I walked through Customs in Mongolia’s Chinggis Khaan International Airport on May 31st bleary but wide, bright eyed, and with an excited, nervous grin on my face into the welcoming handshake of Baatbaatar (Baagii), the leading member of the MBDP ground team. He delivered me to my apartment, where I spent the next several days adjusting to life in Ulaanbaatar facing culture shock and overcoming jet lag and trials such as harrowing street crossings, the aggressive and certainly “temperamental,” as Zoe put it almost a year ago, propane stove in my apartment, and the unfamiliar lock on my apartment door, which I must have fiddled with for 15 minutes while a sense of panic slowly rose in my throat before discovering that a simple metal slide would release me from my flat. I hope you never have to experience the demoralizing feeling of being locked in your own apartment on Day 1. With the help of a few good nights of sleep and many friends–both new and old–I began to adjust to the city, finding my way around, getting used to daily life, and figuring out what and where to eat and shop. Thus far Mongolia has been doing its best to test my will, resolve, and just how well-traveled of an individual I truly might be. It sure is a different ball game over here.
Baagii, Trisha, a summer Field Intern, and I made our way to the MBDP facilities just outside of Hustai National Park on June 5th for the moment I had been looking forward to for months–getting out into the field and meeting the dogs. It was pretty surreal to have the beautiful livestock guardian dogs that I had been learning about and whose pictures I had been viewing over a computer screen right before my hands, at last. They were abounding with intelligence, beauty, prowess, and personality. It was clear to me while watching the Bankhar run around the Mongolian steppe that they truly belonged in this environment, caring after livestock and enjoying life amidst the rolling hills.
I spent much of the trip getting to know the Bankhar, learning their names, making myself a familiar figure to them, and inspecting them for good health. These big dogs dig big holes, and we spent all day Tuesday taking Baagii’s truck to and from the facilities to a dried out stream bed, collecting rocks to fill the holes in the dogs’ enclosures. On our first trip to the stream bed we asked permission of one of the Park Rangers if we could take some stones, which is when I experienced my first bit of Mongolian Hospitality–a simple question turned into a cup of hot milk tea and a soup of noodles, beef, and potato within the Ranger’s ger before him and his daughter also helped us collect our first load of stones. All the while the backdrop was picturesque steppe covered in sheep, goats, cows, and horses. Incredible.
Our plans to paint the dog houses were foiled by gusting winds blowing too much dust around. That evening, Baagii took Trisha and I into the national park, where we saw eagles, buzzards, vultures, Taki, Red Deer, a fox, ground squirrels, and lots of Marmot. Afterwards, Miigaa, our phenomenal resident Bankhar caretaker, gestured me over to help him slaughter a sheep as I was walking towards the gers. It was a jarring and raw experience that gave me new perspective into what it takes to eat meat. It made me think of how ignorant I was, and I imagine many of us are, of where our food comes from back home in the United States. Also interesting was how novel of an experience it seemed to me, while it was simply commonplace to Miigaa, another usual part of his life. Ultimately, I could not have asked for a better introduction to the dogs in the Breeding Program and the breathtaking Mongolian Steppe.
This summer we will be focusing on interviewing herders throughout Mongolia to see if they might be eligible for future dog placement, as well as checking in on some of our dogs that have already been placed. Stay tuned for more updates from the MBDP Team!