So much land. So few people.
The thought nagged my brain in the three hours my plane crossed the vastness of the desert broken only by the spines of mountains and frozen lakes from Ulaan Bataar(UB) to Bayaan Ulgii(BU) “aimag”(province) in Mongolia’s Westernmost tip.
I’ve toyed with the idea of traversing the over 1,600-kilometer distance by camel to see as much of the country as I could. But my guide warned it takes at least a week, one-way. By regularly scheduled bus, the trip lasts five days.
So, I flew to Ulgii City, the “Roof of the World”, over the shadows of peaks hung with glaciers whose meltwaters fed the aimag’s more than a hundred lakes and rivers plus two hundred springs.
This remote pasture straddles the Altai(“Golden Mountain”) range that stretches all the way to Russia. Ulgii means “cradle”, perhaps because it’s a high refuge for self-exiled humans and endangered wildlife: bears, wolves, foxes, wild sheep, ibex, lynxes and snow leopards.
Altai golden eagles build their eyries in its crags. Kazakh “berkutchis” catch the females as they fledge and train them to become their partners, winged huntresses(“berkuts”), riding with their men and pouncing on wolves.
As Kazakhs say: ” A real man should have three things: a fast horse, a hound, and a golden eagle.”
Kazakh means “free spirit”, as befits nomads who roamed the steppes on horseback, hunting with eagles, for six thousand years.
Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire, conquered Kazakhstan in the 13th century and was himself an eagle hunter. He caught an eagle for his father and kept a thousand hunting eagles, falcons and gyrfalcons.
He passed on his passion to his grandson, Kublai Khan, the first Mongol Emperor of China, who went on massive hunting excursions with the powerful birds.
But when Russians took over the country in the 19th century, they forced Kazakhs to work in collective farms and suppressed the tradition. Many fled to the steppes of Mongolia and established their ethnic village in Ulgii.
Russia and China sealed their borders, trapping and isolating the fugitives. But they kept their customs alive, from their “dombr” lute music, their art, needlework and dance to their horse games and eagle hunts.
They also maintained a double allegiance to Kazakhstan, their motherland, and to Mongolia, their adopted home.
Today, Kazakhs number about 100,000 in Ulgii. The men herd two million livestock, moving with their animals each season while the women embroider wall hangings(“tuskies”) for their “gers”(traditional tents), if they are not milking, cooking or collecting animal dung and drying them for winter fuel.
The biggest number of the world’s last eagle hunters(“berkutchis”), about 400, live in Ulgii though only 70 of them join the city’s October Eagle Festival and still less, 25, host foreign visitors.
At the airport, I found my guide and my wrangler-driver leaning against a four-by-four jeep, waiting for me, looking burly in wolf skin overcoats and fur toques.
They introduced themselves as fourth generation Kazakhs – Erkin, an engineer born in Ulgii who studied in Turkey and ended up in the tourist business, and Sanat, a banker-accountant moonlighting as a hunter.
“I just shot a blue wolf. You should see his pelt in my house,” Sanat grinned.
Erkin handed me a souvenir, a screaming fuschia skull cap.
“You expect me to wear this?” I laughed.
Unlike most Mongolians, Kazakhs are Muslims, not Buddhists. They look different too. Their deep-set eyes and bone structure reflect their Arabic heritage. Many show Eurasian features – blue eyes and blonde hair.
Driving through Ulgii felt like a journey through a time machine, going back half a century to Kazakhstan 500 kilometres away.
People in furs and padded “deels” ambled under naked Siberian larches and bounced about in vintage Russian vehicles while shaggy cows rummaged in garbage bins.
The busts of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Damdinii Sükhbaatar, Father of Mongolia’s Revolution, still guard the provincial building, unchanged since Socialist days.
Downtown consists of a few blocks, several wool factories, four mosques, a Russian market. White mud-brick houses with walls of stone dotted the “ger” districts.
Golden eagles and cinereous vultures circled the skies while captive “berkuts” perched hooded and still as statues on parked motorcycles and outside doorways.
I checked in Duman Hotel’s only single room with a hot shower, ordered potato salad and boiled chicken with rice at Pamukkale, the Turkish Restaurant. For dinner, my guides took me to the Blue Wolf and ordered vegetable soup and “buuz”- fried Mongolian dumplings with minced mutton plus milk tea. I asked for Coke.
I’ll have enough Mongolian cuisine later, from home-made fried bread, milk tea salted with hard-as-a-rock yak cheese, “airag” milk wine, which tastes like beer, “kuz” – horse meat sausage, “bisbarmak” – boiled mutton and potatoes, better known as “five fingers” because it’s eaten with bare hands, and “cenei”- lamb cooked in its own fat, with steamed dumplings.
Mongolia taught me to like mutton, goat and horse venison though I never developed a taste for wolf meat, which my guides ate to combat lung disease.
And though I’m not shopaholic, visiting Little Kazakhstan’s Russian Market was an adventure in itself.
I ogled at blocks of yak cheese hard enough to break an axe, embroidered bags, fur hats, skullcaps, “berkutchi” gear, including leather “tomaga” eagle hoods for $10 to $15 each.
People paid extra to access the food and candies section, where vendors weigh Russian candies, wafers, meringue, sugar-coated peanuts and M&Ms in scales and sell them by the gram.
At a corner stall, a local plucked a fox pelt from a heap of animal skins and thrust the whole thing in her shopping bag, with the bushy tail sticking out.
As a finale, a “berkutchi” galloped down the road, his eagle yelping loudly as she bobbed on his arm.
Falconers call such birds “screamers”, worthless for hunting because they alert prey and never catch anything. Eagles need to be silent when they hunt.
Erkin shrugged as Sanat revved up our jeep. She’s young. It’s nothing that a wood piece tied under her chin can’t correct. It takes awhile to train a huntress.
(I serialized my adventure living with “berkutchis” in a five-part series, “Mongolia: Hunting With Altai Eagles”, at the Manila Bulletin and I’ll reprint the series here later.)