My departure is nearly upon me and I have allowed the excitement to completely take over! I went through the ‘what to pack list’ carefully making sure every item was checked off. This is no ordinary trip. I will be joining an Oryx Photography group in Ulan Bataar and then travelling to the remote western region of Ulgii. We will be staying with nomad families who are eagle hunters and going for the famed Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii.
My usual partner-in-crime on these expeditions is not able to join me. So any moaning or giggling will have to be stifled or hopefully, shared with new friends. (I am happy to say that the latter was indeed the case:-))
Here are some interesting excerpts from the Pre-departure Notes:
- There will be no linen table cloths and place settings. This is Mongolia not Africa
- Mongolia is not an easy option – it is a tough country
- It is not a light packing destination as you may experience all four seasons in a day (How true this turned out to be!)
- The families you will be staying with do not have access to running water and there will be no shower facilities or western toilet facilities (More on this later …)
- Mongolia still has the reputation of being off-the-beaten track and remote – it provides a perfect excuse to say to your boss that you will be uncontactable during your trip (hey, I’m just quoting!)
Needless to say, my parents could not understand why I need to go on trips to such remote places.
As I will be off-the-grid, I shall only be able to complete this blog on my return.
Wish me luck!
Hello everyone, I am back and the story begins …
The flight to Beijing was uneventful, a good thing these days. The security check in Beijing had me a bit nervous as I had to take out all cameras, lenses, batteries, my new solar chargers, all lithium batteries – in short my entire photography equipment had to be unpacked and placed in trays.
There’s really not much to say about a night spent trying to sleep (fitfully) in an airport lounge. My flight the next morning was just 8 hours away – not long enough to check into a hotel and too long to spend in a lounge.
The first thing that struck me was the pollution in Ulan Bataar. The air was thick and acrid. And as we drove into the city, the driver, pointed out the factories we passed along the way spewing out horrible thick smoke. The second thing that struck me was the pace of ‘development’ in Ulan Bataar – modern buildings were sprouting everywhere. But one does not come to Mongolia to visit ‘UB’ (as it is locally called). The third thing that struck me was the horrendous traffic! Traffic in UB is absolutely chaotic – reminiscent of India (minus the cows).
My flight from Beijing was delayed and I was the last one in. The rest had the morning to explore the markets etc. I joined them straight from the airport at the hilltop Zaisan Memorial (a monument to the Soviet soldiers of WWII). Introductions were made, photos taken of the memorial and we quickly piled back into our cars and to the lovely Blue Sky Hotel.
It was over a variety of mutton dishes at lunch that I met everyone properly. We were five continents represented around the table – Marius (our lead photographer) and Cali from South Africa, Tim, from the U.S., Debbie from Europe, Stacey and Bibi from Australia and me, Asia. It was too early to tell what the team dynamics would be like but I was hopeful.
As the weather turned suddenly (I cannot say ‘unexpectedly’ as we were warned that this happens frequently in Mongolia), Marius wanted us to be ‘over-prepared’ for the cold. So off we went shopping for yak socks and yak gloves. Boy did they do the trick!
We drove up to the ‘ger district’ of UB. The ger district stands in stark contrast to the rest of UB. The ger, constructed with poles and felt is part of the nomad identity. Those living in the ger district are former herders looking for a better life in the city or suffered the extreme winter of 2010 which forced them off their lands. There are about 800,000 people living in the ger district with no access to running water or proper sewerage system.
We had an early night as we had a very early flight to catch in the morning.
Hunting with Eagles!
We had to check out at 3.30am to get our flight at 6am to Bayan Ulgii, capital of the far western Ulgii region. The airport at Bayan Ulgii is small as was the plane we took to get there, a Fokker 50 propeller. So while we were told Mongolia is not a light packing destination, we also had severe weight restrictions because of the small plane! It was a contradiction in terms and it made packing a challenge indeed.
