When we set off for Mongolia this November we had no idea what to expect. Mongolia has been on our list of places to visit for years because it seemed to be a place with wild landscapes and interesting culture. But we both prefer to hold no expectations when we visit a new country and allow the experience itself to reveal the place to us. Mongolia has a rich and complex history, from the infamous Chinggis Khan, to being occupied by the Soviet Union, to finally winning their independence in 1990. It is home to 3 million people, has 564,116 square kilometers of land, and 44 million livestock made up of goats, horses, and camels to name a few!
Last year we were speaking with a good friend from Nepal and talking about where we would go next. He immediately said, “Oh, you have to visit Mongolia! I have a friend there that runs a really cool company and they could show you the real Mongolia!” So it was settled and we contacted his friend shortly thereafter. As far as what to do, we knew we did not want to go to the Gobi Desert. Even though it is a beautiful place we wanted something a bit more remote and less traveled. After working with our local guide company we settled on a Winter adventure in the Altai Mountains of the western part of the country. So off to far Western Mongolia we went!
It is vast, expansive landscape that at first glance seems desolate and deserted. But once you get in there and start to move around you quickly realize it is a vibrant place with secrets to tell. It is home to many nomadic tribes as well as the elusive Snow Leopard. There are not many real roads, no signs to tell you where you are going. It is truly wild, free and untouched. Places like this are rare in the world we live and should be taken care of with the utmost care.
When we landed in Western Mongolia we met our local guide and set off to begin our journey. Over the next couple weeks we met, lived with, and participated in the daily life of the nomadic people in this part of the country. The nomads move around according to the seasons, taking their animals up high in the Summer and Autumn, and down lower in the Winter and Spring. Life out here relays on this movement of the seasons and connection to the land. Doing what is best for the livestock is what drives all decisions and is of the utmost importance to the people’s survival. When our journey started we did not know what we would experience there but we knew it would be profound for us. What we found was so much more than we could have imagined, and is just scratching the surface of what Mongolia has to show.
On our first night we had the privilege to stay with a family who had just come to their Winter home and were getting settled to brave the harsh winter. We were welcomed with open arms and they were excited to have visitors during the Winter, as normally it can be a very solitary time of year. We were given a nice hot cup of milk tea and spent the next few hours giving our best effort at speaking Mongolian and having some laughs at our terrible grasp of the language. Their winter home was made up of mud and bricks, simple but warm and comfy, everything you needed to warm your bones from the frigid cold outside. As were were sitting and chatting a bottle of vodka suddenly appeared and we quickly found out this is a traditional way to greet guests. Our hosts shared heartfelt toasts and we passed the small bowl around together and shared in the drink and it smiles. It warmed us up and we were content and happy.
Our first experience with Mongolian food was that night, and what we found throughout our whole trip was their reliance on meat to sustain themselves through the winter. In the Fall animals are prepared and meat is stored so that during the harsh Winter months there is food to sustain the family. We quickly felt how fragile the balance between life and death can be out there, that the people are truly at the mercy of nature and rely so closely on the resources around them. This is something that we could never understand, something so removed from our life of plenty and instant gratification. We talked about how often we take for granted being able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, picking whatever we want from the store, and being so far removed from where our food comes from. It seemed that food there is for one thing, and that is for survival.
As the night ended after some fun games, laughs and more meat then we could imagine, we threw our sleeping bags on the floor and settled in for a good night’s sleep. We were warm, our stomachs were full, and we could not have been happier.
The next few weeks we made our way from valley to valley meeting new families, staying with them in their winter shelters or Gers, which are a traditional dwelling shaped like a yurt. We spent our days hiking around the mountains, learning to milk cows, sharing in cooking meals for each other, watching random camels dart by and looking at old petroglyphs that told a stories from the iron and bronze ages. It was not a fake and not a show. We sat with them in their day to day life seeing and understanding what life is like for them. It was cold but sunny and beautiful, the mountains swallowed us up, the frozen rivers bending through the valleys and the sunsets were among the best we had ever seen. We were graced with traditional music and dancing, warm smiles, and a sense of contentment that is hard to explain. We watched wild wolves run by, mountain goats balance on high ridges and stood in awe at the paw prints of the elusive Snow Leopard. We were in heaven, a sense of peace and simplicity that we have not found in a lot of places.
After countless high passes, more rivers than we can count, and more than enough time spent digging the van out of the snow, we finally arrived to the last community we would visit, the Kazakh people. This group of people is most well known for using Golden Eagles to hunt for small game in the mountains.This is an ancient tradition passed down over generations that is survived by a small group of people who still practice the traditional method. The Kazakh people are an ethnic group that makes up about 5% of the population of Mongolia. Kazakh is the language they speak compared to the other communities we met who speak Mongolian, and Islam is their primary religion. Arriving at this place was incredible. It sat nestled below a mountain range, overlooking a seemingly endless valley with gorgeous views that went on for days. The first thing we noticed after we got settled and met the family were the two gorgeous Golden Eagles perched outside the home!
