Surveying at Bulgan Sum

It was late March, after a great snowstorm, and the morning sun was shining in the clear blue sky of Bulgan sum. The ISMD team was ready to head to the Flaming Cliffs – except for one person, me.

Binderiya Munkhbat leading a dinosaur workshop in Dalanzadgad in the Gobi, March 2017

I am Binderiya Munkhbat, educator and translator for the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs. My task on this day was to stay in the village and survey locals about building a dinosaur museum nearby. We wanted to learn how the local people felt about building a dinosaur museum near their village, and gauge their desire to learn more about Mongolia’s own dinosaurs. Munkhsaikhan, the ranger of Bulgan sum, found a volunteer from Altain Khoilog, a local kid’s nature club, to help me to go around and meet people.

It was Sunday morning around 9 am – still early for Arvijikh, our teenage volunteer, who was barely awake when I went to her home. She offered to be our first survey respondent, and I interviewed her as we walked to our first family house. She was so excited when she was answering my questions, because she had participated in our dinosaur workshop at the Flaming Cliffs in 2015.

Not far, we stopped in front of the door of the first family ger. Surprisingly, Arvijikh pulled the door and stepped into the ger directly. I stood still for a moment then followed her to get in. An average Mongolian ger (or yurt) is not that big. However, 6-8 people can sleep over. In the ger, everyone was getting up. Probably we woke them up. Sleepy eyes looked at me with wonder. I greeted everyone, and introduced myself by explaining why I was there. A man, who might have been the householder, sat down, and agreed to take a survey. When I was asking questions and talking to him, his family members were giving their own opinions too. For instance, they would like to learn about Mongolian dinosaurs that were found near where they live, because sometimes they hear that expeditions find things, but they never get detailed news. One respondent showed interest in helping researchers to find fossils in the field, and asked if there will be some paid jobs.

Then we headed to the next family. We visited 5 or 6 houses, but all the adults weren’t at home. After the tough snowstorm – the most severe in 20 years – everyone was trying to support herders outside the village. Later, we hit some empty doors, so we went to Arvijikh’s friend’s house. There I met two men who’d helped us on the road getting through this massive snow to come in Bulgan. One was a professional wrestler named Sumiya and the other was his friend. They were waiting for the family elders when I came.

My time was running out, so I asked the wrestler to be our next respondent while we waited. Even though he lives in Ulaanbaatar city, he originally came from Bulgan village. He visits his home town every summer, he said. He and his friend really appreciated the idea of building a museum of dinosaurs from the Flaming Cliffs.

When we were talking about what they know about dinosaurs generally, the householders came in. It was a nice chance for me to take another survey from an elder person. I surveyed the husband, who was 76 years old and had never been in school. Also he said he had never visited a museum. He shared his opinion and said that having a museum is good, but it’s important that the museum and its exhibits should be the property of the local community.

After we had a nice talk with these elders and city people, we went to the small shops in the area. The main street of the village has four small shops, and three of them sell food. The shops are all run by women in their 40s. I surveyed all four in their shops. All the ladies were positive about the museum and keen to visit it with their families when it opens.

The shops at Bulgan Sum, March 2017

One woman saw me in the last two shops, and she came up to me when I finished surveying the owner of the last shop. She was a teacher in secondary school, and she wanted to fill out the survey, even though I hadn’t asked her, which was really nice of her. She was watching me in each shop when I was surveying the owner lady. She said, she would like to volunteer to run a workshop or be a guide for others who visit the museum. Also her children run a small booth selling things to tourists at the Flaming Cliffs during summer time, so she would like to let her children be a guide at the dinosaur museum, if there will be any open recruitment for jobs.

By the time she finished filling out the survey, I could see the car the ISMD team took to the Flaming Cliffs driving back into town. My work was finished with the teacher’s response. I was pretty satisfied with all those responses and comments even though I surveyed only a few people.

Now we know that locals are somewhat enthusiastic about learning about Mongolian dinosaurs, and they feel positive about having a real dinosaur museum near their hometown which can protect their heritage and environment.

