Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

Bayan-Ulgii and Khovd Provinces, Mongolia

Oct 2nd - Oct 9th, 2019

This post is about the days of my tour before and after the Golden Eagle Festival, which I wrote about in a separate post here.

I had booked an 8 day tour through a local tour company called Kazhak Tour. I met up with Dosjan, our tour guide, and two other participants, Norma and Daniel from New Mexico, at the hotel at 6:30 am for our early morning flight to Ulgii (also often spelled Ölgii), which is the capital of the Bayan-Ulgii province, the western most part of Mongolia. The province borders Russia to the North and China to the South, and although Mongolia and Kazakhstan don't share a border, Kazakhstan is only 20 km to the West.

The flight took a bit over 2 hours. During the later part of the flight the clouds cleared up and we had amazing views of the landscape below us - completely bare brown mountains interspersed by a few azure blue lakes, rivers and snow capped mountains in the background. It's an amazing landscape. With a total area of 1.5 million square kilometers (which is more than four times the size of Germany) and a population of only 3 million (half of which lives in Ulaanbaatar), Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world (closely followed by Namibia). Looking at it from above you begin to appreciate its sheer size and emptiness of this landscapes, as we saw nothing but huge expanses without any sign of human habitation.

On the approach to the Ulgii airport we flew right over the colorful houses of the city, which has a population of 40,000. Almost 95% of the population of the Bayan-Ulgii province are ethnically Kazakhs, and the main language here is Kazakh.

We stayed in the best hotel in town, which was very nice and comfortable. After breakfast in the hotel, and meeting up with Don, the fourth member of our group, who had already been out here on a hunting trip the previous week, Dosjan took us to the small regional museum, which was quite interesting.

Our next stop was outside of town. After a drive of 30 minutes we suddenly left the road and started driving cross-country towards a mountain. We were planning to meet a local nomad family somewhere out here. Dosjan said he didn't know exactly where the family was located at the moment, but he was confident that we would find them. After crossing a couple of valleys we came across two small ghers, where we would have an authentic lunch with the family. It was absolutely fascinating to see how people survive out here in this harsh environment and to learn about their lives as nomad herders.

We were at over 2,500 meters altitude here (about 8,000 feet). Although temperatures hovered only just above freezing in the very dry air, the inside of the gher was very warm and comfortable. All the walls were decorated with beautiful colorful carpets, and they even had a TV powered by a small solar panel. As is customary when you have guests in your gher, they had put out a large spread of bread, cheese and various other unidentifiable dairy products. One of us asked whether it was made of sheep, goat, yak or cows milk. They seemed confused by the question and said 'yes it is', since they milk all the animals, and then pour the milks together to make cheese, butter, yogurt. There was no sign of a vegetable to be found, and we were wondering how they managed to look so healthy with barely any vitamins in their diet. For the main course we had goat (which had been freshly slaughtered, and most of the carcass lay outside) with homemade noodles, which we all ate with our hands. It was very tasty.

We learned a lot about life as a nomad. They move about 4 to 5 times during the summer in order to get to better grazing grounds. They have a small truck to drive to the next camp. Incredibly it only takes an hour to take down a gher and a couple of hours to put it back up. During the winter months most of them stay in permanent stone houses.

This family owned goats, sheep, cows, yak and several horses. They also have a couple of dogs, a cat and apparently even an eagle, but they couldn't show it to us, since they had lent it to a neighbor. The couple told us they have 3 children, two of which are currently at university in UB, while the youngest one is in school in Ulgii. It is customary that the youngest son in a family takes over the parents' herds and gher, but he has to look after the parents until their death. The man was the youngest of 10 siblings, and his 92-year-old mother still lives with them, although she was currently in hospital in Ulgii.

On our second day, we left Ulgii at 10:00 am and started to drive south towards Tolbo Lake. In the morning we were scheduled to meet one of the best throat singers in the region. On our way to the village we came across our first eagle hunters - an incredible site as the three of them rode towards us with their huge birds resting on their arms. We stopped to chat to them and took pictures, and they even let us hold one of these very heavy birds. They primarily use female eagles for hunting, since they are slightly larger than the males. An adult bird can weigh up to 12 kilograms and has a wingspan of over 2 meters.

After the obligatory tea and cheese in the throat singer's gher, he gave us a little demonstration of the art of throat singing, which was fascinating. It is a very unusual deep sound that mainly comes from the back of the throat. Dosjan had to bring him some vodka, since he claimed he could throat sing much better after a couple of large glasses of vodka.

From here we drove to one of the most scenic lunch spots I have ever been. They had set up some tents for us at the shore of Tolbo Lake.