We were met by our local guide, Oyunaa, and our two drivers, Unurru and Hasan, all part of the local guiding company that Oryx was using called ‘Eternal Landscapes’. Our transport for the trip were two Russian Furgons with cheerfully decorated interiors. Hardy vehicles, they are a match for any swanky new 4WDs. For some inexplicable reason, without planning it that way, we ended up with a ‘boys’ vehicle and a ‘girls’ vehicle.
We had breakfast at the home of Jako, our Kazakh translator. These four lovely people – Oyunaa, Jako, Unurru and Hasan were instrumental in making everything on our trip go so smoothly. They coordinated everything from loading, unloading, cooking our meals, making sure we had the essentials.
We spent the morning walking around and ended up at the Bayan Ulgii main square where Marius instructed us in panning, high key photography etc – needless to say we became an attraction at the town centre! Some looked at us curiously as we panned in unison; others just went about their business, ignoring us.
It was after lunch that our adventure truly began.
Our first stop was the home of Bashakhan, in the village of Ulaankhuus. The terrain was rough, there were no roads but we were surrounded by such breathtaking beauty of infinite plains. The famed steppes of Mongolia with the majestic Altai Mountains as backdrop! ‘I’m actually here’ was the thought that ran through my mind.
The skies too were seemingly infinite. Mongolia is also known as the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky as they have 250 days of sunny blue skies a year. (Please note, ‘sunny’ does not mean warm!) The mountains had such pastel hues like I’ve never seen anywhere else. At one point of our journey, we had to cross a river and that was such a thrill as Unurru drove the Furgon confidently through the river!
We were greeted warmly by the family in their ger. The nomads of this region are known for their hospitality. Their doors are always open and any passing visitor is welcome to their food. They generally move twice or thrice a year. The dismantling and erecting of the ger is an art form. It takes about 2 hours for them to dismantle and another 2 hours to set up again. We were served salted yak milk and dried curds and cheese. Milk and meat are the mainstay of the nomad diet.
One of the things I had mentally braced myself for was being served boiled goat’s eyeballs or goat’s head, delicacies of Mongolian cuisine. I am pleased to report that our food was prepared by Oyunaa and gang and it did not entail such delicacies.
The original plan for the trip was for us to pitch tents next to the family gers. Since the weather turned, the family gave up their gers for us and they slept in a low-rise flat-roofed concrete house within the compound. Wow, we didn’t expect that!
As we entered the family’s ger, all the various rules of etiquette I had read came to mind:
“When you enter a ger, do not step on the threshold. Move in a clockwise direction when entering a ger, first to the west and then north (ger doors always face south). The east side of the ger (on your right as you enter) is normally where the family will sit and the west side (on your left as you enter) is for guests. Do not walk between the central supports of a ger”.
Bashakhan’s family seemed quite relaxed about it and only requested that we do not walk between the central supports as they believe it would split the family asunder.
That evening, Bashakhan introduced us to his eagle, ‘White Necklace’. She was a beautiful, magnificent creature!
Hunting with eagles is a 4000 year-old tradition of Central Asia especially among the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. The female eagle is taken from its nest as a chick (a perilous undertaking to say the least) and is nurtured and trained by the hunter to hunt small animals like fox and rabbits. The open plains make hunting a challenge, so the eagle does the hunting. The hunters only keep the eagles for 7-10 years and then release the bird into the wild. This can be a very emotional undertaking as the eagle-hunters believe the spirit of the eagle is intertwined with their own spirit.
With the festival just days away, he had a few practice runs with White Necklace. It was quite a beautiful sight to behold. Bashakhan handled White Necklace with such tenderness and love. That he is a kind and gentle man, was apparent from the way he was with his little grandkids. But the way he communicated with his eagle was nothing short of extraordinary. Bird and man were bound by an inexplicable link.
The practice involved the eagle being released from a rooftop by Bashakhan’s son and on hearing the call from Bashakhan, it flies to land on his protected arm with speed accuracy and agility. The second exercise was similar except Bashakhan would lure the eagle with a dead rabbit, dragging it along the ground as he called out to the eagle. All this was done for our benefit to introduce us to the rules of eagle hunting. This is usually done from a mountain top at a great distance and on horse back! Tomorrow we shall witness a practice session on the mountains.
