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Mongolia. Seriously. The Empire Strikes Back.


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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, Part VIII

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We've already established that Eagle Hunter doesn't hunt eagles but, rather, is the owner-operator of a trained eagle that hunts on his behalf. And we've learned that Eagle Hunter occupies a high station in the Mongolian Kazakh social structure, roughly equivalent to that of a cross between a federal judge and a basketball star. But Eagle Hunter is no mere specialist. Eagle Hunter is a jack-of-all-trades, a veritable one-man Mongolian Kazakh dude ranch. Not only was I to witness the interaction between Eagle Hunter and his feathered companion, but also I was to join Eagle Hunter for several days of activities and events demonstrating his prowess at fishing, riding, and carving, as well as being introduced to his network of contacts in the weaving, dairy, and orchard industries.

But first we had to locate him.

That morning, everyone slept much later than I anticipated. Aren't farmers supposed to get up before sunrise? I assumed nomads would be in the same category; you know, 4am milking and such. Then again, everyone had stayed up much later than the farmers in the movies (take, for example, Kelly McGillis in Witness) so I guess it balanced out. I, however, was up by 7:30am so I took my water bottle, toothbrush and toothpaste, toilet paper and camera and tiptoed past the sleeping bodies and outside into the cool, clear, fresh air.

Deep breath . . . okay I take back the part about fresh air. Um, is that? . . . I think I can identify that odor . . . sheep shit? . . . . wait, maybe it's goat . . . could be horse . . . okay, I've got it, it's the neighbor's yaks. Obviously it's yak shit. How could I have missed that?

Other than the time I made tea while imprisoned in that little apartment, this was the first time I'd been alone and awake in the past 10 days. And I include going to the bathroom in that characterization. For the most part, outside the city and tourist areas, there is no going to the bathroom because there are no bathrooms. So J and I had developed a system, back in the day (okay, last week), whereby one of us was designated "lookout" while the other was designated "pee-er" (as in, she who pees).

There's just not a lot of cover in Mongolia. The Pacific Northwest it ain't. No giant sequoias to duck behind. For the most part, no serious concealment at all. And I'm not terribly shy. I wasn't looking for total seclusion or even total visual obstruction. All I wanted was a tall enough tumble weed to maintain the illusion of pretending to keep at least part of one ass-cheek out of view when I turned my back (another delusional trick of modesty -- sort of like a two-year-old or a dog hiding by sticking its head under the bed -- I can't see them because my back is turned, therefore they can't see me) and dropped my pants. But of course we did have a jeep, so I had taken to squatting down and peeing directly behind the jeep, which I hoped was in the blind spot of the driver's mirrors (it's not so much that I didn't want to be seen but, rather, that the thought of somebody wanting to watch was too much to handle). J had quickly adopted this procedure and so we did the teamwork thing, with one of us standing by on lookout with back to the other, ready to sound the alarm if someone approached (more delusional behavior). Once in awhile, mostly just to have a few minutes to ourselves, we'd wander off and seek out promising pee spots together -- it would sometimes take all the intelligence and craftiness of both of us combined in order to find a suitable place.

But here I was alone. Aside from the sleeping goats, sheep, horses and neighborhood yaks, I was very, very alone, as in alone in Mongolia. And this place was an oasis: there were some actual trees around (very unusual), not to mention a large river (even a small river would have been a treat compared to the Gobi). I had my pick of spots. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

One by one others emerged from the ger. The regular wake-up time turned out to be around 9am. Aiyka and the translator/guide were still asleep, but with the activity all around them they were soon stirring as well. Morning unfolded at a relaxed pace. Water had to be fetched and boiled (using twigs and animal dung as fuel, this can take some time), fuel had to be collected (enough for copious amounts of tea and cooking), and the cooking had to be done (everything always made to order from scratch, with the exception of the bread which was baked about once a week). We started off with bread and milk tea. There was jam (there because of me and provided by us, as was everything we all ate with the exception of the dairy products, one meal of mutton, and some of the bread -- that's what all of the boxes from the jeep were for), margarine and yogurt skin to spread on top. Then, about an hour later, we were served some kind of hot course. We had oatmeal that first morning followed by a cream of wheat type cereal the next and, on our last morning in Eagle Hunter's ger, we had cooked bulgur.

