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The Kazakh Eagle Hunters of Mongolia

Venturing Along With the Nomads of Mongolia’s Wild West

Article and photos by Lies Ouwerkerk
Senior Contributing Editor

Mongolian gers
Gers in the distance dot the country where the Mongolian nomads live and roam.

The small domestic airplane I have boarded in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar is heading for Bayaan Olgii, the westernmost province of the country, inhabited by nomadic ethnic groups who still roam the steppes with their herds, just as their ancestors have done for over 3,000 years.

From my window seat I can clearly see the landscape below: endless plains without any roads, deep blue lakes, mountains with some snow still clinging in the shady spots of their highest ridges, and here and there small clusters of light and dark dots: the gers, Mongolia’s traditional dwellings, surrounded by nomads’ most precious possessions—their livestock.

Guides

My guide Bekbolat and his cousin Haba, who is making his debut as cook this trip, are waiting outside Olgii’s airport with their Russian jeep, loaded to capacity with food, water, camping equipment, and gasoline. Together we will venture into unchartered territory, on the lookout for chance encounters with Kazakh, Dorvod, and Khoton nomads. The ethnically diverse nomads live entirely by and from their livestock, and move their households at least three times a year in search of the best pastures for their horses, yaks, sheep, goats, and camels.

Loading up the truck
Loading up the truck.

Bekbolat, whose self-taught English is admirable, and Haba are both Kazakhs who grew up as herders in the Altai Mountains region. They were the first of their families to attend high school, followed by a university education in Ulaanbaatar. Bekbolat is an ex-high schoolteacher and now full-time operator of his adventure expeditions; Haba is an internationally competing boxer and will complete his physical education degree after the summer. They will not only guide, drive, set up camp and cook, but also serve as go-betweens, interpreters, and sources of information about Mongolia’s nomadic lifestyle, with first-hand experience in eagle hunting, building gers, shearing sheep, milking goats, wrangling horses, and finding their way in no-man's land across mountains, rivers, and fenceless plains.

Nomads on the Move

As soon as we leave the built-up area of Olgii behind, the paved road stops, and for a while we follow the tire tracks scribed into the landscape by passing vehicles before us. 

It is the beginning of July, a time when nomads often leave their spring locations to look for greener pastures that will last their livestock until the end of the summer season. As we advance into the wilderness, we encounter several families on the move, some with blue trucks, others on horseback, with a caravan of heavily loaded camels in tow.

Mongolian women nomads
Meeting other Mongolian women nomads along the way.

Invariably, the nomads take time out for a chat. The women manage to conjure up some cookies, bread, or curd. The men advise us where to camp without being attacked by hordes of mosquitoes, and boast about the little time it takes them (less than an hour) to dismantle and pack their ger: the wall of lattice work, the roof poles, the layers of felt and white cotton, and the ropes that hold it all together.

Nomads’ Proverbial Hospitality

Our first surprise visit to a ger will be characteristic for the many more to follow.

At the sound of our jeep, the head of the family comes out to welcome and invites us inside their cylindrical tent, also known as a yurt outside Mongolia. We sit on heavy floor cushions in the corner farthest from the door (which always faces south, because the cold wind comes from the north), between an altar and a low coffee table where the hostess serves us homemade bread, dried goat cheese, and salty tea with yak milk. The family members sit on carpets on the floor, or on the beds along the walls that are decorated with a dazzling mosaic of colorful hangings and embroideries, family photos, medals won in wrestling matches and horse races, and animal skins commemorating successful hunts.

Mongolian family greets us
A family greets us as we arrive.

As a sign of respect, the host solemnly hands me a little sniff bottle with a silver cap. I have to hold it in vertical position in the palm of my hand with the bung half-open, take a sniff, and then return it to him in the same manner.

Meanwhile, the hostess has decided that we must stay for lunch, and starts her preparations for making noodles from scratch. She rolls, kneads and flattens dough made from flour and water, then cuts it with a big knife in small strips, which she cooks in a pot of boiling mutton stock on the stove in the center of the ger.

Mongolian woman cooking
Mongolian woman host cooking for us—part of the notorious hospitality.

After the spontaneous meal and some small gift giving, Bekbolat asks them to show their traditional garments, and in no time they proudly appear in their festive attire: leather cowboy boots and a long coat girdled with a silk sash of contrasting color, or a leather belt with a silver buckle. Their son wants to pose for the camera in his national wrestling outfit, with all his medals around his neck, and sports a pointed hat, leather boots, a small tight-fitting red brief, and a tight short-sleeved jacket in blue, exposing his chest. According to a legend, once upon a time there was a woman disguised as man who defeated all wrestlers and then ripped open her jacket to show them she was a female; from that day on, wrestlers had to reveal their chest to root out all women.

Son in Mongolian wrestling outfit
The son wants to pose for the camera in his national wrestling outfit.

Visits

We also have curious visitors coming to our tents: women on foot, magically coming out from nowhere and carrying big bags of jute over their shoulders to collect camel dung for their hearths, horse wranglers equipped with miniature binoculars searching for their lost cattle, and little boys on horsebacks without saddles in charge of herding their family’s livestock. When Haba puts out our bread, butter, and jam, they are initially a bit timid, but then happily dig in.

