Our first day of hunting. I awoke to a COLD morning. Just getting suited up was an ordeal. For my friends and family that live in the “snow zone,” my hat is off to you. I doubled up my sox, and then put on my long underwear, pants, snow pants, several shirts, sweater, jacket, and gloves. I was wearing my new snow boots but I was still lacking for warmth. I don’t think that skinny people are made for cold weather LOL. Dalaihan, his brother & family, and his son all seemed to take the weather in stride; I guess they’re either used to it or its born into their blood. When I came outside, the smoke from the house chimney hung low in the air. All of the sheep and goats were eager to get out and start foraging for grass. With the addition of the yak mooing, the sheep’s braying, and the horses calling to each other, it was a busy and lively morning.
Thankfully Dalaihan and his brother came through with a fox jacket and hat. The fox jacket cinched tight against my “regular” jacket not only adding extra insulation, but also keeping my jacket tight to prevent drafting. The fox hat was quite warm and kept my ears warm and kept my face warm unless there was a direct wind and then I’d pull up my scarf to cover my nose. They also gave me some over gloves for my woefully inadequate leather gloves that I had purchased in Ekaterinburgh.
I was sure to grab a photo of Khavlet and his eagle, I thought that they made quite an impressive sight.
The men all said goodbye to the women and then we started to mount our horses. I was introduced to my horse and I took him aside to have a quick talk; just to make sure we were on the same page. Alpamys helped me to climb onto my stead and in no time, we were off on the hunt.
Once we were moving, Khavlet gave some information and some instructions; Baatar translated for me. He explained a little bit about how the hunt would work. Eventually, the conversation evolved into, “How long are you travelling? How long are you travelling? Where have you been so far? Where do you live? Where do you work? What do you do? Do you have a wife and kids? Why not?” LOL. They always ask “why not?” In this culture, wife and kids at a young age is normal.
We chatted and rode our horses. It was about an hour ride to the first mountain that we would scale.
Slowly, the conversation turned to jokes. I took every joke that I”ve learned in the Middle East and in the US and changed the players; “So, three guys, one from Moscow, on from Ulaanbaatar, and one from Ulgi are walking on the beach. They find an Aladin’s lamp and rub it. Aladin emerges and gives them 3 wishes…” It was fun recalling EVERY joke I’ve heard since the 7th grade and retelling it. It was all new material for them and they howled with laughter.
One joke that seems to go over in EVERY city that I”ve visited on this trip is a simple substitution for a racy & ethnic joke that I heard in the US. We merely substitute the African, Hispanic, and Anglo Americans with the players listed above:
The three men walk into the pharmacy. Man from Ulaanbaatar says, “I’ll take 3 condoms!” The other two men nod with approval. The UB man says, “Yup, me and the old lady, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.” Then, the man from Ulgi walks up and says, “I’ll take 6 condoms. That’s right, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and I”ll rest for prayers on Friday.” The other two men nod with approval. Finally, the man from Moscow walks up to the counter. “I’ll have twelve condoms.” The men from Mongolia look surprised and then the Muscovite says, “Yup, January, February, March…”
They almost fell off of their horses…
Dalaihan had a piece of wood shaped in the form of a “Y” that rested on his saddle; this stand took the weight of the eagle while we rode…
When we came to the river, I noticed that there was no bridge. Instead, we walked right over the top of it. In the middle of Winter, this would be no problem. But it was still early Autumn and the river had a thin layer of ice. As we walked across it, I could hear the ice moan and creek under the weight of our horses. “Baatar, what if the ice breaks?” He replied, “Just stay on your horse and only your legs will get wet.” “Oh,” I think, “but what if I fall off my horse?” Quick, change the subject, wanna ride a bike? I tried think of something else entirely…
When we were 1/2 way across the frozen river, I managed to get my gloves off quick enough to power the digital camera and get a shot midway across the frozen river. The horses’ feet slipped and slid but they all managed to stay upright. A few times one of their hoofs broke through but the horse quickly recovered and moved over to thicker ice.