Tonight we spend our first night in a ger!
The temperature fell below zero, there was no fire in the ger and I thought I would die of hypothermia … ok that is a bit of an exaggeration. At some point in the night I hear Bibi fumbling around with her headlamp on and I told her I was shivering and freezing. She rummaged around and found Stacey’s fur jacket and very kindly threw it over me. Saviour! Without it I truly don’t know how I would have made it through the night! As it turned out, everyone froze and thanks to our local guides they had extra sleeping bags. Each of us ended up using two sleeping bags and a blanket for the rest of our trip! It was that cold! As we had no internet we couldn’t check what the temperature really was.
We spent the day walking around and just imbibing the pristine air (discounting the smell of yak, goat and cow!) and taking in the serene surroundings as the family went about their daily chores. The animals did not look particularly amused as we stuck our lenses under their noses.
Little did we guess that morning that life would make one of its unfortunate turns and the day would end far differently from how it began.
The moment in the evening finally arrived – as Bashakhan and his son rode out on their horses with White Necklace, we jumped into our Furgons and met them at the mountains. It was spectacular, watching the men train the eagle and the eagle respond to their commands. We set our cameras to high sequence shooting and clicked away.
It was such a beautiful day. After several rounds of practice and Bashakhan and son obligingly posing for photos, he said they would head off to another part to hunt for fox. We hung out on the mountain chatting and generally (literally!) shooting the breeze.
As we got back into the compound much later that evening we knew something dreadful had happened.
White Necklace was dead.
It was difficult to fathom. We had just watched and photographed this beautiful creature! Bashakhan was sitting on his haunches, tears streaming down his face. His grandson close by staring uncomprehending at his grandfather. Apparently, as White Necklace hunted for the fox, she got entangled in an electric wire that Bashakhan was not aware of or he would’ve avoided the area. This was so tragic. The bird was like a child to him. We were all numb and unable to find any words of consolation. We all felt it deeply.
Later that night, a sad but composed Bashakhan came into the ‘boys’ ger where we were congregated and said that we were the last ones to see and photograph his White Necklace and asked if he could see our photos. Tim had his laptop open and showed him the incredible images he had taken. Bashakhan sat silently looking as Tim scrolled through the photos. It was such a raw and poignant moment – it will stay with me for a long long time.
We spent the morning walking around the farm and just simply taking in the scenes of daily life.
Bashakhan was so bereft last night that he went to his brother’s house and borrowed an eagle which he held close and kept stroking. It almost seemed like he could not bear to be without an eagle. Bashakhan, his wife, his brothers and friend (who had come to express their condolence I think) joined us for breakfast. Their grief was put aside for their guests.
Before we parted, Marius gave a heartfelt speech conveying how sorry we were for their loss. With the festival only days away, he said we hoped to see Bashakhan there despite his great loss.
With that we bade farewell and set off to our next destination – Sagsai.
This second sector of the journey was quite horrendous. The terrain was rough and bumpy and I couldn’t hold down that sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. When we had stopped along the way to take photos of yaks against the snow-capped mountains, it was all I could do to sit without moving … my composure didn’t hold and out came breakfast at another stop we made. Motion sickness – something I’ve not had in a long time. As we drove through beautiful landscapes, I kept telling myself to open my eyes and appreciate the beauty around me but it was a tough act. I had to close my eyes and get into ‘the zone’ or risk throwing up in the van!
At last we arrived at Saliukhan’s place. Once again we were treated to the traditional hospitality of the Kazakh nomads. We were served salted yak milk and a variety of dough-based and milk-based snacks.
This family had their gers set up by a river and were surrounded by mountains. It was quite stunning. Once again the family said we could have their gers and that they would sleep in the house. Again, the house was a simple square flat-roofed concrete structure.
That evening there was more practice with the eagle. A friend of Saliukhan joined him with his eagle. While Saliukhan’s eagle was fast, accurate and responsive, his friend’s eagle wouldn’t cooperate. He called out and called out but to no avail. His consternation clearly written on his face.
