The Kazakh ethnic group makes up around 90% of the population of Mongolia’s Bayan-Ulgii province, with around 100,000 Kazakhs spread thinly across the wilderness. Kazakh culture is distinct here: the nomads are Muslim, and they speak Kazakh in everyday life, using Mongolian only when they need to communicate with other tribes or groups. The Mongolian Kazakhs were, and are, the only ethnic Kazakhs who maintain their traditional culture and language.
Every season, these nomadic shepherds move their livestock to different pastures. During the seasonal spring migration in Mongolia’s Bayan-Ulgii Province (just north of Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region), Kazakh nomads herd their horses, camels, yaks, cattle, sheep, and goats from their winter pasture to the spring grasslands. On this rugged frontier, there are no paved roads, and the horse is central to the Kazakh way of life.
This tradition offers a magnificent spectacle. The chance to experience this unique lifestyle was the motivation for a rather unconventional trip.
The Spring Migration
From the capital Ulaanbaatar, it took three hours on an early morning flight to Ulgii, the most remote town in the western Mongolian province of Bayan-Ulgii, the only Kazakh province in Mongolia. From there it took three hours (in an ex–Russian military 4x4 vehicle) to cover approximately 95 km and reach the nomadic Kazakh family who was allowing us to join them. They had just departed their winter home and started their spring migration. The nomads in Western Mongolia have four places to stay year-round in each season. Depending on the area, the migration distance is from 20km to 200km. Our Kazakh herder family consisted of three generations: Grandfather Kombas, his two sons Erkenes and Erjan, and grandson Nurlbek. They moved from the north of the province to the south west of the Tavanbogd National Park covering a distance of about 180km. In general, the elevation is around 1,800 – 2,000m but some passes reach an altitude above 2,500m.
The days start early with separating the newborn lambs from the ewes as they would not be strong enough to cover the day’s distance. The livestock of the host family consisted of approximately 1,000 head made up of horses, yaks, sheep, and cashmere goats. Once pointed in the correct direction, the horses usually take the lead as they seem to remember the route from previous years. The yaks also stick together and are followed by the sheep and goats. Particularly for the later ones, continuous herding was required to keep all of them together and make sure the slower ones were not left behind.
Dressed in high-tech thermal underwear and layers of sweaters and jackets, the body was kept warm. As long as there was no wind and the sky was clear, the –10-degree Centigrade day temperatures were no problem. However, thick gloves, a scarf, and insulated head protection were essential. Taking off one’s gloves for the occasional photo had to be a rather fast procedure to avoid frozen fingers. The locals wore their long, thick coats lined with sheep’s wool, together with a leather belt decorated with silver ornaments. A traditional cap made from fox fur served as head gear.
Situated every 8-10km along the route, little empty huts (with only four bare timber walls and no windows, just big enough to roll out 7-8 sleeping bags, with a hole in the roof for an oven pipe) provided shelter for the nights, when temperatures dropped to -20C. On a small stove, fueled with dry yak dung, snow was melted for drinking water and traditional food prepared. This often consisted of soup with boiled horse meat or mutton and tea with butter and yak cheese or dry goat curd. Dinner was concluded with a bottle of local vodka shared amongst all.
During the first part of the journey, the landscape was very barren, reminiscent of a desert. The horizon was lined with snowcapped mountains.
On the second half of the journey, the land was entirely covered in snow. In the absence of any additional food or water, the animals regularly lick the snow and scratch below hoping to find the sparse vegetation. Although the ice was very thick, the frozen lakes had to be avoided, and ice covered rivers crossed slowly as the slippery surface is a big safety hazard for the animals. A broken leg usually means the end of the journey. By foot and on horseback I supported the herders. By continuously steering and heading left and right to avoid any animal that was left behind I got my fair share of daily mileage. Towards the end of the migration, the animals do get weaker, since the daily 20 -25 km on rough terrain including snow and ice and the limited food and water supply takes its toll. Progress is also slowed by the younger ones. One older yak was left behind; presumably, the wolves took care of it.
At the final destination, the women and children (they went directly by horse and did not follow the herd) welcomed us. Kazakh families are quite large, often consisting of three generations: grandparents, parents, and children.
The simple one-room houses host beds along the walls with a sofa-like-structure next to a low table surrounded by small stools. The walls are decorated with colourful handmade rugs and furs. A dung-burning stove with a pipe reaching through the roof is the source of the heat required to cook food and warm up the house. A bucket with water caters for the very basic hygiene requirements. Somewhere outside the house, an area behind a heap of stones does provide some privacy and protection from the wind during the daily “calls of nature’. While fresh water seems to be available outside the cold season, during winter the water was obtained by melting the snow. Every few days, a very fast “dry snow shower” allows for the minimum of bodily hygiene.
