Our ‘On The Road Updates’ are short little memories from some of the previous tours we have run. To set the scene for this one, we were driving from Ulaanbaatar to Bayan Ulgii Aimag – Mongolia’s westernmost province on one of our research trips. Our research trips are our way of getting to explore and discover parts of Mongolia that we know and want to get to know better with the possibility of putting this knowledge into our small group and tailor-made experiences. It’s also a chance for the local Mongolian people we work with to show us the hidden side to their home. We had put a little time aside during this particular research trip to spend time at one of Mongolia’s eagle festivals.
‘The Altai is the most northerly mountain range of Central Asia forming a biogeographic divide between Siberia and the desert basins of Central Asia, and representing a centre of biodiversity for many plants and animals. We are driving through them on our way to Bayan Olgii witnessing subtle changes in our local environment – changing time zones, mud-brick flat-roofed dwellings, women wearing headscarves, a variation in shape and height of the Kazakh gers compared to that of the typical Mongolian ger, even the faces of people seemed to have changed to fit in with their harsh environment.
Bayan Olgii is time for replenishing the larder – as we drive in search of supplies I immediately like the vibrancy and energy of this provincial wild west town as the sunsets over the dust-filled valley. And then the next morning – the Eagle Festival. Although I think for the four of us it is the empty early morning streets with the two fur clad hunters side by side on horseback riding down the pavement that is our favourite moment of the day. Especially so as after the space and solitude of the vast and weathered landscapes we have been camping in I think we all find the crowds of the festival a little overwhelming.
There are the shashlik stalls with the option for horse meat, there’s a delicious all-pervading smell of khuurshuur, there are groups of eagle hunters discussing local politics whilst speaking on their mobiles and there’s the delightful business woman – determined that I was going to purchase one of her Kazak wall hangings. (The wall hangings are traditionally handcrafted for a newly married couple – often with a date and name embroidered into this stunning work of lovingly made art. The seller and I become firm friends over the two days. I didn’t buy a wall hanging but I thoroughly enjoyed my time watching her eyeing up her prey and striking the deal.)
There are wayward eagles who aren’t focused on their prey of marmot meat but seem happy to dive-bomb the observers. There are crowds of travellers with cameras determined to get ‘that shot’. And then benches where side by side sit eagle hunters, a cross-section of the local community, a few camera touting westerners and (in pride of place) a golden eagle. That might have to be another highlight … sitting next to a 6-year old golden eagle both of us soaking up the atmosphere – her (the females are said to be more aggressive and better hunters) wearing her tomaga – the hood that blinds the eagle.
However, on the second day, we opt to leave early as we’re finding the crowds a little overwhelming. So with a hot shower at the shower house, we head once more for the open road and we all seem to breathe a collective sigh of relief as we are once again surrounded by vast stunning landscapes.
We camp at the foot of Tsambagarav Mountain – it’s cold but we warm ourselves with a small fire, dinner, an urn of tea and talk of the almas – the Mongolian yeti. Seeing Tsambagarav I just know that it will become the new destination for tour companies who are always competing to offer something just that little bit different or more exciting. But, right now, surrounded by the magnificent landscapes of the Altai, there is the option not to worry about 2014 and what the competition will be offering. Instead, there is the option just to be. Under a star-studded Mongolian sky.