The eagle hunters gathered to discuss the issue. Oyunaa was at hand to interpret what they were discussing. The friend was clearly worried that his eagle was not responding and Saliukhan was advising him not to over-feed his bird. That might explain the bird’s sluggishness. They sat around talking and we sat around them just taking in the scene.
The 17th Annual Golden Eagle Festival
Other than the excitement of the festival, it was the excitement of being able to have a shower that dominated our thoughts. We were promised hot showers, but our showers would have to wait till later tonight …
The festival is held in the open plains of Bugat in a valley of the Altai Mountains. There was such excitement as we saw the proud an dignified horsemen riding in the plains with their eagles majestically perched on their arms. It was quite a magnificent sight.
The announcements were made in dual language – Kazakh and English so we were able to follow the happenings at the festival. There were 92 participants, the largest number since this festival began in 1999. The oldest participant was in his eighties and the youngest, a girl of 12! (I shall, in a later post, write about Aisholpan, the 15 year-old girl who won at the festival when she was only 13!)
There were several events at this two-day festival:
Eagle calling, best dressed participant, how fast and accurately the eagle catches the fox or rabbit lure, a race to pick up a coin on the ground while on horseback, “girl chase” – a man and woman race on horseback while the woman whips the man, tug of war with a decapitated goat while on horseback … The horsemanship was nothing short of amazing. What strong cores they must have!
For the next two days, we were spectators to these wonderful ancient sports.
It had been a long day. It was only after the show that we had our long-awaited shower! Unfortunately, couldn’t really control the shower- it was either scalding or freezing! The communal bathrooms were not heated so it meant getting out and changing in freezing temperatures! So … not terribly satisfying but at least CLEAN!! The joy of having a shower after five days of wet wipes and sanitisers is inexpressible! (One of the challenges of this trip was keeping fingernails clean! No matter how much I cleaned it with wet wipes, they remained gross!)
The Eagle Huntress
Aisholpan Nurgaiv was only 13 when she entered her first competition … and she won! This endearing girl broke all barriers as she was the first female to ever compete at the festival.
The tradition of eagle-hunting is usually passed down from father to son. When Aisholpan’s brother left to join the Army, the traditional male chores fell on her. She was a natural with the eagle. She had the support and encouragement of her parents to pursue her dream. We had the good fortune of being able to meet her. Oyunaa and Aisholpan are friends. During a break in the events, Oyunaa brought Aisholpan to where we were and introduced her to us. It caused quite a stir among the other spectators while we beamed and took photos with her. That night, on Oyunaa’s invitation, she joined us for dinner. She was accompanied by her lovely mother, Almar.
Like all young girls that age, she was shy but willingly answered our questions. The documentary “The Eagle Huntress” premiered at the Sundance Festival and Toronto International Film Festival and will be released later this month. You can watch the trailer on YouTube. Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/Vfi5JS6HTH0.
This child is about to become a Hollywood star. Yet, she had no airs whatsoever. In fact she had just returned from L.A. and had only a couple of weeks practice before the competition and yet she achieved an overall 3rd place this year! Somehow I think she will remain grounded, just looking at her upbringing, environment and ambition to become a Master eagle hunter.
She has inspired other little Mongolian girls to take up the eagle-hunting – like the 12 year-old who took part this year. Talk about breaking barriers!
The Call of Nature
I have so far avoided talking about how we dealt with the call of nature … but the narrative would not be complete if I did not mention it. The pre-departure notes did state clearly that there are no western-style showers or lavatories where we were going. No surprises there.
There was no running water so the lavatory was a pit latrine or a ‘long drop’ as it is called here. It was inevitable that we should use it and each of us has very vivid memories that sends us into peals of laughter. One of our team members dropped the loo roll into it! I am just glad I didn’t fall into it! I’ll tell you this much without getting too graphic – these Mongolian long drops are not for the faint-hearted or those who have poor gag-reflex like me!
Separate pits were dug for our use when we were staying with the families. It was covered by a 4 sided zip-up canvas that gave us a modicum of privacy. It made it better, just. We were supplied a trowel with which we shovelled sand once we were done.
