A Week Living with Nomads

September 2009: I really believe that no one should live their life without sleeping in a yurt at least one night and if you can do so for a week like my friend Kent and I did, even better. Staying in yurts with Mongolian and Kazakh nomads was one of my travel highlights and even though the experience was a little rough at times, I will never forget how warm and cozy it was inside the yurts, largely in part to the hospitality each family extended to us. This is the story of my time traveling with nomads in Mongolia, mostly in the western part of the country.

 

About Mongolia

My route across western Mongolia

Mongolia is famous for being the origin of Genghis Kahn, a warrior who led an army of nomadic horsemen along with his grandchildren to go on and brutally conquer and form one of the largest empires the world has ever known that stretched all the way from Asia to Europe. Mongolia has largely disappeared from the map after rewriting the maps during the time of the Kahns and presently it is a large desolate country with endless steppe, mountains, with long, and frigid winters. Mongolia is a land of mostly nomads and has the largest population of people living the nomadic style in the world with roughly 40% doing so.  Although this is changing, nomadic blood runs strong within most Mongolians and there are still many who live a nomadic to semi-nomadic lifestyle in their yurts or Ghers as they are called. During Soviet Times, Mongolia was a vassal state and communism tried to put an end to the nomadic lifestyle and Buddhism that most Mongolians practice by tightly regulating Buddhist temples, but Buddhism has largely remained intact and is still the number one religion. Islam and Shamanism are also followed by a much smaller segment of the population.

 

Ulan Bataar and Terelj National Park

We arrived to Ulan Bataar via Beijing in the morning. The temperatures were near freezing and stayed this way for the entire trip even though it was September. Ulan Bataar is a far cry from accurately representing how amazing the rest of Mongolia is. The city is industrial, lined with monotone Soviet like apartment buildings and rather depressing. The air in Ulan Battar was thick with the smell of sulfur from the power plants burning coal and the thick smoke belching out from various stacks across the city. Some of the nomad families have moved into the city and yurt camps are found adjacent to high rise apartment buildings including the hotel II stayed in. We visited the Gandon Buddhist Monastery, one of the only monasteries in the city that remains after the Soviet occupation of the country. Buddhism like all forms of religion were demonized by the communists and many of the religious buildings were destroyed, temple treasures absorbed into the state coffers and clerics sent to communist re-education camps. We also drove a few hours south to the wooded valleys of Terelj National Park and visited some of the nomads living there in yurts and Buddhist temples before returning to Ulan Bataar for the night.

Gandan Buddhist Monastery

Terelj National Park

Nomad man in traditional Deel clothing-traditional coat

Wild West of Mongolia 

Mongolia is a huge country. There are few specific tourist attractions. For me the number one attraction is its wilderness and the nomads. Two places to witness both are in the Gobi Desert and the Altai Mountains. I also wanted to meet the Kazakh eagle hunters and since they live near the Altai Mountains, I chose to fly to Western Mongolia and visit them. I planned my trip around a competition where the Kazakh eagle hunters demonstrate the hunting abilities of their eagles, but the competition was rescheduled after I booked my ticket. Instead, I decided to find some Kazakhs with eagles and visit them and learn more about their way of life. Kent and I departed from Ulan Bataar via Eznis Airlines, a regional airline to the very gloomy western city of Khovd. The flight was a few hours long and I looked down over a countryside with little to no infrastructure and major roads. All I saw was sand dunes, nomad encampments and rugged mountains. This was my kind of country.

Airport security sign with a list of forbidden items. Note the interesting array of items, all of which I had

Flight over endless tracts of wilderness Gobi desert below

Khovd apartment recreation area

Disco Club

Statue of Genghis Kahn

Kent and I met our driver/guide with a Russian Lada jeep, and we headed off into the hinterlands looking for nomads. The drive was rough on rocky tracks that hardly resembled a road. But the scenery was stunning. It didn’t take long for us to start passing the homes of nomads. In western Mongolia there are two types of nomads; Mongolian ones that tend to live in their Ghers all year long and Kazakh ones that live in Gehrs except during winter where they live in permanent stone structures. Both nomads will move around with their flocks of sheep, goats, horses, camels or cows in pursuit of greener pastures.

