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Mongolia. Seriously. The Day After.


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To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII.

The Eagle Hunter doesn't hunt eagles. Rather, Eagle Hunter (the definite article quickly fell away as "Eagle Hunter" became a proper name of sorts) is a Kazakh fellow who has captured a wild eagle and trained it to hunt for him. The basic exchange is that the eagle is rewarded with fresh meat from the kill and both partners are (relatively) happy. Eagle Hunter and his eagle are alleged to share a meaningful "friendship" and, after approximately ten years, the eagle is re-released into the wild to live out its remaining days. No I don't know how long an eagle lives.

The focus of this second week in Mongolia was to meet Eagle Hunter and see his eagle. Mongolia has no Empire State Building, Broadway, or New York Yankees. Instead, it has Eagle Hunter and a handful of his eagle-hunting colleagues. This is the holy grail for visitors to Mongolia. Eagle Hunter is, as we say in the neighborhood, the shit. There is even a Superbowl, a World Series, an Olympic Games of eagle hunting held every October (or November -- it's hard to get a straight answer about anything in Mongolia), wherein the hunters and their eagles are rated (no French judge here) on their capabilities as companions in hunting. But this was August -- we were not there for the games, but rather to spend time one-on-one with Eagle Hunter.

To observe this unusual and rare phenomenon, you must travel to the western part of Mongolia (which is no walk in the park) and, once there, you have to actually find Eagle Hunter who is, after all, a nomad. It's not like he has a street address; or even a town that he lives in; and certainly he doesn't have a phone.

I awoke the morning after the horsemeat-and-horse-blood-tea treatment feeling, I kid you not, a heck of a lot better. By the time my chains of bondage were broken -- okay, by the time adorable little Jan-the-cook unlocked the door of the flat -- I had showered and made myself a cup of tea (damn, I was loving this little apartment) and I was ready to face the world, or at least go out the door. Could it be that the "Mongolian treatment" had caused this improvement in my health? Simply not possible; or was it? At the very least I could not dispute that my cough was improved -- correlation, if not causation, was solidly established. I gave it the benefit of the doubt: nothing like horsemeat and horse-blood tea to relieve a girl's phlegmatic condition.

We set out a mere couple of hours after our planned departure time. The jeep driver (different car and driver from the day before) and I occupied the two front seats and Jan, Aiyka, and the translator/guide filled the three back seats. We headed into the "countryside" of western Mongolia. I was dismayed to learn that all of the Mongolian I had cut my teeth on would now be useless. The people in this region were Kazakh and, it turned out, most of them would stare at me blankly if I addressed them in Mongolian. Then again, people who spoke Mongolian stared at me blankly as well, but at least I had grown accustomed to the dim recognition that I was attempting to speak a language they might know. Not so with the Kazakhs -- I would have to learn a new vocabulary of Kazakh words if I wanted to communicate the basics: hello, thank you, goodbye, beautiful, delicious (no need to ask about bathrooms or toilets -- there weren't any), etc. I did, however, find it a heck of a lot easier to pronounce the Kazakh words than the Mongolian words. The sounds were at least somewhat familiar, with a lot of guttural "ch" sounds like in Hebrew. Modern Mongolian, on the other hand, sounds like no language I've ever heard, with the possible exception of a made-up language from an old television variety show -- you can't even figure out where the words begin and end.

The plan for that day, as determined the previous night by Aiyka and the translator/guide (once I had reminded them of the need for a plan), was as follows: Drive in the jeep 120km to village Bayan Nuur By Lake (turns out this village is only Bayan Nuur summer village; Bayan Nuur "the real village," I found out four days later, was elsewhere and deserted during the summer on account of the Bayan Nuur summer village where, with gers in tow, everyone relocates for the summer); stop at "the lake" (no one knew the name of the lake -- neither my translator/guide nor the people living around it; it was just "the lake"); cook lunch; and walk around "the lake" (Jan would cook with Aiyka, I would walk to the lake with said translator/guide). This was all to unfold by 1pm. The 3pm-'til-dinner slot was to be our time to meet Eagle Hunter, check out his eagle or eagles (at that time, I had no idea which), and take photos. Finally, we were to sleep in a ger built for us by Aiyka's brother.

