A Nomad’s Life – RTW Blog #15

It was an amazing experience, spending nearly a week with our eagle hunter and his family but it was just that, an experience.  For them and many others in the countryside this is part of their everyday life.

The eagle hunter’s family are nomads.  They are not poor itinerant people although many herders struggle to make ends meet.  They pick up their gers and move four times a year.  Most live in the gers during three of the seasons.  The fourth season, winter, they usually spent in a hard wooden structure.  This is one of Erbol’s sons winter camp.

They are typically built somewhere where they are protected from the winter wind and snow.  (It gets cold in Mongolia.  It’s capital claims to be the coldest country capital in the world.)  These are framed buildings with dirt mixed with water to form a stucco-type surface.  When they dry they have cracks in them just like our ground does in July…but more so.  There is still no running water, electricity or toilet facilities.  There are squat toilets or pit toilets.  A pit in the ground with boards on either side to stand on…and squat.  They don’t have much furniture: a table and a couple of chairs, some low stools along with a cabinet or two, maybe a bench, beds and rugs to sit on.  There are very few wall decorations other than family wedding pictures and a couple of pelts from wolves they’ve shot.  You won’t see a house full of furniture!  What they own they have to move four times a year.

Here’s a picture of our cook’s parents.  You’ll notice at the very top of the frame you’ll see a pipe running along the ceiling.  That’s their hot water heat.  There is also one that runs along the floor.

Even homes in the village are built the same way.  The “brick” walls that form the property borders are constructed with handmade “bricks” and held together with dirt mortar.  Homes in the villages do have electricity.  Despite the convenience of electricity in town, they still have a pit toilet in the yard…usually some distance from the house.

There are three families supported by the herds that they run.  Erbol’s and his sons.  Together they have about 650 sheep and goats, about 150 yaks and cattle and about 60-70 horses.  Every night the yaks and sheep and goats come back to the camp and are protected from wolves by several dogs.

There are no fences anywhere.  Everyone knows where everyone else’s property is.  I don’t know how much land Erbol has but it’s significant.  Property lines are set up as from this mountain to the end of that mountain, etc.  We rode horses for eight hours on the first day and I don’t believe we were ever off his property.  Maybe when we went higher into the mountains to look for the ibex and the Agalie sheep.

Every morning the yaks are milked by the daughter-in-laws.

The yaks hind legs are tied so they don’t walk away from the milkers. While mom was milking the five-year-old daughter dragged a bucket around picking up dried dung for the stove.   One of the sons with a yak.  And a group of yaks.

The yak provides meat, milk and fur that is used to make warm clothing.  Much like wool from the sheep.

The herders families were extremely hospitable.  The second night I were there we were invited to one son’s house for dinner.  We entered the ger and removed our shoes.  We washed up before dinner.  One of his daughters walked around with a pot of warm water and a bucket.  She poured warm water over our hands and we washed them, then cupped our hands and filled them with water which we sloshed around in our mouths and spit into the bucket.  We then sat on rugs with a vinyl tablecloth in front of all of us.  (sorry, no pictures as I wasn’t expecting this celebration meal.)

That morning, as an honor to me as a visitor, they had butchered a sheep, cooked part of it along with some boiled potatoes and served it to us on a large platter.  Several of the others took the knife and starting cutting meat from the head and slicing the rest into small pieces that we ate with our fingers from the platter.  It was very good but it took a little getting used to.  Following dinner, we were served a bowl of broth the sheep was cooked in to drink followed by milk tea.  That’s 30% yak milk and the rest is hot water with a little tea and sugar. It is served with about everything.

The following night.  After our cook had prepared fried chicken for dinner, the other son’s daughter, who is about 5, came to our ger and invited us to tea at their place.  Well, tea turned into a freshly butchered goat.  And we repeated the dinner from the night before but with goat this time.  I was ask to say the blessing and cut the first piece off the goat’s head sitting in the middle of the platter.  So we had a second dinner!

