An unusual winter in Mongolia
Touriosity Travelmag|April 2020
Freezing cold temperatures, extreme wilderness and the absence of luxury combined with incredible landscapes, clear blue sunny skies and a culture of nomads who are unbelievably strong and kind these are the unique traits of Mongolia. In addition to that, eagle hunting, dog sledding, ice fishing, a camel festival and domesticated reindeer - that’s what drew our attention to visit one of the most uninhabited countries in the world - in the heart of winter.
Graeme Edgerton & Tamar Valkenier

How do the nomads adapt to the extremes of the climate? And could we do it too? These were the thoughts crossing our minds.

We (Graeme and Tamar) met in Jordan where we walked 650 kilometers with a donkey (check out the story in Touriosity’s Vol 8, Issue 4, Sept 2019), but were now off to an entirely different kind of adventure.

We prepared ourselves with wool, wool and more wool and set off to stay with a particular family of eagle hunters, who Tamar has grown quite close to over her years of adventuring throughout Mongolia (check out the story in Touriosity’s Vol 6, Issue 10, March 2018). This family lives in the Altai mountains with their herds of horses, camels, yaks, sheep, and goats and carry on the ancient tradition of eagle hunting in the way they were taught by their fathers. This is a Kazakh custom and 90% of people in this westernmost region of the country are of Kazakh ethnicity.

In the summer, nomadic families in the region move high into the hills and set up their felt gers on the grassy stretches next to the river. Many families live side by side and share both pains and pleasures. It takes a while to find out which child belongs to whom, as they all run in and out of each other’s gers.

The nomads move to different places in autumn and spring, but when winter falls most of them retreat to more fixed buildings either in the village or close by along the valley. That is where we were to spend most of our time.

The initial plan was to also visit a number of festivals in different parts of Mongolia that only take place during the winter. Each comes with its own unique attractions and characteristics. The Ice Festival at Lake Khovsgol, for instance, is famous for the horse sleigh race over the frozen surface of the lake. Locals show their skills in ice fishing, skating or sculpture. And for the braver Mongolians, there is the fascinating extreme sport of ice sumo. From there we would visit the reindeer herders and experience winter from a teepee.

Later we planned to attend the Thousand Camel Festival in the Gobi desert. For 20 years, nomads from the surrounding provinces have come together to celebrate the fantastic, gangly and (in winter) woolly two-humped Bactrian camels.

More than a thousand of these camels compete in a 15-kilometer race, with the fastest reaching average speeds of more than 30 kilometers per hour. Incredible, but what we were mostly looking forward to, was this: the camel beauty contest.

How does someone go about judging such a thing? Is it the length of the lashes? The cheekiness of the grin? Or maybe the luxuriousness of the winter coat? It seemed likely that this would be an example of beauty being in the eye of the beholder and we would happily join in on the judging.

Finally, we intended to visit the Golden Eagle Festival, to celebrate the Kazakh people who train and use these majestic birds to hunt fox, marmot, rabbit, and sometimes a wolf, their skins serving the purpose of warm winter clothing.

Though ready to rumble, our plans were suddenly upended by the coronavirus. When we left home, the virus was still contained within China, and the Mongolian government adopted early measures to address the risk of it spreading across the border. No entry from China was permitted. In addition, all festivals were cancelled, institutions closed, and a ban was put in place on visiting the Tsaatan reindeer herders to try to protect them from the virus.

It was still possible for us to get to Altai in western Mongolia though and so we pressed ahead. Initially disappointed with the change of plans, soon we realized it gave us a unique opportunity to spend the entire month with Tamar’s family of eagle hunters. We would get to know them, the village and the surrounding mountains very well.

We entered Mongolia through the capital Ulaanbaatar, from where we boarded one of the last flights going west before the city went into lockdown. Officials checked our temperature before entering the country, before boarding the domestic flight and again once we were inside the plane and when we landed.

Our eagle hunters picked us up from the airport and a warm welcome with a delicious classic Kazakh dish of boiled meat, hands (after washing them thoroughly!) and no one is offended when you lick your fingers. Very different from where we are from.

The next day we filled our stomachs with buuz (Mongolian meat dumplings) and the car with Kaze, a kind of horse sausage our eagle hunters love. A drive that takes about five hours in summer only took us three, now that we could cross the frozen rivers and lakes by car.

And then there was Altai. Colorful roofs on wooden or mudbrick houses stood out from the emptiness of the landscape surrounding it. With a population of about 5000 people, it surprised us how soon we felt like we knew everybody. As the only foreigners in town, we were welcomed very warmly and included in a broad range of winter activities: ice skating, ice fishing, horse archery, lassoing yaks, and so on. Every day people were out there enjoying the unique features a winter in a remote mountain landscape had to offer.

We couldn’t have imagined a better place to be stranded.

Even in the depths of winter, everyone had a smile on their face. Young people laughed as they rode their horses through the valley or played ice hockey on the frozen river with lengths of wood or pipe as sticks. These were people not rich in material possessions but rich in social spirit and skills, and willing to share with us.

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