dg nanouk okpik’s Corpse Whale – Sifting through Myth and Time in the Far North

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Reading these poems is reminiscent of carefully digging through an archeological site located in Arctic permafrost as fossils, bones, carvings, memories and spirits emerge.

While looking for a few words to accompany a photo of umiaks (seal skin whaling boats) framed in Northern Lights I’d made a few years ago, I came across these lines from dg nanouk okpik’s poem “Tulunigraq: Something Like a Raven:”

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Okpik arranges her images across the page in a manner that forces the reader to go slowly, to breathe slowly, to see, and to hear, and as Barbra and I read, we felt ourselves being taken back – to Alaska’s North Slope, to the village of Point Hope and to other places we’d been in the far north, and then further back, to places we’ve never been – to old Tikigaq, to villages and settings scattered across Alaska and Greenland and beyond, to a time, indeed, “before iron and oil.”

Okpik’s writing is sure and precise, at times reminiscent of carefully sifting through an archeological dig, creating anticipation for what might be found and reverence for what is found. The place she invites the reader into is one of myth-making, spirituality, subsistence hunting and gathering, veneration of elders and ancestors and an intimacy with sinew and bone and cold. The landscape is of ice and sea, of magma cooling and the vast sweep of the tundra. Threaded through this are spirits and caribou, whales and ground squirrels, edible plants and seal oil lamps, Eucharist wafers and hooligan jigs. Okpik has given us poems that take us to places and to times few of us have experienced or will experience. The journey is mesmerizing.

Assignment #6: A Sense of Place – Suutei Tsai in a Mongolian Ger

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Outdoor Photographer’s challenge two weeks ago: an environmental, visual or cultural photo depicting a strong connection with a specific place. Here, our hostess at her ger in the Mongolian countryside prepares a pot of suutei tsai to take the chill off an October night – piping hot milk with a little tea and a dash of salt. 

 

 

The Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue: An Impressive Monument to Mongolia’s Past and Future

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There is no overstating the importance of Chinggis Khan – ruler of all who live in felt tents – to the Mongolian people. Revered in film and in statues such as this 40 meter (131 feet) tall monument , the founder of the Mongolian Empire is evoked in everything from currency to Ulaanbaatar’s international airport to vodka labels.

Sitting at an altitude of 4,429 feet above sea level, just over one million people live in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city. Another 1.7 million Mongolians live in the countryside, either in smaller communities or as nomadic herders on the highland steppe or vegetated regions of the desert. In former times, these grasslands and the nomadic herding culture that accompanied them stretched through Kazakhstan as far west as Hungary, so when Chinggis Kahn proclaimed himself ruler of all who live in the circular, felt-covered tents called gers that were the homes of these nomadic people, he was laying claim to the largest contiguous land mass ever to fall under one empire.

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Looking east toward the place of his birth, Chinggis still dominates the rugged Mongolian steppe. Two hundred-fifty tons of stainless steel went into this statue which is situated at the location where a young Temüjin (Chinggis’s boyhood name) found a golden whip and took it mean that he was destined to become a great leader. 

At his birth in 1162(?), the land of Tumüjin’s childhood was occupied by numerous, often warring nomadic tribes. Part of Chinggis’s legacy includes uniting these tribes under one rule and in the process creating a national identity for the Mongolian people.

The nomadic culture has died out or essentially been extirpated elsewhere such as in Kazakstan and Hungary. Under Stalin, the Soviets waged an unrelenting campaign to wipe out or drive out nomadic herdsmen, in many locales turning former grazing lands into collective farms and bringing about mass starvation in the process.

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The name Chinggis Khan means “leader of all who live in felt tents.” 

But in Mongolia, a land sufficiently insulated and independent enough from both the Russians and the Chinese, hundreds of thousands of Mongolians still live much as they did in the 13th century when Chinggis rose to power. As such, they are the last truly nomadic people in the world.

Millennia of equestrian know-how passed down generation to generation is still showcased in annual tournaments where horse-mounted riders traveling at full gallop demonstrate an ability to pierce man-sized targets with arrows shot from simple bows. It is easy to imagine the terror such skilled, mounted warriors would have invoked in territories where horsemanship was all but unknown. In addition to enemy soldiers felled in battle, under the various Khans, Mongolian armies slaughtered tens of millions of civilians in locales where people had refused invitations to surrender.

At its zenith, the Mongolian Empire stretched from eastern Europe through much of China and Southeast Asia all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Present day Mongolia lies within the bean-shaped boundary partially covered by the map key. 

