BICHIGT VALLEY TO GUCHIN US
We move north and west today, with some interesting driving on mountain trails along the way. The heights are stunning as we cross over Ikh Bogd (“Great Saint”) Mountain, also known as Tergun Bogd, a prominent peak in the Gobi-Altai range. Ikh Bogd has an elevation of 3,957 metres (12,982 ft) above sea level, and its rocky apex looms over the changing landscape below. This mountain is one of the province’s most revered sites and nearby is Tsagaan Aqui (“White Cave”), believed to be the location of the earliest human inhabits in Mongolia, where artifacts have been found dating back to 700,000 years ago.
On the lookout for Bankhars, we are talking to herders we encounter on horseback hoping for leads. Their timeless way of life out here echoes the imagery we saw in the rock art yesterday. It is hard to believe that this simple lifestyle was repressed for 70 years under the soviet system, when the nomads were forced into settlements. And more amazing to realize that when given their liberty they chose to return to this precarious livelihood. Freedom and independence are core values deeply ingrained, as is hospitality — and the herders we meet are welcoming.
We are hoping to find adult Bankhar that can help diversify the genetic pool of the project dogs. Because of their rarity, it is important to preventing inbreeding, and expanding the breeding pool will allow for exponentially increasing numbers.
The MBDP has done extensive research into the Bankhar and the best way to repopulate the breed. In the initial stages of the project, team members reached out to the nomads, talking to elders who recalled the Bankhar of their grandparents. They reviewed historical imagery to identify the appearance and unique physical characteristics of the dogs. Whenever a potential Bankhar is identified a DNA sample is taken to confirm that the dog has the four unique DNA aspects not found in any other “breed.”
This aspect of the project was established with help from Cornell University and the Canine Institute of Biology, as a scientific methodology to ensure potential project dogs are “true Bankhar.” A protocol was developed to exclude candidates with any modern dog breed genes under the assumption that the primitive Mongolia Bankhar dog would only recently interbred with dogs from outside of its natural range. The challenge is to maintain the purity of the breed, while ensuring the long-term genetic diversity necessary for the dogs to adapt and thrive.
Back down among the foothills of Ikh Bogd, we reach a salt water lake, Orog Nuur, where we take a short break. The lake is the terminus of the river Tuin Gol, which passes through Bayankhongor city. It is a peaceful and scenic stop known as a good place for birdwatching. Though it is tempting to stay longer, we have to get back on the road to make it the rest of the way to Guchin-Us in time to set up camp. The drive takes us into the arid desert via the ubiquitous washboard dirt tracks that seem to cross and divide into infinity over the length of a nation.
[Photos courtesy Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project/OEX]