Natural Sciences

Epic Field Trip

Rare trip to Kyrgyzstan yields geological, cultural adventures
Geological field trip group

Students visit Petrov Lake, a glacial lake formed by an unstable dam of ice and rock that is eroding, threatening a toxic waste site downstream.

A lesson from Kyrgyzstan: You might want to pass on the fermented horse milk.

That’s just one of those unexpected nuggets one picks up when traveling in exotic places, and for most American geology students it doesn’t get much more exotic than this small Central Asian nation wedged between China and Kazakhstan. That’s where a lucky group of UO undergraduate and graduate students found themselves last summer on a field trip that even seasoned travelers described as epic.

“It was overwhelming, really,” said Brittany Dayley, one of 27 undergraduates who took part. “We were just experiencing so much geology so quickly. We covered a lot of ground in the time that we were there.”

Ray Weldon, professor of geology and trip organizer, has covered a fair amount of ground himself, having studied Kyrgyz geology for more than a decade. One of the new nations that formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan sits on one of the most geologically active areas of the planet, he said.

A prime example is the Tien Shan Mountains, one of the tallest ranges on Earth, with peaks as high as 24,406 feet.

The Tien Shan is a relatively uncommon example of mountains emerging in the middle of a continent. Typically, mountain ranges form where two plates—big pieces of the Earth’s crust—collide, like the Cascade Mountains rising from the collision of the Juan de Fuca and North American plates.

Weldon said the Tien Shan Mountains are rising over a weak spot in the Asian continental plate, far from a plate boundary. Think of it like a big wrinkle that pops up in a large sheet of fabric when you try to push it across a table from one end.

Image of Kumtor gold mine

At 14,000 feet, the Kumtor gold mine—second-highest gold mining operation in the world—was one stop on the excursion.

That push comes from India, which is on a separate plate that’s colliding with Asia. It’s a big collision, forming the Himalayan Mountains, including Mount Everest, and raising the Tibetan Plateau.

But some energy from that collision continues inland until it finds a weak spot, creating the wrinkle that is the Tien Shan. Geologically speaking, the Tien Shan are very new mountains that are still growing by about a centimeter a year, or about a half-inch.

“In geological terms, that’s screaming,” Weldon said. “You can practically see the mountains being built.”

The trip was made possible by the Lloyd W. Staples Scholarship and Award Endowment Fund, named for a late professor in the geology department and largely supported by alumnus Dick Bray.

Both graduate and undergraduate students joined in the Kyrgyzstan trip, after attending a one-term seminar class on the country and preparing a research report on an aspect of the region’s geology. Each student had to become an expert on a particular topic such as mountain building or earthquake faults and then, during the trip, present findings at a site displaying that kind of geology.

But the students learned about more than geology. They also learned about another culture, one that is as different from their own as pink granite is from basalt.

The Kyrgyz people, undergraduate Brian Meyers said, “are absolutely wonderful. We had a warm reception everywhere we went.”

On their travels through the countryside, Meyers said it wasn’t uncommon to be invited to share in kumis, a tart drink made of fermented horse milk popular among Kyrgyz people. The milk is only mildly alcoholic, but because it’s considered rude to drink and run, one might end up downing a good many drinks.

“You pretty much want to avoid that,” Meyers said.

—Greg Bolt