Wedged between Russia, China and a stone’s throw from Kazakhstan, Mongolia’s westernmost province of Bayan-Olgii seems to be influenced more by life in the Central Asian plains than the vast Mongolian Steppe that expands to the east.
The most obvious influence is seen in the demographics with around 90% of the province’s population being of direct Kazakh decent. This is mainly as a result of a decision made in 1931 to divide what was known as Chandmandi province into three parts, creating Bayan-Olgii and declaring it a homeland for the ethnic Kazakhs living in the region.
The geography of the province and the severe lack of infrastructure in Mongolia has also played a role in preserving the Kazakh heritage. Being over 1,600 km — and a timezone — away from the capital, it is quicker to travel and trade with the surrounding countries than to take the three day, non-stop roadless journey to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.
All of these factors have kept the remote and mountainous region of Bayan-Olgii as a true celebration of traditional Kazakh culture.
It is best experienced once you leave the dusty provincial capital of Olgii and head out into the surrounding mountains where the term ‘Kazakh’ — said to mean ‘free spirit’ or ‘steppe roamer’ — takes on its purest form.
Mongolia’s Kazakhs are considered a semi nomadic people, moving with their herds — which can comprise of sheep, goats, yaks, horses and camels — to new pastures each season. Some families choose to move just twice, once for summer and once for winter, and often return to the same pastures that have stayed with the family for generations.
As Kazakh yurts (a circular felt tent) are larger than the Mongolian gers they are less efficient at keeping in the heat, and so are reserved for use during the summer months. Their winter pastures usually consist of a house built of stone and wood with outbuildings to shelter livestock.
The winter is a demanding time as the temperature drops to -30°C and snowfall covers the ground. For the nomads, whose primary source of food, income and transport is their livestock, they must ensure adequate shelter from the freezing cold and lead the herd to enough places where they can still graze during times of deep snow cover.
Prolonged periods of severe weather are known as a zud and can create national disasters. The most recent being in 2010, with some half a million herders affected. In some cases, the herders lost 50–70% of their livestock to the weather.
The daily routine for Kazakh nomads centres around tending to the herd. On a typical day, the family will have a breakfast of chai (milk tea) and baursak (a fried, puffed bread) before starting the days work. The first task is to release the herd from the warmth of the night huddle, prepare the pens for feeding, and collect milk for the days supply of chai.
Once the morning feed is complete the family will usually have a snack consisting of more baursak with chai, or noodles with boiled meat. Later, the men lead the herd out to graze while the women will stay at home to look after the children and to complete the household chores.
Being out with the herd in the winter comes with risks as the herd is exposed to the freezing winds and erratic snowfall. To protect any young offspring born while on the constant search for grazing pastures during the winter months the nomads will carry them in a pouch on their backs to keep them warm — although this provides no guarantee that they will survive. Every day the nomads will endure the bitter cold and stay out with their herds until enough fodder has been found.
Socialising with friends is also high on the agenda and is worked into the daily routine as often as possible, either by visiting another family while out with the herd or by hosting a passing guest. With nomads often settling more than a kilometre or so apart, they act as a network of tea houses and rest stops for nomads on the move.
It is quite normal to walk into any Kazakh home, sit down and then to be served chai and snacks of baursak, aaruul (dried milk curd), biscuits and sweets in an instant — without even having met the hosts before.
Without these strong bonds of trust it is hard to see how the nomadic lifestyle could be sustained in such a harsh and erratic climate.
As the day draws to a close the men return with the herd and the whole family help to get the animals back into the warmth of the pens before the final hour of daylight fades, and the freezing night descends.
The evening is reserved for relaxing with the family and preparing the evening meal of beshbarmak, a traditional dish of boiled meat served on sheets of noodles. The dish is eaten by hand from a shared plate, hence the name beshbarmak, which translates to ‘five fingers’.
It is a privilege on those evenings when the whole family is present. The remote location of the nomads means that children often need to stay with relatives or family friends in the nearest town for the majority of the school term. It is also becoming more common for school leavers to go on to attend university in Kazakhstan or in Ulaanbaatar, and to take professional jobs after graduating rather than return to the herd, which is likely to erode the population of nomadic Kazakhs in the future.
