The team is back after a successful trip to the South Gobi! The Gobi was not like I imagined–no sand dunes and cacti. Dunes can be found in the Gobi, but they are more west, hopefully we will hit them later this summer. Instead, vast gravely, dusty plains dotted with short grasses and shrubs; think the type of landscape you’d expect to see Walter White’s beige Pontiac Aztek sandwiched between two black SUV’s during a meeting with Gus Fring.
The Gobi seemed to me like a land of stark contrasts. It is a land whose horizon is blurred clear by the unrelenting heat of the day, then painted a dark azure by the light of the sun settling down to sleep. One where endless desert plains are suddenly interrupted by towering mountains, where goat skeletons might litter one side of a mountain while green grasses and cool streams flourish in the valley on the other. Where the ground might be parched and cracked by dryness one day, but drinking summer rains alongside a rainbow the next. It is a land that is sometimes so seemingly desolate, yet supports so much life–from lizards, insects, and eagles to gazelle, foxes, hare, livestock, and even one species of bear. Trisha and I have been using the phrase “It’s like we are living in a postcard” often in Mongolia, and it sure was true in the Gobi. Watching horses silhouetted against a backdrop of the pink and orange sunset and weaving between mountain valleys makes me want to pinch myself to make sure it is all real.
We met with four herders who we had placed dogs with. The purpose of these visits is to ensure that our dogs are happy and healthy, and that the herder is following the MBDP protocol to foster a loyal livestock guardian. We interview the herder and observe the dog’s behavior and response to commands. Additionally, we met with a handful of herders interested in receiving a Bankhar from the project, interviewing them for eligibility. It was very cool to see the Project’s name getting around as more herder’s request interviews.
Finding the herders was probably the most difficult part of the trip. Though we had GPS coordinates for some of them, the nature of a nomadic lifestyle is frequent movement, and more than once we arrived at a set of coordinates to find nothing but grazed pasture. We spent a lot of time driving around the desert, stopping at neighboring gers to say hello and ask “could you point me in the direction of so-and-so?” before finding the families we were looking for.
We spent a day with Batbayar and his family. After checking in on the dogs and seeing how they worked with the herd, we returned to his ger. Much of his family and many of his friends were gathered because it was the day that they would castrate all of their kids (baby goats) and lambs. This is a special day that comes only once each year, marking the coming of summer and symbolizing the healthy herd, and we helped Batbayar’s family herd their young animals into a pen for castration. Afterwords, the setting seemed to me almost a sort of Mongolian barbecue. Hot dogs and cheeseburgers served with cold beer were not served at this barbecue, however. Instead, we dined on a goat and sheep testicle soup with millet and drank vodka. I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to partake in such a special day and be so welcomed by Batbayar and his family. Despite the language barrier, we were able to communicate through hand gestures and laughs. It seemed clear that they were happy to have us and pleased that we were enjoying the meal.
The following day we made our way south to the Nom Gon province. One of the herders that we met with is named Batchuluun. When we arrived, Batchuluun was away, but his son, busy herding by horseback, saw us approaching and trotted over, then tied up his horse behind his ger and greeted us. Pretty damn cool 14 year old. We all hopped in the truck and Batchuluun’s son directed us towards his family’s herd that is watched over by two Bankhar that they received earlier in the spring. The goats and sheep were spread out over several mountain ridges, and the Bankhar were not in sight. Batchuluun’s son called out to them, and two little faces ran over a ridge towards us–they were busy patrolling for predators on the other side. It was very impressive and exciting to see how well Batchuluun’s dogs listened to his son’s commands, suggesting that his family has been following the MBDP protocol excellently. They immediately responded to their names and to commands like “Go to the herd!” At only 7 months old, these two puppies are already shaping up to be superior livestock guardians. That night, we drank milk tea and shared a delicious dinner of goat jerky, onion, and noodle stew with Batchuluun and his family.
Watching our Bankhar in action, happy and well cared for, makes all of the hard work that has gone into this project worth it. It is rewarding to see how the dogs have benefited the herders thus far, and I feel very fortunate that I have been given an opportunity to be just a small part of the process. Moreover, spending time with the herders, their families, and being welcomed into their homes with such open arms continues to be a priceless experience. On top of being in one of the most beautiful regions I have ever seen. Does it get much better than the MBDP? I am looking forward to continuing this same work in other regions of Mongolia in the coming months.
That’s all from the team for now! You can expect further pupdates (I promise this word will catch on) in the upcoming weeks, however we will have a week long break during Nadaam (July 11th-15th), a Mongolian national holiday.