When one adventuress traveled to Mongolia, she did the opposite of what most “tourists” do. She bought her own horse and set off into the horizon with her own camel and dog to tag along on the adventure. She spent four months among the eagle hunters of Mongolia and her life would never be the same again…
Author: Tamar Valkenier
The Least Densely Populated Country in the World
The Bayan-Ulgii province houses some of the oldest mountains in the world, The Altai Mountains of Mongolia. Bordering Russia, China and Kazakhstan, it is the most remote area of the least populated country in the world. Only 3 million people live in a country half the size of India.
1.5 million people reside in the capital Ulaanbaatar, where skyscrapers, Chinese pagodas, Soviet buildings and traditional nomadic Gers (traditional “tent-like” houses also known as “yurts”) make up an incredibly diverse city landscape.
The immense emptiness of the countryside mesmerizes adventurous travelers having the courage to step back in time and explore a country so wild, and so remote. Even in the 21th century, it still resembles the “hay-days” of the highly celebrated conqueror, Genghis Khan. In the 12th and 13th century, he united the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian steppe and established the largest contiguous empire in history.
A Land Where Horses are still the Primary Mode of Transportation
Nowadays, most inhabitants still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, living in gers and herding sheep, goats, yaks, horses and camels across the endless dry steppes. Up north, closer to the Siberian border, there are some forests. The south contains the immense Gobi Dessert. Infrastructure is almost non-existent and the horse is still the primary mode of transport.
The Altai mountains are very special as it is the home of an incredibly hospitable, colorful, strong and welcoming culture. About 90% is of Kazakh origin and it is this area where the traditional art of eagle hunting is still practiced. You can find men on their horses, 6 kilos of eagle on the arm, trotting and galloping across steep slopes, in search of marmots, foxes, and sometimes wolves. When spotted, the eagle hunters split up, surround the animal, pull the hat off the eagles head and let them fly to go and catch the prey. Their skins are used to make warm cloths and blankets to survive the harsh cold winters, which reach temperatures down to -40 degrees Celsius.
My Journey Begins
In the summer of 2017 I traveled the Altai Mountains of Mongolia with my own horse, camel and dog while learning the skills of the nomadic eagle hunters.
On the first of June 2017 I arrived in Ulaanbaatar. For the least-densely populated country in the world, Ulaanbaatar (or UB as the locals say) is an incredibly busy and overwhelming city: people, cars and development everywhere. I had been on a horse maybe ten days of my life prior to starting this adventure and had arranged that I could start my time in Mongolia by staying with a nomad family learning about horses, the language, the culture and the customs.
Adjusting to the Mongolian Culture
There are many rules in a ger, like: no whistling and pointing, always enter with your right foot and don’t step on the doorstep, turn clockwise and leave your hat on, never put anything on the fire, and always accept what is offered to you, preferably with two hands. I learned how to milk sheep and goats, how to herd them, on a horse, with or without saddle. I learned to survive sandstorms as there is no place to hide on the open steppe. And I learned how to collect the dung from the animals for cooking and how to prepare the meals, which consist almost entirely of meat and dairy products.
Meeting a Team Mate
To prepare myself even better for my solo trek, I volunteered with a local horse trekking company, Stepperiders, to get more used to different horses and learn how to travel with them. We went on a seven-day trek. Back at Stepperiders base camp I met Lynnea, an American girl with, believe it or not, the same dream to do a solo trek through the Altai mountains on horseback.
She had lots of horse experience and I had lots of solo travel experience in the wilderness. We decided to team up together to share costs, find our animals and take off, until we would both be comfortable enough to go solo.
We bought our gear (saddles, hobbles, stakes, ropes etc.) at the local market, before a 42+ hour bus ride took us to Ulgii town, or as I call it “the wild wild west.” During the bus ride we witnessed endless empty steppes as we only saw about 12 gers on the way. In Ulgii the sidewalks are cracking, that is IF there were any sidewalks. Cows and horses roam the gas stations. The street corners are filled with goat legs as this is the only part of the animal they do not eat. Stray dogs are everywhere and at any point in time you can look up to the sky and see at least ten birds of prey circling overhead. This is where our journey started.
Do We Need a Camel?
Mongolian culture is incredibly friendly and hospitable. My local English-speaking contact Nurbolat welcomed us in his family, where – as is custom in the entire region- the tables are always fully packed with snacks to accompany the never-ending fountain of salty milk tea. The man cuts the meat and food is shared from one big plate from which we all take with our hands.
Nurbolat told us: “the nomads here ride their horses, but they never pack equipment on them, they use their camels for that,” Two to four times a year they pack the entire ger on the camel to move to greener grass, to hide from the mosquitoes or from the bitter winter winds. I had very little experience horse riding and even less experience with camels, so what to do? Nurbolat brought us to a local eagle hunter family that would teach us about camels. Their ger looked like many of the gers we would encounter: richly decorated with colorful carpets on the walls, beds alongside which usually fit at least two people, and a stove in the middle. The stove is used for cooking and heating and runs on animal dung, while this is abundant and wood is not available.
