With bellies full of yak butter milk tea, baursaki (fried dough), and an assortment of fresh dairy products, my family and I followed Aikush, the 5-year-old Kazakh eagle huntress, out of the Mongolian ger.
After the warmth inside, the late summer sun didn’t do much to heat the high elevation steppe, an icy wind cut down the valley with the Russian border and Siberia not far away.
Rahymbek, the father, and one of the few traditional eagle hunters left in the world followed us out. He was eager to share his lifestyle and home with anyone brave enough to venture this far into the immense countryside of the least densely populated country in the world.
Aikush ran ahead to the larger of her father’s two golden eagles. The bird was sitting on a rock, the lone perch in the massive glacially carved valley. With a thin cord loosely tied around its ankle, it was totally relaxed watching a group of strangers walk up to it.
Kazakh eagle hunters capture their birds as chicks, training them to hunt when they are young and release them after five years so that they can live out the rest of their 30-year lives as free animals. Aikush fearlessly walked up to the bird and stroked its head, staring into its amber eyes.
Rahymbek, who had yet to be put off by our lack of a common language, retold the tale of how he had captured this bird, how he had trained it and many others, and how he would soon let it go. I had heard the story a few times in the presence of a translator and was able to recall enough of it to recount it to my family, his excited gestures jogging my memory any time there was a piece missing.
It didn’t take an understanding of the Kazakh language to see how proud he was of his bird, his family, his animals, and his epic, movie-worthy life on the edge of the Mongolian steppes, the Altai mountains jutting up behind us. We took turns putting on a glove and holding the massive bird, its strength apparent as its wings swept at the air, uncomfortable beneath our trembling arms.
As we continued the tour of the valley Rahymbek talked to us, while his children did chores at a pace that suggested there wouldn’t be any TV-watching when they were finished. When we didn’t understand something (every word he said) he would say it slowly, gesticulating one of the limited nouns he could be referring to. We’d eventually nod in assumed understanding and he would continue on with his wild tales of last year’s eagle festival, or the time he tied a rope around his daughter and lowered her over a cliff to capture a snowy owl.
For one of our stops, we visited his wolf pups, captured recently so that their scent would keep other wolves away from his sheep, goats, cows, yaks, horses and camels. He would teach the wolves to hunt and once they were older he would take them far away and release them.
Eventually, the setting sun and dropping temperatures sent us back inside where his wife and two older daughters were happily chatting, around a large pot heating on the manure fired stove.
After a tea and diary product based refueling, we headed back outside at the insistence of Aikush. She beckoned us to follow as she demonstrated her complete mastery of the seemingly barren steppes that she had explored and learned from for her entire life.
In a few weeks, she would be heading to stay in a village several hours away for her first year of elementary school and was happily enjoying the last little bit of time she had in an environment where she was comfortably in control.
She wandered around with us cluelessly following, a piece of twine she found among a few animal bones and the skeleton of a ger seemed to give her direction.
Aikush led us up the hill and picked up a mostly dry cow pie, which she placed in my hand. Her grave expression told me that it was of utmost importance that I kept hold of this specific turd among the thousands around us.
The fresh tufts of grass Aikush gathered were my sister, Sara’s, responsibility. Next, she walked up to a rock that must have weighed half as much as her, grunted as she deadlifted it and walked it over to my dad.
A rusty zipper that looked to have been sitting out since the last nomadic family decided to set up camp there distracted her briefly while she placed it on her open vest, imagining being able to zip it up. Aikush gently placed the zipper in my mom’s hand and then continued to lead us up the hill. Able to ignore our questions and protests as home and dinner got further and further away.
After a few more slow minutes of trudging up the hill at altitude, we reached a large marmot hole. Aikush put her tiny hand out, requesting the cow pie from me which I had discarded the first time she turned her attention from me, her disappointment was unmasked as I jogged down the hill to find the exact poo she had selected.
Impatiently she watched as I struggled back up the hill, my lungs urging me to take a break but my pride refusing to disappoint this 5-year-old. As soon as I returned she took the pie out of my hand, and placed it over the hole for size. She then delicately removed a chunk and left it over the marmot den with just enough space for a marmot to poke its head out. Around the hole, she placed the noose, tieing the other end to the rock, the tasty tuft of fresh grass far enough away from the hole that a curious marmot would have to stick its head fully through the noose to reach the morsel. Once set up, Aikush wasted no time admiring her trap. Instead, she excitedly rushed to show us another corner of the valley before her mother yelled for her to bring us inside for a utensil-free feast.
It’s tough to wrap up my experience in Mongolia after spending the majority of the last six months there. It is a vast sparsely populated country with an epic and proud history including the Hunn nomads, the empire of Chinggis Khaan, rule by Manchurian China, a communist alliance with Russia, and almost thirty years of democracy.
Mongolia has a fantastic juxtaposition of nomadic culture and modernization and is doing an admirable job of preserving its history and traditions while trying to keep up in a quickly changing world.
Climate change, technology, and an increase in population are making the nomadic lifestyle, once practiced all around the world, a scarcity we must preserve to maintain our connection with our planet.