The Mongol Kazakhs Of Western Mongolia

Yes, Gorkhi-Terelj is the closest national park to Ulaanbaatar and is very developed (some would say over developed) for the tourist industry (the main valley was first developed for tourism in 1964) but it shares a common border with Khan Khentii and the two reserves are similar. Between the two sites, altitudinal variation is significant, leading to the development of different habitats but both support large areas of forest steppe and mountain steppe, with alpine habitats on higher peaks. The area is rich in rivers and streams, including the Terelj and Tuul and these water sources together with the rainfall in this mountainous region brings life to the pastureland – providing grazing for the livestock of the herding families who make this area their home. These herders include Naraa, Bujee (his wife) and their two children Tsindee and Bayasa – the family we work with in the region.
Trip Ideas For Autumn In Mongolia
August 31, 2023
Mongol Kazakh eagle hunter
Hunting Using Eagles In Mongolia: The Ethics
September 27, 2023
Mongol Kazakh musicians

The Mongol Kazakhs Of Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia is dominated by the formidable Altai Mountains physically and culturally. For millennia, these imposing peaks have served as the ancestral homeland for the nomadic cultures of Eurasia, most notably the Mongol Kazakhs, who constitute Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, comprising roughly 3 – 4% of the country’s population in the 2020 Census, with Mongolia’s entire population numbering just over 3.4 million. 

‘The Kazakhs of Bayan-Olgii are somewhat isolated – torn between their nation-state of Kazakhstan, within which they would not be able to live a traditional nomadic, pastoralist lifestyle, and the country of Mongolia, a state that is populated by ethnic Mongols, who are primarily Buddhist and have an entirely different linguistic, historical and cultural tradition. … proudly referred to themselves as “Mongolian Kazakhs” and felt that they would neither fit in, nor desire to live in, Kazakhstan or in the other aimags of Mongolia.’ Lauren McGough

 

Among the enduring traditions that have flourished within this rugged terrain is the practice of hunting with eagles, a form of falconry with roots deeply embedded in the Eurasian steppe. The Kazakhs who skilfully pursue this ancient art are known as “berkutchi,” and their legacy is still very much alive among a percentage of Mongolia’s Kazakh population, particularly in western Mongolia. In 2011, UNESCO bestowed the prestigious honour of adding Kazakh eagle hunting to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, recognising it as an example of living human heritage. You can find out more in our guide here.

However, as a visitor to Western Mongolia, it is important to remember that not all Mongol Kazakhs are eagle hunters. The Mongol Kazakh community is richly diverse and includes herders and those settled in rural towns, where they often engage in service industries such as education. To only want to experience the way of life of the eagle hunters is to dismiss an integral part of the local culture and population.

Here at EL, we believe that tourism should strive to promote cultural diversity, economic sustainability, and environmental responsibility while offering our guests meaningful and authentic experiences. Remembering that not all Mongol Kazakhs in Western Mongolia are eagle hunters is a vital step toward achieving these goals and ensuring the long-term well-being of both the community and the environment. Here are a few of our key reasons why:

  • Cultural Sensitivity: Mongol Kazakhs have a rich and diverse cultural heritage beyond just eagle hunting. Reducing them to a single aspect of their culture can be reductive and disrespectful. It’s crucial to acknowledge and respect the full spectrum of their traditions and way of life. 
  • Preservation of Cultural Diversity: Focusing solely on eagle hunting can lead to cultural homogenization, where visitors expect and prioritize a single aspect of a culture. This can ultimately erode the richness and diversity of the culture as other traditions are neglected or forgotten.

Get Creative With Kazakh Embroidery

Kazakh wall hanging

Embroidery is a traditional element of Kazakh folk art and reflects the rich cultural heritage of the Kazakhs. This intricate art form involves the skilled use of multi-coloured threads to create geometric patterns, floral motifs, and symbolic designs on various textiles, such as clothing and bags. Each embroidered piece tells a story, often passed down through generations, and holds deep cultural significance. Kazakh embroidery is not only a source of pride but also a means of preserving the country’s unique identity and celebrating its nomadic history. In Bayan Olgii Province, we work in long-term local community partnership with Mongol Kazakh Halmira who is a talented embroider. If you are interested in this aspect of Kazakh culture, find out more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/meeting-halmira-olgii-western-mongolia/

 

  • Economic Sustainability: Sustainable tourism aims to benefit local communities economically. If all visitors are concentrated solely on one experience, it can create economic imbalances within the community. Other aspects of the culture, such as traditional crafts, cuisine, or music, may not receive the attention they deserve.

