In this vast land sandwiched between China and Russia, discomfort too tamely describes the shivering, bone rattling ride in the relic of a Russian UAZ off road vehicle. The ex-military machine spews petrol fumes and cold air into the rusty cabin as it powers relentlessly across the desolate snow covered plain dotted only with sheep, goats, cattle and horses. In search of golden eagles, my mood becomes bleaker than the weather as we bounce over a dry river bed to grinding halt at a carved totem pole. In the mist, about 300 metres away, a cluster of identical circular, white and blue structures appear like misplaced checkers on a non-existent board.
‘Rest now’ points the driver as a woman emerges from one felt clad tent to lead me to another. The north wind whirls snow straight into our faces as we approach the entrance and I brace myself for a long cold uncomfortable night.
She nods and opens the wooden door. About to burst into tears, I instead burst into spontaneous applause when we enter the welcome warmth of this nomadic cocoon.
Although I stay in 5 star hotels at least 80 nights per year, never before had I applauded at check-in. Never before had I been overjoyed to see a bulging basket of dry sheep dung and a tiny stove in the middle of the round room. Never before had I slept in a round Mongolian ger.
There’s a first time for everything and every first offers new things to explore, surprise and delight.
‘Cool’ escaped my lips before laughing at the irony of being chilled to the bone.
Made from felt, gers are somewhat like Native American tee pees, with brightly painted wooden poles in the middle to prop them up so it’s no surprise to learn of similarities with those traditional cultures that date back to when the land mass was linked to Alaska; long before days of global connectivity via wifi.
And who’d have guessed that sheep dung is odourless? My hosts explained the four sheep ankle bones on the dining table were to be rolled like dice as a sort of fortune telling game while awaiting the meal of you guessed it-lamb with potatoes and carrot soup. Who knows if it was the same sheep but it mattered not as they understood I was a travelling vegetarian. With a stomach full of soup and barely enough energy to blow out the candle, I drifted off to sleep dreaming not of sheep- but of distant desert dunes until a call of nature first beckoned, then urged me to step outside.
The sky above the Mongolian steppe, covered with a canopy of diamonds on a cloudless, moonless night mesmerised; not of 5 stars but thousands. Even the howling wind now slept as I squatted in silent awe of a landscape less favourably viewed only hours earlier.
Just before sunrise a strange man entered the ger to restock the stove with more of that delightfully odourless sheep dung before a woman presented a hot towel for ablutions.
‘You summer bring’ the guide gestured to the ground which was no longer covered in snow but sprouts of green grass already popping through. Yes, the grass is indeed greener on the other side of the night and although still well below zero, soft morning light now kissed the steppe. It touched a sense of deja vu from university days driving from my home in Calgary, Alberta across the prairies and mountains to Montana’s Big Sky country; with almost identical fluffy white clouds on this Mongolian morn known as Land of the Blue Sky.
Next, a short journey atop a spitting Bactrian camel in the dunes of the semi Gobi proved a surprisingly smoother ride than the damn Russian vehicle we re-entered.
How could the driver possibly find his way with no roads or signs?
‘GPS download’ he taps his head and giggles like a school girl. Prior to tourism he had led a nomadic lifestyle and knew the unforgiving land like the back of his dark leathered hand. A few hours later we arrive at a homestead where we’re meant to hire trusty steads but not a horse in sight…just two women, three young girls and a couple of youths shovelling sheep dung across an area the size of two basketball courts while the real men herded higher pastures.
Eventually the eldest returned, looking like an advertisement for the Mongolian Marlborough man; cowhide jacket, hand rolled cigarette dangling from the left side of his crooked smile that lit up a dark ruggedly handsome face. How insulting that the term ‘mongoloid’ was used to describe those with Down’s syndrome as there seemed little similarity with these proud people; and the term ‘Mongol’ actually derives from mong which translates to brave.
He had only one available tame horse and zero English so as my guide waved goodbye, I felt decidedly less brave and only hoped he’d instructed Mr Marlborough man not to go too fast, as we headed into the distance at a leisurely trot. Oh, should I mention the wooden saddle prompted another call of nature but not a bush in sight-just skulls and skeletons on a wide open plain with the occasional hawk and vulture but no eagles yet.
