Unusual Honor

I dont know what to say. A friend has just named a hotel after one of my books!
Khanat Chiryazdan, my old guide and the proprietor of Blue Wolf Travel, IMAO the most interesting travel service in Mongolia (especially if you like eagles), has built a hotel in Olgii city and called it…. “Eagle Dreams Hotel-!!!!

Khanat always wanted to have a hotel, and advertises my book, but this was totally unexpected…

Pics- I lost over 1000 on this computer alone, and must look for good ones. Meanwhile, this one of the cocky young ex- commando in his “Bad Dog” days should do..

Normally I would have links but I have lost (or SOMETHING) the memory to write even modest HTML during my”hiatus”. Could someone who could give me comprehensible help -Chas?- check in? Meanwhile info the hotel is available on Blue Wolf and on Khanat’s Facebook page

Interactive Olgii

Belatedly (because of TOO MUCH GOING ON the past few weeks), an unusual interactive video of eagle hunters in Olgii, courtesy of local reader James Cherry. If I were to guess,. I would say it is on the hill on the east side of valley, south of Olgii town, near where Manai used to live…

That scene of the meal makes me positively nostalgic.

A Mongolian Progression….

Most books by Roy Chapman Andrews are interesting, but inexpensive. In his day he was a popular writer, and even early titles like Whale Hunting with Gun and Camera (!) and Camps and Trails in China are not too hard to find.

Not so The New Conquest of Central Asia. As it is the record of ten years of American Museum of Natural History expeditions, a huge book with many contributors, its usual price tag of around $650 is easy to understand, but hard to pay!

So when I found a not too battered ex- lib with a library binding and only three of its more than 200 plates missing, for $200, I grabbed it, I have never been happier with a book! Despite the rough condition a (tape on maps, stamps,  and library binding), it is a battered, still- magnificent treasure trove of everything Mongolian,  scientific and, yes, Colonial, in  early Twentieth Century Asian history.

Our house name for it is The Big Book of Mongolia, and we keep it on the coffee table rather than the library, where we can dig into it randomly when we have a minute to spare, finding everything from buildings I have been in (Gandan Monastery) to landscapes we, like they, drove through,  despite the absence  of roads. One of our friends in Ulan bataar, Nyamdorj, always drovenhis Mercedes limo across the steppes, stopping for us to get out and push the car through what would be considered blue–ribbon trout streams in Montana. I must ask Jonathan Hanson if the first AMNH expedition is the first one that used cars extensively — they even had camels plants stashes of gas ahead of them! And, of course, I’ve touched the  fossils in the actual dinosaur’s nest in Ulaan Bataar’s museum, some of the first ones ever found.

The book’s typical condition:

Driving in he twenties; Wolf, Chapman’s dog, riding high
The frontispiece is one of the few remaining color plates,  but there were only 5, while there were hundreds of black and white illos . And I have always liked this map showing the relative sizes of the US and Mongolia, and even used a version in Eagle Dreams, but this one looked like it was situated too far South.
I was right.Here is the correct one, from Andrews’ On the Trail of Ancient Man:
 The title of the last book gives a hint of irony too.The expeditions found MANY fossils, including important mammals (Chapman was to write some of his best accounts of finding them in his children’s book, All About Strange Beasts of the Past, in 1956 — it was the first of his books that I read. He also found the most important dinosaur fossils of all time, in beds that are still giving up fascinating fossils; without them, we might not have found the affinities of dinosaurs to birds as fast as we have. But they were looking for human fossils, all the time, and they never found any! They were certain humans had originated in Asia.
Until I read The New Conquest, I never realized that they had a great human paleontologist on board: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, the aristocratic, Jesuit paleontologist who indeed found one of the most important and iconic hominin fossils, the so-called Peking Man, on Dragon Bone hill near Beijing. It is now considered one of the first and most important fossils of Homo erectus. Or at least the castings made from it are. 
Pere Teilhard was an enigmatic man. His theology is abstruse and incomprehensible to me, though Father Bakewell respected it. My favorite of his books is Letters From a Traveler, accounts of his various diggings and wanderings. His life was novelistic, and two good novels have been written about him and the fate of  Peking Man. What is known is that the fossils were put on an America controlled train to be shipped out of the way of the invading Japanese, and they have never been seen again. The first, by Stephen Becker, is called The Blue-eyed Shan. It is a part of his Chinese trilogy, one of the oddest concepts for good books I’ve ever seen. In each, a newly decommissioned Marine who was, like Becker, born in China, engages in a series of adventures. In the first, The Chinese Bandit, adventure is the point. The book can be summed up as marine goes to China, marine is attacked by Chinese bandits, marine becomes The Chinese bandit. The second, The Last Mandarin, is a comedy, but a dark one; a caper book. The third, and I think the most profound, The Blue Eyed Shan,  is a tragedy; the bones end up in possession of a wild mountain tribe in Burma after they kill the protagonists. All three would make good movies, albeit with different directors.
The other novel is probably more realistic. Nicole Mones, author of Lost in Translation, is a Sinophile and scholar who lives in China; another of her good novels is about Chinese  food and cooking. She knows a lot about de Hardin’s life in Beijing and his interesting relationships with intellectual women. 
All these books are worth reading. And you might be interested to know that Becker, a New Englander who used a wheelchair and lived on a sailboat (he was a friend of Bad Bob Jones) also wrote a very good novel about law and justice in early 20th century southern New Mexico called A Covenant with Death.

One more quote

From TRD, a Mongolian maxim :

“While your father is alive make as many friends as you can, while your horse is alive, see as many lands as you can.”
 I get the second at least. But so many sayings are now attributed to Mongolia. One I actually heard there more than once over many years, and sounds right to me:

“If you are afraid, don’t do it.

“If you do it, don’t be afraid.”

Eagle Dreamers

I must assume that ALL my readers have seen some version of this:

 I have gotten over 100 emails, and they are still coming in. The one most saw was a BBC article (see David Zincavage’s blog), but I like the photographer’s, and his background info. It seems that the wild men of central Asia, as pragmatic as can be, have not opposed the few brave young women who have decided to take up this difficult but thrilling way of life (not exactly a”sport” by the way, as some call it, unless at the games at the annual fall “fiestas” there and in the ‘Stans).

I was delighted by the photos, and the whole phenomenon. But I thought the real pioneer was being ignored– Lauren McGough, who contacted us when she was 16, went out to hunt for a month with the late Aralbai, “The Coolest Man in the World” (Google it up), then returned on a Fulbright to spend a year there as an apprentice, then another year back and forth to the ‘Stans and Mongolia. She is now in Scotland writing her doctoral thesis, and has continued flying eagles on the plains here and in Scotland.

Lauren is not worried, though she has a sensible distrust of the accuracy of the press: “The photos are just brilliant of course – I recognize in that smile the pure joy of flying an eagle! I always have mixed feelings about media articles of Mongolian eagle culture, though. Its hard not to be possessive of “my” subject!…  If I can find the funds, perhaps visiting the girl myself would be a compelling epilogue. It in a way, it is like coming full-circle, from my own 14-year old self that used to daydream her red-tail was an eagle. Or something!”

After I got her notes I wondered: Olgii Aimag is not too big; could the young Kazakh girl have heard about the strange American berkutchi? Could it have swayed her father?  Could she have seen this not- very tall American with the huge eagle named after the Milky Way?

There is going to be a book, and it will have insights I never dreamed of. Meanwhile, back in the USA, the government is considering shutting down the (at most) 6 eagle annual falconry take, while wind farms and eagle- killing natives are given a pass. Sometimes I think I should go off to live and die in Asia, where eagle dreamers get some respect.

Mahakala(s): Mongolian Free Association

I took a bunch of Mongolian artifacts to the Magdalena Library Saturday as visual aids to a talk by my friend Ian Jenness. He and his wife had taken the Trans- Siberian to Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, then dropped down to Ulan Bataar, spent a week or so in Mongolia in ger camps, then continued by rail through China.

I bought snuff boxes and 19th Century books and clothing and a muzzleloader and folk paintings, and several images of this guy:

Though he looks monstrous to Western eyes, he is in fact supposed to be a fierce protector; one of his “jobs” is Protector of Monasteries. This may well have special relevance to Mongolia in the past (and Tibet in the present?) Although Choibaltsan is sometimes called the Mongol Stalin, and ruled for about the same span of years, his reign was marked more by stultifying bureaucracy then terror– except for monasteries and (as always with dictators?) minority tribes. I was once shown a cave where he had ordered 30 monks burned alive in the 50’s, with soot still visible on the roof. It was refreshing to know that the family who showed me the cave were the proud parents of a novice monk, who took a day off to join us at our feast at their summer ger.

(From Wiki: ” Choibalsan oversaw violent Soviet-ordered purges in the late 1930s that
resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Mongolians;
mostly Buddhist clergy, intelligentsia, political dissidents, ethnic Buryats and Khazaks, and other “enemies of the revolution.” His intense persecution of Mongolia’s Buddhists brought about their near complete extinction in the country.”)

But wait– there is more. Mahakala is also the genus of a small but taxonomically important feathered Mongolian Dino, a sort of roadrunner with a bony tail.