The Frozen Cliffs

Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs director Thea Boodhoo is documenting our latest mission to plan a museum at the Flaming Cliffs. (You can help us cover some of the costs.)

The Flaming Cliffs are the first place dinosaur fossils were discovered in Mongolia, during a 1922 expedition of American scientists and local translators and guides. It was Roy Chapman Andrews, the expedition leader, who named them the Flaming Cliffs and later wrote about them, revisiting several times, and capturing the imagination of the public.

“Roy Chapman Andrews and Merin with camel at Flaming Cliffs, Mongolia, 1925.” From the AMNH Digital Special Collections.

For the people who live there, the area has always been known as Bayanzag. It has become one of Mongolia’s top tourist destinations and sort of holy pilgrimage for dinosaur enthusiasts. It is protected by the local government and surrounded by tourists camps. Two dirt roads approach the cliffs, and in the summer you can find vendors at the top, selling felt camel toys, silver bowls, and jewelry. There is no museum, no visitors center, no marked trails, no signs, and nothing telling tourists there’s a town nearby called Bulgan.

We left Bulgan for the Flaming Cliffs shortly after sunrise in a three-car caravan, Munkhsaikhan and her husband in the lead. They had every hill and wash memorized, and expertly led us through the snow-covered landscape without a hitch.

Something tells me we wouldn’t have made it on our own.

It’s rare to see snow in the Gobi, and much rarer to see this much of it. So before we get to the Flaming Cliffs, it’s only fair of me to share a few more photos of the journey.

And then the Flaming Cliffs were finally in sight.

After travelling across an ocean to Ulaanbaatar, an entire day on the road just to get to the Gobi, the many days in Dalanzadgad spent waiting for the snow to stop, and even the night before in Bulgan wondering if we’d make it to the Flaming Cliffs at all, it felt like we’d achieved something monumental just getting there.

The whole team, with Sugarkhuu behind the camera.

We explored what we could. It’s impossible to get an accurate feel of the scale of this place from photos, which is one reason our architect Walt needed to be here in person to scout possible locations for the museum. At the edge of the cliffs, we did what exploring we could safely, thinking about trails and informational signs, before stepping back to the flat plain, where a museum would make the most sense.

Now thinking about the museum in earnest, we went through our many considerations. Erosion is a huge one – extreme temperature differences throughout the year mean cracks in the rock grow quickly. Sparse vegetation leaves sandstone exposed to wind, a constant battering presence in the Gobi, and rain, which happens rarely here, but when it does it’s a force to be reckoned with. Flash floods have caught expeditions by surprise, nearly wiping out entire campsites. The sandstone itself is so soft you can rub it off a fossil with your forefinger. In short, all the things that make Bayanzag such an excellent place to find dinosaurs also make it an exceptionally challenging place to build a dinosaur museum.

Another question we must ask ourselves is how much attention we want the museum to draw to itself. The opportunity to create an iconic masterpiece of architecture, like so many urban museums, is tempting, but we all agreed early on that the real masterpiece at Bayanzag has already been created by nature. The design of the building should minimize its presence, and let the sandstone and the sky speak for themselves.

As we move forward with legal details and budgeting, we’ll share more about which locations we’re considering and what the museum might look like on the inside and out. There are many ways you can help, from volunteering to fundraising to donating and simply spreading the word by sharing our project with your friends and colleagues. If you’ve enjoyed the photos from this post, I’ve added a couple as wall art to our shop.

Needless to say, we all made it home safe and sound and caught our planes on time. Thank you for following along with our March adventure through the highs and lows. We’re thrilled to have made it despite everything and in a lot of ways, glad we experienced the journey under the most difficult circumstances possible. We learned so much about the challenges of life out here and in our down time while we were snowed in, we made plans we’re excited about for helping the people of the Gobi in every way we can as we move forward.

Now the real work starts.

