Interview: Ms. Struckman’s Travels in Mongolia

After taking conceptual physics, most of us students know that Ms. Struckman likes to travel.  This summer, she had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Mongolia to engage in service work as well as some tourism. During her five weeks abroad, Ms. Struckman was able to immerse herself in a unique experience in which she was able to give back but also gain at the same time, in the form of new experiences and a greater global awareness. She brought back recollections from her visit to share with us, as well as some of the amazing photos she took!

Tell us about your summer experiences and travel highlights. What has been the most meaningful experience of your trip? Did you use any knowledge of science during your summer? If so, in what way? 

I have spent five weeks in Mongolia, two weeks touring the central part of the country, including the Gobi Desert, and three weeks volunteering at Hustai Park monitoring the Takhi (also known as “Przewalski’s horse”). They are the only true wild horses (not the same as domestic horses, they have two more chromosomes!) and they went extinct in the wild in 1969. They were bred in captivity and reintroduced 25 years ago to Hustai Park, and a few other places, but Hustai has the most. There are now 326 living in the wild in the park. I spent four hours a day following a harem (a stallion, his mares and their foals), recording data every ten minutes about their location, the temperature, wind speed, and behavior. The animals are being monitored to assess their health and to see how they use the land and how they interact with each other and the other wildlife in the park. The wild animals are descendants of only twelve or thirteen captive animals, so inbreeding is a serious problem; about 10% of the animals are sterile and can’t produce offspring.

What are some of the cultural differences you found fascinating during your travels?

The cultural differences are dramatic. Mongolia is primarily Buddhist, but most of their temples were destroyed by the Russians when Mongolia was part of the Soviet Union; they are trying to rebuild some of them. There are, however, many stupas; people walk around them three times clockwise, adding a stone to the pile each time while asking for blessings, such as a safe journey. More than half the population is still nomadic; they live in gers, (like the Russian yurts), which are round tents lined with wool that can be assembled and disassembled quickly and moved to new locations as neededalmost all of the land outside the cities is public, and you can set up your gers wherever you like. They are transported by truck, camel, yak, or horse.  Some gers have a little electricity from a solar panel, but many do not. Cell phones and motorcycles (no helmets, sometimes 3 generations on the same motorcycle!) are commonly used. They haul barrels of water for daily use; they have no bathrooms in the gers.  Most of the food is from animal products, though some farming of grains happens in a few places. Two of the more popular beverages are a salty milk tea and fermented mare’s milk (which is quite sour, by the way, but much better tasting to me than the camel’s milk I tried).  I did spend one night with a nomadic family, camping outside their ger.  They have a long tradition of hospitality, but at least one enterprising family earns money by being on AirBnB!

Why is photography meaningful to you, and have you taken any recent photos over summer?

Photography is meaningful to me both as an art form trying to take a good photo helps you to notice things you might miss and to see beauty you might otherwise overlook— and as a way of improving my memory of experiences.  And there’s lots of physics in photography  …   Yes, I took lots of photos [check them out below!].

Do you have any advice for students wishing to spend time abroad?

If you are wanting to spend time abroad, first do your research and find something that is meaningful to you. For example, I was able to combine my desire to give back through volunteer work with my love of horses, conservation, and science by finding this volunteer project in Mongolia. The other advice I would give is to step outside of your comfort zone and try to experience new things. Don’t try to live your American life in a foreign countryit can be too easy to visit a country and see it, but never really experience what it is like or talk to ordinary people who live there. Learning about a place before you visit it can also help you find unique experiences as well as to appreciate what you see.  

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