June 6th I flew through South Korea into Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar (UB), let me say, I would seoul do that again over the antics in Beijing’s airport. The city was backlit with a burnt orange dusky glow; semi haphazard strings of lights accented major roads and the sprawling geer districts as we touched down outside the bustle of UB at a small airport.
Immediately Chingis Kahn, whom the airport is named for, welcomed us. To clarify, Mongolians pronounce it ‘Chingis Han’ not ‘Ghangis Kan’. He’s quite misunderstood by the western world. Despite his prolific reputation…..a favorite fun fact is that 1 in 200 men around the world carry his DNA…. the modern world has more to thank him for. During his time of conquest, creating the largest contiguous empire, he established invaluable trade routes and connections across Europe and Asia that furthered the transfer of knowledge, goods, food, and ethics. Chingis promoted a strong set of values that Mongolians still uphold, including hospitality to one’s home, religious tolerance, sharing food and meals with travelers and companions, and care and respect for the environment.
After a sleep deprived celebratory dance when my bags actually arrived, panic set in when I didn’t see my driver. Another driver tried to convince me I was going with him. Fortunately, I found my driver who patiently put up with my language practice, asking him what he liked. Yep, he likes his Prius and Taylor Swift. I settled into my colorful apartment, alone for the first time in a while, and tried to fight the jet lag.
The sun rises at 4am! Everything is confusing; I feel like a complete goofer. I began to wrap my head around the essentials but everything felt jarring. Where did I get the idea this was feasible? Can’t find toilet paper. Can’t drink the water. Don’t have breakfast. Have no cash…this was a foolish idea. I’m here, alone, in a city, yowzers!
I headed out to what felt like the most important meeting of my life — I was searching for a field assistant or translator for the summer because having a Mongolian partner was going to be essential. Before I flew out, I looked at the researcher’s names on the papers and books I’d been ravenously reading and looked up each person from Mongolia; I emailed and messaged everyone and put out an inquiry for a student to work with. Almost instantly I had responses from flora enthusiasts, tour guides, and in particular, the main botany lab at the National University of Mongolia which oversees their herbarium. These were the women I was off to meet.
Professor Batlai and Oyundari kindly welcomed me into the apartment to some freshly ground coffee; they were really excited about my project and had already spoken with their students. This is the oldest and most respected university in Mongolia, based in the capital, with an impressive history of flora research. We discussed the details, travel, safety, co-authorship, and the context of my research and they put me in touch with a graduate student who was doing her work on the genetics and propagation of a relative of S. dorogostaiskii. Music to my ears, these are things I know nothing about! Importantly, this might be the next step for conserving this species. Furthermore, we discussed the collection of specimens and tissue samples of the plant for the herbarium. Not only were they so kind as to go out of their way to help me find a research assistant, but a small research partnership was forming. All very exciting!
By the end of the day I had my visa in hand, a new friend, yogurt, and weekend plans! Almost too productive of a day!