Meet our Volunteer of the Quarter, Markie Massey

Markie Massey, our Spring 2017 Volunteer of the Quarter

We recently held our second quarterly board meeting. It was precisely three minutes shorter than our first, at two hours and twenty-two minutes. At least six of those minutes were spent discussing and voting for our first Volunteer of the Quarter. We didn’t think of it at the last meeting because, well, we didn’t have a lot of volunteers. Now we have (*checking*) thirteen! Crazy.

One of them has been especially enthusiastic and dedicated this quarter, and if you follow our Twitter feed, you already know her work. Markie Massey took over the Twitter account for me a few months ago and has posted far more regularly than I had time for, helping to forward our mission of building awareness of Mongolian dinosaurs and paleontology around the world.

She let us subject her to a short interview so you could get to know her better.

ISMD: How did you first get involved with the ISMD?

Markie: I first heard about the ISMD from an episode of the I Know Dino podcast. Thea had been interviewed on the show about her work in the ISMD and brought up the [Indiegogo] campaign. I’ve been in love with Mongolian paleontology since my college years, back when I started reading about Roy Chapman Andrews, and had to go check out the campaign. I donated and kept up with the newsletters, excited to see all the awesome dinosaur education going on out in the Gobi. One of the updates sent out asked for volunteers and I replied right away. I wanted to be a part of the ISMD in some way.

ISMD: What do you like about volunteering with the ISMD?

Markie: Interacting with paleontologists, paleoartists and other dinosaur enthusiasts like myself on social media is so much fun. I get to make connections with people doing amazing work and keep up with their projects.

ISMD: What do you do when you’re not volunteering with the ISMD?

Markie: Besides the normal stuff like reading, writing and playing Legend of Zelda, I also volunteer for The Planetary Society as well. I’m a volunteer coordinator for the DFW (Dallas / Fort Worth) area and run some events for them sometimes. I really love working with science oriented non-profits! Maybe in the future, if I’m lucky, I can turn this love into my full time job.

ISMD: Describe something related to paleontology that you’ve always wanted to do.

Markie: I’ve always adored dinosaurs since I was a kid. I think most people, even if they don’t grow up being paleontologists, have a favorite dinosaur at some point. Some of us just never let go of that and grow up to be total dinosaur nerds. I took paleontology in college and got to dig out at the Arlington Archosaur Site during the summer of 2008. It was love at first dig, but sadly I wasn’t able to finish and become a real paleontologist. So now I get to volunteer with the fantastic people at ISMD and support those doing good work out in the field by advocating science education.

ISMD: What’s your favorite Mongolian dinosaur?

Markie: Now that’s a ten million dollar question! It’s a hard choice between Protoceratops, Oviraptor and Velociraptor. All of them have profound scientific importance to the field of paleontology, but really it boils down to how adorable I think they are.

Congratulations Markie, and keep up the good work! By the way, the featured photo by Douglas Neman up top is of Markie and a Tyrannosaur at our Dallas March for Science table. The Saurolophus tees and stickers you see are currently available in our shop.

Welcome to Bulgan Sum

Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs director Thea Boodhoo is documenting our latest mission to lay early groundwork for a museum at the Flaming Cliffs. (You can help us cover some of the costs.)

Front entrance of the community cultural center in Bulgan Sum

When we finally arrived in Bulgan Sum it was late afternoon and the town center’s modest buildings cast long shadows across its snow-covered streets. Cows and dogs wandered past our cars as we unloaded our luggage. We would spend the night in the guest quarters of the Community Cultural Center, a two-story Soviet-era structure with a large hall, theater, and classrooms.

A small restaurant welcomed our party a block away, where everyone just barely fit at the single large table. The food was arranged elegantly and Walt commented that it was the best he’d had in Mongolia so far. Suutei tsai was served out of a giant thermos and everyone began to feel cozy again for the first time since leaving Dalanzadgad.

The restaurant in Bulgan Sum
The best food in the Gobi?

The drive from the biggest city in the Gobi to the main town of the sum of Bulgan is usually about two hours down a dirt road that follows the power lines. This time, it took us all day. We had to stop and shovel snow several times, making sure we stayed on the buried road. If it weren’t for the power lines, it would have been impossible to find the route.

