Heading out into the Mongolian wilderness you never know what you’re going to get. We knew that things could be rough but this time around we found ourselves face to face with an eagle who looked like he could give human flesh a go and on the receiving end of a family feast difficult to stomach (because it mostly was stomach, lambs stomach!)…..here’s what happened.
How it Began
One of our major goals while in Mongolia was to be able to homestay with a real nomadic family, to observe how they live and possibly enjoy a home cooked meal with them. After a couple of weeks in Mongolia we seemed to have only experienced “tourist gers” where the family will offer you mares milk and cheese biscuits with one hand and then hold out the other hand immediately for payment, once you’ve paid you then get the overwhelming feeling that they would like you to leave and the sooner the better!
We didn’t let this experience put us off as we believed there had to be real nomadic families out there interested in meeting other people and willing to open their homes to us so that we can have a mutual learning experience. Luckily for us when we arrived in Olgii, late, after a crazy overcrowded taxi ride from Khovd, we met a driver named Japaar who happened to speak English very well and who also grew up in the area so knew many of the local families.
We agreed to pay $50 USD per day plus fuel, as always this would have been a cheaper experience if we could find others to share the cost with, but whether it was bad timing or just the fact that not many independent travellers get as far as Olgii, we couldn’t find anyone to share with! Saying that, about 5 minutes after agreeing to hire the van solo we bumped into a couple of American girls who had also just agreed to pay full price to hire a van to themselves… F-ing typical!
So just the two of us and Japaar headed off into the countryside not only to visit local families but to visit the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park which has the Potanin Glacier and is also where many of the famed Eagle Hunters live.
Please meet our trained slaughterer of creatures large and small … I mean our pet eagle … You can hold it if ya’ want?
At the time we were there though, sadly, much of the National Park was closed due to a severe outbreak of foot and mouth disease. This meant that there was only a small portion that we could visit and even then we were advised that if asked by police where we had travelled to we by no means were to say the national park!
Another disappointing fact we learned was that the summer months are not a time when the eagle hunters will be in action (double boo) the season begins early October with hunters gathering for the annual Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia, but Japaar assured us he knew a hunter and we could stop by for tea (of course) and we could hold the eagle for 5000 Tughrik (total for the two of us) which is about $3.70.
After being thrown around the back of Japaar’s Russian van for a couple of hours we arrived at the eagle hunters family ger, which was one of the nicest gers we had seen so far (it hardly smelled of fermented milk at all)!
The family was lovely and spoilt us with a full table spread of wafer biscuits, chocolates, yak butter, a cream similar to clotted cream and an almost doughnut like bread that is dipped into the tea. In the summer months “chai” (black tea) is the tea of choice but it’s still mostly water and milk with a little chai added. Upon asking what milk was used for the tea Japaar responded “all of it…milk is milk right?” So we are guessing it was some sort of goat/sheep/yak concoction, either way its quite tasty and not horribly salty like the tea served in other parts of Mongolia.
Of course the cheese biscuit were still there on the table but at least we could politely avoid them with so many other options available. What is cheese biscuit? Well it’s actual name is “Qurut” or “Aaruul” and is made of drained sour milk that has been left outside to dry and then served as a kind of desert. Cheese biscuit is not something we enjoy at all, its flavour and smell is pungent and each piece is so rock hard its practically impossible to bite into. Everyone from Mongolia seems to love it! We figure its a thing you have to be brought up on to love… just like us Australians and Vegemite!
Full to the brim with tea we headed out into the field to meet “the eagle”.
The family also had a baby eagle that was only 3 months old that they were planning on training. It was here that we learnt where the term “spread eagle” came from, I don’t think any animal could be more spread out than this youngster!
The eagles, in the winter while they are at prime, lean hunting weight, are around 5-6kgs. This eagle was currently at its summer “fattened up” weight, about 8-9kgs, and lifting this fatty with one hand is not an easy feat! Of course, we wore the super thick glove so his talons wouldn’t rip our arm to shreds, but still, coming face to face with such a mighty killing machine is a slightly daunting experiencing….oh who am I kidding, I was shitting myself!
Tommo seemed to quite enjoy the experience but me with my weak little girly arms and the fact that it was around lunch time and the eagle just seemed to be staring right into me while I was holding it…well, I was happy to put some distance between us!
It was time to hit the road and haul some ass as we were running late to get to the ger where we would be spending the night! One delay in particular is the fact that where we were travelling was right along the Mongolian/Russian border so there were certain military checkpoints we were obligated to stop at to obtain permits or for them to check our permits in order to continue (the Russian permit cost 5000 total for the van).