Brian Switek writes about his discovery here; and Carl Zimmer tell us how his lineage illuminates the bird- Dino lineage here.

Hereditary cool?

My late friend Aralbai of Bayan Olgii was sometimes known as “The Coolest Man in the World”,  on the strength of this sort of… call it an Internet poster made (not by us) of him:

Here he is in younger days, with his son in 1997 on our first expedition.

He was a dedicated hunter, and like me he could get impatient at the slow pace and artifice of photography and films. Here, on the first trip, he is rolling a cigarette during a break. He grinned up at me, offered me a home- rolled, and delivered an opinion of the proceedings behind with several well- chosen swear words. In English.

He became a mentor to Lauren, shown here with him on her first trip, when she was 16. He was her first eagle teacher.

In her Fulbright year she hunted, but also did things like study nests.

Aralbai and his now- grown son also rode with Cat during those years. A Wyoming cowgirl is as much a member of the club of the horse and the guild of long riders as a Kazakh;  after beating Armanbek in an improvised race, Cat won a silver- embellished riding crop. He is grinning here, and he seems unembarrassed. At this point Aralbai still looked good too…

And then he was gone, quickly, of the cancer that seems to take so many of my generation there. It IS downwind, not too far, from the historic Soviet nuclear test sites in Kazakhstan. Lauren helped him get to the big falconry fiesta in the Arabian Gulf; I would love to have gotten his impressions…

But his son may also explore other shores. The image below, sent again as a found object by a friend, suggests he has inherited the title.

The Real Indy

Paleoblog reminds us that it is Roy Chapman Andrews’ birthday. (HT Walter Hingley, once again). Naturalist, intrepid explorer, bone digger, hunter (he shot a Mannlicher- Schonauer 1903 carbine like mine, Savage Model 99’s, and Savage bolt actions in .250- 3000), writer, self- promoter, and sometime director of the American Museum of Natural History, he was the closest thing to Indiana Jones in the real world.

Father Bakewell knew him, and he was a childhood idol of mine.He may have rubbed more modest scientists the wrong way, but he had a genius for finding remarkable things even while looking for others; his expedition discovered dinosaur eggs in a nest, iconic fossils which I saw and touched in Ulan Bataar, while looking for human ancestors.

His many books are still readable. You can join the Roy Chapman Andrews Society here.

Never let it be said that he was not an inspiration…

Dispatch From Mongolia (Lauren McGough)

These flights! They are amazing and addictive. I liken these eagles to Houbara spotter falcons, who somehow see that rust colored spot scooting along in the distance – and immediately become pure predatory power. Many times I never see the fox, I just trust that that is what the eagle sees. Once she’s powered out over the valley, becoming just a speck herself, I often finally see the fox myself, and hold my breath as I wait for the two to converge. In a way, its like longwinging. My favorite flight style, which has a seemingly low success rate, but is spectacular to watch, is when the eagle keeps all of her height from the mountain and when directly over the fox, folds into a teardrop and stoops completely vertically. The fox has a lot of options to fool the eagle then, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing an eagle, all grace and raw power, stoop hundreds of feet.

There have been many great things, but I’ve also had some troubles lately. On a very windy day, we were on the mountaintop waiting for the slip, flying two passage eagles together. A fox appeared, we two slipped, and waited. The fox was clever, and disappeared. The eagles broke off pursuit and began to fly aimlessly, very buoyant in the wind. The mountain we were on was stupidly steep (one where you secretly hope you don’t get a slip). It was impossible to ride down, we had to get off of our horses and walk them down, which took a good 20 minutes. By that time, the eagles had gone and we were baffled. We rode across the valley for a good half hour with lures until finally we spotted them soaring along another mountain ridge. If I thought the other mountain was steep, this one was a great deal more so. Suddenly both eagles stooped and caught a Pallas’ cat on this mountainside. It was nothing but a stream of stones, no way one could ride up or climb (without equipment anyway, and even then…). We couldn’t do anything but gaze up those hundreds of feet (it seemed that high) while the eagles broke in and started to eat their fill. The other falconer in desperation started to attempt to climb, but before I knew it both eagles had bumped, regained their soar, were soon specks in the sky, and then flew away upwind out of sight. What an awful, lonely, sinking feeling that is. You feel like such a puny, weak creature when you try to follow an eagle with nothing but a cheap pair of binoculars and a pony-sized horse.

But follow her I did. Or at least I tried to. And, defying all my expectations, I found her on a dead horse on the steppe, just before nightfall. I was able to approach close enough to grab her jesses…phew! The poor other falconer didn’t find his eagle, and as far as I know, is still looking for her.