Driving conditions

Driving through pristine mountains

As we drove through the countryside, I would ask the driver if we could stop and visit whatever nomad house, I saw that looked interesting. We visited one of the Kazakh winter homes that I asked to stop at. The family, a Muslim one like all nomads we would meet kindly greeted us and made tea for us and we sat inside their home sharing a cup of tea together, 

Kazakh winter home

Kent and a Kazakh Muslim Man

Kazakh Muslim nomad man

Nomad wife making tea for us

After having tea with the Kazakh Muslim family, we continued on driving enroute to Tolbo Lake. On the way it started to get dark, and we stopped at a yurt to spend the night with a Kazakh family. This family lived in a yurt with no adjacent structure and the yurt was decorated with vivid and brightly colored carpets, and symbols and was warm and cozy. Our driver would always ask the male head of each yurt if we could stay with them for the night and if agreed, which it always was he would leave a parting gift of a few small notes to the family the next morning to cover the expenses of our stay and to reinforce their hospitality but from what I saw he wasn’t leaving a lot of money and some families appeared to be un-interested in accepting anything in return for their hospitality.

Yurt stay where we slept for a night with a Kazakh family

Inside of the yurt where we stayed the night

About Staying with the Nomads 

Staying with the nomads was an exciting experience. All of the translation would be through our driver since the nomads did not speak English. They would ask us about our family, lives at home and we would ask them about their lives. There were always kids who were very playful and wanted to see the photos on my camera and the wife of the nomads would cook a huge meal usually of sheep meat, stale bread, hard candies and cookies. The man of the yurt would serve us mares’ milk-fermented horse milk or just plain vodka, which we would drink until bedtime and usually we were well buzzed by the time we went to sleep. We would sleep on huge, padded carpets on the ground in the same yurt together. The iron stove in the center of the yurt would burn yak or cow dung and would burn all night to keep us warm. During the first night it was a little awkward when the husband decided to have sex with his wife, and I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of grunting. All I coud do was do my best to ignore it and go back to sleep. The nomads live with no privacy so for them this kind of activity is not embarrassing. Then in the morning we would awake to tea, cookies, more meat and vodka.

Family of our first yurt stay

Kent and the nomad family

Tolbo Lake

The next day we drove to Tolbo lake, a beautiful area with lots of nomad camps due to the good quality of grazing grass and fresh water for livestock. The father of the yurt we stayed at in Toblo lake was very friendly and engaging and wanted to show us all about nomad life including the butchering of the animals, which is done by cutting and reaching into the chest cavity of an animal and strangling their main artery instead of slitting the animals’ throat. This is the traditional Buddhist method of slaughtering an animal in Mongolia believed to be gentler than cutting their throats. Both Kazakhs and Buddhists employ this method even though most Kazakhs are Muslim.

Mountain scenery

Drive to Tolbo lake

Yurt camp in Tolbo lake where we stayed a night

Kazakh man on horseback whose yurt we stayed in

Demonstration on how to butcher meat

Demonstration on how to slaughter a sheep

Organs and various parts of the slaughtered animal are hung up on the inside of the yurt where we slept at night to keep the wolves from stealing the meat

Kazakh man we stayed with

The next morning, we drove passed a small village and picked up some more water, and food at a local store. There were few towns in this part of the country and the ones we passed were extremely basic and many of the men we saw in these types of towns were intoxicated and belligerent and best avoided to avert any physical altercations.

Demonstration on how to butcher meat

Kazakh Eagle Hunters

In traditional times, every Kazakh man owned an eagle and would use them for hunting purposes, and they would also be considered a status symbol.  The wild Asiatic Golden eagles would be captured in the wild and trained into obedience. The eagle is trained to hunt and to return they captured prey to its owner. In exchange the owner would reward the eagle with some of the meat from its prey. After a few years, an owner would release their eagle back into the wild and capture and train a new eagle. The art of eagle hunting like many traditional practices of nomads was almost eliminated during communist times and only a few hundred men remain in Mongolia who still practice the ancient skill.  These days eagle hunters don’t rely on their eagles for food. Instead, the art of eagle hunting is seen as more of an act of cultural pride. My driver knew a few men who still considered themselves to be eagle hunters and to reach them we drove through the town of Bayan-Ölgii, where we stopped to visit our driver’s home, and had lunch cooked by his wife before setting off to stay with a Kazakh eagle hunter for a few days. The father, who has been an eagle hunter for decades was now in the process of teaching his son the skill.

The Kazakh man took us an hour out into the mountains to demonstrate his eagles hunting skills. He traveled on his horse with the eagle, while we traveled in our vehicle. The man would climb a ridge and from hundreds of yards away show us how his eagle could target a rabbit, retrieve it and bring it to him. The eagle he said has hunted everything from fox to wolves. It became very clear to me right away that the Kazakh man had a very close bond with his eagle.

The Kazakh man handed me a puff of rabbit fur and gave me an eagle handling glove, while he climbed a ridge a few hundred yards away. He released the eagle, and it swooned in upon me landing on my glove and grasping the rabbit fur. Evem with the thick leather gloves, I could feel the strength of the eagle’s grip and the sharpness of its talons.

