Mongolia, the Land of Eternal Blue Sky

Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times

Asian proverb quoted by a young Kazakh traveler

By Ava Kabouchy

“People need to know that Mongolia is much more than just Genghis Kahn,” said the youngP3221785 Kazakh student sitting next to me during the long, 28-hour return bus trip from Ulgii to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. 

“My country has so much more to offer than its Mongol history, and I want people to see that,”  Ulpan Shynbolat told me all with a hint of pride in her voice. 

She had already quoted the proverb about seeing something once, and attributed it to her Kazakh culture. 

Already a speaker of Kazakh and English, Ulpan was on her way to Ulaanbaatar to participate in a Russian language competition. 

When we weren’t speaking or resting, Ulpan was reading Le Père Goriot, a well-known piece of French literature, translated into Russian.

Be Prepared for Mongolia’s Cold

Ulpan’s words rang true for me after two weeks of immersion into Kazakh life, organized by fellow photographer friend from Perpignan, France, Julien Beraha, and his connections with Altai Excursions in western Mongolia. 

Lovers of warm, palm tree-lined beaches and clean, pressed white sheets might find Julien’s warnings of cold in Mongolia, even as spring approached, a reason not to buy a plane ticket to Ulaanbaatar, the world’s coldest capital city.  “In the Altai Mountains,” Julien wrote to all of us, a group of seven, before our departure, “temperatures can go down to -30C”.


(That is -22F.)  “Keep this number in mind,” he warned us, as we packed three layers of clothing to go under our ski jackets along with ski goggles, sleeping bags, and lined gloves.  The Altai Mountains were the destination for our group to take part in a five-day migration of sheep, goats, and yaks over snow-covered hills, sometimes calf-deep in snow, lakes frozen to one and a half meters, and places of bare, dry land with bits and pieces of grass for the herds along the way.

On the Way to the Festival

However, before heading west to the mountains and to our initiation into herding livestock in the snow in below-freezing temperatures, our days were filled with views of western Mongolia’s spectacular, stark scenery.  Traveling with Julien and our two Kazakh guides, Bahu and Beck in 4x4s, we headed to Sagsai on dirt roads through the mountains, viewing the famed blue skies to see the contest for the eagle hunter of the year.

Eagle Hunting, an Ancient Practice that Continues until Today

Training eagles to hunt for small animals for food is a practice that goes back about three thousand years and continues until today.  Eagle hunters continue to hunt for foxes for their own needs – to make a warm hat or to sell it for income.  Rabbits for food are hunted in

DSC1648summer months.

Everyone’s attention turned towards the line of riders as they appeared on horses single file on a light cover of snow that had fallen the night before, each rider holing an eagle high into the sky.  They posed in a semi-circle before the crowed, seemingly knowing what a striking site they were. 

Each rider led his or her horse and eagle to the top of the hill.  One by one, each rider descended the hill, leaving the eagles behind.  From below, the rider called to his or her eagle with a sound that the eagle had been trained to recognize and then descended towards a piece of meat attached by rope to the back of the rider’s horse. 

Winning is decided by whose eagle came most directly to its owner.  Some eagles, however, did prefer to turn around and return to the top of the hill, causing understanding laughter from the audience.

Not Only Eagle Hunting, but Also  Games of Skill and Games for Fun

Mongols have historically been known for their horse-riding skills, which were demonstrated as the riders raced in front of onlookers to lean off the side of their horses and attempt to pick up a coin from the ground or hit a target using a bow and arrow from atop a fast-moving horse.  Then came the game of Buzkashi, a Mongolian tug of war between two riders, grappling for a goatskin while being cheered by onlookers.

Mongolia’s Increasing Number of Tourists Learning about Kazakh Culture

DSC1739Demonstrating eagle hunting is a highlight of each year’s festival and attracts many local people and more and more tourists according to Bahu, who said that last year, only five foreign tourists were at the festival, but that fifty were present the same day that we were there. 

Both he and Julien feel that this increase is due to a National Geographic photograph showing an eagle hunter last year as well as a decision by the government to make tourist visas unnecessary for most foreign visitors.

Nauryz, the Celebration of a New Day

Each year on March 21, the day of the spring equinox, Kazakhs celebrate the beginning of a new year, a day when past grievances are forgiven and friendships renewed.  The first day is spent preparing special meals to be shared with family and friends along with wrestling matches and horse racing. 