After lunch we drove further south to visit an eagle hunting family. They had already moved into their winter houses for the season. After another huge spread of tea, cheese and yogurt, the youngest son of the family showed off his eagle, and gave us a demonstration how he calls his eagle back to him. It was very impressive. We also learned how they catch new eagles. One way is to take a baby eagle from its nest (which is quite dangerous and usually involves climbing into a steep cliff). The other way is to catch an adult eagle in a trap, which is something we could see for ourselves. They had just put up a new trap with a dead rabbit on top, and they had tied their other eagle near it. If an eagle sees another eagle near some dead animal, he knows that there is food there, which he can try to steal, which is easier than catching it himself.

On our way out we came across this 8 year old girl herding a group of rams. We learned that the rams are being herded separately from the ewes all summer long. This is a very effective way of birth control to ensure that all the animals only give birth in spring and summer. The lambs could not survive the freezing winter.

We had a bit of unexpected adventure on our way to camp, when our car got completely stuck in the mud while trying to cross a small river. The surrounding mud was a least about knee-deep, so we couldn't even get out of the car. Cell phone coverage was non existing down here in the valley. So, Dosjan had to wade through the mud and climb up the nearest hill, where he managed to call the other cars. They arrived 30 minutes later and  tried to pull us out, which proved unsuccessful. They then drove one of the other cars right next to ours and we climb it avoiding the mud. They drove us to camp, and managed to get Dosjan's car out some time later in the evening. It was already dark when we reached our camp, so we only saw the spectacular surroundings in the morning. They had put up six ghers just for the night for us.

In the evening after dinner we were invited to a shaman ceremony. Shamanism is part of Mongolian folk religion and far pre-dates the arrival of Buddhism. We watched the shaman dance around a large fire, hitting his big drum and communicating with ancient spirits. Interestingly, he needed to drink quite a lot of vodka during the ceremony. We were told all shamans do that, since the vodka helps them to get into a state of 'trance', which made a lot of sense to me.

This night we slept in the ghers, each of them held 2 to 4 tourists (whereas the guides and drives slept in one with 10 people or so). It was very cold outside - night-time temperatures dropping to around -10 degrees Celsius. But the ghers were heated by a small wood fire stove in the center, and one of the guys came in a couple of times during the night to re-stoke the fire, which kept the inside very toasty warm. I slept quite well, except for the fact that the extreme dry air in the high altitude here made breathing a bit difficult, and most of us had slightly sore throats. After getting up I walked up a nearby hill for the amazing views of the vast emptiness and the beautiful mountains surrounding our camp.

Today was going to be one of the highlights of the trip, as we would be going hunting with five local eagle hunters.

Eagle hunting is only done in winter, between October and March. The reasons are twofold, the fur of the foxes is nicer and thicker in winter, and it won't interrupt the foxes breeding season in summer. The eagle hunters were all local herders from around the region. Eagle hunting is not part of their livelihood, it is a sport and fun to them.

We ended up all day driving and hiking through the mountains with them. It was fascinating to observe. The hunters ride along or wait on top of the mountain ridges with their eagles, while so-called 'beaters' walk along the valley and hillsides trying to flush out a fox by shouting and throwing stones. As soon as they succeed and a fox runs across the valley, the hunter on top sends his eagle off, which immediately locks onto the fox and shoots down towards it. If the eagle manages to catch the fox (which often does not happen, since foxes are fast and often hide in holes), the hunter has to get there on his horse as quickly as possible, before the eagle tears the fox apart and destroys the valuable pelt. On that day our team of hunters ended up catching 2 foxes. One of them was still alive (you can see its head poke out under the hunter's legs in the below photo). It was a slightly brutal spectacle to see them tie up the fox and then release it again as training tool for the younger eagles.

This was just an absolutely fascinating and spectacular day. We drove back to Ulgii in the late afternoon, where we would attend the Golden Eagle Festival for next two days. Our five hunters would compete there with more than 100 others to see who has the best and fastest eagle.

The day after the festival we left Ulgii and drove south towards the town of Khovd. We initially had planned to visit a Mongolian family for lunch, but that plan was foiled when we had a flat tire on the road. Changing the tire was fairly quick, but Dosjan decided it was too dangerous to drive cross-country without a spare, so we continued straight to Khovd instead. Khovd is a little bit larger than Ulgii, and the population is mostly Mongolian, with only a small minority of 2,000 Kazakhs. After checking in at the hotel we visited the large Buddhist temple at the edge of town. The temple was fairly modern, built in the last 10 years or so. There are very few ancient temples in Mongolia left, since most of them had been destroyed during Soviet times.

The next morning we still had time to drive out to the large Khar Us Lake, which is a bird paradise. We spent about an hour there before driving back to town for out flight back to UB.

The Khovd airport is as tiny as the Ulgii airport. Our flight was probably the only one that day. Back in UB we had our final group dinner in a nice local restaurant, and said our good byes. I flew back to Hong Kong the following day, completing what was one of the most memorable trips I have ever done. And I am sure it won't be my last trip to this amazing country.

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