The positive aspects of Chinggis’s legacy include bringing political stability to the Silk Road and thus to regional commerce, establishing religious tolerance, fostering intellectual growth and greater communication throughout the empire, and quelling the region’s history of tribal and clan warfare by introducing meritocracy to government.

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This leather boot, located in the museum below the statue, is the same size as the stainless steel boots on Chinggis’s feet. The statue was completed in 2008 and is currently the largest equestrian statue in the world. 

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Reminiscent of the soldiers who rode with Chinggis, these vigilant horsemen face the rising January sun. The museum is a collection of period weaponry, jewelry, serving ware and other artifacts, as well as portraits of the 36 Khans who succeeded Chinggis and were appointed as heads of various regions of the empire. Chinggis Khan died in August, 1227. He was about 65 years old. Various accounts have him succumbing to an infected battle wound, a hunting accident, a fall from a horse and the dagger of a woman his army captured. Probably as protection from desecration by rivals, the whereabouts of his burial site remain shrouded in mystery as well…

From the end of the 17th century until 1911, Mongolia was under the control of China. Soon after that, they fell under Russian hegemony and in 1924 were declared a satellite state of the Soviet Empire. It wasn’t until 1989 that Russia withdrew it’s troops from Mongolia. In 1992, Mongolia created a new constitution and a multi-party democracy. Mongolia is thus at once a very young country, and a very old one.

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A Lincolnesque statue of Chinggis Khan overlooks Ulaanbaatar’s central square from the steps of the Government Building.

Change is happening quickly in this young democracy; just recently the capital city’s central square, Sükhbaatar Square, was officially renamed Chinggis Khan Square. With an abundance of valuable natural resources (gold, copper, uranium and molybdenum among them) and a resilient, well-educated, optimistic populace, Mongolia’s future looks bright.

 

Gobi Desert Trek Day II: The Central Mongolian Steppe from Ikh Khayrkhan Uul to Baga Gazaryn Uul

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It’s a tough breed of horses that call Mongolia home. Most Mongolians were practically born in the saddle, and even Ulaanbaatar’s urbanites ride them with ease. But these horses are never truly tamed in the western sense of that word. Here a group wades a small salt lake on a mid-October morning a few ticks above freezing.

We woke after spending our first night in a ger to a world of frosted grass and blue skies. After breakfast and some casual rock climbing on nearby outcrops, we piled into the van and resumed our journey south to the Gobi Desert.

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Beefy and easy to keep running, four-wheel drive Russian-built vans are standard on the Mongolian steppe. 

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Ruddy shelducks (Tadorna furruginea). The white edge along the lakeshore at the top of this photo is salt.  Known for their affinity for brackish water, ruddy shelduck numbers are declining worldwide as salty wetlands are drained for agriculture. In addition to the horses in the photo above, the lake was also populated with common shelducks and teal. 

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Heads down and tails up, common shelducks (Tadorna tadornain muted late fall plumage sift through the lake’s briny muck. Meanwhile, hundreds of passerines, including scores of horned larks, flitted through the air and along the shoreline.

The sun moved higher into the sky. With the soft morning light leaving the lake’s waters, it was time to climb back into the van. The vastness of the land, dotted here and there with horses, cattle, goats, sheep and wild gazelle, continued to mesmerize us. But ever so subtly, we noticed that the grass itself was becoming more sparse.

Off in the distance, a group of especially large-looking horses caught our attention. As we drew closer, humps emerged from their backs. Camels! In less than a morning’s drive, we found ourselves transitioning from the lush grasslands of the steppe to the northern edge of one of the world’s great deserts: the Gobi.

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Birch trees tell a tale of water just below the ground’s surface in an otherwise parched landscape, and it was here a band of monks established a monastery long since abandoned and fallen to ruins. 

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And yet in a sense, the monastery is still alive and vibrant as these nearby ovoos attest. It is the custom in Mongolia to add rocks and other items to these cairns and walk around them clockwise three times out of respect for the sky and earth and to ensure a safe journey.

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Brown with late autumn, this familiar grasshopper is a testament to species similarity throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Existing in tremendous numbers in a country where pesticides are still all but unheard of, these hopping protein pills account for the huge number of birds here.

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Featuring a dinner of stew with Mongolian-style noodles, goat milk tea, and six liters of wine along with our hosts’  airag (fermented mare’s milk), our second night was celebratory. 