Getting up early with the family allows one to experience the morning rituals like milking horses, cows, goats, and sheep and taking care of the new born. The horse milk is churned and will later be made into fermented mare’s milk, a staple part of the Kazakh diet. Witnessing the riding skills of the Kazakhs on their fiery little horses, ridden bareback, was jaw dropping: galloping at full speed, they hang on the horse’s side reaching to the ground lifting up an earlier dropped target. Watching the children play their traditional game with knuckle bones, riding with Kazakh herdsmen, and observing how they take care of their animals is a great way of exploring the authentic way a nomadic family lives. The regular big dinner is called “Besbarmak”, which means “five fingers” since the meal is eaten with the hands only. It can include boiled mutton or horse meat, goat stomach filled with liver, delicious stewed mutton, various sausages, and homemade noodles sprinkled with parsley and onions. The main plate is often decorated with a sheep’s head, and the guest of honour will taste first and then will start cutting off small pieces, distributing them to everybody. Each evening of this fantastic stay was celebrated with the host family by opening a bottle, or two, of the local vodka. This was sometimes accompanied by a folk song sung to the sounds of the donbro, a traditional two-string Mandolin.
The Eagle Hunter
A further highlight in this remote part of the world was a three-night stay with the family of a Berkutchi (Kazakh for eagle hunter) Amid the harsh splendour of Mongolia’s arid plains; nomadic eagle hunters still follow a traditional way of life that has defied history, geography, and political change. This tradition of hunting with eagles goes back thousands of years in Central Asia. It was a privilege to witness how these people, dressed in their traditional outfits, train their eagles for hunting wildlife and how proud and excited they feel for their Golden Eagle’s training. The Golden Eagle is a magnificent bird – a regal and powerful ruler of the skies.
Through deep snow on horseback, I follow the hunter up the nearby 300m high mountain range. After an hour, we reach the top and enjoy this vast view over the neighbouring valley and mountains. It is cold but dry and sunny.
With a 360-degree view, the eagle sits on the hunter’s leather glove which rests on a special timber stand on the saddle. While the eagle’s big eyes monitor the open landscape a gentle movement of the hunter’s lower arm is the sign for the ruler of the sky to take off, quickly gaining height with a few strokes of her vast wings.
With the vision that is seven times more powerful than the human eye’s, the eagle quickly detects the prey and flies into the valley ready to make the catch. Screaming in like a racing yacht with a fierce wind behind it, slicing diagonally across the sky, then with a sudden, stunning turn of speed just a metre above the ground, she has the scruff of the fox’s fur in her talons, its feet leave the ground then crash back on it as all 7kg of the eagle’s weight descends like doom upon its neck. Within minutes the fox is just another trophy. A juicy piece of raw meat rewards the successful hunt.
Hunters catch young birds, preferring the bigger, stronger females. The trained eagle then lives with the family and hunts with them for eight or nine years, after which it’s released back into the wild for the rest of its life (Golden Eagles live to around 25 years). It is hoped that once released, a trained eagle will go on to breed the next generation of eagle hunters.
• Born March 2953 in Germany
• Grew up in Swakopmund (where his dad was brew master, brewing beer to German ‘Reinheitsgebot’), a little coastal town between the Namib Desert and the Atlantic Ocean, in the former German colony ‘South West Africa’, now called Namibia.
• After completing his high school education he worked for three months as a deckhand on a cargo ship to earn his passage to Europe for his studies in civil engineering at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany.
• After graduation travelled for a year ‘once around the world on a shoe string’ (Trans-Siberian Railway, Japan, Taiwan, HK, Thailand, Nepal (hike to Everest base camp), Burma, Malaysia, Sumatra, Singapore, Philippines USA (Highway 1 and Route 66), Iceland).
• Joined German international construction co. ‘Bilfinger Berger’, who seconded him to major infrastructure projects in Turkey, Sri Lanka, Kenya, South Africa, Norway, Qatar, UAE, USA.
• Got directly involved in metro projects in Germany, Austria, Taiwan, India and finally was sent to Bangkok in 1996 where he was involved in the initial ‘MRTA Blue Line Project’ and the ‘Blue Line Extension Project’.
• With an EU Passport, PR in Thailand and PR in Namibia he regards himself a global citizen.
• As an ‘outdoor guy’, an active member of the ‘Bangkok Hash House Harriers’, he looks for ‘off the usual track adventures’. These include:
• cycling Lhasa to Kathmandu (Tibet, China/Nepal); the Correterra Austral (Patagonia, Chile); Manali to Leh (Laddakh, India).
• diving in Papua New Guinea
• running 100km races in Mongolia,
• climbing Mt Kenya
The latest journey, joining the ‘Spring Migration of Kazakh Nomads’ is just another addition of many earlier adventures.