Kazakh man with his eagle

Kent, with the Kazakh eagle hunter and his eagle

Me with the eagle

Me with the eagle

Kazakh man with his eagle

Kazakh man with his eagle

Son of the eagle hunter

We drove back with the kazakh man and his eagle while his son tookthe horses back to hus yurt

Drinking vodka shots with the Eagle Hunter

Looking for Tuvan Shamans

We drove deeper into the Altai mountains into a remote valley with no roads. Our goal was to find a Tuvan shaman- Tuva is a region in Russia just to the north where the people practice shamanistic traditions that are almost Native American in character. We didn’t have any pre-arrangements, based on my request, we just drove into a valley that I saw in the distance with a lot of yurts with the goal to find a shaman. We stopped at a few yurts asking around until we came to one that had a Tuvan throat singer. He wasn’t a shaman, but he was Tuvan. We evidently had just missed the shaman who left with his herd. We stayed the night with the Tuvan family and the Tuvan man demonstrated his ability to sing deep from his throat. The guttural vibrations that the man formed into a song was almost hauntingly good.

Valley of nomads

Valley of nomads

A Kazakh nomad caravan of of sheep, donkeys and Bacterian camels migrating across the plains

One of the coolest things we came across were the ancient head stones of fallen warriors from the Kahns army. 

Tombstone of one of Kahns Warriors

Tombstone of one of Kahns Warriors

Me in front of the Tombstone of one of Kahns Warriors

We had a great time staying with the Tuvan nomads, but the highlight of our stay happened when we were off walking around the valley and exploring. Kent and I were without our driver. I decided to climb a mountain and when I turned around there was a Kazakh man with crooked glasses on a horse who seemed very excited and in words, I didn’t understand but through sign language asked us to follow him. Kent and I followed him back to his yurt where his family was waiting. The whole family was very excited to have the foreign visitors appear out of nowhere in their Gher and the man asked his wife to cooked up a large meal of sheep and he poured mares milk which we shared. The boiled sheep was slightly revolting to begin with, but the man presented the sheep’s eye balls to me as a guest of honor. I took one bite of them while he was watching fighting off my gag reflex and when he wasn’t watching I slipped the eyeball to the car that was patiently waiting beneath the table for me to drop it some scraps. Luckily the cat devoured the eyeball eliminating the evidence of my crime. This experience was very interesting for Kent and I because we managed to interact with the family without our driver, who would normally translate and yet we somehow managed to have a great time with each other.

Nomad yurt

The Kazakh family yurt we visited 

Kent and I as guests of honor of the kazakh family we met

Sheep head I was presented

Friendly Kazakh family 

Mongolian Family Yurt Stay

We traveled to another valley where our driver claimed there would be some more Kazakh eagle hunters and Mongolian nomads. We spent one night in the valley in our tents to give us a break from staying in yurts and then we spend our second night in a nearby yurt of a Mongolian nomad family. The best part of staying with the family was playing with the kids. I shared my cookies with the kids. I only expected to give them a few cookies but when I was distracted, I turned around to see that one of the little girls had eaten all of my cookies and was passed out on her bed with the cookie wrapper still in her little hand. I gifted the family my National Geographic and one of my favorite photos of the family was of the mom showing photos from it to her little kid. 

Next door to the family we stayed with was a Kazah eagle hunter with two eagles that were still relatively wild. The eagles were huge, attached to a rope and were hooded. When we ventured too close to them, they would charge us and hiss. The eagles were not yet ready for eagle hunting. The Kazakh man showed us the nearby mountains and said that the mountains are full of wild eagles, and this is where he captured these two. 

Our yurt stay

Kazakh eagle hunter

Demonstration on how to butcher meat

Mother of the Mongolian family we stayed with

The Mongolian yurts were not as decorated as the Kazakh yurts

Little girl passed out after eating my cookies

Nomad mother showing her son the photos of my National Geographic

Nomad dad and his son

Looking for Wild Eagles

Kent and I hiked up into the mountains to look for wild mountains passed the tent where one of the nomads stayed at night to watch for incoming wolves. This part of Mongolia not only has wolves but also snow leopards, all of which hunt the sheep of the nomads, so the flock is guarded 24/7. Kent and I hiked straight up loose scree slope and we found dozens of golden eagles soaring above the mountain occasionally swooping down to catch plump mountain marmots from that opened up out of their holes.

Mountains we climbed to find wild eagles

Wild eagles

The next morning, we drove all day to Ulgii, the largest city in the Altai region. We stayed in a basic hotel in Ulgii and flew back to Ulan Bataar the next morning via a regional jet. After spending one more night in Ulan Bataar, we departed Mongolia to Beijing.

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