, at http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0miBnXWyHoPYOqJYENL2TKghZUeCI6Qnu

I have been trying to test this for the past few days and have had issues with the system, now including being locked out of my account until I can contact customer service – which, of course, is quite a challenge from Mongolia. Hopefully it will be functional again when we set off.

I am going to be posting updates to my Facebook page, and these will be reposted to the Mongolian Wildlife and Climate Change Project’s Facebook page. So if you want to follow these posts – I will immediately send a message if we see wolverines, snow leopards, a yeti, or a gang of wolves on motorcycles – then “like” us and you too will be among the first to know what amazing creatures are roaming central Mongolia.

So that’s it for the next month! Thanks to all of you who have followed this blog, who comment and engage with wolverine work, and who show your support in so many ways. I look forward to being back in touch in mid-September, and till then, safe travels and good adventures to all.

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