Today we are leaving Ulaan Baatar to go out into the countryside, which will be a relief for us all.
Traffic here is oppressive and appalling. The streets are just not made for this. Many cars and there is often gridlock, with angry drivers… And they are not as polite as the Vietnamese. There is also quite a bit of pollution.
Just outside the city are hills covered with gers — a ger is a yurt. Yurt is a Russian word, so people here do not like to use it. The faces of many people look much like North American tribal people with high cheekbones and dark eyes and hair. Genghis khan is much revered as the greatest of all Mongolians.
We will drive to some national parks today. Tomorrow we will leave Ulaan Bataar , flying west to the Altai mountains to the city of Ulgii where the Kazakhs live. Our guide Dosjan (pronounced “dose Zhan”) is from that area, and he is a Kazakh. We will be off the grid for about 5 days, staying up in the mountains in two separate ger camps. The Kazakhs are originally Turks, and Dosjan got his engineering degree in Turkey, but he also runs this adventure business. The plan is to ride jeeps up to where the Kazakhs hunt marmots using golden eagles in the same way Europeans used to hunt with falcons. We will also hike snowy trails to see glaciers.
It is cold. Yesterday morning it was 19F, but it warmed up to about 55 by midday. Food is good. Lots of authentic meat from herd animals who have been happily running, so tough meat. Lots of fresh veggies. Not many desserts, not much good coffee, but our guides have secret sources of coffee for us.
I’ll be in touch again with more when we come down out of the mountains.—jean
Today’s images: rocky hillsides of yellow green gold larch (tamarack) trees, cattle and yaks and dzo (half cow, half yak) grazing, herds of horses, goats, sheep, cattle moving slowly in the bright sun, hundreds of school children in lines as they shout and play in the vast fields, rolling grey brown green hills. Best sound besides the children shouting was the crisp brushing whooshing of the high wind in the larch needles. Food: ox tongue salad, milk tea, mushrooms and vegetables, and a wonderful Mongolian dessert of buttery rice with raisins that reminded me of rice pudding.
After 5 nights out in the Altai mountains on the far western wide of Mongolia, we have come back to the town of Ulgii, which is where the eagle hunting festival is being held this weekend.
Images: immense valleys of sparse grass; herds of thousands of goats, camels and yaks whose long hair streams out in the cold wind– and all running free for miles; snug gers (yurts) tucked up under snowy mountains; valley after valley of grassland with no roads, fences, houses, property lines. The colors of the mountains change constantly from grey to brown to greenish beige to purple to blue to white. Larch trees shine golden orange in the sun.
Incidents: Minnesotans are good at digging land cruisers out of snow, foxes are good at outwitting skilled hunters, a traditional Tuvan singer is a great performer even when he’s a bit drunk.
Foods: milk tea, dried yogurt, piles of sweets, fry bread, meat pies and Kim and Brad’s AMAZING coffee on snowy mornings.
The valleys stun me. It is hard to understand what I am seeing. In America this valley might be several counties, and there would be towns and roads. Even in the plains of the west there would be roads and ranches.
Here in Mongolia there is only the sweep of grass and wind. Even riding for hours or days, there are no roads, just marks in the sparse grass where a jeep or motorcycle has gone. There are no fences, no ranches, no farms, no towns.
It feel freer than anything I know. I feel like I could run and run and never have to submit to an end laid on me by someone else.
The earth is flat and stony. Herds wander the valley. Their wild freedom makes me shiver. A herd of camels with long fur jumps up, running as they please. Black and beige and spotted yaks trot by, their long fur streaming in the constant wind. Herds of strong healthy horses gallop for a mile or two and then turn. A thousand goats trot along and I smile at their round little butts. It seems to me that they are all as free as a flock of birds wheeling in the air, running the way a bird flies.
At the edges of what I can see are the rocky Altai mountains, some already white with snow, some grey and brown with high rocky formations. Their peaks jut up against the flawless sky like a simple drawing of triangles. If I drew it with crayons, it would look too simple to be real.
The bright sky soars above me, as endless as usual. An eagle makes so much sense here, high wings, wind, a screaming cry from somewhere I cannot see.
And then I see the gers (yurts). They nestle out of the wind, under the slopes. Smoke from the stovepipe streams away into the wind.
The door is painted in bright orange designs, and we have to bow low to enter. Inside, a round flap above the stove lets in a little light. It smells pleasantly of earthy smoke from the dung burning red hot in the little metal stove. Beds are arranged around the walls, and all around, hand embroidered tapestries of heavy wool feel rich and warm.
It feels like I have come out of the cold wild sweep of the valley into a little womb of the earth itself. We can rest here and sleep.
Yesterday and today is the Eagle Hunters’ festival here in Ulgii. It feels like a county fair or a powwow, where local people get together to wear special clothes, win contests and show off their own culture.