Munkhsaikhan (left) is an ecologist who, until her recent promotion, was the area’s only ranger, gathering ecological data with the help of nomadic herders while running an organic farm and kids’ nature club. Tuvshinbayar (right) is a parliament member from Dalanzadgad.

But we made it. As we enjoyed rice with meat and hot tea, Munkhsaikhan, the ranger I’d met in September, joined us. I was happy to see her and happier to learn she’d been promoted and was expecting her third child.

We lamented running out of time for a workshop here, but Bolortsetseg decided to play our workshop DVD, “Dinosaurs Alive,” at the Cultural Center theater. Everyone was invited, and after some technical difficulties, the audience (mostly kids) got to see the full twenty-odd-minute chapter about the Flaming Cliffs, a world-famous fossil quarry that also happened to be their back yard.

A scene at the Flaming Cliffs from “Dinosaurs Alive” played at the Cultural Center in Bulgan Sum

Bulgan Sum was the first place the ISMD held workshops, in 2009, and the Movable Museum made it here in 2015 – the first and only time many here had seen a dinosaur museum. Both these efforts targeted children, so I was curious to see how adults here felt about dinosaurs. We also needed to know how locals felt about a museum at the Flaming Cliffs. We had a survey ready with questions on both topics, and the next morning, Binderiya stayed behind in the town to interview everyone she could. The results are fascinating, and I’ll share them with you in a future update.

The rest of us took our fate in our hands and attempted the drive to the Flaming Cliffs through the snow. Walt had to be on a plane the next day, so this was our last chance.

To be continued…

The Waiting Game

Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs director Thea Boodhoo is documenting our latest mission in the Gobi. (You can help us cover some of the costs.)

The sun is out. If the roads are back open today, we’re heading to Bulgan Soum (and the Flaming Cliffs tomorrow if all goes well) after I forget how many days in Dalanzadgad waiting for the snowstorm to pass.

This was before it got bad. There’s no pavement under there.

It’s been the biggest storm of its kind here in at least ten years, they’re saying. At one point, thirty-five people were missing in the area, and one still hasn’t been found. Many nomads were caught off guard and their livestock are now at risk, lacking access to food.

If we’d left a bit earlier for Bulgan Soum, we may have beat the storm, and we were kicking ourselves at first for that, but now we’re hearing that the homes we planned on staying in have become shelters for rescue personnel and that the Flaming Cliffs are completely inaccessible.

We’ve spent our time here in Dalanzadgad well, though. Planning and paperwork have made great progress and we’ve come up with tons of ideas for the museum together over endless khushuur and suutei tsai at the hotel restaurant.

We were even able to set up a dinosaur workshop at a school in town.

Will we make it to the Flaming Cliffs before we have to return to Ulaanbaatar to catch our flights home? It all depends on the weather and the road conditions.

If nothing else, at least we discovered a dinosaur while we were here.

Supersaurus marketrex.

A Day in Dalanzadgad

Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs director Thea Boodhoo is documenting our latest mission in the Gobi. (You can help us cover some of the costs.)

The drive to Dalanzadgad was uneventful except for a few irresistible photo opps.

I’m writing from the Gobi Sands Hotel tonight in Dalanzadgad, Umnugovi Aimag – the southernmost aimag (province) of Mongolia, where tourists visit in the summer to see the Flaming Cliffs and other natural wonders like the Hongor Sand Dunes and the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains. Collectively, the attractions of the Gobi are Mongolia’s most popular tourist destination.

Right now, however, it’s not summer, and there are no tourists.

The view from our room at the Gobi Sands Hotel this morning. Why yes that is snow.

Note: If you want to beat the Spring Break crowds, this is definitely the place to go.

Happily, precipitation of any kind is considered good luck in the Gobi. After a team breakfast of bread with jam, fried eggs, and bantan (a traditional meat and rice soup), we made our way to our meeting with several officials from the local Parliament.

Binderiya translated for Dan, Walt and I, and Bolortsetseg did most of the talking. I don’t want to go into too much detail on what was discussed yet, but it went well. There are a number of open questions but we all left feeling really good about this important first step toward a museum and research center at the Flaming Cliffs.

