measuring crane with sock on head for calming, green transmitter and yellow/black banding "jewelry" on legs

measuring crane with sock on head for calming, green transmitter and yellow/black banding “jewelry” on legs

I just spent nine days camping in Mongolia plus two travel days via South Korea. I joined five scientists studying cranes and their habitat, which is wetlands on the steppes. The five species of cranes we saw are 4-4 1/2 feet tall, and one of the major objectives was banding 40 of them with colored leg bracelets (including six with satellite transmitters) to track their migration routes, which may end in India.

mosquitos attack

mosquitos attack

This was a very rough, tough, demanding trip that I wouldn’t recommend for anyone. Zillions of mosquitos, setting up/tearing down my one-man tent every night, 5-10 hours of daily driving on washed out, rutted dirt trails called roads that are flooded, washboarded and at 30 degree angles.

grand vistas from my front tent flap

grand vistas from my front tent flap

40 mph felt like a car chase in a cop movie. Strapped in and holding on. Sometimes we were completely off road climbing hills like you see in macho truck commercials that have small print warning you to not duplicate these rides by professional drivers. And the cook van was stuck in a river we crossed for 2 1/2 hours as we dug out the mud and grass underneath after our SUV’s and borrowed farm tractors failed to pull it out.

I am proud that I survived this adventure. I am proud that I did daily push ups or crunches on my air mattress. I am sure my quads strengthened with all the bending in-out of my small tent. I am thrilled that I didn’t fall off a 400-foot cliff, when I was urged to lean over the edge, while standing up, to see a black vulture chick in its nest that was still too young to fly.

only 400 feet to the bottom

only 400 feet to the bottom

But I was scared out of my mind when a 65-year-old woman who had also tagged along crawled to the edge of that cliff in her sun dress and sandals and stood up to take a look herself. She may have been calm, but I was terrified SHE might fall off!!!

What motivated me to go at all was George Archibald, the passionate and upbeat 67-year-old founder in 1973 of the International Crane Foundation (ICF). I joined George on a wildlife-viewing, non-camping trip in 2006 to Bhutan, where only 17,000 foreigners visited that year. George has devoted 40 years to saving cranes and their habitat, which is always under attack by mining companies, developers and agribusinesses. He saved the Whopping Crane in America from extinction, so that instead of the 15 left in 1973, there are now 600.

George on a main "road" on which we encountered six cars in eight hours of driving

George on a main "road" on which we encountered six cars in eight hours of driving

He has set up and supported through his ICF fundraising a network of like-minded ornithologists in remote areas all over the world, including Africa, North Korea, Middle East, India, Mongolia, Siberia, etc etc. Crane migrations can sometimes traverse 11 countries, and if one of them is Iran or Afghanistan, the cranes are indifferent to political hostilities.

portable nomad gers can have satellite dish and solar panels for TV

portable nomad gers can have satellite dish and solar panels for TV

after feeding dried dung to fire, she started kneading noodle dough without washing hands

after feeding dried dung to fire, she started kneading noodle dough without washing hands

This trip may not be an athletic achievement, but it was certainly a physical one…and the demands of the trip were much harder than I am used to. It was surely my last-ever camping experience, although I did eventually take in stride not bathing for eight days, not changing clothes, not washing even my hands with soap, and having just four small sardines on a slice of bread for dinner–the easy way to lose five pounds in a week. I was definitely the wuss of the group: the only one to bring a bug net for my face and head, and the only one to bring insect repellent on the 6 am bird walks before breakfast. Two of the scientists had gone three weeks without washing. It’s a world that is very foreign to me. God bless them, every one.

a black vulture poses with his owner at a tourist site

a black vulture poses with his owner at a tourist site

none of the scientists like Robert used bug nets

none of the scientists like Robert used bug nets

the steppes are grasslands without trees or desert but with some washed out impassable trail-roads you can barely see in this photo

the steppes are grasslands without trees or desert but with some washed out impassable trail-roads you can barely see in this photo

One of the major benefits of the trip was learning about Chinggis (spelled Genghis by Persians) Khan and his grandson, Kublai Khan. I will talk later about their astonishing achievements. I also ate some local foods prepared without normal Western cleanliness and drank alcoholic fermented mare’s milk out of unwashed community bowls. So far not sick, but quite a change from everyday life in Connecticut!