Wednesday, February 6, 2008

off to meet Rudolf

This time next week we will be nervously packing, seeing if we can get all our super-warm gear + all the random stuff we promised to bring for Meg's sister, Annie, into our carry-on sized backpacks. I don't mind checking bags on the way back, but I'm definitely not going to be missing my warm stuff when we land in Ulaan Baatar.

We flew through Seoul last time (which actually worked out great) -- and if you ever need a hotel near the airport, we loved staying here at the Hyatt Regency. This time around we're flying through Moscow, but with just a six-hour layover on the way out.

While it will be fun to see UB again, to see how much it has changed, to try and breathe in the coal-fired, coal-dust air, to eat great Indian food (!), the highlight of our trip is to head up to the frozen north to hook up with the folks from the Tsaatan Community & Visitors Center. It seems strangely appropriate that in the heart of Mongolian winter, leaving the amenities of the capital, we would fly into the town of Moron. (Admittedly, it is pronounced more like Mörön.)

Having now arrived in Mongolia's northernmost aimag (or district), Khövsgöl, we then jump in a forgon, formally known as a UAZ-452, or the Russian equivalent of a 4x4 VW bus, huddle for warmth, and head north to Tsaagan-Nuur (although it's also known as Dood-nuur). At this point, we'll be roughly 45miles from the Russian border to the north and west. (We actually needed to get special border proximity permits for this trip.) At this point, too, we'll hopefully rendezvous with a group of reindeer herders for a few days -- and do our best not to freeze. Daytime highs will be something like -30degsF.

The picture was borrowed from Dave Edwards, one of whose photographs of Kazakh eagle hunters in western Mongolia made National Geographic's 100 Best Photographs. He has a great little gallery in Flagstaff -- and was very generous to Denise + Steve after Steve's accident. He also deserves credit as one of the founding members of the Flagstaff International Relief Effort (FIRE) which helps to provide resources for Mongolian orphans and homeless children.

I have been reading a few books in an effort to figure out a little more about the folks we're going to meet up with. (And in many ways, the inspiration for heading out to see them is from seeing Dave's pictures of the Tsaatan.) In a wonderful, serendipitous way, I knew something about Kazakh eagle hunters before we met them in 2004 after reading Stephen Bodio's Eagle Dreams in Olgii -- and Steve recommended reading Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People for this trip. Haven't started that one yet.

But I have read Roger Took's Running with Reindeer (which, to be honest, is a great book about life on the post-Soviet Kola Peninsula, but is barely about reindeer). I am also most of the way through Rane Willerslev's Soul Hunters. (Soul Hunters is definitely an anthropology dissertation, but if you wade through the critical theory, there are a number of very interesting observations.) Looking for books on the Tsaatan is an exercise in futility, and so I'm hoping that there's some transferable knowledge to be gleaned by reading about the Saami peoples of northern Scandinavia, and the Yukaghir and Eveny peoples of northern and northeastern Siberia.

All in all, it's a little hard to wrap my mind around -- that we'll be sleeping in the Tsaatan equivalent of a tepee in -40degsF in about two weeks time. Hope the cameras don't freeze. Or any of our appendages. And while the lovely folks at SmartDogs had a nice post on winter up in Red Wing, MN, they're not even close this time.

Here's a nice winter picture of Momo and his girlfriend, Lida, the German Shorthair, out on a frozen Mooselookmeguntic Lake in western Maine taken by our friend Susan.


Training update: it was good to talk to Bob this evening. He was sounding upbeat and excited -- and pleased with Momo's progress. He has Momo making 30-40 retrieves a session using still-warm chukar in his driveway; tomorrow, he was going to try him on a 10lb pheasant. I remember Jozsi's face when he first realized how big a bird he'd just pointed and his dad had brought down. It was the first time I saw him look a little intimidated. Bob has Jozsi out in the fields and is shooting birds over him, which he retrieves to hand about 50% of the time. At this point in his career as a bird-dog, it's all about fun -- and so he's only getting minimal structure.

I'm looking forward to a busy April taking our two clowns to some hunt tests.

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