To say there was slippage in the schedule would be an understatement tantamount to calling Eagle Hunter "a guy with a bird."

You've seen the photos of the "roads" in Mongolia so you probably have some sense of the speeds at which we could travel. But to break it down, 120km (that's 74.4 miles to me) at 30km/h equals 4 hours assuming no stops, mishaps, or anything. For this drive, 2 hours had been allocated. And you will recall that we began the day with a 2-hour deficit. Perhaps you're starting to get an idea of how scheduling works in Mongolia.

En route to Bayan Nuur By Lake Summer Village we stopped at a ger to "experience Kazakh hospitality." That's what it said on the itinerary, and that's what they said in the jeep -- they had their stories straight and coordinated on this one. These Kazakhs, however, didn't seem all that hospitable. Unless of course you count letting us live as part of the definition of hospitality.

Not that I could actually figure out what was going on. Despite having a dedicated entourage of translator/guide, wife-of-guide-company-owner, cook, and driver, nobody told me much. But as far as I could tell we weren't well received at the first ger. Here's what I saw: I was told we were stopping at a ger to "experience Kazakh hospitality." As our jeep approached the ger, the residents, unaccustomed to getting much vehicular traffic, emerged. There was much discussion and gesticulation between our team and theirs. We drove away, quickly and without comment. That's what I know.

Things went better at the next ger. We approached. There was discussion. Our driver got out of the jeep. He didn't unzip his fly (this would be the most likely reason for him to get out of the jeep) and he didn't start cleaning the jeep obsessively (the other main reason he might get out: jeep drivers in Mongolia are very serious about cleaning their jeeps; you should have seen our other driver at the gas station -- the one we slept at not the one with the car wash -- the morning after we got stuck in the lake). Therefore, it seemed, we were going inside. My group opened the back door of the jeep (only one door seemed to open in the back; similarly, in our previous jeep, the one in the Gobi, only one of the little back triangular windows would open -- I wonder if it's some kind of Russian manufacturing requirement) so I followed suit.

This group of people -- though tentative at first -- was, by the end of the visit, like my long lost family. We did indeed, as advertised, "experience Kazakh hospitality." Big time. And I'm not even talking about the two bottles of vodka we all drank together at 2pm when we revisited the same ger on our way back to Olgii five days later.

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Granted, I did hand out a shitload of gifts -- this is the Mongolian tradition, observed by both Mongolians and Kazakhs, i.e., the nomadic peoples -- but not until I had decided that I loved these people. When you receive hospitality from people in their ger, you reciprocate by giving some gifts, and we had been offered milk tea, a variety of cheeses, fried dough (little rectangular pieces), and airag, so I was delighted to observe the gift-giving tradition. Each person in the ger received a gift, and I later found out (yes, this was sort of a pattern) that not everyone in the ger was actually a resident of said ger. It turned out that the man who had initially welcomed us to the ger was actually a neighbor and the father of the ger wasn't home.

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They invited us to stop back to visit on our return to Olgii so that they could kill and cook an entire sheep in my honor, following which we would spend the night in their ger. How can you say no to that? When we left, we took one of the daughters of the ger with us. Not to give you the wrong idea, she was hitching a ride -- she wasn't a gift or anything like that. At least, I think she was a daughter or resident of the ger, but on this I wouldn't bet the family herd. Whatever her status, she needed ride to her cousins' ger which was located, we were told, "Somewhere between Bayan Nuur By The Lake Summer Village and Eagle Hunter." She squeezed in back with the other three, bringing the back-seat population to four.