We were starting to lose daylight and no one wants to be on one of these crazy Mongolian dirt roads in the dark. Luckily we came over a ridge and below was a cluster of about 5 gers, one of which was where we would be spending the night.
Everyone Loves a Muso
Upon arrival we met the daughters all busy with their chores (no x-boxes here! kids have too much work to do). The eldest was busy preparing our dinner of meat (mutton…..always mutton) and hand made noodles. The parents were off visiting friends elsewhere and were on their way, we were assured. It turns out they had visited 10 different gers in total that day….that’s a lot of tea drinking going on!
Once again the ger was surprisingly nice and also had quite a high door frame which was awesome as we have spent most of our time here in Mongolia smacking our heads hard getting in and out of gers.
It was here, in this ger, that we were to finally experience what it’s like staying with a Real nomadic family.
We spent the night enjoying the company of the two parents and their three young daughters, even the neighbours dropped in for a visit to meet us. Tom had mentioned to Japar that he plays guitar. As everyone loves a muso, it didn’t take long before the Mongolian equivalent of a guitar was brought out and thrust into Tommo’s hands for him to try and figure out how to play this foreign instrument which only had two strings instead of the more common six of a western guitar.
Strangely enough it Turns out that they knew The Kinks and Tommo’s random version of ” you really got me” was a HUGE hit! He followed this up with ‘Johnny B Goode” and he had the family and all the neighbours cheering and clapping wildly! Some of the family and neighbours also had a turn playing traditional Kazakh songs which allowed everyone else to join in in song, proudly singing what words they could remember of old classics.
It was getting late so the neighbours excused themselves and we sat down to dine on the lamb and noodle soup. We’d had the same dish before at dingy rest stops on the road where the meat is questionable, so it was a pleasant change to eat the premium, home cooked version! It was now 11:30pm – bedtime. Floor carpets were rolled out for us to insulate us against the cold ground. However, by the time the fire died died away at 3am and when it’s 6 degrees celsius outside, these floor mats didn’t do enough to restrain the encroaching freeze!
We were advised before travelling to Mongolia that temps don’t go below 10 degrees in the summer, so we, and many people we met along the way were massively unprepared for these actual temperatures of 6 degrees or less at night. Layering of whatever clothing we had was futile and at 4 layers I had run out of pairs of socks to wear! Thank God the first thing Mongolians do in the morning is get the fire going again. You can eventually defrost from the night before but don’t expect a good night’s sleep!
After being filled with a traditional breakfast, which is pretty much what we had been served the previous day as a snack: tea, wafers, donut thingies and, did I mention tea? It was time to prepare for our visit to the Potanin Glacier. This would be a 30km roundtrip hike taking about 8-9 hours in total but that story is for another time……..
The second night of our trip we were to stay at the national park rangers ger. However, we noticed that this ger was lacking a fire and after the previous night of freezing our asses off in a ger (and that one had a fire) there was no way we were staying!
So, Japar offered to take us to stay with some family members of his. In Mongolia it’s funny how everyone knows everyone! Even on our own travels we would randomly run into certain drivers again or wives of people we had stayed with, and not in the town we met them in either! But with such a small population I guess it’s not too surprising that everyone is related to each other in some way…..in fact apparently 8% of men in Central Asia are direct descendants of Genghis Kahn!
Five Fingers: A Meal to Remember
This night we were treated to the famous “Five Fingers” dish! It’s essential everyone washes their hands with warm water that had been boiled on the stove and then a large plate of sheep bits is placed on the table, then everyone digs in…just grab it with your hands and shove it in your face! Now when I say sheep bits I really mean this!
There was stomach, some meat (not sure from where) tonnes of fat and of course the prize of the dish….the head! This was disassembled expertly by the eldest man at the table. He grabbed his knife and threw onto the plate cheek flesh, other meaty bits and of course the eyes, one of which was quickly grabbed up by a family member and the membrane promptly devoured!
It was great that we were able to have these evenings with the two families, this was exactly what we wanted in a true nomadic home stay experience!
Each home cost 10,000 Tughrik (around $8 USD) per person, for us to stay the night and this included a place to sleep and a warm meal in our bellies, but it’s the added experiences that makes a homestay in Mongolia so special.
We met people who live off the very basics of the land, who heard cattle from pasture to pasture for their entire lives. They opened up their home to us and offered us tea, food, and a family experience!
They welcomed us as if we were one of the family and even though we don’t speak the same language it is so amazing to connect with people on a different level, a level that does not need language and we still joked, laughed and enjoyed each others company……and this is what a true homestay is about: Feeling like you’ve found a home, when you are far away from your own.