Musings – one
First, Mongolia? In winter? Why on earth . . .
Well, it's a longish story. I've been intrigued for years by falconry, even so to belong to the Missouri Falconry Association and to have attended a couple of their picnics. Enough to read up, but not enough to begin to consider taking a bird (probably a passage red-tailed hawk)—because the time commitment (after being licensed, itself no small process) is so great.
But I get the national magazine and there I saw an ad—hunt with golden eagles and the Kazakhs of Mongolia. A program put together by Boojum Expeditions. And no sooner did I see the ad than I said – wow, I'll have to do that.
Why such a reaction? Hard to say, really. Because there is perhaps no other place in the world where a fellow could go and hunt with eagles? Because it sounded like a grand adventure? Perhaps even as simple an answer as my friend Patricia Rouse might have offered—testosterone poisoning.
Travelogue – one
Cold there, I'm advised. Bring a very warm sleeping bag and plan to dress in layers. Plan on temperatures that might almost rise to freezing during the day but that drop way below zero at night.
Dressing for the cold—how hard can that be?
Adventure – one
I'm reminded of the fine definition—long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror or extreme discomfort, fondly remembered years later. The 'years later' part is important.
This promised to be an adventure. Halfway around the world, but that's not adventure. A journey across cultures. Closer. A journey back in time. Yes, that. In some ways perhaps a journey back a few centuries or more.
Where else could a person go today, and be with a people still nomadic, still following their flocks most of the year, and be there as a guest rather than a tourist?
Musings – continued
Mongolia. North of China, south of Russia, not long free of the Communist orbit. The Mongol people mostly Buddhist or animist, but the Kazakhs in the far west Muslim. Famous for being the land of Genghis Khan, and for being the probable source of the flea-borne pandemic of the Black Plague that once decimated Western Europe.
I admit to wondering if I'll be 'in time', if westernization will not have become established.
Checking in at Saint Louis, and wishing I'd checked for the city code for the airport at the capital city of Mongolia. Ulan Baator. The gal at the United counter struggles for some time and cheerfully suggests that I could always pick up my duffel in South Korea and recheck it then.
Though my interest in possibly have to transit customs a second time is dim indeed, and she eventually calls a supervisor. ULN. That's the code.
St. Louis to Chicago to Seoul to ULN. To be met there by a Boojum host and grabbing a couple hours sleep before flying the ancient Russian prop-jet to Ulgii. City code for that, ULG.
Thirty hours later, there I am – ULN. Mongolia has 2.5 million residents, with over a million of them in the capital city. We arrive at midnight, and have to be up before six to continue the journey. But on the way back, we'll have more time.
Hardly any so far. I've been lucky enough to have an aisle seat, and since we've been racing the sun to the west it has not really felt much like I ought to be sleeping. Though getting off to the hotel and having the chance to stretch out was great. A quick shower first—the last for some days to come.
On the puddle hopper flight, it begins. No toilet paper on the plane. (And, as it turns out, no toilet paper again until our return to ULN – though anticipating as much I took some in my hand-carried luggage.)
The airplane staff on the Air Korea flight from Chicago was great. Attentive and very professional. The ladies among them—young and carefully coifed and pretty.
On Mongolian Miat Air, not the same. Though we did get offered a juice and a Russian made Moon Pie.
At the intermediate stop, everyone deplanes and many head for a small wooden building next to the terminal. Curious, I follow. Oh. An outhouse. Six stalls, no seats, just slats over a 15 foot pit.
A brief stop stretches out, but eventually we file back in. I'm again seated side by side with a young woman who breastfeeds (left, then right, then left, then . . . ) for much of the flight. Not a problem, but a bit different than any of my flying experiences in the states.
I've got a window seat. And find myself amazed. Yes, of course being able to conduct archery while seated was a tremendous advance in military technology, but how did Genghis do it?
The land below is mostly vacant. Paved roads end at the outskirts of the city, with dirt tracks soon becoming less frequent. The ground gradually rises, ridges to foothills to low steep-sided mountains. Very little cultivation. Not much forest either. Earthtones, with little snow cover. Rugged land, mostly empty. And from here came one of the largest empires of all time?
We make it to Olgii. After the intermediate stop, we had to pass through security to replane. And so we do, after wandering around inside and outside the terminal. Time to go and we all file through the metal detector. It's on, and sounding continually, since we have no separation.
It was, at least, a line. At the airplane the term Mongolian horde comes alive. In Korea, perhaps due to the Confucian ethos, all is orderly. Here in Mongolia, being third in line might make you 10th or 20th or 100th once the crush subsides.
We pile into what looks a bit like—but is not—an old VW van.