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We arrived at the lake at about 2pm. After being welcomed into the ger of Aiyka's friends (where Aiyka and Jan would cook our lunch), and after having our requisite bowl of milk tea, the translator/guide and I embarked upon the scheduled walk to the lake. After a couple of hours, we returned to the ger, where we sat making conversation until lunch was ready about 30 minutes later. Actually, I sat on the wool felt guest-rug with a stupid grin plastered on my face while everyone else sat around talking. We all partook of the day's mutton dish, which was a cross between stew and soup with the requisite hunks of meat and fat and ramen noodles mixed in, followed by milk tea with yogurt skin added to taste.

We piled back into the jeep. It was time to find Eagle Hunter.

But there was still the matter of our passenger, who needed to be delivered to her cousins' ger. We drove a ways until we found a cluster of three or four gers. The girl directed our driver to ascertain if one of these was indeed her cousins' ger. It was. Not bad, we had found a specific ger in the middle of Mongolia on the first try. We bade her farewell but she gestured for us to wait. She disappeared inside one of the gers and returned with two cucumbers and tomatoes, and a recycled plastic water-bottle full of yogurt. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me, part of the lunchtime discussion had revolved around my proclivity for vegetables and yogurt. This was an astonishingly generous gift. Not especially the yogurt -- that's a plentiful item during summer. But tomatoes and cucumbers in western Mongolia -- these don't come easy. We had been given the Mongolian equivalents of truffles and caviar.

Time check: departure from the cousins' ger, 6pm. Yes we're still talking about the events of a single day.

In August it stays light in western Mongolia until 9:30 or 10pm, so I was able to continue to take in the scenery as we progressed toward Eagle Hunter's ger, wherever that might be. As we got closer (I hoped) we stopped a number of times to inquire at other gers where we might find Eagle Hunter, and also to ascertain which roads went to which destinations. Eventually, as we drove closer to the river, we found someone who was able not only to direct us to Eagle Hunter's ger but also to tell us which roads would be most promising. At least, this was my interpretation of events. Again, I don't speak Kazakh and my translator/guide rarely translated, so I'm just speaking impressionistically here.

I did observe a grouping of three gers near a collection of sizeable old trees across the river and its tributaries. We barreled down a hill and, after crossing the first tributary, we swerved across the riverbed and changed to an alternate route about 15km downstream. Crossing the second tributary was a piece of cake and as my spirits rose we bumped down the steep riverbank over large boulders to the main crossing.

Our driver paused a few meters from the river bank and steeled himself for the crossing. Aiyka, though she does not drive, has traveled in the countryside for years and had advised him on the best route for our crossing -- and he listened. As our driver feathered the clutch, I took a deep breath and clutched whatever handholds I could find. He hit the gas and we splashed into the river. We slowed, we pulled free, we slowed again, we pulled free again -- it was a laugh a minute I tell you. But despite several moments of concern, we were never far from dry ground, we were on a rocky riverbed (better for traction than clay mud), and I liked everyone who might be trapped inside the jeep with me. And Eagle Hunter's ger was within view (though at the time, I wasn't sure about this) and surely a guy who hunts with an eagle can figure out how to get a jeep unstuck from a river.

It's indeed amazing how many thoughts can flash through one's mind in the blink of an eye. It couldn't have taken more than 90 seconds to cross that rushing river and those are only the most select thoughts that clicked through my brain during the crossing (the rest would be inappropriate for your ears, gentle reader). We hit dry ground and I let out a whoop and a cheer. Did I do that out loud? Yes, I guess I did, because everyone thought this was terribly funny and they all joined in. Our driver's grin was likely visible as far away as Eagle Hunter's ger.

We pulled around to the front of the center ger in the cluster and I cracked open my door. I didn't know if we were asking directions again or if we were actually at Eagle Hunter's ger, but I was going to stretch my legs no matter what. Then, all of the women in the back piled out through the one working Russian jeep-door, so I began to be hopeful that perhaps we had actually arrived and that I might soon have the pleasure and honor of meeting Eagle Hunter.