By 11am, as the breakfast activity began to die down, Eagle Hunter was still not in evidence. Thus we were going to have to seek him out at his winter house, where he was allegedly cutting the hay. And so we embarked upon our search for Eagle Hunter. Eagle Hunter's eldest daughter, Chica, rode along with us. She would be able to help pinpoint Eagle Hunter's location. Chica joined the other three in the back seat of the jeep. She and Jan, only three years apart, were becoming fast friends.

Along the way we stopped at a tiny graveyard -- only 10 or so headstones -- to pay respects to Aiyka's grandparents. Upper-class intellectuals, they had been executed by Mongolian soldiers acting on directives from Moscow.

After asking around some, we found Eagle Hunter's winter home. Eagle Hunter did not appear to be present. We walked around and called out to him and, eventually, he appeared in the distance and began to approach. We had, at last, found Eagle Hunter.

At this point, not much happened. Eagle Hunter greeted us and all the women started busying themselves making lunch, even though as far as I could tell we had just finished breakfast. Our crew was working on our meal and Chica was making lunch for Eagle Hunter's son and workers (Eagle Hunter and Chica would share our food). I got the impression we were going to be here for a while so I decided to go for a wander. After being eaten alive by mosquitoes, I settled down next to Chica, who was cooking the workers' mutton on a fire outside.

I was beckoned in for lunch -- mutton stew -- about two hours later. It was 2pm, we were on our second meal, and I was still waiting for our day to begin. But after lunch we did indeed get some glimpses of Mongolian Kazakh life.

First, we watched the hay cutters cut hay with their scythes. This was interesting for several minutes, though of course we watched for a much longer time than that (imagine having to actually do this all day!).

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And then, we finally got to see Eagle Hunter in outdoorsman mode as he went fishing. Might we have fish for dinner? This was potentially the most exciting news of the week. Alas, Eagle Hunter didn't have much luck with the rod this time around. We did, however, get some very impressive mosquito bites.

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Around 5pm we, with the addition of Eagle Hunter in the back seat (and Chica now in the way back cargo area) drove over to Bayan Nuur, the real Bayan Nuur (not the summer village). It was pretty much deserted. The only people there were two guys who were painting the entryway to the town's store. The store had a somewhat unusual and quite limited inventory: as far as I could tell, the only items stocked in quantity were vodka and Mickey Mouse dolls. Aiyka went in looking for a toothbrush and toothpaste and Jan wanted a soda. The rest of us followed out of curiosity or boredom. They both left empty handed. After getting a view of the town from the top of the "Dance Pavilion Mountain" we squished back in the jeep and headed for the apple orchard.

Apple orchard? Aren't these people supposed to be nomads? Well, it seems these particular nomads return to their orchard every summer and camp out while the trees are bearing fruit. So there are pockets of agriculture in western Mongolia, and we were to visit one of them. After several rounds of asking for directions, we found the entrance to the orchard, which was locked.

Eagle Hunter swung into action: he dismounted the jeep and let out a mighty holler, presumably intended to attract his friend, the owner of the orchard, aka Orchard Man. Looking to us for support, much as a rock star asking the audience to engage in a synchronized clap, Eagle Hunter called out again. The others joined in and there was a great hullabaloo. He didn't turn up.

So we climbed back in the jeep, asked around a bit, and were unable to acquire any additional information regarding Orchard Man's whereabouts. Another round of hooting and hollering seemed to be the logical next step, so we returned to the same spot. Our driver wandered off to look for Orchard Man in the fields, and we were to raise a ruckus locally. Eventually, and having nothing to do with our strategy, Orchard Man came strolling along, greeted us, and opened the gate to the orchard.

From what bits and pieces of information I could comprehend and assemble, I was able to ascertain that Orchard Man also owns an eagle. Perhaps this is how Eagle Hunter and Orchard man became friends, kind of like having kids in the same school. Come to think of it, I asked myself, where do these kids go to school, if at all? My train of thought was interrupted by some pretty unusual stares and gestures, directed at me.