Boy on horseback.
Boy on horseback passes by our tent.

A child plays.
Photo of a little girl, taken just minutes before shearing the sheep.

One of our visitors happens to be a throat singer, and surprises us with an impromptu concert of wistful love songs and ballads evoking the beauty of the grasslands. Afterwards, we celebrate our friendship with a bottle of white Bulgarian port we found earlier in a little village store, which Bekbolat manages to uncork with a screw from the jeep, and the string of his sleeping bag.

Community Spirit

To survive in this vast and deserted land, people have to be very creative and self-reliant. But there is also an unspoken "law" that you always share and help one another, regardless whether you know each other or not. Several times, Bekbolat and Haba help out with vehicles and motorcycles stranded in the middle of nowhere by pushing, lending a tool, or providing oil.

We are heading for the “River of Wrestlers” (named after famous wrestlers from the area, the biggest of whom was placed on top of the nearby mountain after his death; when people returned after some time, only his carcass was left, but since the man had been so large, a wolf had made its lair in the middle of his chest). Local people warn us that crossing the river might be hazardous due to excessive rainfall in previous weeks, so some good Samaritans offer to accompany us with a big truck, and wait until our jeep has safely reached the other side of the river.

Jeep crossing river.
Jeep crossing river.

Nadaam

Standing in the middle of an extensive valley while on a mission to spot cranes (half of this endangered species’ world population inhabits the Mongolian steppes), we suddenly see a huge cloud of dust rising up from the horizon. Soon we are surrounded by a large group of young boys on horseback, galloping toward the start of their horse race somewhere in the far distance. The race is part of a mini-Nadaam festival, celebrated in the countryside a few days prior to the famous Nadaam celebrations in the capital.

At the finish grounds, nomads in their most ostentatious outfits walk around to watch and be watched, often parading with one of their well-groomed horses. Others hold pick-nicks, drink airag (fermented mare’s milk), and chat and laugh together in anticipation of the arrival of the young jockeys. When they are finally in sight, everyone rushes at once to the finish. There is a common belief that if you are covered by dust or touch the sweat of the winning horse, you will have a successful year ahead of you.

Eagle Hunter

Bekbolat has asked around several times for a Golden Eagle hunter, and he is finally able to track one down on the last day of our trip.

The Kazakh, with his light green piercing eyes and aquiline nose eerily similar to his animal, brings us to the huge brown bird, tied with a long leash to a stone outside. He slips a thick gauntlet over my underarm, pops a hood on the fluttering eagle’s head to cover her eyes, and before I know it, I am carrying his pet weighing in at a full 15 pounds.

Mongolian eagle hunter
Mongolian eagle hunter carrying a Golden Eagle.

Unfortunately, there is no hunting in summertime. The eagle is "on vacation," and fattened up until the winter season starts again. Instead, we will have to content ourselves with the hunter’s spicy stories while we enjoy his wife’s hearty mutton meal inside the ger.

He explains how eagles are caught when they are young, sometimes still nestlings, because then they are easier to train: letting them sit (hooded) and fast for some time until they are so starved that they get eager enough to hunt. Although eagles can live for up to forty years, they are not kept longer than 10 years, after which they are let go to breed. Generally, only female eagles are used for hunting, since they are more aggressive and weigh heavier than their male counterparts; males are sometimes used for boys to learn on, or for catching females.

Eagles hunt marmots, rabbits, foxes, and even wolves. The hunter maintains that wolf hunting is permitted in Mongolia because they are not considered an endangered species. On the contrary, wolves multiply fast, have big litters, and are the prairie’s biggest enemy, killing, and eating entire livestock. Their pelt is sold, and their meat consumed.

“You should come back in wintertime,” suggests the eagle hunter when we say our farewells. “Our horses are easy to ride, and excellent mountain climbers. Come and stay for a couple of days with our family, so we can take you on a fox hunt.”

That certainly does not fall on deaf ears, and while we make our way back to Olgii in the late afternoon sun, I am already fantasizing about my return to this fascinating corner of Mongolia’s Wild West.

For More Good Info
  • My trip through Bayaan Olgii was perfectly executed by Altai Expeditions, www.altaiexpeditions.com, tel. 976-99427003. Another reliable contact on Mongolian customs: anthropologist & free lance guide Chuluunbat Purvee, canarymgl@yahoo.com, tel. 976-990 14416.
  • Flights to Ulaan Baatar usually depart from Beijing or Seoul.
  • Modest gifts for hosts are appreciated. Keep it small and light, in order not to exceed the 15 kg (32 lb) limit on local flights (hand luggage included!).
  • Summer months are from early June until mid-September with temperatures in the mid twenties, a lot of sun, occasional rain, and generally cool nights.
  • Nadaam festivities are held each year around the 12th of July; the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii usually takes place in the end of September.

Lies Ouwerkerk is originally from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and currently lives in Montreal, Canada. Previously a columnist for The Sherbrooke Record, she is presently a freelance writer and photographer for various travel magazines.

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