Our bags and countless boxes were unloaded from the jeep. Huh? That wasn't part of the game plan, even if this did turn out to be Eagle Hunter's ger. We were supposed to stay at the ger that Aiyka's brother had built for us. We had actually stopped there to inspect it on the way. Because it was very windy, I was told -- and I'm not sure if it was windy when he built it, or windy in that spot, or if he was simply concerned about the wind -- he had not done the most impressive job with our ger (I was getting to be a pretty good judge of gers by now). On account of our previous week's assorted fiascos (more of which had by now been relayed to Aiyka by our translator/guide during our drive from Olgii), Aiyka insisted that I come and inspect the custom-built ger for approval. Sure, it looks fine. Thumbs up. Whatever. But now they were bringing the entire contents of the jeep into Eagle Hunter's ger. There seemed to be no purpose in inquiring about this apparent change of plans; at this point I'd have been surprised only by a lack of changes in plan. I was totally in the Mongolian swing of things, operating on pure instinct.

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Inside the ger I was ushered to a stool -- the seat of honor -- and, as always, we all entered and walked to the left of the stove and sat down at the back of the ger facing the stove (and the door). There were a number of children and other young people around, ranging in age from about 3 to 20. There was an old woman in charge (she turned out only to be in her early 40s but all the people in Mongolia look older than their years due to the harsh nomadic lifestyle and the unforgiving elements: strong winds, hot and dry summers, bitterly cold winters) and she immediately began bustling about with bowls for tea while one of the daughters worked on the fire and another went to haul more water from the river.

There was, as far as I could tell, no Eagle Hunter presently in the ger. We sat around for a couple of hours drinking tea and talking, with me as usual not understanding a word. I repeatedly had to fend off entreaties to eat this or that. I did eat some white cheese, a bowl of yogurt supplemented with sheep fur (or maybe it was goat fur), and some milk tea with yogurt skin, plus I nibbled politely on one of those fried dough squares. Aiyka and Jan had started cooking too. I left the ger to wander around outside. Some boys were jumping on the backs of horses, bareback and barefoot, and racing around as quickly as the horses would run. At one point, one of the little boys (approximately 7 years old) tumbled off onto the hard, boulder-strewn ground as the horse charged back toward the ger. I sucked my breath in, but apparently this was no big deal to anybody else (I can only imagine the reactions if something like this happened in Westchester -- or Long Island). Some of the older children walked over to him and helped him up and he was back on his horse in no time. There were also dozens of sheep and goats milling about, some lambs, and four or five horses -- all of which seemed to belong to this ger, not the other two gers, which had their own herds as well.

As soon as we finished our dinner (yes, mutton), the beds were prepared. The four of us women would sleep in a row on the floor of the ger, in the same location as we had been sitting moments before, with the addition of "Kazakh mattresses": two felt wool carpets that were laid down one on top of the other. I continued to wonder if Eagle Hunter was in fact going to show up at the ger. It was approaching 11:30pm; no Eagle Hunter in evidence. As you may recall, we had been scheduled to see him beginning at 3pm. I finally inquired and my translator/guide finally filled me in: "Oh, Eagle Hunter is at his winter home cutting hay for his herd for the winter. He'll be back tomorrow."

Got the schedule now?

To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

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To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII.

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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How was the cheese?

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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This is, as you are no doubt well aware having lived the experience, a somewhat mind numbing epic. The knowledge that you're still alive and possibly even in good health, lends an air of incredibility to the tale--that, and the fact that the mare in Mongolia part I, didn't seem to be a mare, (there's a natural reluctance on my part to reference that sort of thing to anyone who might have actually ingested the milk, but I'm a city boy who tends to stay away from the nether regions of all four footed animals, so what do I know). My question here is to ask if the hair and fur might not serve as a form of roughage in a diet so lacking in fruits and vegetables.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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WOW

??? What gifts were you giving/ Where did you get them/ Did you have them with you ???

