We have been getting pretty good videos for the past few days, but it seems the animals have realized we aren’t actually predators and have gone on strike. After the first night of filming, Talia was dissatisfied with the lighting and visibility of the animals, so we decided to get a few more lights and dust the jerboas with glitter to make them more reflective and easier to track. Yes, we bedazzled already adorable rodents. Each one got dropped in a plastic bag and exploded out in a poof of fabulousness. I have named one particularly good runner “Speedy Sparklepants”. They are hilarious.
It’s okay that these individuals gave up on running for us, because these 5-toed jerboas are actually not that hard to catch. They do freeze in the light better than the 3-toed ones, so we’ve actually been able to catch them along the road. The driver has an eagle eye for determining whether objects in the road are rocks or jerboas, and he navigates the car to help spotlight the animals in the high beams. Tonight Yang even caught two with his bare hands since we had given our few remaining unbroken nets back to the guy who is off catching 3-toed jerboas for us tonight. These jerboas are amazing runners, and Talia got pretty good infrared video of a chase and catch as one went zigzagging along the asphalt. I wish they would have the fear of an untimely demise like that when we’re filming in a calibrated setup where she could actually track their movement and get useful data out of it.
As we were approaching the field station this evening, a football-sized trundling critter appeared along the very edge of the road. It wasn’t moving very fast. Turns out it ordinarily doesn’t have to. It was a hedgehog! We all jumped out of the car, and Yang still had on his work gloves, so he just scooped it up into the palms of both hands. The poor little guy immediately pulled his face and legs into a completely enclosed ball of spines. We stood around laughing and marveling at his coolness, and then Yang said “ok, I’m going to take it back to Urumqi tomorrow.” He’s returning for a day or two to take care of some things, and the folks in his lab seem to have decided that they can care for any small animal they can catch. The trouble is that we no longer had any empty cages in the car that could contain the guy. Yang was close to just dropping him in the trunk until we convinced him that was a really bad idea, so he jumped in the front seat instead. We were only just around the corner from the field station anyway, but the driver seemed quite concerned he would unball himself and get loose in the car, so he held a screwdriver at the ready and tapped the hedgehog a few times when it seemed he felt the coast was clear. He’s now chilling in a cage in the lab. Probably a little annoyed that he was just trundling along, minding his own business…
We’ve also been having a great time immersing ourselves in the local Kazakh culture. Yesterday we had to head into Fukang to find glitter and a few more flashlights to illuminate the arena, so we made an afternoon of it. I now know the Chinese characters for camel, and I have to admit that I now understand the pictographic nature of the language – the characters luo tuo actually really do look like two camels. Yang asked if we wanted to try camel’s milk, so we all had our eyes peeled for the characters for camel until we found a lower level shop selling camel’s milk and camel yoghurt. This was such a huge traveler’s no no – unpasteurized dairy products. But the local people were coming in a steady stream, it was all refrigerated, and I have a supply of antibiotics just in case. It was tasty. The yoghurt was a bit strange. Super tart and tasted very slightly carbonated with tiny chunks. The milk though was amazing. Thick rich whole milk with a slightly grassy flavor more like yak’s milk. We bought a half liter and used it to make milk tea the next morning. Yummy. The same shop also sold fabric items: Kazakh wedding dresses, pillow forms, and various bits of bedding and decorations. Sarah and I spent a solid hour rifling through piles of gorgeous pieces with brightly colored floral patterns embroidered in a traditional Kazakh style. I found a wall hanging that’s meant to go behind a bedframe or along the wall behind a sofa. It’s going to be a gorgeous conversation piece in my future house some day.
We set off this morning in search of cardboard pieces so that Talia can build a trackway to film the animals’ movement up close on a sandy substrate, and after scavenging through the local recycling center, Sarah and Yang went off to the desert to bring back buckets of sand while Talia and I took care of a few things at the field station. They returned about an hour later, and Sarah bounced out of the car yelling “Hurry, they’re going to take us to the horse races! Kazakh horse races!” So we all piled into the car and drove a few minutes south of 222 and out into an open field full of people, cars, trailers, and motorcycles. There were several hundred Kazakh people excitedly watching the horses race past on the bare dusty earth. The story I got was that a wealthy Kazakh man in the area arranged the races in celebration of his son or daughter’s wedding. The Kazakh horses are a bit smaller than horses we’re familiar with, and they were ridden bareback by young men/older boys. The track is 5 kilometers around, and they have to run the track in 6 laps, so it’s more of a race for endurance than speed. These poor horses had worked up a lather by the time we arrived since they were on the last lap. I’m not sure who won, because I was too distracted by all of the men trying very enthusiastically to communicate with us. As soon as we arrived, so many curious pairs of eyes focused on us. Two big burly guys kept wanting to pose for photos with us, and a whole family asked me to take their picture. Super warm and friendly people which made the whole experience just as much about the folks watching the race as it was about the race itself. And back to the topic of camels – apparently the top prize for the race was one camel. I wish I’d been able to race and win a camel.