It was overcast and a light snow was falling. My poor little Sony Cybershot camera was confused by the overcast light. It struggled to maintain a proper white balance, brightness, and color was a huge challenge. I tried every manual and automatic setting I could think of and took as many photos as my battery would allow. It paid off in the end as I was able to grab some good shots out of the bunch. Keeping the camera warm is vital. A 3 hour batter will drop off to a 1/2 hour if its cold. In these conditions, a camera left out for a 1/2 hour or more will have only enough juice for 3 or 4 shots before dying completely. After each shot, I would bury the camera into my front pants pocket under my snow pants to keep the battery warm with body heat.
Also, I would later learn that the hunting goes better on sunny days…
As we began climbing the mountains, I came to realize what all the fuss is about fur. It’s darned warm. PETA folks and tree huggers aside, I understand your conviction, but fur is just warm. And, when you have the exposed fur hair around your face, collar, and hands, it prevents the wind from blowing up your sleeve and down your shirt. Also, the fur around the face blocks wind from the side keeping your ears, cheeks, and nose warm. I’m now a big fur advocate LOL.
We passed many flocks of sheep and goats as well as herds of horses. You always knew when there would be horses over the next horizon because one of our horses would let out a loud bray, almost as if to call a the other horse that it could smell. I came to learn a lot about horses on this trip; they are social animals and very smart. Oh, and they’re also very tasty.
I can’t begin to describe how beautiful the mountain scenery was. It seemed that every few minutes, I would just look around and marvel at the beauty of it. There were so many rocks and pebbles of different colors that were still poking through the fresh snow, the yellow grass that had survived the goats and sheep, the speckling of the mountain rocks with snow, the blue sky (when the clouds would part), the animals, the snow-capped mountains on the Chinese border, and even the lichens growing on the larger rocks. I have never imagined to see so many colors in such a barren place. Even the lichens grew in colors of brown, green, tan, orange, and bright red. We came to a boulder and I thought someone had sprayed red paint on the rock, but it was a red lichen. It was bright red like a coke can or a fire truck.
We climbed mountain after mountain and then looked down into the next valley. The views were breathtaking.
The camera really can’t capture how treacherous the mountain climbing felt. As the horses climbed 45 degree mountains, their feet slipped and shifted in the rocks and ice. Many times my horse lost his footing, his body would drop or shudder and I would fall to one side. Each time, I held on to my saddle and without fail, my horse compensated with his other feet and did not slip. I was very impressed with the horses’ ability to maintain their footing despite the rough footing. The most scary, for me at least, was when we were walking sideways along a sharp grade. I was afraid that my horse would slip down the hill, I would fall off, and he would crush me. But, my horse never let me down.
The hunting strategy was to climb a mountain and then dismount from our horses at the summit. We would then walk up to the edge and look down the mountainside and into the valley below. If any of us saw a rabbit or fox, we were to call it out to Dalaihan who would make sure that the eagle had a view of the prey. We would peer down the mountain and into the valley for some time looking for any movement. I really appreciated each summit because it offered not only the thrill of the hunt but that it also offered new and amazing views.
It felt like we were hunting from the top of the world.
…Dalaihan and the eagle scan the valley for the movement of any prey…
After several mountain summits and hunts, we didn’t see any prey moving. Dalaihan and his son tried some new tactics. While we waited at the summit and scanned the valley and mountainside, Alpamys circled around and then flanked the hillside. If any rabbits or fox were on the hillside or valley floor, his movements would cause them to break and run. The eagle’s super vision would certainly pick up this movement and the hunt would be on.
However, even with the “flanking” tactic, we still did not see any prey. The overcast and cold weather seemed to be keeping the animals in their burrows. Alpamys would try some other tactics to “spook” the prey to run. One tactic was to yell into the valley, we usually tried this tactic before turning to the flanking tactic. Sometimes, if the hill was too steep, Alpamys would throw a large rock down the hill. The cartwheeling rock could cause the prey to break and run… but not today…
Finally, the sun started to break through the clouds and my camera reacted by capturing the vivid color contrasts.
…China on the horizon…
We hunted until the afternoon but we did not see any prey on our first day. But it was a very rewarding day; we had beautiful views and I had a chance to connect with nature in a rugged and remote part of the world. Throughout the day, I had to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming.
As we approached one of the frozen rivers, I shot a few photos and then recorded the crossing on video.
If you listen, you can hear the ice cracking as the horses cross over:
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