The local press was also in attendance, and wouldn’t let Bolortsetseg leave for lunch without an interview.

Walt, Binderiya and I also met with some professionals from the local construction industry to get a feel for the architecture requirements.  We’ll use what we learned to form some initial estimates.

Our final meeting of the day was an informal one with the local museum director, after which we were treated to a tour of Dalanzadgad’s two museums: a cultural museum (with a few dinosaur specimens) and the Camel Museum.

I have to say, if you are ever in Dalanzadgad, definitely find the Camel Museum. You will not be disappointed.

Tomorrow, hopefully we make it to the Flaming Cliffs despite a dust storm warning and more snow. Wish us luck.

Waking up in Ulaanbaatar

Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs director Thea Boodhoo is documenting our latest mission in the Gobi. (You can help us cover some of the costs.)

It’s 8:19am in Ulaanbaatar and the sun is shining. Our team of four arrived from the US via Incheon last night around ten, to a long customs line and a cold parking lot. Ganbold, who drove the Moveable Museum last September, met us at the airport in his new Prius with an extra drive to accommodate all our luggage. We got to the Bayangol Hotel, looked over materials for our mission, and fell asleep around 1:30am.

We’re back in Mongolia for two weeks to meet with government officials in the Gobi, drop off our new bilingual outreach materials, and scout a location for a new dinosaur museum and research center at the Flaming Cliffs, Mongolia’s famous orange sandstone landmark where the first dinosaur nests were found almost a century ago.

I’ll be making updates along the way with photos from the Flaming Cliffs and the local communities, so check back here and follow our Facebook page for more frequent check-ins.

Our team from the US includes:

  • Bolortsetseg Minjin, President & Director, Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs
  • Thea Boodhoo, Officer & Director, Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs (myself)
  • Walter Crimm, Architect, Walt Crimm Associates
  • Daniel Chure, Paleontologist, Dinosaur National Monument (not here representing the National Park Service in any official capacity)

And we’ll be picking up Binderiya Munkhbat on our way to the Gobi this morning. She hosted many of our workshops last September and a few since. She’ll be running two more in Bulgan, the town closest to the Flaming Cliffs, while we’re location scouting, and helping with translation.

Til next time, here’s another shot of our view at the Bayangol Hotel:

View from Bayangol Hotel, Ulaanbaatar, at sunrise

Хойд Америкын тал нутгаас Монголын говийн динозаврын эрэлд гарсан миний тэмдэглэл

Бид цахим хуудасныхаа анхны блогоор палеонтологич Викториа Арборын тэмдэглэлийг толилуулж байна. Тэрээр Онтариогын Хааны Музей болон Торонтогийн Их Сургууль дахь Эваний Лабраторид Канадын Байгалийн Ухаан болон Инженерын Судалгааны Төв нэрэмжит (КБУИСТ) докторын дараахь сургалтад судалгаа хийж байгаа.

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ISMD President’s Statement on AMNH Fossils Collected by Roy Chapman Andrews


On September 28, 2015, ISMD president Bolortsetseg Minjin shared this statement with her followers on Facebook regarding the sensitive topic of Mongolian fossils in the possession of the AMNH. While the ISMD supports the immediate repatriation of all fossils illegally exported from Mongolia, those which were legally exported are a different, and much more complex, issue.

2015 оны 9 сарын 28-ны ѳдѳр МДСХ-ийн Ерѳнхийлѳгч М.Болорцэцэг Америкийн Байгалийн Түүхийн Музейд буй Монголын палеонтологийн олдвортой холбоотой мэдэгдлийг ѳѳрийн Нүүрномын хуудсан дээр тавьж байсан. МДСХ нь Монголоос хууль бусаар гарсан олдворуудыг буцаан эх орондоо аваачихыг дэмжин ажиллаж байгаа бѳгѳѳд хууль ёсоор гарсан олдворуудын хувьд шийдэгдэх шаардлагатай асуудлууд бий. (Монгол орчуулгыг энд уншина уу)

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