Our driver had gone so far off into the fields to look for Orchard Man that we had nobody to drive the jeep he had left behind. Except, it seemed, for me. The translator/guide had apparently offered up that I knew how to drive a standard vehicle. This she knew because, back when we were stuck in the lake in the Gobi, I had volunteered to drive so the driver could try to help push us out -- she was apparently a much better listener and rememberer than translator. So I was cheered and cajoled into the driver's seat.

Driving a jeep over those roads was substantially more difficult than I had anticipated, and I developed a newfound respect for what a driver does in Mongolia. I could see why any driver, even an extremely skilled one, would be exhausted after a day of driving on this kind of terrain. Just a few minutes had rattled my nerves -- and I'm used to driving through Manhattan or, conversely on mining roads in Kentucky. These conditions were far more extreme.

I came to a halt in front of Orchard Man's ger and we all piled out. Our driver, when he finally caught up, made a mock effort to hide the keys. Though he spoke not a word of English, we had our own little communications and I thought he was a gem. Such a great sense of humor -- I could tell even without understanding his words.

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We experienced additional Kazakh hospitality: we were welcomed into the ger, tea was distributed, the fried dough bowl was brought out as were the hard white cheese and old hard white cheese as well as the crown jewels: two bowls of apples, one full of yellow apples, and one full of red. The apples were tiny, tart and delicious. I savored one of each of these unwashed apples. (What's the difference? All the literature instructed that I not drink the water in Mongolia anyway. Then again, it also said to peel all fruit.) "Damde," I said. Orchard Man's wife smiled broadly (Orchard Man and Eagle Hunter had strolled off, perhaps to talk eagle business). Delicious.

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We walked around the dwarf apple trees and admired the dwarf apples. Everyone collected the drops off the ground and ate them as we wandered. I was called upon to take countless pictures and, as many times, I was reminded not to forget to send them copies of the pictures. I promised I would (one of the first things I did upon returning home was print 32 snapshots and mail them to Mongolia -- when and whether they'll arrive, I can't say). Aiyka, Jan and our translator/guide each bought a kilo or two of apples to bring back to their families in Olgii. As our driver started the jeep, the wife of Orchard Man ran over with a small bag of apples as a gift to me and reminded me to mail them the photos.

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Next, we were to see the Turkic stone, an alleged Mongolian archaeological treasure. I'm not even going to tell you about it, it was such a letdown. Suffice it to say, I'd been hearing about it forever -- it was even printed on our itinerary -- and it was basically a stone maybe four feet high with a face carved into it. Yes, it's really old. No, nobody knows where it came from. But really, who cares? Suffice it to say, it was not quite Stonehenge.

At about 8pm we stopped to visit Aiyka's parents in their ger. Such lovely people. They had already finished dinner and threatened to make us something. Oh no. Oh yes, they served us a dinner meal. I observed the wily Eagle Hunter. He only ate one bowl of food and refused a refill. I predicted the worst and didn't finish my portion.

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In the dark, we returned to Eagle Hunter's ger. Eagle Hunter's wife was making us dinner. I groaned quietly. Luckily, dinner was served on a giant communal plate, so I was able to get away with a minimal contribution to the effort. Eagle Hunter opened the bottle of vodka Aiyka had brought as a gift (along with a sack of other food items) and started pouring a round. I was unable to refuse -- he filled my little glass. He welcomed me and we all had a drink. I was to make the next round of pours and the reciprocal toast. Down the hatch. With little left in the bottle, Eagle Hunter topped off his glass.

I guess I wasn't going to see the eagle today.

We were to spend the following day on horseback, with Eagle Hunter and his eagle companion, riding to a mountain that was still covered in snow. I was urged to dress warmly and there was much head shaking and furrowing of brows about my attire. Finally, everyone seemed satisfied with the addition of adorable little Jan's sheepskin vest (Jan was staying behind to have some time to herself). Four of us set out: Eagle Hunter, Aiyka, the translator/guide and me.

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At this point I started to wonder, where is this eagle anyway? Shouldn't it be safely stowed somewhere in or near the ger? Or does the eagle hover just out of range of detection, waiting for a special Beastmaster-esque signal from Eagle Hunter, whereupon it swoops down and joins its master?

Let me pause for a moment to tell you all that I am not an experienced horseback rider, nor is riding horses something that ever appealed to me. Not that I have anything against horses; I had done the horse-and-pony rides as a kid and found them entertaining enough. But it never inspired me to take up riding seriously. The whole horseback riding thing had been J's idea and J's passion and I was sad that she wasn't here to join me, and a little bit freaked out that in the end I found myself sitting on top of this rather significant horse alone.

I really did enjoy the first couple of hours on the horse. Maybe I even enjoyed the first 4, 5, even 6 hours on the horse. But for an inexperienced rider to spend 10 hours on a horse, well, that's just too much. And I don't have a bony ass, I assure you. Nonetheless I was feeling every step for those last few hours. I actually jumped at the chance to walk up the mountain, taking advantage of the excuse that both Aiyka's and my horses were struggling with the effort (my horse had in fact laid down in protest -- with me on it -- more than once).

On foot, I charged up the hill and stopped at the snow line. I looked out in all directions, astonished by the landscape. When the others joined me we took a couple of rounds of pictures and I charged back down the hill where I had noted a handsome selection of promising pee spots behind boulders and dips in the landscape. It was so hard to choose but I finally settled on what I considered to be a winning combo: a glacial boulder/dip in the landscape bonanza.

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At some point during the day I started referring to Eagle Hunter in my internal dialog as Eagle Hunter Without Eagle.

One of the highlights of the day was when, during our lunch break, Eagle Hunter Without Eagle was informed that we had failed to pack utensils. No problem. Eagle Hunter Without Eagle grabbed a stick, whipped out his knife, and made me a spoon, which I have kept to this day.

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Yes the black stuff is caviar.

After our walk, I was happy to get back on my horse again. Eagle Hunter Without Eagle kept looking back over his shoulder to check our progress and when we caught up to him he informed us (me) that now we would be riding faster. Oy! And I thought I had been doing so well. I knew that had J been along, she and Eagle Hunter would have been fast friends. I could see her showing him horse-riding rodeo tricks and then, with a kick of her heels and a loud "he-ya!", she'd be off, leaving behind a cloud of dust and an impressed Eagle Hunter Without Eagle. They would arrive at Eagle Hunter Without Eagle's ger hours before me, and by the time I returned they'd be drunk on vodka and singing Kazakh riding songs in a round. But in reality, there I was alone on my horse and I had been instructed to get a move on -- so I did. I bumped along at (my) top speed for as long as my horse was willing and finally, after several attempts to continue in this manner, I got tired of torturing the horse so Aiyka and I settled into a comfortable pace together and we had a wonderful conversation (the translator/guide was riding far ahead) that passed the hours until we got "home." I was amazed by how good her English was and I encouraged her to practice and to let me know if I said any words that she didn't understand. I had really liked her from the get-go but it's difficult to develop beyond a certain bond in a friendship without at least having a little language in common. This was the final bridge.

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During that last hour on horseback I could have sworn I'd seen Eagle Hunter Without Eagle's ger a dozen times. And finally, at 8pm, it was undeniably there. All we had to do was forge the river three more times and I could get off once and for all. My horse tripped on a large boulder as we crossed the river -- I'm sure it was intentional, just to freak me out one last time as a final hurrah. I pulled up at Eagle Hunter Without Eagle's ger and, without waiting for an assist in dismounting, I swung my leg off that damn horse and immediately saw black spots dance in front of my eyes. I started to get dizzy and I was afraid I would fall over. I backed myself up and plunked my ass down on a rock until the spots went away. After about 15 minutes the dizziness passed too and I walked down to the river to clean myself up and wash my trousers (the only pair I had).

Adorable Jan was already involved in cooking our dinner and it wasn't long before I was beckoned back into the ger. Again we ate off of a giant communal plate so I was able to fish for the bites I found most appealing. As a special treat, Jan also presented me with an egg sculpture, which was just another example of her adorable, sweet and good-natured spirit. I showed my egg around for all to admire.

