You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
The riders who had just come in by powerful Mongolian pony had dismounted and we were off to watch a pre-Eagle Hunt demo by a young huntress. The October day was warm- blessedly- and we gathered as a group to see how she called her eagle to swoop down the mountainside and grasp either her arm or the fox skin that the eaglehad been trained to attack.
These eagles are obtained as fledglings from their rooks, trained and used for hunting for a few years and then released back into the wild. These days, due largely the popularity of the large Eagle Festival in Ulgii each year, there are some 200 of these festivals all over Mongolia. That’s good in some ways because it keeps this ancient and fascinating sport alive, and it is also good because tourist money flows into this very poor country. We are justifiably fascinated by this sport.
As so many of us do, I got a chance to lift the heavy bird, hooded, and have it perch on my arm. It was the third time I’d done it, so I had the trick of lifting my right arm aloft, and gently moving up and down to get her to extend her wings. People oohed and aahed (okay, okay, showoff) and I got some damned nice photos. The locals allowed us to dress in the proper gear, so that we looked the part. We were all of us missing the diamond- sharp cheekbones that define people in this part of the world, touched by the pink blush that all sport on their cheeks right from birth.
I was at this point about six days from the end of my custom individual trip, which was nearly five weeks along. I’d just spent a few days at the homestay of a huntress, whose family erected a traditional ger just for me in an open field right next to their farmhouse. You cannot make this up. When I arrived, the young father (an Eagle hunter in his own right and who had been training his young wife to hunt and compete as well) was installing beautiful homemade kites into the circular wood spokes that line the ger’s ceiling. The entire inside walls were decorated with embroidered cloth, made by his mother. It would be hard to express just how much effort had gone into erecting the ger for me, from start to finish. This is how Mongolians treat guests. It boggles the mind.
The women were busy making me dinner, and in a few minutes the ger was warm and cozy from the fire. Then he sat down, took out his two-stringed instrument and sang me a welcome song. Translated, it meant that he was welcoming me into his family, his home, and that I was to make myself at home, and to become part of his family.
A few days later he performed a concert in midday, dressed up in different traditional costumes. It was such an honor I was in tears.
You can’t make this stuff up. Here these good people had gone to an enormous amount of work to erect a ger for me on the fragrant grasses of their field, a place where I could sleep in peace for a few days on their property. And, of course, be expected to help out around the place in exchange. That, for me as a farm girl, was the easy part. Schlepping water from the stream, washing floors, helping cook, moving animals in for milking were all part of a normal part of a farm day, the endless list of chores from dawn to sunset, marked by laughter and excitement because of animals or kids or news about family, or a herd of rare antelopes nearby spotted by the father while herding.
Work. Joining in. That’s the best part. The farm had scads of goats and sheep, plenty of horses and yaks and cows which had to be milked. I have arthritis in my thumbs and can’t deal with the icy cold of early morning because of my Reynaud’s Syndrome, so I was off the hook for that. However, I got to make up for it because the day’s chores never end. You just get up the next day and do them all over, varied only by hand-washing laundry, or making bread.
Each day I went out in the early morning to help bring in the far-flung yak herd and cows so that the grandmother and Serka, the young huntress, could milk them. The young kids, Serka’s babies, always came along to help, which usually meant getting into mischief.
Each day began early, with milking a top priority. Out the back of the house sat a precarious outhouse, surrounded by massive piles of cow shit, the source of fuel for the winter. That outhouse, which afforded one minimal privacy, had plenty of places where the whistling wind would also remind you to hurry the hell up and get your business taken care of. The door would regularly sag off, and my business would be made public, or I would crack my noggin on the low bar. The house doors are also low, which made for a series of bumps on my forehead before I got into the habit of ducking. As for the toilet, it’s a whole other experience early in the very cold morning when the wind is up.
Nobody is going to go in there to squat down with the Sunday New York Times.
The home itself has a large central stove which is rarely down to the last coals. The piles of dung are forever drying out out to make them effective for fuel (they have no smell, but boy can they smoke you out). The morning after I arrived, having been left my own big bag of cow shit to manage my personal stove, I got up early (about 4 am) and to start a fire. I found a source of fuel in dry wood about a mile away; each day I would walk out and get an armload, which, combined with cardboard or toilet paper made up my kindling. I managed to get a fire going, then decided to do what I saw everyone else do: I opened the stove top and poured in a healthy supply of cow shit. The fire was promptly nearly distinguished, but hot enough to make the dung smoke. Copiously. In seconds, the entire ger was so full of eye-stinging smoke I had to stand outside and open and close the ger door to clear it. Smoke was pouring out, my eyes were watering, and I was laughing.
Every ger has an opening at the top which is managed by ropes, but early on I hadn’t sorted out which ropes did what, so I couldn’t give the smoke a place to escape. This, of course, is how you learn.
Nana was up early, and I went to solicit her help. She spoke no English, but the smoke pouring out of the door was enough. She took off across the rocky field like a Kenyan sprinter, terrified I had set the damn place on fire, while I was running after her trying to explain that it was just shit smoke. I’ve never seen a fifty+ woman move that fast, but then these people can’t afford to lose a ger, nor did she (or I) want to see her beautiful embroidery go up in flames. As it was, the smoke did no damage. All that happened was that everything inside the ger now reeked, and the sweet sage smell that scented the place was long gone.
