Winter Life of Mongolian Nomads and Hunting Season
When we drove off to the west from Ulaanbaatar the weather was like a giant blue sky, snow-covered white hills and minus 20 Celsius something cold. You don't feel the cold in the warm and comfortable SUV until you have a toilet break. It was early February in Mongolia, the weather was far better than a couple of weeks ago comparing to the snow storm. We are heading to the Uvurkhangai province, Shurange River valley, which is around 500 km away from the capital city and mostly on the paved road.
Beautiful nomadic people, wide, empty landscapes, horses, yaks and most importantly the nomads friend and enemy same time - the wolf. Our purpose of the trip.
But above all, you are expecting to be challenged while assisting the nomads during the winter life experience. Every season has different task and work comes including the migration to the nomads.
This trip is not a regular tourist activity at all. Normally travelers will have an organized tour package and stay in a ger camp and drive from one location to another and spend a day or so with local nomads to see at a glimpse.
This is for the ones who want to see the real Mongolia and experience it with hands on. Plus it is the winter life. You want to get rustic. You will be mingled with the nomads no one speaks in English and people are interested in you because you are from abroad. Not only that you will join to their seasonal task - wolf hunting.
Yeah, this trip is different.
After having a lunch break at the province center the city named after a horse "Arvaikheer" we drove to the north on a dirt road of scattered volcanic rocks valley slowly for almost 3 hours. Finally, we arrived at the group of gers (yurt). There were 2 blue Chinese motorbikes and satellite dish and solar panel for the family use outside of the ger. A black fluffy dog came to us and looks excited. I told my client to be careful and most dogs in Mongolia not that friendly and guess every stranger as a hostile. But this family's dog was unusually friendly and wanted to play with our client.
The elderly woman, the mother of Ankhaa, our local community leader invited us to have a seat up to the front and started serving hot milk tea and buuz (beef dumplings, actually it was yak) as a tradition.
Soon we heard motorbikes roaring outside and more people come. A couple of people came by horse. They were expecting us and neighborhood men gathered at the family. The ger seemed small but we circled around the ger surrounding the fire stove, no problem 20 people fit. Afterward, we had a usual conversation about how they are doing, how is the weather and where are my clients are from and started talking about their tomorrows' plan. Which is our main purpose to come this far? Vaanchig the chief hunter, who is the most skilled hunter said: Tomorrow morning early morning around 5 am we will split into 4 groups and take off. Each group has 2 - 3 people and they will go to the designated areas. When the time is up the groups will enter the mountainside trees and chase the wolf out of the trees. The hunter and our clients will be waiting at the site, where the wolf most predictably come out. But the wolf is famous by the smartness. Sometimes they outsmart people and do unforeseen action and disappear. Vaanchig said if that happens we will try again in another mountain.
The huntsmen meeting is over and everyone took off to their home. We walked to our ger, the host family set up a ger for us and the bed was comfortable. The fire was on the ger was plenty warm. It was already dark and the stars were brighter than ever.
As the head huntsman said we gathered at 5 am in damn cold condition, put our layers on and took off to the mountain. Everyone had riffles and motorbikes. But at the bottom of the trees, they left their motorbikes and run into woods.
We set down hiding behind a small hill and expecting the wolf to come out. We were camera ready and the huntsman was gun ready.
It took a while, the sky was still dark and we did not hear anything for a long time. The warm coat, pants, gloves, and hat really needed. We appreciated our warm clothes. The nomads had long clothes called Deel and fur hats. We did not see them wearing any gloves but the outfit had long sleeves they could hide their hands from cold.
Suddenly we heard a gunshot in the distance, it was dawning and we started being able to see in the distance. Our huntsman said can you see that. I thought it was a wolf but he meant one of the herders coming on the bike towards us. He came. And he was the guy who shot and asked us if we saw the wolf. We said no. He said the wolf was running out from behing a tree and headed uphill. And we were supposed to see but no one saw it. Soon all the hunters gathered and they searched the whole trees and said no luck today.
We returned to our cozy ger and had a big brunch. In the afternoon we talked to the family about life in the Shurange valley. Everyone had amazing stories and it is worth to hear their rich life stories from the early days of Soviet period to current days. Lots of fun stories and it is beautiful to be with happy nomads.
We tried again the wolf hunting the next morning in a different mountain area, unfortunately, no luck. A few days ago the wolf had eaten one horse of the local family down by the riverside. The wolves become aggressive in winter because all the wild animals are gone and hard to chase on the snow they start attacking the nomads' livestock. One way the wolves help nature to keep the ecosystem. Same time they damage the nomad's herd.
The weather scares them more than the wolf. Some years the harsh winter destroys the pasture and there is no grass to feed the animals. When it happens they have to migrate a long distance whatever the weather conditions are such as snowy, stormy or freezing cold.
Their lives are hard. To romanticize it is elitist and simplistic. In three days they taught us more about life than it can ever be learned elsewhere. First off, they are the happiest and hardest working people. We are told all the time that money can’t buy happiness and material things don’t guarantee joy, but to see it, breathe it, experience it and live it yourself for weeks is something else entirely. What the nomads thought us and showed us is how they are cooperating together. If they lose their animals they ask their neighbors and they help each other. When someone is in an emergency the neighbor helps. They help each other when needed to move from summer camp to fall camp etc. If they need to migrate, they cooperate and some families stay home and some herdsman works together to move a big herd to a better pasture in many days distance.
In the evening all the hunting gangs gathered in our ger and after dinner, the host opened a bottle of vodka. The old lady brought up the water container of milk distilled vodka. It was not a usual drinking party. Mr. Ankhaa, the community leader, is considered the host family and most respected person in the ger. He appointed a man to serve the vodka to everyone. We used one silver bowl of home-distilled milk vodka and shared the bowl one by one. After one round of drinking, on the second round, the person was supposed to sing a song. Not everyone but most of the guests sang a folk song. The melody was peaceful and most of the songs were about mothers or nature.
We could feel the peace and harmony while having the Mongolian traditional feast night. We did not hunt the wolf but gained a lot in our personal life during the trip.