And the eagle?

"Tomorrow," I was told. "Tomorrow Eagle Hunter will bring his eagle."

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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, Part VIII

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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That spoon is wonderful. What a great keepsake.

Ellen, your story is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

Edited by bloviatrix (log)

"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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Gotta love eagle hunter's Adidas red-white-and-blue track suit!

It goes really well with his hat, that's for sure.

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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The amazing thing is that when I ran into Ellen last October in Nepal, she had just returned from a long trek during which she had developed a raging fever. And less than a year later, she was in Mongolia. Someone desperately wants to stay away from home. :biggrin:

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Come to think of it, I asked myself, where do these kids go to school, if at all?

At Ghengis Khan High School?

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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The horses were a reassuring sight for those of us who worried that the "real" Mongolia was lost. :biggrin: More jarriing a sight than all those jeeps and motorcyles has been the K-Mart clothing. How far away is the nearest mall, or do they have a traveling salesman making the rounds?

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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Bux, in the photos Ellen has brought back over the years from something like 20 different Third World countries, there has almost always been a liberal sprinkling of secondhand Western clothing interspersed with the traditional garb. When you drop off of old clothes at the Salvation Army, what do you think happens to them? Do you think poor Americans get them? The reality is they don't want most of them. Only the cream of the crop is kept here and redistributed to the poor locally; the rest is packed up and shipped off to the Third World. Some charities actually sell it in the Third World, or to subcontractors who specialize in the resale/recycling of clothes. Have a look at this page for an interesting overview.

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 never promised you a rose garden or an eagle. What I promised was:

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:

And I stand by my promise, I surely do, even more so now than ever. In fact I think that, simply on account of that first picture, Eagle Hunter delivered on my promise. And on account of the spoon, he has already over-delivered. And there's still Part V to come.

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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The entire travel log is wonderful..and the photos of the land are great..but the story comes alive, for me, with extraordinary photos of their faces and smiles and hands...there is an openess to their faces, a warmth and grace, thatis rarely captured in any photos. Really wonderful, thank you.

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Thanks for all the kind comments; they keep me going as my fingers go numb from writing all this down not to mention reliving every bump on that damned horse.

I've been searching around for a Mongolia map that I could put here without violating any copyrights, and finally I've come up with one from the US government that's kosher. You'll notice three arrows (I've added those). The one on the left is Olgii, the town we flew into in western Mongolia near where Eagle Hunter hangs out. The one in the middle is UB. And the one on the lower right, for reference, is Beijing. You'll see that Mongolia is totally surrounded by Russia (aka Siberia) on top and China on the bottom. You'll also see to the left of that left arrow, a border that comes to a point and almost touches Mongolia. That's Kazakhstan.

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Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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I've been searching around for a Mongolia map that I could put here without violating any copyrights, and finally I've come up with one from the US government that's kosher.

For those interested, there's more detail on Mongolia in the CIA's World Fact Book here. (always my first source for in-depth country information).

2.7 Million people, and only 100,000 telephone landlines (another 100K cell phones).

40,000 internet users - any on eGullet??

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Most of those 40,000 people are, I gather, using the Internet for e-mail. The eGullet site would probably break most of the older computers in use over there. But there is definitely good e-mail availability in the cities (I used it all the time there, and we planned the whole trip via e-mail from home, albeit without total accuracy!) and there is a push to modernize the country's telecommunications. Mongolia got thrown into a big depression when the Iron Curtain fell and has only recently started to steady itself. I'll bet you'll see those numbers grow a lot in the next few years.

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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You'll also see to the left of that left arrow, a border that comes to a point and almost touches Mongolia. That's Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan, by comparison, is a FAR more high advanced country than Mongolia is. While it is an independent nation its home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia's (and the former USSR's) equivalent to Cape Canaveral. It was also until very recently the third most powerful nuclear power in the entire world, since it was home to many of the USSR's former ICBM launch facilities. The country also has 5 nuclear power plants.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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