So what happens to the parts of the sheep and goat that wasn’t cooked for dinner those two nights?  During the summer when flies can be a problem raw meat is hung on a line that goes above the stove.  The smoke from the stove keeps the flies away from the meat.  After fly season is over….like now…the meat is hung on the inside walls of the ger.

When our cook prepared each days lunches and dinners, she would select a piece of meat and take it to her cutting board and cut it into the right size pieces and cook them.  It all seems rather unsanitary but I never had an upset stomach and the food tasted very good.

One day we went into the village to our cook’s parents house to charge my computer.  When we arrived as happened when anyone came to visit, all the food in the house is served up.

There’s fresh homemade bread, homemade butter, cream, both white and yellow cheese, cookies and candies.  After Dauit, my guide, and I walked around the village we returned to the house to find lunch on the table.

A communal bowl of pasta, potatoes and …..horsemeat.

I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t ask.

Followed by a bowl of milk tea.

According to Erbol, herding has become easier over the last several years.  No longer do they have to walk or ride horses to move their animals from one grazing area to another.  They use motorbikes.  There are no Harley’s, that I saw, or mopeds.  Every nomad herder has a car or truck and a motorbike.  Some herders are still seen moving animals by horseback but there are more and more that are using motorbikes to speed up the process.

Even though herders are nomadic and move during the season, their kids still need to go to school.  Usually they go to the village and stay in dormitories. Classes run from 9-5 Monday through Friday.  All of Erbol’s children went through university.  These are not dumb people moving around the country.   They may not be as advanced as some of our ranchers and farmers but they are educated.  As I mentioned previously, Erbol’s youngest son is a math teacher but is looking to expand his knowledge and learn either Russian or English.  Teachers, I was told, make the equivalent of about $200 US a month.

This is his youngest son.

He and his wife and a newborn baby live with Erbol and his wife in the village.

I was also told that there are no nursing homes/assisted living facilities in Mongolia.  The youngest son is responsible for looking after the parents.  (Keep a spare room open for us Derek).

Well, I’ve probably ran a bit long on this post but my visit with Erbol and his family was more than I was expecting.  While it was also more basic than I was expecting it was an eye opening week.  I know this was part of a tour but I appreciated the hospitality shown to me by Erbol and his family.  All of them were interested in the pictures I took.  I felt like, for a short time, I was part of their family.  It was a unique experience!

One last image to end this post!

I leave for Vietnam tonight on an overnight flight through Seoul, South Korea.

Talk to you in a few days.

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Five Days with an Eagle Hunter

I was lucky.  I was a tour of one.  Last Friday the 11th, I flew on Hunnu Airlines from Ulaanbaatar to Olgii in Western Mongolia.  A flight of about 2 hours.  We were about 40 miles from Russia and and maybe 400 miles from China. I’m going to do two blogs on this part of the trip.  One on eagle hunting and one that explains the life of a nomad (as I understand it). I was met at the airport by our guide, Dauit (pronounced “doubt”) and driven to the office of the tour company, BlueWolf Travel.  There we teamed up with Muhommed.

our driver and Kaspy,

our cook, and we headed southeast about 5 hours to meet our eagle hunter, Erbol.

Erbol is 58 years old.

He lives in the village about 1-2 miles from his ger camp (pronounced “gear” like in fishing gear.)  He has three sons and two daughters.  All are married but the daughters live with their husband’s families.  Two of his sons live in the ger camp and are herders like their father.  The youngest one lives in the village and is a math teacher.  When he isn’t teaching, he works with the rest of the family.

We stayed in a ger. This one.  Erbol virtually lived with us.  He ate and slept in the ger.  He doesn’t speak English.  The only English speaker was Dauit, our guide.

There are two types of ger, Kazakh from Kazakhstan, and Mongolian.  Kazakhs are larger and taller.  Mongolian ones are a little smaller.  About 20 ft. in diameter.  The floor is covered with a rolled vinyl flooring.  Loose.  I’ll show you the inside of one in the next blog.

Life in the ger wasn’t bad at all.  We had running water.

It was running in the stream about 100 yards from our ger.  It was used for cooking and cleaning.  Everything was boiled.  We brought bottled water but most of the time we drank hot tea.  This is the water we made the tea from.

We had central heat.

Fueled by this….

Dried cow and yak dung.  This is low cost and readily available.  And they heat very well.

Our toilet facilities.

Anywhere out behind the ger!  Bring your own paper.

There was no electricity although the two sons had small solar panels that charged a car battery for dim lighting.  Despite the lack of electricity.  Everyone had cell phones and Facebook and there was Internet in the village that reached out to the ger though I never tried to connect.  There was no TV or computers.

The first full day, we saddled up four horses and Erbol and I posed for a shot of me on one of the horses.

Eight hours later, after traveling high up into the neighboring mountains and shooting lots of images, I determined that this would be my only day on a horse.  There is a ring on the back of the saddle and I wore a blister on my tailbone from it and decided that eight hours was more than I could handle in one day.  But I got some great shots including some ibex and Argali sheep.

Ibex

Argali sheep.

Back to eagle hunting.  There are only about 140-150 eagle hunters left.  Erbol’s father was an eagle hunter and one of his sons is as well.  It is now primarily a hobby sport.

Erbol has had this particular golden eagle for three years.  He has two others that he’s currently training.  It takes about two months to train an eagle to hunt.  When not hunting….like when going to a location and searching for fox and rabbit…Erbol puts a hood over his head to keep him from being distracted.  Once the eagle hunter spots prey, he removes the hood and sends the eagle on his way.  We were not successful in finding any prey during our trip.   But we found some great scenery.

The landscape was always a beautiful sight.  Here a herd of sheep and goats set against the mountains.  There are no fences.  There was snow in the higher elevations and the temperatures were in the 40’s during the day on the plains. At night it got much colder.

The mountains were beautiful. Even at night with a nearly full moon.

Erbol demonstrated how he works with his eagles to train them.  He’ll leave it somewhere in the mountains not far from where he is and then ride onto the plains. Then he calls the eagle and holds up some raw meat.  The eagle takes off and flies to his arm.  In the following images you can see the eagle as he’s approaching the eagle hunter, then just before he lands and, finally, as he lands on Erbol’s arm.

Nights in the ger got cold.  I don’t know the exact temperature but in the morning when the cook sliced cucumbers and tomatoes for breakfast, they were nearly frozen.  Kaspy always had something different for breakfast, fried eggs, sausage (which we call hot dogs), cereal and milk, bread, cookies, jam, butter, and, of course, hot green tea.

I slept on a cot with two sleeping bags and was very comfortable.  The ger was domed…kinda like the Cowboys stadium…when you pulled the rope one way it opened it to let in sunlight and when you pulled it from the other side of the ger it closed.    You never pulled it all the way open. Just a little.  I don’t think Jerry has anyone pulling a rope but you get the idea.  During the night, with the roof closed, it is very, very dark.  The door serves two purpose.  Obviously, a way in and out and also as temperature control.  When it gets too warm inside, you open the door.   There are no windows.

Finally, a couple of images to close this post.  First is Erbol with his wife, Makhabat.

And second, on one trip to the mountains, as we were coming back to camp and one of Erbol’s grandsons rode out to meet us and he and grandpa went galloping back to the ger.

I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a eagle hunter, too.

The life of a nomad is not an easy one.  In my next blog, I’ll tell you more about their life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If It’s Monday Then This Must Be Mongolia!

This is going to be a short blog.  Quiet, I can hear the cheering now!

I left Ulan Ude at 7:30am this morning bound for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia as planned.  I went by bus because I’d read that the bus trip takes about 9-10 hours and the trip by train takes 24-26 hours.  My assumption was that the train takes so much longer because there’s a lot more people on the train and it takes longer for them to clear Russian and Mongolian immigration.  Fewer people on the bus shortens the process.  Sounds good to me.

All in all, the process was relatively quick.  We had a two  immigration officers from Russia come aboard our bus and check our passports before actually reaching the border.  All went well.  Then we went through the gates and got off the bus and took everything in to have our luggage run through the scanner and show our passports.  I was the last one to meet the immigration lady and she had some difficulty reading my passport in the device she put it in.  She checked with the other lady in the neighboring booth…she called someone higher up….and she consulted with the other lady again since everyone had cleared but me.  I’m beginning to think I may be staying for awhile.  She told me my visa was bad…meaning it was faint…and wasn’t being read properly.  Luckily, she got it taken care of and I re-boarded the bus. Seems like I stood there for 15 minutes. All of our luggage went back into bottom of the bus.

Two more immigration officers…this time from Mongolia…came on board separately…and checked our passports.  We drove about 100 ft. and disembarked from the bus and dragged our luggage into the Mongolian immigration room, had it scanned and met with another immigration lady.  No problem this time.  Luggage back in the hold and we were off.  All of it took about an hour.  As we were leaving the Mongolian complex, another immigration officer checked our passports to make sure no one had slipped onto the bus since the last check.  Good to go!

Out next stop was about another hundred feet to a little restaurant where we had lunch.  When we came off the bus, we were met by a group of ladies with wads of cash wanting to do currency exchanges.  I had already converted at an ATM in the customs building and was good to go.

Our next surprise comes thanks to the Mongolian government transportation department.  Apparently they’re repairing the highway from the border all the way to Ulaanbaatar.  I’m not sure what the distance is but the entire highway was close.  It took 10 hours to make the drive from the border to the city.  People were weaving all over the place, passing our bus on the right and the left both coming and going.  What was to have been a 9-10 hour trip turned into 15 hours.  Still faster than the train!  Often our bus was bouncing from side to side and going what I would estimate to be 10-25 mph.  It was a long slog.

But I’m here.

Here are three images from the trip down today shot through the bus window.  Starting with two yurts, home to the nomadic Mongolians, a combine cutting something and a little landscape image.

Well, it wasn’t as short as I had intended!

 

 

 

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Russia Ends Today….Mongolia Tomorrow

My train left Irkutsk at 8:57am and arrived in Ulan Ude at 4:22pm.  Those are times on the schedule and that was the time they left and arrived.  Russian trains are punctual.  If it appears we’re going to be a few minutes early, the train will stop outside of town for as long as it takes to get on schedule and arrive at the appointed time.  If we’re going to be a few minutes late, I assume they speed up.

Our trip took us around the southern tip of Lake Baikal.  We literally ran right beside the lake.

Most of the color change is over.  There are still some trees with fall colors but all the birch trees have shed their leaves.  There are a couple of towns right at the southern tip of Lake Baikal and people are out on the lake fishing.

I’ve tried several times to get a photo of our train as we were making a turn but there isn’t anywhere available on the train without shooting through a window.  A window that is not able to be opened and is usually not clean.  Here are two images.  One is of our train and the other of a freight train that will cross paths with us shortly on a neighboring track.

My first full day in Ulan Ude I wanted to visit the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the Ivolginsky Datsan, the center of Russian Buddhism, about 20 miles outside the city.

Before the Revolution, there were hundreds of these monasteries in the area.  Almost all were closed and the monks sent to the Gulags in the 1930’s.  In 1945, Stalin gave permission for this datsan to be constructed here as a mark of gratitude for Buryatiaya’s help during WWII.  The Buryats are native to eastern Russian and are largely Buddhists.

My translator, Anna, presented me with a prayer shawl

and took me on a 45 minutes guided tour of the monastery.  You can photograph anything outside the temples but, as normal, nothing on the inside.

I was instructed that you walk clockwise around the temples and when you go in them you never turn your back on the deities…you back out of the temples.

There are prayer wheels everywhere.

All different sizes and designs.  They are said to contain many prayers for your good health and happiness and all of your family and the people you know.  You are to turn them clockwise as you walk past them.  I would guess I turned fifty prayer wheels as I walked around the datsan.

This monastery is also a university for buddhists.  There are about 100 students here and they are here for eight years.  After completing their studies here, they go to another location for another eight years.  They have dorms here and instructors have small homes.

There are different temples dedicated to different deities, both male and female. And Buddas are in every temple.  I’m sure I’m missing some of the many points that Anna told me but my note taking leaves a lot to be desired.

There are eight major holidays in the life of the monastery and only on those days are some of the temples and gates opened.  This is one of those gates.

It was a very interesting experience.  I learned a lot more than I shared here.

For most of its recent history, Ulan Ude had many military bases in the area and was off limits for foreigners until about 1990. Princess Anne of Great Britain led the first royal tourists in since the Tsar’s execution in 1918.

Another of the sights in Ulan Ude is an enormous head of Lenin on display in the main square.  It is roughing 25 feet high and weighs 42 tons.  Local Buryats think it may have been put there as revenge for their resisting Sovietisation.

Lastly, for today, upon arriving back in town and stopping at the main square, there was a folk festival getting underway.  I stayed around and shot some images of the dancers, singers and people in costume.

This last gentleman is not in costume.  He is a monk from the datsan and was here for the celebration.

I leave at 7am tomorrow morning, Monday, by bus for Mongolia, the home of Chinggis Khan.  Ulaanbaatar, the capital, is said to be the coldest country capital in the world.  I don’t think it will be while I’m there.  I’ll spend a few days in the capital then I’ll fly to western Mongolia to join a small group for a week visiting eagle hunters.

I’m not sure what my Internet service is going to be like especially between the 10th and the 18th.  So if you don’t hear from me don’t start worrying until after the 18th.

Ron

 

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Nikita’s Homestead is like a compound…not a hotel!

Nikita Bencharov, according to my guidebook and some of the young people who work here, is almost singlehandedly responsible for making Olkhon Island accessible to visitors.  He still lives within the compound but wasn’t here during my visit.

The compound is a series of individual buildings: cabins, a dining room, reception, staff quarters and the bistro.

My cabin and notice the water supply over the sink.  The space here is spartan.  All the workers speak multiple languages…Russian, of course, but also English, French and Chinese.  Most of the staff seem to be from Irkutsk.

They also have gardens and greenhouses to grow their own vegetables.

The compound and all the private homes around it have fencing.  Not so much for the privacy but to keep the cattle out.

I watched one morning as a staffer chased two cows out of the compound.

They also had unique locks for all the cabins.  You weren’t going to walk off with this in your pocket.

Roman, the barista at the coffee shop, spoke great English.  He was also an exceptional photographer.  He also told me that tourists come here both summer and winter.  They come for the hiking in the summer and they ice skate on the lake in the winter.  The lake is as smooth as glass and he showed me a video of him ice skating shot from a car driving beside him.  The entire lake freezes to a depth of about 10 feet and people drive to Olkhon Island across the lake.  They even have lanes marked off, he says.  The lake is about 400 miles long and 30 – 50 miles wide.

It was here in the bistro that I met the only other American I’ve met on this trip.  His name is Tabor and he’s from Canon City,  Colorado.  This is the second summer he’s worked here.

I’m off to my last stop in Russia….Ulan Ude.  We’ll dip south from Irkutsk to go around the southern tip of Lake Baikal and cruise into Ulan Ude.

More to come!

 

 

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Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal–blog #10

I left Irkutsk last Monday morning.  The shuttle picked me up at my hotel about 8:20 and I expected a ride of a couple of hours.  Well, two hours later…after making multiple stops at other hotels, a street side shuttle stop and a car park, we hit the road for Olkhon Island.  Seven hours later and a short ferry ride, we arrived at my hotel, Nikita’s Homestead.

It’s a neat place and I’ll tell you more about it in a later post but this time I want to tell you about my all day excursion on Tuesday.  The village of Khuzhir, where my hostel/hotel is located, is on the west coast of the island about midway between the north and south ends.  I booked an all day tour to the northern half of the island.  The van arrived on time about 10am and there were seven others from Nikita’s that were also on the trip.  The eight of us, five Chinese, two Thai’s and I filled the van.

Along with our driver/guide/chef we headed out.  We headed north avoiding the interstate and taking the more scenic route.  Actually, there is no other way than the scenic route.  Part of it through deep trenches

and some through grassland.

It was all pretty scenic if not teeth rattling.

It wasn’t like we didn’t have choices when it came to hill climbing.

Most of the time our driver seemed to choose the left choice as if it made a difference. We stopped four times to take photos.  This was our first top and this is a 12-image panorama.  Remember, you can click on an image to see it enlarged.

OlkhanIsland12Pano

The sun hitting the cliffs on the mainland was beautiful.

The next stop was a sandy beach with an old pier extending out into the water.

Sorry, neglected to shoot the sand as it was crowded with Chinese tourists.  As an aside, there were a lot of Chinese along the way.  Part of it was because yesterday was a big holiday in China.  The 70th anniversary of the rise of Mao.  There was a big military parade in Beijing and everyone got a week off for the celebration.  Some in my van watched it live on their phones as we traveled north.  I don’t know which came first, Chinese tourists or the selfie stick.  Lots of Chinese tourists taking pictures holding up the Chinese flag.  Sorry, I missed those pictures.

After each stop, there were multiple shuttles with tourists.  It was always a challenge to remember which one you arrived in.  But it was simple actually, it was the gray one!

Further north, another scenic stop and another panorama.

At the very northern end of the island, we stopped for lunch.  While we wandered around taking pictures, our driver/guide/chef  prepared lunch:  fish soup, a cheese sandwich, salad, hot tea and a store bought bag of chocolate cookies.

We were on top of a large hill and it was windy and cold.  The soup and all was very good!  After a few more pictures

we were headed back to the village of Khuzhir.  We took the same scenic road.

More to come including a short tour of the village of Khuzhir.  A village of about 1500 people and home to Nikita’s Homestead.

 

 

 

 

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Night Photography and the Man I Met at Breakfast!

After arriving in Irkutsk yesterday morning, I headed for a couple of cathedrals near the shores of the Angara River.  The Church of Our Saviors and the Cathedral of the Epiphany.  I captured some images during the afternoon and then I went back last night after dinner to try and get a few more.

Here’s the results.

Part of the Church of the Epiphany.

Same church…different section.

Church of Our Savior.

The interiors of both of these churches are amazing but like so many others, photography is not permitted.  I understand why but it would be nice to share it with everyone.

Lastly, I’d like to tell you about a man I met at breakfast.  He’s a carpenter in a small town in southern Norway. A town of about 5000 people.  About double the size of the town I live in.  He’s been on the road nine weeks so far.  And when I say ‘on the road’, I mean on the road.  He’s driven from Norway to Bangkok, Thailand through Europe, Turkey, Iran, the ‘Stans’…the former Russian countries bordering Russia on the south, Thailand, into Mongolia and now he’s here in Irkutsk.  He’s 39 year old.  Yesterday he took his very small car to a transportation company to have it shipped to Moscow.  He doesn’t want to drive the 5000+ kilometers across Russia.  He’s going to take the train.

He told me he’s felt totally safe everywhere he’s been including driving through Iran.  He says the people have been great.  That’s pretty much been my experience but I haven’t traveled across Iran either.

Maybe it’s a little different because he’s Norwegian and not American but, frankly, I doubt it.  As one reader commented earlier, “people are people.  We all have the same desires to be happy and safe.”

He told me that back home people think he’s crazy.  I can relate to that.  Why is he doing this?  He says he’s trying to broaden his views of the world.  He said, “You and I, we’re ambassadors for our countries.”  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  He has a laundry list of places he’d like to visit next.  He’ll soon to be 40 and I’m a lot older than that.  He’s going to get to a lot more places than I am.  But I keep trying, as long as my kids keep paying for my trips.  If only they knew they were!

I’m  headed for Lake Baikal tomorrow, Monday.  The world’s largest fresh water lake about an hour and a half south and east of here.  This lake is more than a mile deep and it’s said that if all the water on this planet dried up, this lake could supply water to the entire world for 40 years.  It’s larger than all the Great Lakes combined.  Specifically, I’m going to Olkhon Island, a banana shaped island that’s roughly 40 miles by 9 miles.  The island got it’s first electric lines in 2005.

See you in a few days!

 

 

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