Life on the Steppe

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Former 50 something journalist Casey-Ann Seaniger is now living and working in Mongolia. She took time out to travel to the country’s wild west for a glimpse of life on the steppe with the eagle hunters.

It is mesmerising. Against a background of towering mountains, a group of Kazakh eagle hunters gallops across the Mongolian steppe, each holding a giant golden eagle on his outstretched arm.

Kazakh eagle hunting is a centuries-old tradition dating back at least a thousand years where hunters ride with eagles to catch foxes, marmots and wolves.

On horseback, the hunters take turns, each calling his eagle down from the mountaintop and whistling until it swoops and catches a fur-covered skin being dragged on a rope.

The men ride up a steep bank to take part in one of the two festivals staged for tourists every September and October in Mongolia’s most distant western province, Bayan-Ulgii, near the Altai Mountains.

My Kazakh guide, Tsunka, tells me the  calf-length fox fur coats they are wearing  are skins from their previous hunting trips.
Their horses are part of the spectacle, yellow and blue tassels dangling around their manes.

The tradition remains a key part of Kazakh culture. The prestige that comes with being the best eagle hunter means that your son or daughter will attract a good wife or husband.

Tsunka explains that most Kazakhs are nomadic herders, and that hunting for food and clothing is essential for their survival in the Altai Mountains bordering Mongolia, Russia and China and almost reaching Kazakhstan.

And survival out here is tough. This region suffers some of the harshest conditions on the planet with winters lasting up to six months and temperatures dropping to a bitterly cold minus 40 degrees Celsius.

In this cold northern latitude, nomads’ lives depend on meat and milk from their horses, goats and sheep. They relocate their felt ‘gers’ (the word ‘yurt’ is Turkish) up to four times a year to reach fresh grazing land for their animals.

In summer, Kazakh women boil milk to make a hard cheese that stays fresh without refrigeration for many months.

The gers don’t have running water or bathrooms and drinking water is sparse so people drink salty milk tea called
‘suutei tsai’, instead of water.

Culturally, western Mongolia is different from the rest of the country. The majority of those living in Bayan-Ulgii identify as Kazakhs.
My guide Tsunka was born in Mongolia and has never been to Kazakhstan, but says: “I call myself a Kazakh first of all... then a Mongolian Kazakh. This is where our culture comes from”.

Their language is Kazakh, not Mongolian. In their religion, most Kazakhs loosely follow Sunni Islam, unlike the majority of Mongolians who are influenced by Buddhism and Shamanism.

The next part of our trip is a drive to Tavan Bogd National Park. Meaning ‘Five Saints’, Tavan Bogd is named after the five mountains in the area.

Before leaving, my friends and I walk up a nearby hill and take turns flicking vodka from the bottle cap into the air as an offering to the sky, a common Mongolian ritual to ensure a safe journey.

We bundle into our sturdy Russian van. Our driver, Bolat, expertly handles the steering wheel and tunes in some Kazakh pop music for the ride.

Our journey takes more than seven hours along a bone-jarring off-road track and I feel every bump of the way as our heads hit the padded roof of the vehicle.

The remoteness of Bolat’s homeland cannot be understated. There are no hotels or restaurants, only a few sparsely-stocked shops, and there's no public transport.

The small towns on the way have simple mud-walled homes or just a scattering of gers and mosques.

We drive through rivers and over land still green from the summer rains. Children dash from their gers, waving at us enthusiastically. Their rosy cheeks and spirited smiles are captivating.

We see all kinds of wildlife: a burrowing marmot, ground squirrels scurrying across the hills, wild eagles and a flock of wild two-humped Bactrian camels.

I am struck by the sheer vastness of the landscape, the steppe that rolls on, horses that traverse the countryside and the rich nomadic life that flourishes in unexpected places.

Nearing the snow-capped mountains, our van descends into a valley between lofty brown hills, with a mineral-blue river cascading below. Nearby, the 14 km-long Pontanin Glacier spills out of the mountain range.

My hiking buddy Jane and I trudge through marsh and bog over high hills, stopping to admire fluorescent green and yellow lichen on rocks in a river bed of fairy pools.
We reach the glacier and stop for lunch. The glacier is covered in swirls of pillowy snow. “This is marvellous!” Jane shouts.

At dinner, we huddle outside our ger on camp chairs, the cold air on our faces. Our new Kazakh friends eat white chunks of mutton fat in soup and drink suutei tsai.

We take turns to stoke the fire with dried dung, pass around a bottle of Chinggis Gold vodka and tell our friends how happy we are to be in Mongolia.

Sleeping on the floor of the ger, I hear a yak snorting and listen to the roar of the river just metres from me.

As we travel back to Ulgii on my last day, a young boy runs from a wooden hut offering a tree branch with orange sea buckthorn berries and a bowl of aaruul (dried milk curd).

He places it in my hands and I accept the gift with thanks. It’s this warmth that strikes me most about the people who live a life bounded only by far horizons.

This article by Casey Seaniger originally appeared in the December/January 2017 edition of 50 something magazine.

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