Camel Handling Bootcamp
Mr. Dalaikhan took us on a 5-day camel training and taught us the traditional way of packing the camels. A lot of rope and different knots are involved, but we managed to get the hang of it. As with packing any animals it is important that the weight is distributed equally back and front, as well as left and right, that everything is strapped super tight and nothing is sticking out. Continuously we are readjusting and repacking.
Mr. Dalaikhan helped us acquire our animals and a month after arriving in Mongolia we took off for a long journey full of adventures. We were prepared not to see any towns for the duration of four months, so we stocked up on dried fruit and nuts, oatmeal, dried meat, flour and rice. We counted on buying dairy and fresh meat from the nomads. Unexpectedly we fell in love with the fermented mares milk and took every opportunity to attain some of it.
Two Girls, Two Horses, Two camels and Two Dogs
We took the dogs along to protect us from both men and wolves. Wolves we never saw, unfortunately. The dogs did a great job, barking at everyone coming close to us, the animals or our gear. We slept much better at night, knowing they would wake us up if someone would come steal our horses, which we were repeatedly warned for. More than guard dogs they were our companions and we developed a deep love for them, it still hurts thinking of how I left my dog behind in Mongolia. When winter was setting in, he repeatedly was in bed before me, leaving me a preheated sleeping bag and tent.
I started to enjoy the mixed smell of camel, dog and campfire. We washed ourselves and our cloths in the rivers and lakes which were, in contrast to the rest of Mongolia, usually abundant in the Altai mountains. By the end of my journey I had to break through the ice to find drinking water, resulting in me not caring too much about personal hygiene, dreaming about the hot showers in the bathhouse of Ulgii town. The nomads wash their face and hands regularly but shower occasionally in a tub of warm water. Toilets are non-existent; sometimes there is a whole in the ground. In September the wood on top of the whole was slippery from frost and it was an adventure in itself to use the bathroom.
Tavan Bogd National Park
We started our journey in the southern section of the west region of the Altai mountains, bordering China, and traversed the Tavan Bogd National Park up all the way to the Northwest corner of Mongolia, where the highest peaks are.
From there, we traveled Northeast, and back South again towards the Yamaat Valley. The best maps we had found were outdated soviet military maps and we used both compass and GPS to find our way. Mostly we relied on the nomads though to tell us where to cross a river or mountain pass. Our biggest concern was not to accidentally cross the Chinese border and to find enough grass and water.
One time we didn’t find natural water for three days in a row. We would ride as long as needed each night to find a nomadic family, as we knew they would probably have a well. The major problem was that with a lack of water there is also a lack of grass for the animals. Finally we were able to buy some time on a piece of land which was fenced to keep the grass for extra winter feeding. We stayed a few days to get the animals up to strength again. We learned how to read them and speak their language.
A Nadaam Festival
We visited a small version of the famous Nadaam festival, where every year at the start of summer competitors celebrate the three manly sports of Mongolia: horse racing, archery and wrestling. A colorful spectacle, enjoyed by both tourists and locals in UB, though it seemed like we were the only western girls at the tiny local festival we visited near Altai town. While singing and playing guitar we helped the girls prepare local dishes like the Huushuur (meat pancakes) and Buuz (meat dumplings).
We were glad to give the animals a few days of rest after starting off our journey with a bit of a struggle: the horses and camels were not used to each other or to us and it took some time to get to know them and understand how to work as a team. We learned all sorts of tricks to make the camels stand or sit, walk through rivers and over mountains, to teach the dogs how to cross rivers and the horses to not be scared of our family members or the noises the packs make when walking. But we made it work and together we conquered steep high mountain passes, swamps, rivers and deserts.
A little Nomad Family
Finally, we became a loving family where we would not only have the dogs running around free, chasing rabbits and marmots, but also my camel Simbat and later my horses would be free to follow or lead the group, while choosing their favorite food on the way or finding us water when we couldn’t find it. Sometimes Simbat would be chewing on his favorite bush when he looked up and realized we were already far ahead. Afraid to be left behind he would start running after us, while losing things from his pack, resulting in us having to repack the whole thing. It was worth it though to unclip the lead ropes and give them as much freedom as possible.
It was amazing to travel four months with our own animals, building relationships and learning about each other’s personalities. All the time I was making sure everybody was happy, not too hungry or thirsty or tired. When they had a bad day, we sometimes decided not to travel and give them a day off. We took out the cruel nose piercings of the camels and made them halters. We talked to them, sang them songs, hugged them and scratched them behind the ears. The nomads didn’t understand our affection and would come running at us to check the tightness of the saddles when they saw us walking alongside instead of riding them.