I brought the gifts with me from home. I had heard from people who had been there previously and read in my book that I should have little gifts with me to distribute. Generally speaking, I'd give a selection of gifts to someone in the ger (usually the oldest woman) and let them distribute accordingly. I brought everything from pens and hair scrunchies, to packs of needles and dozens of rolls of different colored thread to little swiss army knife type tools and Leatherman tool knock-offs. I also had some instant coffee, hot chocolate and little stuffed toys for children—oh, airplane bottle sized vodka. I had a lot of gifts. I didn't give them out to everyone. I think there is such a thing as going over the top and I feel it's extremely crass.

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Also bad for the next group traveling trhough and also bad for the society. Basic economics if you have wealth among the poor/ you have power to make them into beggars and disrupt their ways of life. Handle with care/ smaller gifts, way to go.

Thanks for explaining.

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I hope you finally found Eagle Hunter the next day. I can't wait to hear about him and his bird. I once took a half-day course at the British School of Falconry in Vermont and found it absolutely fascinating.

What sort of game do they hunt in Mongolia? I guess I'll have to wait for the next installment and see.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

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In Vermont they would have been using hawks, though, right? I bet Eagle Hunter's eagle eats hawks for breakfast! :laugh::raz:

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I hope you finally found Eagle Hunter the next day.  I can't wait to hear about him and his bird.  I once took a half-day course at the British School of Falconry in Vermont and found it absolutely fascinating. 

I did a two-day hunt at the British School of Falconry at Gleneagle, Scotland, about two years ago, where we rid the local sheep pastures of rabbit. It was a truely amazing experience.

The guy who ran the school had two caged eagles, captured in the Mid-East, that he would take out and hunt with. It was a magnificient thing to see, him working those birds. Very majestic. As for us, we used Harris Hawks.

Great story Ellen. Really enjoying it.

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In Vermont they would have been using hawks, though, right? I bet Eagle Hunter's eagle eats hawks for breakfast!  :laugh:  :raz:

They had one eagle in Vermont. The rest were falcons and hawks. Visitors were only allowed to handle Harris hawks, as the others tend to bond with only a single handler.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

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Again, Ellen, thanks for the great report. This is a hell of a lot of work for you to do all of this for us, and I can honestly say that I very much appreciate it. Great reading.

By the way, what wine goes well with bezoar mutton stew?

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Ellen:

Another fabulous installment.

I'm gathering that western Mongolia gets a bit more rain and is a little bit greener than the other area (central Mongolia?) you were in previously. Is that right?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Extreme close-up:

I said:

I'm a city boy who tends to stay away from the nether regions of all four footed animals
:biggrin:

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Vengroff, McDowell, sure you can find an eagle or two pretty much anywhere, but you can only find Eagle Hunter in Mongolia. And let me assure you, I've seen a preview, and you have no idea what you're in for with Eagle Hunter. :shock:

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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A friend of a friend of J.'s emailed me a link to your story and I am hanging on every word--this is great stuff and I really am rooting for you to get this published--the pictures alone are fabulous. And your story telling is first rate. Although I don't want to really imagine what would happen to these people if this way off the beaten path region became more of a tourist destination as the visit2003.mn site suggests--a mixed blessing :unsure:

But I must admit that their top ten list is pretty amusing--Adventurous opportunities--without a doubt.

Thank you for sharing. This was a real treat and I look forward to the next installment with baited breath (way way way better than Harry Potter, cause this is the real deal!) :laugh:

Also, what a great discovery egullet.com is! I am emailing some of my friends with the link after I post this!!

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I guess a mare's udders are located much farther back than a cow's, thus the optical illusion.  :shock:

Yep. You generally can't see a mare's udder from a side-on photo like that, even when it's full of milk.

"Tea and cake or death! Tea and cake or death! Little Red Cookbook! Little Red Cookbook!" --Eddie Izzard
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