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Students dig their Mongolia work

By Cathy Grimes
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, October 2, 2000

Alison Gillespie traveled halfway around the world to ride a Mongolian pony and get her hands dirty.

She could have done without the pony ride.

She loved the dirt.

Gillespie, a geology major at Whitman College, was one of four Walla Walla-based students who spent the summer on the Mongolian steppe, studying soil to learn about past glacial periods. The 21-year-old senior said the trip was a chance to see earth's history firsthand.

"What we were doing was trying to unravel the past history of the area. It's not just rocks," Gillespie said, then smiled. "Though my thesis is going to be on dirt."

Rocks, soil, or dirt, the material Gillespie and her peers and professor Bob Carson explored is in one of the least explored regions on earth. "No one has ever seen this stuff before," she said of her summer expedition.

Their objective was to find the southern edge of the storm track that brought moisture to arid central Asia during the Pleistocene ice age. In addition to providing more accurate maps and information for student theses, Carson said long-term benefits might include correlations with Mongolia's glaciers and those elsewhere, and their significance in climate change over at least the past 150,000 years.

The trip to Mongolia, which lies between Russia and China, was made in conjunction with the University of Washington and other four-year colleges. Gillespie, Justin Brooks, Justin Merle, Devon Macauley, and Carson headed to Asia in late July.

They spent five and a half weeks trekking across the steppe to the hills in northwestern Mongolia.

Alison Gillespie looks a little dubious about riding a Mongolian pony, but she actually was having a good time, she said. Gillespie was one of four Whitman geology majors who traveled to Mongolia last summer with professor Bob Carson to work on a research project. She and Justin Brooks, Justin Merle, and Devon Macauley studied soil striations and formations caused by glacial movement.

Photo by Justin Brooks, '01

They carted camp gear, clothes, research tools, and cameras. Tucked among the journals and parkas in their packs were gifts for villagers they would encounter. Gillespie said meeting the nomadic people of the region descendants of fierce mounted warriors who under Genghis Khan conquered much of the Asian and European continents in the 13th century was almost as exciting as examining the soil.

The students and faculty were among few Americans to ever visit the remote region and were the objects of intense curiosity. "It's so wide open there. People would see us for miles," Gillespie explained. "Devon and I would sit outside and people would come to visit."

She was intrigued to discover the Mongolian people do not privately own land and have little use for personal possessions. Generations of tradition determined how land was shared for grazing and temporary encampments.

The research team set up several camps in the foothill region, traveling by pony, boat, and four-wheel drive vehicles. Gillespie, who had never ridden a horse before reaching Mongolia, was no fan of the country's small, sturdy equines, known for their stamina as much as their friskiness. "I had to wash my clothes four times, and they still smelled like horse," she said.

Using a satellite mapping system, the researchers visited five areas, digging four or five two-foot by two-foot pits in each and studying soil striations and formations caused by glacial movement. They brought back core samples from each site, some of which will provide information for Gillespie's thesis. She said the students did the digging and collecting. "We'd essentially hop in the pits, and the older graduate students would tell us what was going on," she said.

She said the trip changed her view of scientific research. "It made me realize it's very dependent on timing," she said. Small delays meant juggling the dig list, focusing on what the professors determined was most important. "You fly a lot by the seat of your pants," she said.

Gillespie said the researchers hoped to return to Mongolia for further exploration. Asked if she would return to the land of nomadic people and ponies with attitude, she grinned. "I would if I could."

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