However, in Kazakh tradition, the youngest son acquires the duty of looking after their parents — and also assuming responsibility for the herd — which will perhaps continue to preserve nomadic life and traditions.
It is philosophies like these that render the Kazakhs of Bayan-Olgii famous for keeping ancient traditions — such as eagle hunting — alive.
Eagle hunting is a Kazakh tradition that dates back over 2,000 years. Like the falcon hunters of Central Asia, the Kazakhs train eagles to hunt for them. The hunting only takes place in the winter months after the eagles are fit from their summer gorge, and when the prey — foxes, marmots, manuls and the prized wolf — have thick coats of fur that can be turned into clothes and the traditional Kazakh fur hat.
These magnificent birds are the true pride of the Kazakhs, and even those that do not have their own stand with honour and excitement when they have the chance to hold an eagle.
Capturing an eagle can be a sport in itself, with locals talking of techniques that include using meat or fellow eagles as bait to lure wild eagles into a trap. A common practice is to find a nest and remove a young eagle while the mother is away. Locals debate the best approach, with some believing that those still in the nest lack the eye of an eagle who has learned to fend for itself in the wild.
The eagles are usually kept in an outhouse next to family’s home and are well fed by their owners, who like to keep them fully fit to hunt at all times. A small leather hood is made to cover their eyes and keep them calm while a small chain on the ankles keep the powerful bird steady.
The eagles get used to being fed by their handlers and become loyal, although it is not unknown for an eagle to fly away and not to return, sometimes while it is being trained or even out on a hunt.
The Kazakh’s hardy horses are vital to the success of any hunt as they help the hunters and their waiting eagles to cover the vast distances of the Altai, and to climb up to the peaks that offer the best vantage point.
Once at the peak the hunters remove the leather hoods from the eagle and disturb the peace of the mountains — usually by whipping a piece of leather and by throwing stones — to unsettle any prey that may be hiding in the rubble. The constant squeal of the eagle adds to the tension and instills fear into its prey.
Once the prey is spotted the eagle falls silent, fixated on the target. The nomad then releases the eagle and hopes for a successful hunt before pursuing the eagle to the target on horseback. The power of the eagle smothers its prey. The hunter races as fast as possible as larger prey such as wolves and foxes can fight the eagles and cause injury.
A successful hunt is a proud moment for any hunter and will be a much debated topic of conversation for the following weeks. The capture is added to the eagle’s tally of successful hunts and will be boasted about at the annual festival in October when many of the Kazakh hunters gather with their best eagle to compete for various titles.
Although Bayan-Olgii is famed for its eagle hunters there are still only around 350 families continuing the practice in the region.
For those nomads who have not captured an eagle there is still an opportunity to hunt. Many of the Kazakh in the region sport a 1940s Russian rifle and will try their luck at matching the eagle’s eye in spotting prey in the vast expanse of the Altai Mountains.
A hunt will last at least a few hours and requires a great deal of patience. Finding fresh tracks does not guarantee any prey will be spotted — and even if prey is seen, the small bullets and limited range of the old rifles means getting close enough to take a shot can take an hour of stalking.
Returning empty handed is common, but spirits remain high after a day spent out in the mountains with friends. These Kazakh tell me that they will make another attempt together in the coming week.
The relative isolation of Bayan-Olgii has kept the region rich in traditional Kazakh culture for more than two thousand years. Today, it is hard to judge how this will change as the area continues to develop. Right now, cross country roads are being built for the first time on the back of a commodities boom, linking Bayan-Olgii to the capital.
Before long this will begin to open up the region to business, trade and tourism, and may also tempt some of the younger generations to move away and seek a more urban way of life as Olgii develops.
Still, as a nomad shows me his Mongolian passport he proudly points at his chest and says “Kazakh”, reminding me that however life in the region changes, Kazakh heritage will surely remain a part of it.
Free Spirits of Mongolia is available to purchase in a 40-page magazine. Visit the store here.