The Kazakhs are Muslims, and yesterday was a big Muslim holiday, so this year some locals stayed home. Even then, there were about 600 people gathered on the plain, and of this about half were locals.
We’ve spent a week out in the remote valleys, staying in gers with nomad families. So when I eat the chewy dried yogurt, it makes sense to me. I know that the herdsmen who watch a herd of 1000 goats from horseback need protein-rich convenient food for the long day, and I know that the yogurt came from the milk of a yak or goat or cow. At night the yaks and goats come close to the gers and stay inside open-topped stone enclosures to protect them from wolves. When it snows they have an inch of snow on their backs. The women, in longish skirts, boots and bright head scarves, sit on little stools and do the milking. The various calves and kids are tied to one side, and after the mother animal is milked, the women release the little ones who get the rich milk left at the end.
The high boots, fox fur hats, long padded brocade tunics and long coats of fur make perfect sense in this place where the high winds make snow on your face feel like pellets. Even at the festival we stay wrapped up with hoods pulled tight. Yesterday I watched our guide’s mother, a grandma my age, wrap long light fabric around her grandson’s face to prevent windburn.
Our guide had set up a ger on the plain while the festival was being held, and with the high winds and the chill, we welcomed the warmth, the hot tea, the meat dumplings, the soup and most of all the good spirits and warm smiles. The grandma rocked her two-year-old granddaughter and sat holding her in the warm ger for hours while we wandered in and out.
Out on the plain, like at a county fair in Iowa, they had a parade and then held contests. Several hundred local men who hunt with eagles had come to compete, gorgeous interesting tough men who rode strong horses and wore their distinctive outfits of high pointed fur hats, leather tunics and boots. And yes, we did see the girl hunter featured in the New York Times. She was a shy girl with a storybook face, and there was also a younger girl here who did the competition with her father next to her.
Their enormous golden eagles rode on their arms, with little fitted hoods over their eyes to keep them from spotting prey. These are she eagles, chosen because the females are better hunters and have more “heart” for the hunt. They are captured as young eagles, trained to hunt, and then released after about 7 years.
The contest was to see how well each hunter could call his eagle. So the eagles were up on a mountain next to us and the hunter rode his house out and then turned and called. The eagle soared out over the field and for the most successful, swooped down to get a meat treat on the hunter’s arm. The girl’s eagle came to her in about 10 seconds.
But there were a few disasters, where eagles turned and roasted higher on the mountain or swept off over the field and had to be retrieved. A little black dog, a stray, was spotted and attacked twice by hunting eagles, but he scrabbled away and seemed unhurt– and eventually he learned to stay far away.
We saw the game where men on galloping horses reach down to grab small stones. The young men seem to love this, much like young men zooming around on motorcycles. Today’s events include a contest to catch a goat skin and a game where the boys and girls race, and if the girls reach the boys, the girls get to whip the boys.
We will wrap well against the wind that always blows here. It is a good day in Ulgii.
Snowstorm at 10000 feet
It’s 4 am, a bitter morning when the stream coming down the mountainside has frozen. I peek out from under my warm covers in the ger as a woman quietly comes in, carrying a bucket of dried dung. The fire catches slowly, and in half an hour orangey light dances across dark wood spokes supporting the white felt of the ger’s roof.
We’re planning to drive up the mountain and hike to a glacier there. After strong, hot coffee, we eat sausage, eggs, toast, and oatmeal with hot milk. Outside the goats huddle in an enclosure with stone walls while about 15 yaks make low grunting noises that sound good-natured.
We set off in land cruisers up the mountain. There are no roads. There aren’t even trails. This is not just off-road driving; this is no road, no path, no smoothness, no way driving. We just go over stones, ridges and clumps, and the drivers go slowly.
The snow gets worse fast. The wind picks up to about 30 mph. We’re near the path to the glacier but we can’t manage more 100 feet. One car gets stuck, the driver gets it out. We watch, pulling our scarves tight over our faces. Finally the leader tries to make it over the ridge in the driving snow. He gets badly stuck in a drift.
Cynthia, who is an anthropology professor, comments that the drivers are Mongolians being Mongolian. Nature here is often harsh and wild, but the Mongolian guides adapt and try with all their considerable skill and determination to get to the glacier. And when it proves impossible, they do not complain. It’s easy to see how they have survived for centuries in their tiny isolated settlements.
Once the lead car is well and truly stuck, we who are Minnesotans — which was about 5 of us– make our way through the snow, leaning into the high wind to help dig out.
And then, before turning back, the guides make up a quick pasta and tuna salad. We eat salad with pickles, drink juice and nibble chocolate pies in our full storm gear, leaning against the cars in the wind. Then the land cruisers gingerly pick paths through the drifts, over small boulders, over ridges, back down the mountainside to our gers. Hot tea with honey tastes lovely.