By Christine Amour-Levar
Images by Women on a Mission and Sandra Lim
The lone Kazakh rider galloped majestically toward us with a seven-kilo golden eagle perched on his arm, racing across the wide-open steppe on an ebony-colored Mongolian stallion. We watched transfixed as he approached, dressed in his traditional fox-fur cloak and hat with embroidered trousers, just as his ancestors must have looked some 2,000 years ago. Finally, he halted in front of us, then smiling proudly, he greeted us warmly in the Kazakh language.
ON A QUEST TO GOLD MOUNTAIN
It had taken our all-female team two full days to reach this extreme western part of Mongolia from the capital of Ulan Bator (or UB as it is also known to locals). The Altai Mountains home of the famed Eagle Hunters of Mongolia is a UNESCO world heritage site located close to the border of Russia and Kazakhstan. “Altai” means “Gold Mountain” and the range is the largest and highest in the country with towering white mountains, glaciers, deep lush valleys, and beautiful lakes.
Heavy snow and strong winds had resulted in significant delays to our itinerary, thus when we finally arrived–after many hours driving off-road and speeding across rocky trails and snow and saw such an extraordinary rider appear before us, it only contributed to the feeling that this was one of the most remote places on earth.
The Kazakh Eagle Hunters of this region are a nomadic people spread throughout not just Kazakhstan but patches of Central Asia. For thousands of years they have lived a life based around herding five types of animals—goats, yaks, sheep, Bactrian camels, and horses—and have hunted with golden eagles. Still untouched by mass tourism and deeply steeped in their cultural roots and traditions, the local people have trained their eagles to hunt for food and fur, an essential part of the nomads’ survival. The birds live for 25 years or so, and when they are 12 they are repatriated to the wild, so they are able to breed and thus provide another generation of hunting birds.
The first few nights of our journey, we were privileged to be hosted in our eagle-hunter’s own family home. Bekhbolat, as he is called, lives with his parents, his wife, Mariya, and their three children. Upon entering the nomads’ home, we felt immediately welcome within their midst as they shared their way of life and their provisions with us. During our stay there, our team slept in traditional ger houses, which are incredibly comfortable round-shaped tents covered with skins or felt that have a structure comprising of an assembly of wooden lattices for walls, a door frame, and a crown of compressed rings for the roof.
TEA WITH THE EAGLE HUNTERS
Chatting over hot tea, vodka, sweet clotted cheese, and dried hard curds of yoghurt, we learned a lot about the family’s life and their concerns for the future. We discovered that 30 percent of Mongolians still live a nomadic life, but the number is falling, as the city-dwelling population increases. In truth, these resilient people are the remnants of a disappearing culture that has survived for ages, mostly in harsh isolated conditions. The Mongolian climate is so extreme and often unpredictable, with winter storms, droughts, and desertification all threatening the nomads’ existence and affecting their livelihood. Summer droughts have resulted in animals not gaining sufficient weight to withstand the ferocity of the freezing winters of late. Herding life is tough and it seems winters have been even tougher than normal in the last decade.
“Mongolian nomads have to adapt or die,” shared Nurka, our Kazakh guide. “For generations, their lifestyle survived, protected by their isolation. But with improved transport and modern technology, things are changing very fast for Mongolia’s remaining nomads. Their ancient traditional lifestyle has been impacted by technology, from mobile phones and motorcycles to iPads, mostly in a positive way, but sometimes I wonder if it’s really for the best.” she added. Nowadays, riding out to herd animals in Mongolia is often done on motorbikes instead of horses. And during our journey across the Tavan Bogd National Park, we came across such herders. Even the renowned Shaman, Naraa, whom we consulted at our campsite one day, came riding across the plains on a gigantic motorbike.
For generations, their lifestyle survived, protected by their isolation. But with improved transport and modern technology, things are changing very fast for Mongolia’s remaining nomads.