Survival Skill No. 1
Everywhere we went we were welcomed very hospitably. We made sure we had enough to share: food, snacks, solar lights, binoculars, balloons for the children and sometimes we would take families around for hilarious camel rides. I have learned many survival skills during my years of solo travel like navigation, purifying water, making fire, building shelters etc, but the most important one of them all–I believe–is how to make friends. So we made sure we spoke some of the local language, we carried a game of chess and a guitar. Music is a huge part of the Mongolian lifestyle and almost every horsemen would sing beautiful songs about his animals, the mountains, the nomadic lifestyle. In turn I would sing our songs and we would teach each other how to play guitar and dombra, the Kazakh two-stringed version.
Most of Western Mongolia is alpine, elevated 9,000 feet or above. The landscape is very diverse. Sometimes we walked through desserts, not knowing when we would find water, sometimes through forests, over high mountain passes, along rivers and lakes; sometimes we waded through grass that was taller than us.
A Wrong Turn
One wrong judgement based on outdated soviet military maps made us struggling through a dangerously deep alpine swamp in a boulder field. It took us eight hours to go less than a mile, it was rough. We worried about injuring the animals, but we pulled through in the end without any injuries.
We encountered a wide fast running, super cold river we had to cross after searching unsuccessfully for a bridge or detour. We sent one horse first to see whether it could hold it’s feet. The rest of us followed. The camels didn’t seem to mind, though tiny little streams sometimes caused trouble as they refused to step over. Nothing could motivate them!
The animals brought us through the most beautiful terrain, many places we couldn’t have reached without them, like by walking or with motorized vehicles.
We had many special encounters like these little children running after us, bouncing a bag on the ground, only to empty it and show us their latest toy: a bable eagle!
Swimming Against the Stream
I had heard from my friend Tim Cope (who rode his horse for three years from Mongolia to Hungary) that the nomads leave Yamaat valley by August 15th. We decided to go there. And indeed, we saw many packed camels, packed cars and people herding big flocks of sheep and goats, moving out of the river valleys along the Kovd river where we would later join them. Arriving in Yamaat valley we didn’t see a single person for about 8 days, apart from one marmot hunter passing by totally unexpected when we were just taking a shower in the river. The valley was gorgeous and full of lush vegetation for our animals.
Another Big Surprise
One morning we were shocked when I opened my tent and the world was white! Apparently, it had been snowing all night. This was in August! And not even that high, it was at only 1400 meters. That day we had planned to cross a high mountain pass but now we were worried because the big soft pads under the camel’s feet slip and slide in the snow. By eleven that morning all the snow had disappeared though, thanks to the strong summer sun, and we were able to cross.
On the other side of the pass Lynnea left me to go home. I tried to take all four animals but that was no success. We set the camels free so they could graze, grow fur and get fat for the upcoming long cold winter. I continued alone with my dog Tetti and my two horses Tor and Izgi on my way back to Mr. Dalaikhan, where I would stay for another few weeks.
Meeting Extended Family
On the way I attended a small eagle hunting festival where I met a strange man that knew my name. Mr. Dalaikhan’s son, Alpamys had heard that I had planned to attend the festival and had ridden his horse for 150 km to come find me and bring me back. Incredible!
We had never met before but he recognized me from a tiny polaroid picture I had left behind. Alpamys, his wife and his children took me in as part of the family. I helped them with daily chores where I could. On good days, Alpamys lent me his own eagle and we would go up in the mountains eagle hunting until it was time to go to the eagle festival in Olgi town at the first weekend of October.
I felt uneasy seeing tourists again and having to speak English. I stayed close to my eagle hunters and cheered for them during the competitions.
Three eagle hunters from other towns lost their eagles as they flew to the sky and never returned.
The last leg of my journey was riding, with the eagle hunters, back to Altai town where I would finally set my animals free and leave them in good hands as I had to make my way home. My visa had run out.
Serious Riding with the Eagle Hunters in Mongolia
This last journey showed me once again the unrivaled strength of the nomads. Where I had ridden 30 kilometers in a day at the most, we were now covering distances of up to 90 kilometers in a day. Which meant, we were solely trotting and galloping, while balancing eagles on our arms. My legs, my bottom and my back hurt, while the nomads didn’t seem to be affected at all. It was October now and the cold winds hurt our skin. Violent snowstorms made it impossible to balance the eagles and we had to wrap them in blankets and sweaters, attaching them to ourselves or the saddles.
From Ger to Ger
I noticed the nomads hardly carried anything with them for the journey, not even a bottle of water. When thirsty, we would search for a ger to go and drink some tea. With nighttime setting in I would ask where we would sleep. They took their binoculars and searched the mountains. We galloped up to the first ger, unpacked and unsaddled and only then opened the door to tell the people we would eat and sleep there. I thought that was a bit rude but they explained to me, this is how Mongolia works: traversing these wide-open spaces they are reliant on each other’s hospitality. No-one ever knocks on a door; everyone is always welcome. I was welcome.
I felt miserable leaving my animals and my new beautiful family behind, waking up from a dream I never imagined would come true.
Tamar returns to Mongolia every summer, riding her own horses. If you want to join her then see what she has to offer.
Mongolia is a fascinating place with its nomads, wild ponies, eagle hunters and reindeer herders. Find out more about this unique culture in our Mongolia archives.
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