There is a new terminal in Olgii. With a nice concrete apron in front that forces drivers to line up. This one is midway down the runway, whereas the old terminal is at the end nearest town. No road, however. Not even, really, a dirt road, just a dirt track. Once we reach the old terminal, there is a much-in-need-of-repair asphalt road.
As to Olgii itself, more anent when I discuss our return. Next stop, a relative of the guide, perhaps an hour away. They invite us in, of course, the obligation to extend hospitality being still a way of life.
My first look at lifestyles here. A small building, smaller than my living room at home. Doors maybe a little over five feet high, so here (and most everywhere else out in the countryside, remember to duck!). An anteroom for storage and to block cold air. And then one more room, to serve as kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom. For a family of four.
Far from the river, this one, and they have a well. The wife hurries to put on tea, and I get to glance around. Four beams across the ceiling, with rough sawn planks above, and then a layer of waterproof fabric before the dirt roof. A small plate metal stove for both cooking and heat. No chairs, just stools, but that makes sense – easier to stack and load stools on a camel come summer than it would be with chairs.
I can't help but think of the American pioneers. One room log cabins and one room sod homes.
And can't help but think a host obligation involves a reciprocal guest obligation. Here and everywhere as the trip progresses we get invited in, asked to sit at a place of honor, asked to share in tea and something to eat—the food often being bread, butter, curds, and a sort of crumbled cheese.
I'm not a fan of the curds or cheese, but will routinely try a small serving of fry bread.
Base camp. The winter settlement for probably 8 family groups. Elevation 5622 feet. Located at N 48 degrees, 57.314 minutes and East 89 degrees, 32.047 minutes. (Keith, the other person on the tour, has a GPS unit.)
In the summer these families will go up to the high mountain valleys
but for the winter they remain here—so we get a base camp that is a house
rather than a ger or yurt. Lots of livestock. Camels, horses, cows, sheep,
goats. Also dogs. No pigs, this being an Islamic people. No chickens either,
which surprises me until I remember that the folks are only here for the
We're not far from the river, located in a wide valley between a series of mountain ridges.
Remember the quarter moon houses, the outhouses of the Ozarks and of Appalachia? Well, here we have what Keith and I come to call the full moon house. No roof. No place to sit, merely to squat. Three sides, not four, and none of them chest high. Going to be interesting at night, no moon, temperatures dropping to twenty below.
I ask about water. From the river, I'm told. Not really a surprise, given that we're forty miles or more from an electric line—though a solar panel propped against the side of the house does recharge a battery.
A little disquieting, though, because this is winter pasturage. The guide provided some bottled water for us to drink, but the water for tea and soup and noodles and rice and everything else will be boiled river water.
No Walmarts, hooray. No McDonalds either. Heck, no piped water or electric lines for 40 or more miles.
Still, hardly virgin territory. Some name brands show up from time to time, Nike and North Face. Even so, it's the exception. Boojum does a really nice job of moving these visits around so that no family group or eagle hunter gets accustomed to having tourists. So, apart from being invited in for tea pretty much every time we go anywhere, folks will wander into our cabin unannounced to sit with us even though we've no shared language. To some extent, Keith and I are probably entertainment simply because we're something out of the ordinary.
The Kazahks, incidentally, seem to be quite an attractive people. European features, dark hair, almond shaped eyes (sometimes blue instead of brown!), and a skin tone that reminds me of light skinned polynesians. Though of course it's hard to 'age well' when work is hard and weather sometimes extreme and you live a nomadic life.
Our base is a slightly larger version of the first home. It has the anteroom, and then two additional rooms instead of one. The kitchen and stove are in the first, and the bedroom in the second. This suggests that the sleeping bag had best be a good one. Hard to imagine that the walls will hold heat—break the wind, yes, but once the fire burns down the bedroom is sure to cool quickly.
No trees for miles. Fuel consists of a bit of wood (purchased), coal
(purchased), or dried cow flops (collected each morning and piled in long
rows sort of like we'd make ricks of firewood).
Still time this first day for a short ride—which turns out to be a bit over three hours. I am supposing they wanted to see if Keith and I could ride a horse.
These are small horses. Keith rode some in advance of the trip to practice up, but rode English style—one rein in each hand. Which leaves him one hand short, since he'll have to be able to use a quirt. Off we go, the eagle hunter and his helper and his guide—leaving me and Keith trailing. It's a compliment, I suppose, treating us more as equals and less as clients. But I suspect they've not given us the more spirited mounts on purpose.
Let me digress. Dad taught me to drive a stick shift on a 56 Mercury with an almost impossible second gear, so I had to make do going from first to third. Well, in horses I use the analogy of a five speed—walk, running walk, hard trot, short lope, gallop. Some horse are smooth gaited, easy to ride. But most are a jarring ride at some speeds. Well, their horses seemed to have a nice running walk. The mounts Keith and I had seemed to have none, so we'd be at a walk (smooth enough) and then catch up with a trot (hello, bounce, bounce).
This eagle hunting, we soon discover, has these key components:
1) the eagle needs to be up high. So we follow the eagle hunter up the sides of mountains and perch on the lofty precipice.
2) once there, the helper works his way around halfway down the mountain trying to flush game.
3) if there is a wind anywhere, it is at the top—where we are. Dry, yes, but even so, cold.
4) some of the slopes are ones I'd be loathe to ascend on foot, because of the steepness and the loose rock. So we ride up. And ride down.
Ever see the very nice Australian cowboy film titled The Man From Snowy River. Yep, like that. Steep enough my head is almost parked on my horse's rump as we descend.
And a bit of a sandstorm on the way back makes me wish I'd brought ski goggles.
Hard for a Midwesterner to think of this as winter pasture. No green
anywhere. Scarcely any scrub, and darned little grass. This is true both
of the mountainsides and of the river bottom.
Makes me wonder too about the ecology of a place that's been pastured for a couple thousand years. Though my sense is that the landscape recovers come spring.
Food. We get all three meals. At every meal, tea—usually with the choice of boiled water and a Lipton tea bag or Kazakh tea, the leaves boiled in the water and with milk (often camel milk) added and then strained into our cups.
Soup daily, and probably important, since the humidity is so low that dehydration is a minor concern, especially with us being outside so much. Usually an egg or two every day. Some sort of boiled food, rice or noodles or a local grain. A couple slices of cucumber and tomato. Meat at every meal, and often potatoes. This is clearly not local fare, but it is filling. The cooking is mostly in a wok, and vegetable oil is not spared.
Night skies. Fabulous. Being so far from light pollution, the Milky Way is brighter than I've ever seen it. Low humidity and being at this elevation are certainly also helpful.
Second day with the eagles. This time, we ride across the river.
Yes, the ice is thick. But the horses are a bit skittish about being on ice, and so am I.
Then off to 'real' mountains. I am convinced these horses must have some billy-goat blood in them, so sure-footed they seem. No way to convey how steep the slopes are—without having been there, it's hard to imagine.
But at one place it becomes too steep even for them. So we get off and scramble down on foot tugging the reluctant beasts behind us.
We spot a fox, and the eagle flies. But the fox is too quick and escapes. The eagle, now free, soon soars out of sight. The eagle hunter disregards us entirely, heading out after his eagle, and he too is soon lost to sight.
Bitterly cold. Keith and I both wonder if we might have frostbite in a toe or two. Not that we're underdressed. I'd taken a half bottle of water, but it froze before we were an hour out. So I took it back with me, took it inside next to my sleeping bag—and two days later the ice had still not thawed.
When inside, I usually wear thermal underwear, a turtleneck, a shirt, a heavy wool sweater, and a windbreaker. That's for being inside. When I got outside and certainly when we're headed out on horses I add layers.
These folks live here all winter?
Well, I guess I'm not so hardy after all.
Money. Our guide is fluent in English. His regular job is as a schoolteacher. The pay is equivalent to $50 per month. No typo. When we leave, Keith and I tip him $50 each.
A nice house in Oglii (a town of 10,000) – brand new and in the middle of town – could be bought for $10,000. But it might still have the toilet outside. But almost no one here buys a house. Everyone builds their own. Even in town, the sort of house we have here at base camp is common, and some folks (even in the capital city) still live in their gers (a big round felt tent, like a yurt).
A bit about Oglii. It is perhaps the most dreary looking town of its size I've seen. As if the Russians were here (and they were), and then pulled out (which they did), and the town has not had money since.
No high rises, but lots of low rise buildings. Pretty much every one needs exterior maintainence. The government offices have threadbare carpet. When we went to the museum, folks were glad to see us and friendly and turned on the lights on each of the three floors as we climbed the stairs. The occasional cow or herd of goats wander even in the center of town.
Well, the eagle hunter invited us in to meet his family. Host obligation. We accepted, of course, and had the customary tea and bread and curds. Also, this time, fermented mare's milk. Called kuwmiss, it tastes a bit like a thin sour yogurt.
And does not agree with Keith, who sits out the next two days keeping close company with the full moon house.
This trip we'll only take one rabbit. The eagles will fly several times, and we'll miss some fox and rabbits. But that's okay. The trip, at least for me, is about the hunting and not about the killing. Our hosts, of course, would love to have the pelts.
A little hard to see how the wild critters make a living in such sparse
surroundings, though we do see in the scattered patches of snow in the
mountains ample sign of rabbit and fox—and even a wolf print.
Back in Olgii our host does have internet at home. So even here there is a blend of old and new.
On our return we stop to pick up a load of hides to sell at the open market. $15 for a cow hide, $7 for a sheep.
Later, we wander around the gated market, which is also outside but crammed with small stalls selling all sorts of goods. And then go off to play snooker. Being back in town I think I'll try a local beer, forgetting that it is Friday and that we're in Islamic territory. Sort of like the old day in America with the blue laws about Sunday. But our guide manages to procure one round anyway. While some folks here may be devout, the years of Communist influence seem to have pushed religion well into the background.
We're invited along with all the other family groups to come for dinner. Winter is, of course, the time of year to put up meat, and when livestock is slaughtered it is customary to share.
We go next door, and once again get invited to a place of honor, next to the host. He's probably the oldest man here, and once everyone is seated he reaches down to start flensing meat from the sheep's head.
It's a common platter. Everyone simply reaches in and picks up choice morsels. No, I'm not yielding to metaphor—it really is tasty, probably the most flavorful of any meal we have possibly even including the restaurants back in Ulan Baator.
I have to wonder how folks started hunting with golden eagles. Oh, I
know there might not be lots to do in the winter, and that pelts have value.
But it really is a lot of work.
Catch an eagle. Train it. Ride most of the day, and have a helper or two to try to flush game.
Then, when it works, hope the prey does not get away, hope the eagle does not fly away.
Of course, having seen a fox run, I also know it might be close to impossible to catch them any other way in terrain like this.
Shopping. Even at the museum in Olgii, there's little we care to buy. It seems almost nothing is made here and there is little in the way of crafts. So shopping will have to wait for Ulan Baator, where selections are larger and prices lower. However, once there we still find that with one exception it is the same—the exception being cashmere.
Goodness, but cashmere is cheap. A wonderful scarf for $10 or $15, a pair of cashmere gloves for $8. I hope to find a cashmere topcoat, thinking I'll never have a better chance—but am wrong. Even after checking a half dozen stores, I find only a single topcoat, this one tailored in China with sleeves way too short. I'm left to suppose that winters are so cold here that even men wearing business suits to work will not 'settle' for a topcoat.
Well, by golly, we ride a lot. Across frozen rivers and up and down mountainsides. We watch the golden eagles work, and are there for continued eagle training. We live with the locals, drink tea and kuwmiss, and share in a feast.
But maybe the most interesting moment is this—Keith is back at base camp. I'm with the eagle hunter on a lonely mountaintop, and everyone else is long since out of sight trying to flush game. A fox is spooked, and the eagle flies.
The fox knows the eagle cannot dive up. And so the fox, almost a blur, races—up the mountain. Soon the fox is higher than the eagle, and the eagle drops pursuit to start looking for other opportunities. Seeing his eagle depart, the eagle hunter jumps on his horse and follows and is quickly disappeared.
So, there I am. Me and my horse, alone on a desolate mountain peak. I have to wonder if the horse knows the way home.
It works out fine. I go the same general direction and after a mile
or so get reconnected.
If necessary, of course, I would have simply gone downhill to eventually reach the river, and then (hopefully) go in the right direction.
Interesting what we miss. Hot showers. Family. Coffee. Food not cooked in vegetable oil.
Ulaan Batoor is not Muslim. Instead of Kazakhs, the people are mostly Mongols, and instead of Muslim, most seem to be fallen away Buddhists.
There is a Catholic Church, and we stop there. Interesting design, circular, as if modeled on a ger. And, of course, the Christians got to Mongolia long ago, including priests who traveled with Genghis.
We also visit the lamasery. Like much of the rest of the city, it shows the lack of money for maintenance.
One oddity—the Russians a few decades back built huge central hot water systems, so all over town you can see these large pipes that run to building to provide heat and hot water. I've not seen anything on remotely the same scale elsewhere.
One of a different sort. Our guide in the capital city is friend to a fashion designer, and on Saturday night there is to be a fashion show. Would we, she asks, be willing to go?
Keith and I are of one mind. We're out of the boonies, and showered, and rested. Would we be willing to see some of the prettiest models in Mongolia walk the runway. Yep.
Well, we did. And--to use understatement--not every fashion was going for the layered look, so we were favored with more of a view than we ever would have expected.
Musings – and the end
I ran a marathon once. Always wanted to do that, and did, and am glad I did. But I've not had the desire to run another. Same with skydiving.
Same, too, with traveling to western Mongolia to ride with the eagle hunters.
Halfway around the world, across cultures, and back in time. To do a sort of hunting possible almost nowhere elsewhere, and to be with a nomadic people in winter camp before that sort of life disappears.
An adventure, per the definition first given above. More fondly remembered, no doubt, as more years go by.
Worth doing? Oh, absolutely. Every bit as interesting as I hoped, and
a remarkable chance to briefly step outside our daily culture, leaving
me both glad to
have gone and more thankful as well.
David Lee Kirkland