Learn To Play The Dombra

Music plays a significant role in Kazakh culture with traditional Kazakh music often characterized by its melodious tunes and rhythmic patterns. Kazakh music also features a variety of traditional instruments such as the dombra (a two-stringed instrument) and the shankobyz (a type of flute). The dombra holds a significant place in Kazakh heritage, and mastering its melodies offers a unique window into the country’s musical traditions. Learning to pluck the dombra’s strings will allow you to gain a deeper appreciation for the local culture and also engage in a form of cross-cultural exchange that fosters connections with the Mongol Kazakh community that hosts you.

Mongol Kazakh dombra musician in Western Mongolia

 

  • Environmental Impact: Overemphasis on eagle hunting can lead to increased pressure on the environment, such as habitat degradation, as visitors flock to the same locations. Encouraging a broader understanding of the culture can distribute tourism more evenly and reduce environmental impact.
  • Authentic Experiences: By showcasing the different aspects of Mongol Kazakh culture, visitors can gain a more profound and genuine understanding of the community, which can lead to more meaningful and respectful interactions.

 

Join A Community Celebration

Kazakhs are known for their warm and welcoming nature and hospitality remains deeply ingrained in the culture of the Mongol Kazakhs of Western Mongolia with guests made to feel warmly welcome and treated with respect and generosity. Tea holds a special place in Kazakh culture and is an integral part of Kazakh hospitality.

The hospitality of Mongol Kazakhs of Western Mongolia

However, the concept of hospitality is not limited to personal interactions but also extends to community gatherings and events.  Community celebrations such as the Nauryz parade often take place in Olgii, the provincial capital of Western Mongolia, throughout the year and are enjoyed by all members of the local community. Community parades – such as the one held for Nauryz, the traditional Central Asian celebration of spring – always feature a lot of local involvement and feel like a party for locals, thrown by locals. Learn more about Nauryz here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/nauryz-festival-mongolia/

 

 

  • Community Empowerment: Diversifying the visitor experience can empower local communities to take control of their own narratives and economic opportunities. When visitors engage with different facets of the culture, it can stimulate the preservation and revitalization of various traditions.
  • Educational Value: Tourism can serve as an educational tool. Offering visitors a comprehensive view of Mongol Kazakh culture can promote cross-cultural understanding and appreciation, helping to dispel stereotypes and foster respect.

Embrace The Kazakh Language

Against the backdrop of the Altai,  the Mongol Kazakhs lead lives profoundly shaped by the intricate interplay of history, geography, and shifting political tides. Language and religion are two prominent markers that underscore the cultural distinctions between the Mongol Kazakhs and Mongolians and the Mongol Kazakh population in Mongolia predominantly adheres to Islam, in contrast to the predominantly Buddhist faith observed across the rest of the country. The Kazakh language also holds great significance in the culture and identity of Mongol Kazakhs. While Mongolian serves as the official language of government and commerce, Kazakh remains the dominant tongue in Bayan Olgii, and in the province, Mongol Kazakh children receive education in Kazakh from the first to the fifth grade, after which this language becomes an elective subject, while Mongolian is taught starting from the second grade. As a visitor, embracing the Kazakh language also demonstrates an appreciation for the diversity of Kazakhstan’s linguistic landscape and the efforts made to preserve the Kazakh language as an integral part of the country’s heritage. If you are interested in a homestay in Olgii where you live with a family and do a few days of language learning then let us know. Such an experience will be immersive and culturally enriching, allowing you to practice the language while gaining insights into the daily life and traditions of the local Kazakh community.

 

As mentioned, here at EL we believe that tourism should strive to promote cultural diversity, economic sustainability, and environmental responsibility while offering our guests meaningful and authentic experiences. Remembering that not all Mongol Kazakhs in western Mongolia are eagle hunters is a vital step toward achieving these goals and ensuring the long-term well-being of both the community and the environment.

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

 

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I'm Jess Brooks, the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia and the voice behind EL's blog posts. For more than a decade, since 2006, I've been based in Mongolia, working closely with my beloved Mongolian team to advocate for a tourism approach that brings about positive change.. What sets our blog apart is our deep understanding of Mongolia—our home. Unlike content from influencers or creators, our posts prioritise authenticity and firsthand knowledge as guiding principles.
Sign up to our Newsletter

Written by Jess - the founder of Eternal Landscapes - there's no spam, no sharing your details and no random offers. It goes out once or twice a month. Hopefully enough to be of interest but not too much to annoy.

We respect your privacy.