That night, we stayed with a nomadic family in their winter camp. Their gers and ungated livestock enclosures (where the otherwise free-ranging animals spend the night) were tucked away from the coming winter wind among rock outcrops.

Nomadic Mongolian herders don’t travel constantly; they maintain two to four seasonal camps. As the seasons change, they pack up their gers, gather their livestock, and take advantage of fresh pasture.

Twice at this camp – once in the evening and once in the morning – we flushed out large coveys of some type of partridge. Both times the birds flew directly into the low sun, so that all we got was the sudden wind-rush thrum of wings, hearts stopped dead in our chests, and winged silhouettes. As usual, rock buntings and other finch-like birds were abundant.

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Sunset on another day in the cold, spare paradise we were discovering. Below, the night sky.

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Dipper scooping out the horizon… dome of the felt-covered ger glowing white on the sky… Fire inside against the chill of the night… Straight above, the wash of the Milky Way… 

Next: The Middle Gobi Desert: Life in a Mongolian ger.

Coming soon: Raptors, Gazelles, Ibex, Picas and a Pit Viper

 

Hustai (Khustai) National Park, Mongolia: Biodiversity and Ancient Carved Gravestones

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Wild Takhi, or Przewalski’s horses, graze the vast, rolling steppe lands of Mongolia’s Hustai National Park. Extinct in the wild by the late 1960’s, Takhi were reintroduced to Hustai in 1992 and have since flourished. Unlike the ferel “wild” horses of North America, Takhi are a true wild species – the only remaining wild horse in the world. We visited the park on a day when wildflowers and raptors seemed to be everywhere.

Located in Central Mongolia about 60 miles (100 km) west of the capital of Ulaanbaatar, Hustai National Park provides habitat for dozens of species of mammals and over 200 species of birds. Sixteen species of fish swim in the cold waters of the Tuul river which borders the southern edge of the park. On the day we visited in early August, recent rains had prompted a profusion of wildflowers.

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Above, abundant hairbell blooms added vibrant splashes of color to the steppe as did pink bloom, (below). Interesting to us is that both species were familiar from hikes on the Alaskan tundra. 

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In any given year, as many as 150,000 marmots inhabit Hustai’s 195 square miles, providing food for the park’s foxes, wolves, lynx and birds of prey such as golden eagles.

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With our 200-400 mm lens in transit from the Nikon repair factory, we weren’t able to obtain the captures we wanted of the golden eagles and the beautifully marked lammergeiers we encountered. Happily, black kites like the handsome specimen above were abundant and not particularly shy. 

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His brightly colored traditional garb striking against the hazy pastels of the steppe, this nomadic herder was tending a mixed flock of sheep and goats. These herds share the grasslands with Mongolian gazelles, red deer, roe deer and the wild Takhi. 

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Some 1,200 to 1,400 years ago, a Turkic culture left behind groups of carved granite stone figures in the Hustai area. Elbows close to the body and hands folded across the heart, it’s likely that this six foot tall figure at the Ongot grave site is mourning the loss of a leader or nobleman. 

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Carved sheep represent spiritual sacrifice. Elsewhere, stylized lions watched guard over the grave site.

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Safely back at the entrance of his burrow, this pica posed for a moment before disappearing. The nearby steppe is also home to gerbils, hamsters and badgers.

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Almost glowing, maiden pinks are said to have derived their name from the crenelated edges of their petals which appear to have been trimmed with pinking shears.

chiming bells Chiming bells are familiar throughout northern climes.

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Horses do indeed make a landscape more beautiful. 

Mother Whale and Child Carving & Scrimshaw

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Bowhead whale mother and child: Walrus tusk ivory with bowhead whale baleen eyes set on bowhead whale baleen. The baleen is scrimshawed with marine animals commonly hunted for subsistence by the Inupiat people of Point Hope, Alaska.

As we’re preparing to leave Point Hope, we wanted a piece of local art to take with us – something that captures the spirit of Tikigaq (the traditional name of this village). Henry Koonook is both an outstanding carver and a friend, and so we commissioned this piece.

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Detail, scrimshaw on baleen of ringed seal and walrus.

Henry still does most of his work with hand tools, using local natural media.

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The entire piece measures about 11″ x 3″. Henry Koonook’s signature and the year the piece was created are visible in the lower right corner.

Bowhead whales constitute a vital part of the subsistence-based hunting and gathering culture in Point Hope. (Their numbers, which plummeted during the days when whaling boats from the world over pillaged the Chukchi Sea, are growing at a steady pace in recent years.) Seals and walruses are also culturally important. We are happy to take with us to our new home this piece of art that represent this beauty of this Arctic village by the sea.

