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The wind beneath our wings

Meeting the eagle hunters of western Mongolia and exploring the land on foot, on horseback and in Russian minivans was a spiritual and enriching experience

Christine Amour-Levar on 30 Sep 2018

The Straits Times


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The lone Kazakh rider glided majestically towards us with a 7kg golden eagle perched on his arm, racing across the wide-open steppe on an ebony-coloured Mongolian stallion.


We watched transfixed as he approached, dressed in his traditional fox-fur cloak and hat with embroidered trousers, just as his ancestors must have looked some 2,000 years ago. Finally, he halted in front of us, then smiling proudly, he greeted us warmly in the Kazakh language.


It had taken our all-female team two full days to reach this extreme western part of Mongolia from the capital of Ulaanbaatar (or UB as it is also known to locals). The Altai Mountains - home of the famed eagle hunters of Mongolia - is a Unesco World Heritage Site located close to the border of Russia and Kazakhstan.


Altai means Gold Mountain and the range is the largest and highest in the country with towering white mountains, glaciers, deep lush valleys and beautiful lakes.


Heavy snow and strong winds had resulted in significant delays to our itinerary, thus when we finally arrived - after many hours driving off-road, speeding across rocky trails and snow - and saw such an extraordinary rider appear before us, it only contributed to the feeling that this was one of the most remote places on earth.


The Kazakh eagle hunters of this region are a nomadic people spread throughout not just Kazakhstan, but also patches of Central Asia.


For thousands of years, they have lived a life based on herding five types of animals - goats, yaks, sheep, Bactrian camels and horses - and have hunted with golden eagles.


Still untouched by mass tourism and steeped in their cultural roots and traditions, the local people have trained their eagles to hunt for food and fur - an essential part of the nomads' survival. The birds live until 25 years or so and when they are 12, they are reintroduced to the wild, so they are able to breed and thus provide another generation of hunting birds.


On the first few nights of our journey, we were privileged to be hosted in our eagle hunter's own family home. Bekhbolat, as he is called, lives with his parents, his wife Mariya and their three children.


Upon entering the nomads' home, we felt immediately welcome within their midst as they shared their way of life and provisions with us.


During our stay there, our team slept in traditional gers, which are incredibly comfortable round-shaped tents covered with skins or felt that have a structure comprising an assembly of wooden lattices for walls, a door frame and a crown of compressed rings for the roof.


Chatting over hot tea, vodka, sweet clotted cheese and dried hard curds of yogurt, we learnt a lot about the family's life and their concerns for the future.


We discovered that 30 per cent of Mongolians still live a nomadic life, but the number is falling as the city-dwelling population increases.


In truth, these resilient people are the remnants of a disappearing culture that has survived for ages, mostly in harsh isolated conditions. The Mongolian climate is so extreme and often unpredictable, with winter storms, droughts and desertification all threatening the nomads' existence and affecting their livelihood.


Summer droughts have resulted in animals not gaining sufficient weight to withstand the ferocity of the freezing winters of late. Herding life is tough and it seems winters have been tougher than normal in the last decade.


"Mongolian nomads have to adapt or die," says Nurka, our Kazakh guide. "For generations, their lifestyle survived, protected by their isolation. But with improved transport and modern technology, things are changing very fast for Mongolia's remaining nomads. Their ancient traditional lifestyle has been impacted by technology, from mobile phones to motorcycles to iPads, mostly in a positive way, but sometimes I wonder if it's really for the best."


Although it may actually make their lives easier in some ways, with solar power generators and motorbikes, many nomads have moved into settlements in provincial towns and many more have relocated near the capital, where they have become semi-settled, neither here nor there.


Those who move, often struggle to make a living, since the towns are lacking in easy, secure work for those with few skills or experience that do not involve milking or shearing. UB and indeed other towns in Mongolia are surrounded by ger encampments.


Nowadays, riding out to herd animals in Mongolia is often done on motorbikes instead of horses. And during our journey across the Tavan Bogd National Park, we came across such herders. Even the renowned shaman, Naraa, whom we consulted at our campsite one day, came riding across the plains on a gigantic motorbike.


Mongolian shamanism is an animistic and shamanic ethnic religion that has been practised in Mongolia and its surrounding areas since the age of recorded history. During the Soviet years of the 20th century, it was heavily repressed and has since made a comeback.


After a few days with the eagle hunter's family, our team set off deeper into the mountains to discover the region. Western Mongolia is still relatively unexplored and we came across no other tourists during our time there.


The journey took us to the vicinity of the 20km-long Potanin glacier, which is the largest and most imposing of the 20 glaciers in the Mongolian Altai range.


After that, we continued on to the Khuitas valley, where we successfully summited two iconic peaks more than 3,300m in the surrounding area. Soaking in the profound silence, stunning views and vastness of the Altai Mountains from those summits, a collection of sweeping snowy peaks like a frozen desert was all the reward we could have asked for after the long hours of climbing.


Our trekking was punctuated by days of riding on nomadic Mongolian horses across the huge open plains. When not on the trail with us, our horses would roam free. Their normal life throughout the year includes grazing on natural pastures and living within a herd. Facing harsh, cold winters and fending off predators is also part of their daily lives.


Since they are used to moving in herds, as soon as one of us shouted "Chu! Chu!", all the horses would start trotting and soon break into a gallop, flying across the steppe. The herders would howl with laughter, while some of us would be hanging on for dear life.


Still, the horseback riding was phenomenal.


Some days we would meander along rocky ridges, passing herders and their flocks along the way. Other days we would traverse pristine streams and rivers, taking in the wide blue skies, open spaces, magnificent snowy mountains and untouched lakes.


On occasion, we would come across ancient petroglyph carvings, which illustrate the development of culture in Mongolia over a period of 12,000 years. The earliest images reflect a time when the area was partly forested and the valley provided a habitat for hunters of large game. Later images show the transition to herding and a horse-dependent nomadic lifestyle as the dominant way of life - a real archaeologist's dream and a fascinating catalogue of the evolution of life in the region.


All in all, over a period of eight days, we traversed 900km of terrain on foot, on horseback and riding in incredibly sturdy, and seemingly unbreakable, Russian minivans, dating back to the 1960s.


Oftentimes, the Mongolian wind would blow unbelievably hard, reaching up to 90kmh, almost flattening our tents.


The team also experienced hugely varying temperatures, ranging anywhere from a bone-chilling minus 17 deg C to a much more comfortable 24 deg C.


In the end, this voyage to the Altai Mountains of Mongolia was a genuinely spiritual and enriching experience.


And this was certainly due to a combination of the breath-taking beauty, vastness and remoteness of the places we discovered, the kindness and purity of the local people we met, as well as our overall mission.


Ultimately, our team embarked on this adventure to raise awareness and funds for women who are less fortunate than us.


By trekking in such a remote region, we hope to inspire more women to leave their comfort zone, their families and homes for a certain period of time, while pushing their limits in an effort to rally support for a worthy cause.


In reality, the journey was truly a once in a lifetime experience to the land of the proud eagle hunters, who uplifted us and inspired us with their spirit and resilience, and who were, without a doubt, the wind beneath our wings.


• Christine Amour-Levar co-founded the Women On A Mission non-profit and has led teams on expeditions to the Arctic, Middle East and other challenging terrain.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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