Sometimes we even had an audience as happened to me. Dozens of goats looked quizzically at me with a tilt of their heads (you know how goats do that). It was simply hilarious! Then the dog decided to come along as well … and that was that.
At the festival however, in that wide open expanse, there were these really long deep drops with a temporary wooden structure built around the pit … the problem was the structure was 3 sided leaving the front open … so lo and behold not only are you exposed directly to the elements (and thus end up with a frozen posterior), there’s the swirling dust to contend with and there’s no privacy whatsoever! Random folks would just pop around to see if a pit was available! The structure also felt so precarious that I really was concerned about falling in … these pits were long a way down! For the two days of the festival, we women had no choice and it was freezing both days so using it was unavoidable.
When you have no running water and no plumbing, I suppose there is little choice. It truly is a hard life. (For this reason alone I don’t think I shall be signing up for an apprenticeship to become Master Eagle Hunter any time soon:-))
Fellowship of the Mutton
Tim’s imitation of Aisholpan’s eagle call “Ooooka!” was our wake up call at 5 this morning!
There were snow storms overnight and we were very concerned about our flight back to UB being affected. More than anything else, we were more concerned that our luxurious shower and baths would have to be postponed !! We couldn’t stop talking about it – we were going to have a shower, then a long relaxing bath, then a shower again and another relaxing bath … it was all we could think of!
Yesterday was a free and easy day. We each did our own thing – shopping, packing, napping, processing photos etc It was our last day in Bayan Ulgii and we had dinner at Jako’s house, where we started a week prior. That seemed a long time ago! We’d seen and experienced so much in that short time!
After dinner (mutton of course) we were treated to a lovely surprise. The Eternal Landscapes team came out bearing blue scarves and copper bowls which they gave each of us. The blue scarf represented the eternal blue sky of Mongolia and the copper bowl represented happiness and then we had to drink the contents of the bowl in one go. We thought it was water, and after we got over the shock of the initial burn, the rest went down like a homesick mole (a new phrase I learnt from Marius on this trip!) … it turned out to be a bowl full of neat Chinggis vodka!
We said our goodbyes to Unurru and Hasan at the Bayan Ulgii airport. They were going to drive back to UB!! A journey that would take them 4 days through unforgiving terrain!
Over these last ten days, friendships were made as we got to know each other a little better. We’re all of different backgrounds with photography and a love for travel our common interests. We managed to see the funny side of uncomfortable and sometimes embarassing situations. There were many small acts of kindness that were shown along the way that made all the difference and so we forged a strong camaraderie. We bonded through conversations and nightly Chinggis, the Grand Khaan vodka (to keep us warm you understand).
Back in UB that afternoon, we had our long awaited, not-to-be-hurried showers, baths, showers, baths at last… We also had the chance to rest, reflect and just let the experience sink in. Western Mongolia is a rugged, remote and challenging environment but its mesmerising natural beauty, welcoming people and the unique heritage of eagle-hunting has left a lasting impression.
We would all be off on our separate ways tomorrow. (I was heading to Beijing where I would be meeting up with my friend who would be bringing with her from Singapore a fresh change of clothes which I had the brilliant foresight to pack and pass to her … yes!)
We had dinner that last night at the top floor of the Best Western in UB – which had a sweeping view of UB by night. This group from five continents had through our shared experience become ‘The Fellowship of the Mutton’ and hope to travel together again in another exotic location in a not too distant future.
We said our farewells as the weather turned, the snow storms began again suddenly … but not unexpectedly.
If you would like to see more photos of this trip, please go to: http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/2016-Mongolia-/
Sain Yavaarai (Journey Well), my friends.
I would like to give my friends at Oryx a plug. I made this trip with ORYX – Worldwide Photographic Expeditions, based in South Africa. They are a professional photographic safari company specialising in wildlife, landscape and cultural photographic tours.Their tour leaders are all award-winning photographers who genuinely love sharing their expertise with others and are great fun to travel with. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a professional photographer to travel with them!
Here’s their contact info: