Where North America Meets Europe
Last summer, Dr. Tasch straddled this crack in the earth's surface. By doing so, he had one foot on North America and the other on Europe. Where was he?
Small Remnant of the Silk Road
Dr. Tasch passed this handsome fellow on the
way from his apartment to the Bazaar.
Mongolia’s Modern World
This summer I found myself in a yurt or “ger” in central Mongolia sipping on mare’s milk and vodka made from cow’s milk. I remembered the Talking Head’s song, Once in a Lifetime, “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
Sitting in the ‘ger’ with me were the governor of the Karakorum province and his family and the resident director of the American Center for Mongolia Studies, Brian White. Brian had been a Peace Corp volunteer in Karakorum and now he is the resident director of ACMS in Ulaan Baator. Brian had arranged a visit to the governor’s family who, like half of Mongolia’s population of two and a half million, lives in a ‘ger’ on the plains tending to the herds of horses, goats, cows, sheep, yaks, camel, and just about any other stock animal that ranges the plain and that can survive the winter. Mongolia is considered the ancient hearth of horses and horsemanship though these days we saw modern adaptations of the art of herding on mountain bikes and motorcycles.
Our visit was part of a series of events arranged by Brian and his colleagues at the American Center for Mongolia Studies for the meeting of all of the resident directors from the twenty two centers of CAORC. CAORC is a consortium of overseas research centers located across Asia and Africa. CAORC centers such as the American Center for Mongolian Studies provide essential services for scholars doing research in countries where the logistics of a research project can be difficult. The centers typically provide an academic library and sometimes a hostel where researchers can stay. The staff of the centers helps obtain host government research permits. The centers are also important networking resources where local and foreign researchers meet and exchange ideas, contacts, and tips on local research projects. The centers fund research for Americans and for locals in each of the host countries. The CAORC website (www.caorc.org) has links to all of the centers where more information is available about research, funding, and facilities.
At the annual meeting of resident directors of overseas research centers we discussed fascinating topics such as new Federal regulations for grant reporting, developing new funding sources in this era of Federal belt tightening, and new personnel guidelines. In order to stay awake during such stimulating discussions, the Mongolia Center arranged a set of cultural and educational tours for us in the evenings and for a few days at the end of the meeting. We visited the national theater where we saw artists demonstrate the various traditional styles of music and dance, including the famous throat singing.
We visited the National Library of Mongolia where a major effort is ongoing to preserve one of the largest collections of Buddhist texts in the world. Over the last thousand years, Mongolia shared a symbiotic relationship with Tibet in which Mongolia colonized Tibet militarily whereas Tibet colonized Mongolia spiritually. As a result Mongolia is rich in Tibetan Buddhist heritage. During the Stalinist era, Buddhism was suppressed. The monks were the aristocracy of Mongolian society and the communist insurrection attacked and destroyed the monasteries, but Buddhism survived by living underground during the seventy years of Soviet rule.
Since the collapse of Soviet rule, Buddhism is slowly returning to Mongolia. Karakorum was the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan but in modern history Karakorum was a monastery. During the Soviet era it was turned into a museum and today it remains a state museum, but a small contingent of Buddhist monks is using the monastery by day.
Mongolia allied with the Soviet Union in the 1920’s in order to defend itself against the Chinese. Soviet life transformed Mongolia. Mongolians enjoy high standards of health, education, and literacy, but per capita income is very low, about $2000. Today the Chinese are invading not with their guns but with their capital. The resource hungry Chinese are investing heavily in mining. Mongolia is thought to have tremendous mineral and energy resources and international mining concerns are transforming Ulaan Baator into a mining metropolis. So while Mongolians write using the Cyrillic script and live in Soviet style housing, most of their consumer goods are now Chinese.
The United States is also interested in Mongolia for its resources. We visited the Ambassador’s residence in the capital because the Ambassador regularly uses the library of the American Center for Mongolian Studies. He is writing a book on Mongolia and he finds the best sources in the Center’s library. While we are waiting for the Ambassador to finish his book, the best popular source on contemporary Mongolia is another writer we met in Ulaan Baator, Jack Weatherford, whose last book looks at the wives of Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. New York: Three Rivers Press (2004)
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. New York: Broadway Paperbacks (2011)
The Amazing Journey to the Amazon
Last summer I had a chance to join a 3 ½ week Study Abroad Class in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest led by Harald Beck from TU’s Biological Sciences Department. The goal was to explore the potential in developing an interdisciplinary class, which would offer the biology, environmental studies, and geography students a unique learning experience outside the classroom. The pristine rainforests of the UNESCO World Heritage of the Manu National Park not only offers an amazing animal and plant species diversity, but also functioned as an unexplored outdoor GIS laboratory for our students.
I traveled with a group of 11 undergraduates—ten from Towson and one from the UMBC. After a 10-hour flight, we finally arrived in Lima, the capital city of Peru. We spent one full day there, visiting the zoo and the botanical garden to learn about the biology of tropical animals and plants. Then, we visited an open-air market where we encountered hundreds kinds of potatoes and very unusual fruits.
The next day we flew to Cusco, the former capital of the Inca, which is located in the heart of the Andean mountains. The view of the snow capped mountains and glaciers was breathtaking! Most students had barely left the Beltway, so this was a big deal for them! From the airplane window, we could see the dry, isolated west side of the Andes. The east side, which was covered with the lush, green rainforest, was such a contrast.
Cusco is above 11,000 feet; I felt like I was transported to another dimension once I stepped off the airplane. My first dinner in Cusco could not have been better--fried guinea pig and grilled alpaca meat – a popular meal for the Andean cuisine. The next day we took a train to Machu Picchu, a special sacred place of the Inca. After a 2-hour guided tour, we hiked up the Machu Picchu Mountain. A hike was just brutal, but an overlooking view of the ruins of Machu Picchu from the mountaintop was stunning! Some students said, “This is the best day in my life.”
From Cusco marked the beginning of our slow descent by bus and then boat to the Amazon rainforest. We spent two nights in the cloud forest, where we explored a variety of ecosystems. After 2 ½ days on the bus, we arrived in Atalaya, where we switched to a boat and continued our journey. During the boat ride, students took a census of animals along the Alto Madre de Dios River. After 2 days we reached our final destination—the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Manu National Park in southeast Peru.
We stayed ten days and sometimes I wondered what I was doing here and I started counting down the day I would leave the jungle. Howler monkey calls roused us at 5:30 every morning. We bathed in the same lake as piranhas, giant otters, and caimans. Our rustic outhouse was inhabited by bats, tarantulas, and other critters. Insects seemed quadruple in size to me. There were giant cockroaches and mosquitoes munched on me like I was dessert and scoffed at the 99% DEET insect repellent bought from Baltimore. It got dark quickly in the rainforest and there was no electricity until the station manager cranked up the generator at 9 o’clock. A headlamp was my best friend here; I could not live without it after the sun went down.
Students had only a week to conduct their research, including data collection, statistical analyses, and presentions. I was very impressed to see how hard they worked and how committed they were to keep the research going. The last night, the students built a huge bonfire on the beach and we enjoyed our last night together sharing our jungle stories. We left the next day at the crack of dawn and it took another four days to travel out of the jungle.
That was my “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences in the Amazon rainforest. I hope that we can attract some geography students for the May 2013 trip. With their mapping skills and GIS experience, they can work with biology students to address challenging interdisciplinary research. This would really be an interdisciplinary “out of the box” Towson experience. So come join us!