Mongolian Dancers

The following day, our group saw the opening Nauryz ceremony on the large square in Uglii and listened to traditional music as a parade prepared to walk in front of a crowd about five-people thick.  Under the blue Mongolian sky, people cheered and waved.  The parade passed as people showed a special warmth and friendliness towards us foreign visitors, asking even if we would take their picture, to which we happily complied.

In the afternoon, home visits begin as did ours to the home where our Bahu’s aunt and uncle live with their youngest son, one of their eleven children, and it is the tradition that parents live with the youngest son. 

The aunt, through translation by Bahu, told us that large families such as hers bring happiness.  She reminisced about being part of the migration when she was young and was sorry to see that horses and camels were being replaced by motorcycles and trucks to move the livestock across the steppes to the spring grass. 

The table was covered in all kinds of different foods from large, uncut pieces of mutton to numerous sweets of many varieties.  After we ate, the youngest son sang a traditional song while playing his two-stringed dombra. 

All the food remaining on the table, he told us, would stay there for any other visitors, known and unknown, as the custom is to leave the door unlocked for anyone who would like something to eat.  This was the ‘great day of community’ as Nauryz is also called.

DSC1758Into the Wilds with Goats, Sheep, Yaks and Camels

When Julien organized a trip to western Mongolia, he rightly it named it:  The Winter Migration of Kazakh Nomads in the Altai Mountains.  We had experienced the eagle hunters and their traditional games, met and shared meals with Kazakh families, celebrated Nauryz, slept in a yurt the group helped to construct with local guidance, and then came the day when the five-day migration of animals was to begin.

And so, it did, an early morning as planned, but not before we had bowls of slightly salted tea, the way it is served in Mongolia.

P3221794Everything and everyone were in place.  The penned sheep and goats were freed and seemed to know exactly in which direction to head, as this is a cyclical event for them.  A small herd of yaks was set to the side and followed from behind.  Since he was a young boy, Marat Tongai, has been part of the spring migration. 

Marat is a forty-three-year-old Kazakh and the father of four boys, and now owns a herd of three hundred sheep, one hundred goats, fifteen yaks, and three camels, all to be moved to the southern part of the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park with views of the snow-covered Altai Mountains, all at a height of  about 2,500 meters. 

As we walked and helped herd the animals, grass started to appear, still brown, but with a promise of the approaching spring, and Marat often let the herds stop and have their first tastes of fresh grass. 

P3201667We all fell into a comfortable routine of walking behind and with the herd, stopping for a delicious hot lunch made by Alma Samdabai, our cook, who was with us from the first day until our last, all the while marveling at where we were and what we were doing.

Arrival and Celebration

Marat’s wife, Aigerim Soltan, and their children had already arrived at their spring and summer home, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband and their father, herding the animals from a long distance away.  Another delicious meal of dumplings with meat warmed us all along with toasts of vodka to celebrate having made a safe arrival with the herds. 


The following day, a day of rest of sorts, we tried our hand at ice fishing on the frozen, snow-covered Khaar Nuur Lake.  Summer is short in western Mongolia, only three months long before the snows begin to fall, and the migration will reverse towards its winter home once again.

Time to Say Goodbye

Indeed, my young Kazakh friend on the bus was right.  Mongolia is much more than the history of the Mongol Empire and Genghis Kahn.  Mongolia is eternal blue sky and unspoiled culture and landscapes; homemade dumplings made and shared with warmth and kindness; landscapes like no other; the warmth of sleeping in yurts; herding sheep, goats, and yaks. 


And, finally, Mongolia is vodka toasts where each of us spoke to our new friends, no longer just our guides, or cook, or drivers, or hosts.  We spoke to Marat and Aigerim with the help of Baku’s translating, of the warmth of our experience in a country not yet overtaken by tourism, but instead real and unspoiled. 

We were the first group for Marat to have assisted him in the migration.  He told us that last year, he only had two assistants, and that this year with eight of us, the migration was much easier.  “Come back next year,” he said.  Few eyes were dry during those vodka toasts and shared words as we said goodbye.

Mongolia and the Hopes of its Youth

Ulpan and I have kept in touch, as I hope we will continue to do.  She did win the Russian language competition, coming in first and receiving a gold medal.  Now she hopes to master Turkish and French and one day to open a tourist agency to share the country which she loves and of which she is so rightfully proud.

For more information, the website for Altai Expeditions is:

Altai Expeditions | Tour operator company in Mongolia

Prices vary according to length of trip and what visitors wish to see.

Ava Kabouchy

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