That story brought huge laughter to the whole family. Especially because I managed to repeat that performance three more times before I left.
The farm had its full share of creatures, well beyond what you might imagine. There was an older white dog who disliked me intensely at the beginning, but after two days he was sleeping outside my ger and protecting my safety. He responded with great enthusiasm to loving touch, hurling his body into the air in circles with enormous energy, happy beyond happy to have someone scrub his ears and slip him bits of cheese. His eyes went from watchful and protective to soft and loving every time I sat down next to him and brushed his head.
There was a brand new puppy, a bundle of black energy, who would attack my legs (and anyone else’s) as we walked. On more than one occasion that habit sent me sprawling face-first into the dung piles that are everywhere. When he found out I would rub his belly he went crazy. The only problem was that one day, on my way to the toilet we had a near-disaster.
The eagle was tethered, or so we thought, in a small area that we passed en route to the long drop. This day, it had managed to come loose, and it wasn’t hooded. The eagle made a sudden rush to attack my left foot, entangling its considerable claws in my boot laces. Claws tangled tightly and beak free, the eagle was now attached to me. I had no gloves on to protect my hands. I stood shock-still and yelled for help. Nobody heard me, and I considered my options. Then, without warning, the puppy came scampering over. Seeing prey, the eagle immediately launched into the air and seized the puppy with its sharp claws. The puppy screamed in terror.
So did I.
I leapt into action, screaming NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. I lifted the bird from behind by its wings before it could eviscerate the howling puppy. I immediately set the eagle down, and scooped the terrified puppy up, running into the house where breakfast was well under way. The family grabbed two coats to put around the bird, who was hungry and free and likely to take off in search of breakfast, having been denied her treat.
Such is farm life, at any given moment there’s the possibility that something like this could happen. The eagle was secured again, and thereafter I took the detour around the back of his shed, since the puppy had insisted on following me everywhere. There was as much danger of the puppy’s landing in the long drop toilet as anything else, but at least from there he could be rescued. Not if his soft underbelly had been opened up by a hungry predator.
But this is even better.
The family had adopted a baby camel that had been orphaned, and Gogo had the run of the place. Once she realized that I came bearing treats, she decided I was worth following around to beg (and nearly came inside my ger as a result). I got to ride her, as the family was breaking her in slowly to accept riders. She tried to buck me off, but when I got off I gave her raisins. She would put my entire hand in her mouth and gently remove the raisins with her tongue, doing no damage whatsoever to my fingers. Camels can do serious harm with their teeth and feet, but Gogo was an absolute sweetheart. She and the dogs and the other animals were among the highlights of my day, including watching her wobble her way up to the kitchen windows in search of handouts. She would drag bags of drying cheese off their wood struts, and nose around the dog bowl. She and the puppy would negotiate over the scraps, with the tiny puppy nearly always forcing Gogo to step back.
She also found out, to her delight, that I massage large animals. That led to many sessions where I would scrub the curve in her neck where rocks and dirt had accumulated and itched. I got plenty of camel kisses for those efforts. Each time I came into the yard I was enthusiastically greeted by dog, puppy and camel, which is a hard trio to ignore.
On my last night I had brought a watermelon as a treat, which was big deal. In a matter of seconds we had chewed all the pieces down to rind. Then we looked up to see a ghostly Gogo ogling us through the kitchen window. We opened the high window and in came her head, whereupon we fed her the rinds. When we ran out, Gogo continued to eyeball us through the closed window, hoping to stick her nose in again in search of the next goody. Again, you just can’t make this stuff up.
On my last night, White Boy the senior dog haunted my door in search of bits of cheese and biscuits, and as he did every single night, stood guard in case of intruders. When I woke up the next morning, I promptly smoked myself out yet again, while he watched nearby, white tail waving in anticipation of play, affection and treats. Gogo, who shared the fenced field at night, wandered over to see if any goodies were in the offing, and Serka came out to help get the fire under control so I could pack up without suffocating.
As a Baby Boomer, I am one of a diminishing generation of those who grew up on a family farm, used to the dirt and the dung and the physical labors of love that accompany farm work. As such, a trip like this allows me to dip a spoon deeply into my past, although a baby camel for a Florida farm girl was a bit out of the way. Still, the joy of taking part in familiar chores, the pleasure of watching labor pay off in delicious fried bread or a clean-for-now kitchen floor are indescribable. In this part of Mongolia, the residents strongly relate to their share Kazakh heritage, which is where the eagle hunting comes in. To be treated to being allowed to touch, play with and learn from these amazing animals is beyond priceless.
This was a first-time custom trip organized by Zavkhan Trekkin- involving multiple homestays for me to get a real taste of Mongolian life. It would be difficult to express how delighted I was, cold nights or not. To give you an example of what cold nights mean, let’s put it this way. One morning, as October began to evolve into the winter that is promised this time of year, I woke up to discover that my dentures were suspended in a solid block of ice. Not wanting to scare the poo out of the kids (there’s no Halloween here but without my choppers, I sure look like the ad for Bitter Beer) I had to put that frozen cup next to my warm belly until it melted and I could make myself presentable.
Had I showed up sans teeth, it simply would have made yet another funny story, to be told repeatedly around the warm, lively and very loving table, with Gogo begging treats from the window, and kids on laps asking for more cheese.
You can’t make this up. But you sure can live it.