The cold wind attacked the sides of my ger making the chimney pipe shake. The fire had died out hours ago and I had buried myself in a cave of large blankets to hibernate. There is no way getting out of bed would be easy, I thought to myself as I peered out at my suitcase 4 feet away. Such a small distance, and yet, that meant leaving the warm embrace of the more sleep.
But today was eagle hunting day, I thought. That was enough to motivate me. Twenty minutes later I was dressed and ready for the day. As the group mingled over a breakfast of coffee, eggie toast and cereal in warm yak milk I was lost in my thoughts. So far this hadn’t been exactly what I was expecting- it was a lot more stunning.
We had arrived in our temporary home just as the sun went behind the mountains. It was the peak of sunset lighting and I quickly snapped a few photos before going to meet the Kazahk family we would be staying with. Our guide, affectionately nicknamed Nurbie, lead us into the ger and informed us on how to properly greet the family. Always greet the eldest person first, then the rest of the family. Use a firm right hand shake with an accompanying “Shalom”. Make sure to always remove your gloves and shake with bare hands. Also it is respectful to place your left hand against your right arm or at the elbow. This position is also customary when accepting and giving things to other people.
The ger was fascinating to me, a beautiful and unique, circular, portable home. Each ger is different but most of the Kazahk gers that we saw on our trip had a red, wooden frame with a metal ring for the top. They are insulated with layers of packed wool which can be decorated on the inside with colorful patterns of reds, greens and blues. There is also a padded carpet that covers the entire ground on the inside except for a circular hole in the center where the stove is placed. The stove functions as both a heating source, a cooking source and your place to warm water for baths. Beds are placed around the outer walls with decorative curtains that also allow family members privacy when they go to bed since typically there are multiple generations of family members living in the same ger.
We sat down for tea at a round table next to the stove. The lady of the house handed me a bowl with a warm traditional milk tea. It wasn’t bad on its own, but I added a few cubes of sugar to sweeten it up. She quickly laid out a large arrangement of three types of cheese, cookies, candies, and these tough bread sticks. Nurbie explained what everything was and a little bit about how it was all made. He also explained that you should try everything, it’s okay if you don’t like it, but to not try it is insulting. I wasn’t keen on any of the cheeses, most were too bitter for my liking. I did however really enjoy the bread smeared with some butter, as well as the thin cookies.
This first meeting with the family was a little awkward but they were so welcoming that the uncomfortable feeling of being in someone elses home slowly faded away. Their ger was decorated with medals, award certificates, animal skins, and family photos that showed the long line of prestigious Eagle Hunters that the family had. Botei was to be our eagle hunter and trainer for the next few days. Although not the youngest in the family Botei and his wife took care of his father. The grandfather of the family was an 80 year old man, well decorated with medals – even an Olympic medal. He was a very welcoming and friendly man, who shared a couple stories with us over the next few days.
Botei and his son took us out with their eagles the second day. I chose to ride along with them while the other two members of my group decided to hike with our guide. The pony I was given to ride was a little snot. He knew I was a foreigner. He tried to mosey along and kept trying to eat grass but Botei urged him along faster. It was a cold day but the sun helped to keep me warm as we trotted along. It was a successful hunting trip in the end (More on that in my next post 😉 ) and we finished the morning adventure off with a photoshoot. By lunch Nurbie was able to translate the conversation about hunting traditions and practices.
The Kazahk culture in Mongolia is still very linked with the Kazahkastan, they speak Kazahk but because they live in Mongolia many Kazahk also learn Mongolian in school as well. The Kazahk’s come from a nomadic lifestyle and pass down traditions like Eagle Hunting through the family. Traditionally it was the oldest son that was trained in the art of Eagle Hunting. Although it seems as traditions are changing, especially since there is now the only eagle huntress in the world Ashol Pan. Ashol Pan was the first known female eagle huntress and she won the eagle festival last year as well as an eagle festival in Dubai. She is the niece of Boutei. While they may come from a nomadic background the population of Nomadic Kazahk’s in Mongolia is getting smaller. Botei and his family choose to remain nomadic with a different location for each of the seasons. This not only provides a comfortable environment for each seasons weather but also allows them to move their herd of goats to new grazing spots. There are five main livestock reasources that are herded in Mongolia. Those include: goats/sheep, yaks, cows, camels, and horses.
While his son was more reserved, Botei became more comfortable and open with us. Joking around with us and Nurbie and hanging out with us at dinner. By the last night I really didn’t want to leave. Botei explained we were the last visitors of the tourist season so he offered us a bottle of vodka as a last hurrah! Having already had a glass of wine I kept trying to turn down as he kept pouring shots for all of us. It wasn’t long before we all were listening to music and dancing among fits of laughter. The air outside was cold but the warmth we felt inside the ger wasn’t just the alcohol or the burning coal in the stove, but something more. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what language you speak. There are so many things that universally connect us all. Laughter, comradery, music and dancing are all examples of those things that we can understand and share with one another. Oh and vodka too. 😉
This was the strongest lesson
I took away from my time spent in Mongolia. That we may not be able to speak to each other but there was an unspoken communication. During every goodbye hugs were given and it felt like I was leaving friends behind. Botei and his family and the other people I met while in Mongolia will stay with me forever, even if I never see them again. I can’t say I had that effect on anyone else, but for me, these people and my time spent there taught me a valuable lesson in humanity that I will take with me wherever I may go in the future.