Changes: With Feet in Two Worlds Now

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From the air on the south side of the peninsula, our village of Point Hope is a small interruption in a vast, roadless, icy land. This photo was taken in late January from a little six-seat plane as we flew in from a trip to Anchorage. What’s missing in this picture? Sea ice. There should be a thick sheet of it in the foreground where this year there is only open water.

Back in early November, we made the decision that this would be our final year in Point Hope. We’ve loved living here, and the decision was not easy. The people of this village – our adopted hometown these past three years – have been kind and generous and fierce and proud, attributes we greatly admire. Our students have been wonderful, and when you teach in a building where from kindergarten through senior high there are fewer than 200 students, they all become your students. In our combined 30+ years of teaching, neither of us had ever bonded with students the way we bonded with the students of Tikigaq School.

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Freezing rain turned this stalk of grass into a silvery jewel. Rain in January in Point Hope is not completely unheard of, but days in a row of such weather during what is usually the coldest month of the year is highly unusual.

In mid-December we turned in our resignations, not sure where we would go next, urged only be the sense that it was time for us to go. The pull is a feeling that is difficult to describe or explain. The letters of resignation were short, polite, appreciative, but with them we cut the cord. No safety net. No turning back. We began to focus on our next move.

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A few nights ago, the aurora borealis put on a show. This was not one of the dancing, colorful displays we’ve seen in the past, but a steady, emerald swath glowing just above the northern horizon. 

At first, we were limiting our consideration to Alaska, dreaming of a situation in the Southeast where we might live within an easy walk of our boats and our new school. Our free time was consumed wtih the routine but critical tasks associated with a job search: revising our resumés, shoring up our references, researching schools and communities, distilling our careers and lives into tightly written letters of introduction. As two souls with nomadic DNA and Gypsy blood caught in this modern “career path” world, it’s a process we’ve been through many times.

But this time around, there was a twist to the job hunting. We both constructed online career histories on Linkedin, a networking website for professionals. Out of the blue, Barbra received a query from a headhunter with an agency that places teachers, administrators and technology experts with overseas schools. Although the particular company the inquiring person represented didn’t interest us, it got us thinking.

What if…?

Could we…?

What would we do with our boats?!?

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Early morning light bathes whale bones in the ghost town of Old Tikigaq pink and gold after a night of fresh snow.

After careful research, we signed aboard with Search Associates, an agency that works with over 600 internationally-minded schools in 160 countries. While we lacked the experience with International Baccalaureate programs these schools desired, our backgrounds are rich in quality experience and our references are strong. We allowed ourselves to dream, and although we thought that in order to get our foot in the door we’d accept the right position in virtually any country, there were a few countries that were very much on our short list. Our dream list.

One of those countries was Mongolia. Several years ago, when we were living in Sacramento, our local Trout Unlimited chapter invited a guest who had recently made a film about fly fishing in Mongolia for lenok (an ancient form of trout) and taimen (the world’s largest trout/salmon). The vast, sparsely populated countryside was sublime. The rivers were pristine. The idea of a remote camp out on the steppes, the guides speaking Mongolian, the huge night sky filled with stars after a day spent pursuing species of fish few anglers will ever encounter, our stomachs filled with rock roasted meat, our minds pleasantly humming with yak-milk vodka, and beyond the camp neither a light nor a human sound for as far as one could see or hear, is an idea that has been growing in us ever since.

We are due in country on July 31. It appears that we’ve already found a nice apartment just a few minute’s walk from the International School of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar. We’re thrilled. This is just the dose of “New” we’ve been craving.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in the Anchorage airport, flying back to Point Hope when we suddenly encountered a scent that, for us, will always be pleasantly, irresistibly memorable. Muktuk. Whale fat. We looked around and soon found a small group of people who appeared to be Eskimo pushing a cart loaded with coolers, no doubt the source of the mildly sweet, rich smell. “We’re two among 0.00000-something percent of people in the world who can instantly identify that smell,” I said to Barbra as we laughed about our arcane expertise.

This morning one of Barbra’s students, Dmitri, came to school wearing the same scent. “Wow,” Barbra said with a smile. “You smell like muktuk!”

“Yeah,” Dmitri smiled back. “It’s good, isn’t it.”

Little stories like that keep us wanting to explore and experience.

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Sunrise over Point Hope, a village by the Chuckchi sea.