It was with great relief, in every sense of the word, to see my driver and guide approach in the ever aging Russian UAZ, which provided only moderately less jostling of my insides but at least a barrier to common decency as the men stood on one side to allow a moments privacy.
‘I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name.’ Lyrics to the song by America resounded in my mind as Mongolians don’t name their horses. Guess it might be a little cumbersome in a country of 3.5 million people that reportedly has 2-7 times more horses than people, depending on the reporting.
The next days’ ride headed further East across a totally different terrain of green valleys framed by granite outcrops. What a treat to ride to rare twin yaks born less than 24 hours earlier.
‘A Mongolian without a horse is like a bird without wings.’
So goes the ancient saying. Not exactly wanting to fly on the hoof but feeling more confident and comfortable on today’s horse, with foam padding over the traditional wooden saddle, I asked if we might go a bit faster. Imagining a gentle canter, something was obviously lost in translation for not the first time. The small pony only 12-13 hands high who had seemed deceptively placid minutes earlier broke into a full gallop at over 40 kilometres per hour, deaf to my screams of ‘Whoa boy’ as I pulled the reigns with all my might to no avail. At this rate, we’d make Siberia before dusk and that was certainly not our destination.
Wish I’d worn a helmet. Wish my will was up to date. Wish I’d inherited some riding genes from my rodeo champion birth father. But more than anything wished this damn horse would stop. As if to answer my prayers, the guide came galloping alongside my left hand side. Without a word, his right leg straddled my horse’s hind quarters as he leaned over and grabbed the reins, It was an epic scene straight out of an old western movie where the damsel in distress in rescued by her hero who promptly dismounts and falls safely into his arms. Well the last part of the scenario isn’t true as he simply solemnly nodded and we both rode off in search of his hat that had been dislodged in the chase. No more playing cowgirl well past middle age as this was the second time I’ve lost control of a horse and vowed there would not be a third life-threatening enactment of Annie Oakley. Unlike children here, who learn to ride shortly after they learn to walk, I’ve never actually learned to ride properly; just clung on for survival which was much easier in younger days when I was too stupid to fear breaking my neck.
I possibly-make that probably-should have also feared coming face to face with a golden eagle and an even bigger vulture but apart from the landscape and horses, this is what I’d come to Mongolia to see for myself. In the land of Gengis Khan, these winged warriors of the sky can easily kill a fox or small deer so hoped those cute baby yaks would be OK.
For centuries, the renowned eagle hunters capture their pets from rocky cliffs at an age when they’re old enough to know how to hunt but still young enough to be domesticated. Through patience and training, a bond develops between man and bird although women occasionally learn the art.
Ironically, most hunting eagles are in fact females of the species; judged to be fiercer, yet more coachable. Fully grown, their wing span reaches up to 2.3 meters or 8 feet.
Her eyes are chocolate, her beak golden honey, her feathers rich molasses and her talons as big as my hand; both of us badly in need of a manicure. Do I really want to get this up close and personal? Fear flutters for but a moment. I stare at her for a long time. She returns my gaze and seems less threatening. The handler beckons me closer and places a huge leather mitt-think oven glove on steroids-on my right hand.
I extend my arm, turn away and close my eyes as 15 kg of big bird now perches on the locked elbow of this old bird. Moments pass and she hasn’t entangled her claws in my hair or pecked my eyes out. I look up and she seems content enough. Time stands still and my fear has magically flown far, far away.
‘Shake arm. Shake arm.’ urges the handler.
As I do so, her wings open wide to block the sun. Spread eagled. Yes, that’s the word as she towers over me and my heart is full of wonder at the power and majesty of nature. An eagle on my arm, goose bumps on my neck arm and tears of joy in my eyes, this is surly not the same woman frightened of magpies at home that dive bomb me during nesting season. This is a woman who for a short moment in time cares little if the eagle may harm me; who will never forget the courage, kindness and warmth of the Mongolian people who offset the harshness of a cold climate where the annual average temperate is minus 2 Celsius.
‘Yansta’. Or as we say in English, awesome in the truest meaning of the word.
‘Will you release her into the wild?’ I ask.
‘Yes and it will be like to lose one of my children but all must return to live out their last years in their home.’
Far from my own home, in the land of ancient warrior Gengis Khan, I’m at perfect peace today.