Meeting the Shaman was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. She spoke to each of us privately, answering our many questions and appeasing our doubts. In the end, she inspired each one of us in a powerful way, asking us to meet her once again at dawn before we packed up camp, so that we could soak up more strength and energy from the sun’s morning rays. Mongolian shamanism is an animistic and shamanic ethnic religion that has been practiced in Mongolia and its surrounding areas since the age of recorded history. During the Soviet years of the 20th century it was heavily repressed and has since made a comeback. In reality, the nomads have adapted to all these changes and so much more. But the speed of 21st-century progress is challenging their adaptability to the extreme. Although it may make their lives easier in some ways, with solar power generators and motorbikes, many nomads have moved into settlements in provincial towns and many more have relocated near the capital, where they have become semi-settled, neither here nor there. Those who move, often struggle to make a living, since the towns are lacking in easy, secure work for those with few skills or experience that don’t involve milking or shearing. UB and indeed other towns in Mongolia are surrounded by ger encampments.
RIDING ON NOMADIC MONGOLIAN HORSES
After a few days with the Eagle Hunter’s family, our team set off deeper into the mountains to discover the region. Western Mongolia is still relatively unexplored and we came across no other tourists during our time there. The journey took us in the vicinity of the 20-kilometer-long Potaning glacier, the largest and most imposing of the 20 glaciers in the Mongolian Altai range. After that, we continued on to the Khuitas Valley, where we successfully summited two iconic peaks over 3,300 meters in the surrounding area. Soaking in the profound silence, stunning views, and vastness of the Altai Mountains from those summits, a collection of sweeping snowy peaks like a frozen desert, was all the reward we could have asked for after the long hours of climbing.
Our trekking was punctuated by days of riding on nomadic Mongolian horses across the huge open plains. When not on the trail with us, our horses would roam free. Their normal life throughout the year includes grazing on natural pastures and living within a herd. Facing harsh, cold winters and fending off predators are also part of their daily lives. Since they are used to moving in herds, as soon as one of us would shout “Chu! Chu!” suddenly, all the horses would start trotting and soon break into a gallop, flying across the steppe. The herders would howl with laughter, while some of us would be hanging on for dear life.
The horseback riding was just phenomenal. Some days we would meander along rocky ridges, passing herders and their flock along the way, other days we would traverse pristine streams and rivers, taking in the wide blue skies, open spaces, magnificent snowy mountains, and untouched lakes. On occasion, we would come across ancient petroglyph carvings, which illustrate the development of culture in Mongolia over a period of 12,000 years. The earliest images reflect a time when the area was partly forested and the valley provided a habitat for hunters of large game. Later images show the transition to herding and a horse-dependent nomadic lifestyle as the dominant way of life, a real archaeologist’s dream and a fascinating catalog of the evolution of life in the region.
All in all, over a period of eight days, we traversed 900 kilometers of terrain on foot, on horseback, and ridding on incredibly sturdy and seemingly unbreakable Russian minivans, dating back to the 1960s. Often times, the Mongolian wind would blow unbelievably hard, reaching up to 90 kilometers per hour and almost flattening our tents. The team also experienced hugely varying temperatures, ranging anywhere from bone-chilling -17 degrees Celsius to glorious 24-degree-Celsius spring days.
Back in Ulgii, the capital of the Altai region, we met Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the first female eagle huntress of Mongolia who impressed us by her poise and intelligence. She became famous in Mongolia and beyond as the star of the 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress. The film shows 13-year-old Aisholpan, a herder’s daughter, succeeding in the male-dominated world of hunting with eagles in the Altai Mountains. But Aisholpan, now 17, has done more than help to break down gender stereotypes. She has also helped to shift the attitudes of Mongolia’s dominant ethnic group toward the country’s Kazakh, the Muslim minority, of which she is a part. As we feasted with her on traditional Mongolian meat dishes in a local tavern, serenaded by musicians playing the dombra, a long-necked lute with two strings and the oldest Kazakh musical instrument, Aisholpan shared with us her hopes to find a way to improve the condition of the Kazakh people in her community, demonstrating a maturity far beyond her years.
In the end, this voyage to the Altai Mountains of Mongolia was a genuinely spiritual and enriching experience. And this was certainly due to a combination of breathtaking beauty, vastness, and remoteness of the places we discovered, kindness and purity of the local people we met, but also because of our overall mission. Ultimately, our team embarked on this adventure to raise awareness and funds for women who are less fortunate than us. By trekking in such a remote region, we hope to inspire more women to leave their comfort zone, their families and homes for a certain period of time, while pushing their limits in an effort to rally support for a worthy cause. In reality, the journey was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to the Land of the proud Eagle Hunters, who uplifted us and inspired us with their spirit and resilience, and who were, without a doubt, the wind beneath our wings.