The house was small but perfect, a stove to keep it warm and a colorful room that we were able to sleep in. We sat down and had some tea, watching and taking in everything around us. The excitement and happiness the families feel having visitors stay in their home is intoxicating. It is a proud moment for them, being able to show us their way of life. There are no other experiences that can match that feeling, no words for the human connection that takes place even in the absence of a shared language. It is just that thing that binds us all together, the unseen force that shows us no matter where we come from we are more alike than different.
We were able to watch as they gently fed their eagles, explaining how they catch them in the wild and train them to hunt foxes. As a thank you that night we decided to make the family dinner, which was a hilarious experience! They enjoyed watching us cook over their traditional stoves which I am sure was comical for them. They tasted our poorly made food and, understandably, insisted we finish it for them. We ended the night with sharing in some vodka and laughs before dozing off, excited for the next morning.
Up early with some breakfast and tea in our bellies, we got ready to join the family on a hunt with their prized Eagles. As the men dressed in their traditional clothing made out of furs, with a beautiful and intricate hat on top, they prepared their horses and Eagles for the journey atop the mountains. We started hiking, making our way up high into the mountains. It was cold but clear and beautiful out. Mountains beyond mountains came into sight as far as we could see, this alone made us happy. In the distance we saw the Eagle Hunters come into view, perched on top of their horses at the high point of the ridge overlooking the valley. They sat still, took the hoods off their Eagles so they could scan the frozen cliffs for foxes and other small game.The delicate way they handle these birds, softly stroking their feathers and holding them gently so they can see was beautiful to watch. You could see the primal connection, the sharing of space and work between two beings.They are part of the family something they take great pride in.
The Eagles are powerful but fly with an elegance and grace that is hard to describe. They soar through the valleys and up the cliffs, always coming back when called. We spent the rest of the day going higher into the mountains overlooking valleys, in search of critters to hunt. About half way through we took a break and were able to hold these gorgeous creatures. Their wingspan is huge, their talons lock around your wrist like it’s a play toy, and their weight makes it hard to hold your arm up. Their eyes tell a story when you look into them, a beautiful creature that commands respect but gives loyalty in return.
It was an incredible day watching and learning about this ancient tradition that has been passed down for generations. Often time we see things on TV, pictures on the internet, or hear stories second hand about things that seem far away from us. This experiences helped us understand that behind every story there are real people, real life that is almost always more complex, nuanced, and beautiful than any story can tell. This practice is not a show, or something to reduce to some voyeuristic activity, but it is how they feed their families, clothe themselves and connect to ancestors and traditions that define who they are. It is their reality even when we are not there. When we leave they will continue to live, to hunt for days at a time, and sometimes struggle to put food on the table. Our night ended with a traditional dinner called “Beshbarmak” which mean five fingers. It consisted of boiled potatoes, some onions, mutton and horse meat, and a layer of fat that should be five fingers high. It was brought out on a big platter, with some tea, and the traditional way to eat it is with your right hands together as a family, and eat we did! This type of dish is an honor to be served, something that should not be taken lightly. As the night went on laughs filled the air and vodka started pouring and we ended the cold night taking stock on what an extraordinary day it was.
Our weeks in Mongolia were more than we can put into any words or photographs. We came with no expectations and left with more than we could have asked for. Mongolia is wild and beautiful, made up of people that are eager to welcome you and show you their way of life. Ulan Batar is the capital city and is modern and bustling, giving you a few days of comfort and reprieve from your adventures in the wild. But the real gem here is the wild lands and nomadic people that call it home. Their life is hard, Winter carries with it a harshness that requires something deep in the soul to survive. The people who brave the land and conditions do so because they want to, because they love the land and their way of life, and because this is who they are.
We are honored and understand our privilege to visit places like these. We came to understand on a deeper level our own purpose, our own vision for our lives as well. Our work is evolving and with each new experience we refine what we are here to do. We know that if tourism is done right, it can be an ally all over the world in helping indigenous and native people preserve their way of life and continue to live where and how they want. We can be partners in protecting tradition and giving validity to what cultures and practices have been passed down over generations. This is why we are here and what we hope to do with our life’s work.
Travel changes the heart and mind, taking the fear of the unknown, and showing you the truth of the world around you. We are excited to bring these experiences to you to enjoy, and can’t wait for you to join us this Summer as we head back to this beautiful place to continue to learn and connect with the people of Mongolia.