I am sitting on a small stool hunched over a wobbly table sipping my salted milk tea. A Kazakh woman, mother of two boys, stares at me, smiling timidly with her youngest son nestling between her breasts. It’s feasting time for him. It is just the two of us and we sit in utter silence. So quiet that the baby’s vigorous sucking sounds like drums. It echoes through the matchbox-shaped house we currently sit in and through the valleys of western Mongolia.
We just arrived with Toyotoro, and she has kindly served milk tea to us, laid out yak provisions of every form including: fresh yak cheese, teeth-cracking dried yak cheese that’s centuries old, yak butter, dry yak bread made from yak milk. They all have the same bland taste of nothingness and too much yak. This set of food is presented not only whenever guests enter a Kazakh family’s house but also eaten continuously throughout the day. We came here to meet the eagle hunters of Mongolia who live in the western regions of the country and apparently 90% of the population here are Kazakhs. They speak Kazakh here and not Mongolian which means we had to learn ‘salem’ for hello instead of ‘sain uu’ and ‘rachmet’ for thank you as oppose to the Mongolian ‘bayarlalaa’. Ah the bane of multi-culture societies.
After a few hours of driving through breath-taking landscapes from the city of Ulgii we came to this dot on earth. How people navigate around this roadless terrain beats me. Outside we have a clear blue sky and sun is beaming but it’s around minus twenty and it’s very windy. I know that because the long fur on the yak outside is almost horizontal. Gazing out of the window I can see a small wooden shed 50 meters away from the house, that would be our toilet for the next few days. It is a hole in the ground and you do your business by straddling between two planks of wood. Once this shed is closed for business and another is dug next to it.
Anyway, at this particular moment I am alone with the mistress of the household. I am trying to not listen to the sound of sucking nipple but find it hard not to as I fail to think of any other sound to make. Where is Henning you might ask. He has escaped outdoors with the man of the house and his brother, who brought us here, apparently helping to catch two horses for our eagle hunting trip tomorrow.
It seems the role between a man and a woman is clearly separated here. The women are very much confined to the indoors, in full command of cooking, cleaning, child-bearing, washing, making clothes etc. while the men are mostly braving the outdoors, herding sheep, yaks and horses, killing as well as selling their various live-stocks and eagle hunting is traditionally restricted to men only. If I had a choice I would wish I was born a man in this culture because after observing her for three days, it is a tough balancing act.
Feeding her baby is about one of the few moments where she sits down. There is no running water so any water that’s needed for drinking, cooking or washing she has to go up the mountain and collect the snow or ice in a bag, then carry it back down to the house to melt. If she is not doing that then she is carrying buckets of yak faeces to keep a fire going while cooking for seven, traditionally the parents give their house and livestock to their youngest son and in return they look after them, and she married the youngest of the family. All the while keeping an eye on a boisterous two-year-old and a crying baby. I have a funny feeling more kids are to come. The men and women here are both physically strong and mentally resilient to survive the harsh climate and the survival responsibilities.
The next day, I for one am glad to escape to the outdoor, riding next to two eagle hunters on the top of Mongolian mountains with nothing but the vastness of nature before us. Both men are neighbours, meaning 15km away, and before we set off we met one of them in their house. He is one of ten sons in the family. His father is now well into his eighties who still rides but this morning he does not come out with us because he doesn’t know where his horse has run off to. Plus, he was given the task of fixing his wife’s sewing machine. During this whole time his eagle sits perched in a corner of the room. They have a hood over their eyes, so they don’t peck at the kids that run around them. I wished I had grown up with eagles as pets, so I would feel more at ease than I do now, especially when the baby is smaller than the eagle.
As we ride, the freezing wind cuts our faces and through our thin gloves with razor-sharp precision and rapidity, but we bare it all. We came some distance to reach the top, so we allow ourselves to forget every discomfort and let the stunning landscape wash over our senses. Admittedly, the four-legged creatures that we are mounted on are rather clumsy-and-stubby-looking, especially for some tall German whose legs can almost touch the ground, but they are perfect for this terrain. They ascend and descend every hill like mountain goats, with a steady footing.
The eagles perched on each man’s arm are still very young, two and four years old, but they look massive and heavy. Their big marbled eyes are striking and their feathered coat beautiful. With their sharp claws and beaks, they are one of nature’s primed hunters, but I just want to pet them. They have a hood over their eyes to avoid distraction.
When a fox is spotted the hood is taken off and they sore into the sky not taking their eyes off their prey. The eagle chases the fox with lightning speed. In the far distance we can only see a small mark that is almost the same greyish brown colour as the ground in which it is currently scampering for life. Although the eagle is only four years old the shadow it casts from its wings is life threatening as it grows closer and larger on the ground. It is tense. For a moment I am lost in the battle of life and death. Hoping for a new fur hat to keep me warm in this bitter-cold climate I secretly cheer on team eagle. Nevertheless, I am truly glad that the fox escaped unharmed in the end due to the interference of a friendly stray dog joining in the hunt for some fun but ended up scaring the eagle.
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