Photo cred for the eagle hunter visit goes to Michelle Kim; for the Sirgali Lake photos, Tess and Reece Stohr.
“Hi, Baha? I’m Jake’s friend, Michelle. I’m in Bayan-Ulgii with my friend. We want to visit your soum this afternoon.”
“Yes – Jake gave me your number.”
“Great. Do you know a driver who can take us there?”
“I was very surprised by your call,” says Baha as we pile out of the Land Rover into her хашаа; the fenced-in yard contains two houses. She leads us into the street-side house and sits us down at her table, four of us on a long bench: myself; Michelle, a visiting PCV; Michelle’s friend; and my aimag-mate Tess.
Surprised or no, Baha has laid the table with all the delicacies of a formal visit to a Kazakh house: candy, cookies, bread, with a cold noodle salad holding pride of place in the middle. Baha passes us cups of milk tea — Kazakhstan tea steeped in milk, stronger and less salty than its Mongolian equivalent — and plates to serve ourselves from the salad platter.
Baha, my sitemate’s friend and sometime counterpart, teaches English at a soum school near the aimag center. Like many English teachers in our aimag, she does stints as a tour guide, mostly local to her soum. An afternoon chatting in English with some friends of a friend, three of them Peace Corps volunteers and one familiar with Kazakh culture, is an opportunity and not an imposition. We joke in Kazakh with the driver, and Baha offers us fresh cheese and cups of homemade sour yogurt.
Unmprompted, after an hour or so, she asks, “Do you want to meet an eagle hunter?”
The eagle hunter lives about five minutes outside the soum center; his family has not yet moved out into the countryside for the summer herding season. We are greeted by a half-dozen children mostly under the age of thirteen, and a barking guard-puppy-in-training. Baha asks one of the boys where the adults are, and the eldest girl leads us into the ger.
There is a black and white cat sleeping on the bright fabric of one bed — a cat, on the furniture, clean and well-fed and opening one eye to study my offered hand with the insousiance of one who knows her own worth. We sit and take the offered yogurt and bread, and the cat jumps down to accept my affection.
“Most of my students hate cats.”
“People keep them in the countryside to keep away mice.” Michelle’s been in Mongolia a year longer than I have.
The younger children have lined up on the other side of the ger and are staring at us. I grin back. “Атыңдер кім?” They push each other, whispering; then give their names, one by one.
“Мысықның аты бар ма?”
“Ие,” says the only girl, and tells me the cat’s name, which I don’t remember half a second after repeating it. A few minutes later the girl vanishes out the door, to sneak back in with a week-old goat that she hides under the bed. Caught out, she presents the goat to us amid much cooing and petting.
The eldest boy – the eagle hunter’s grandson, who is himself learning to handle eagles – takes us to where the eagle is tied beside a rock. He lifts the eagle up by the jesses, and amidst a great deal of flapping and flopping gets it onto the glove. Tess attempts the same method, gets a talon in the arm for her pains, and then succeeds much better by coaxing the bird to climb onto her arm from its rock.
As I take my turn with the bird, the hunter himself arrives – a solemn elderly man in a clean dark suit and galoshes. He puts the bird on my arm by pinning its wings.
“Do you want to spend the night?” Baha asks, back at her house as we are wrapping up the visit. I will never cease to be impressed by the generosity of the people who open their homes to me here.
Ulaanbaatar is a shock after five months at site: noisy, big, crowded with cars and people. Everywhere crosswalks and restaurants and tourists and so much Mongolian. Within an hour I am dying to catch just a few words of Kazakh from some nameless passerby.
I propose a new drinking game to my sitemates: every time one of us slips up and speaks Kazakh at the next Ulaanbaatar conference, somebody takes a shot. This game is destined to remain an amusing fantasy due to risk of alcohol poisoning.
Walking down the Peace Avenue thoroughfare just after sunset. A boy stands away from his friend on a doorstep, locks eyes with me, walks as if he’s going to slam into me if I don’t back up or step aside. The swagger and the low-pulled baseball cap say be intimidated, but he’s a half-head shorter than me and so stick-skinny he invokes the incongruous urge to laugh.
“Oi,” I say sharply, arm across the open top of my purse.
“Oi,” he echoes.
“Юу хийж байна,” I demand, finally grasping some bit of grammatically confused Mongolian.
“Юу хийж байна,” he mocks with a laugh, then swerves aside at the last second to give me a friendly clap on the shoulder. As if, recognizing him for a pickpocket’s accomplice and not giving way, I’ve earned temporary membership into his private club.
A driver — another friend of a friend — gives me a lift to the airport around midnight. I’m half an hour late for the international flight from Seoul. Still, there aren’t many tourists hanging around the crowded arrivals terminal, so I wait at the gate until a tap on the shoulder makes me jump and grab for my purse.
My brother grins at me, and my father behind his shoulder.
I admit that six hours over unpaved roads is a bit of a stretch for a three-day trip, given one purgon, three PCVs, and six visiting family members. But there’s not a whole lot to do in town during the summer, and the next nearest tourist site is a mountain – neither my family nor Tess’s was up for mountain climbing.
Six hours and two pickups from my town, maybe an hour after a rainstorm that necessitated the migration of our camping gear from roof rack to our crowded laps, the purgon parks at a permanent complex just outside Sirgali. Our guide — a teacher from my school who runs his own tour business — collects our passports amid much shifting of luggage to verify our national park passes with the guard.
“Should we get out?” someone asks, craning to see what Sabit is doing. My seat faces backwards and I’m still half-asleep from the drive.
“I don’t know, it might only be a few minutes…”
“Look,” someone else says after a few minutes, an indignant chuckle bubbling under his voice. “They’re laying down. We should get out.”
We tumble out from under our bags into a cool lakeside afternoon. Sabit and our driver are indeed lounging on the grass. My family and Tess’s stand around, uneasy with puzzlement and inaction; Tess, Alex and I flop back to do some lounging of our own. Waiting in summer sunlight for a bit of bureaucratic processing is positively relaxing, compared to sitting in the teacher’s lounge for a meeting of unspecified purpose that gets canceled forty minutes after it was supposed to start. After twenty minutes or so, the official returns with our passes.
The Sirgali Lakes, called the “earring lakes” in Kazakh for their double teardrop shape, sit nestled in a valley deep in the Altai Mountains, near the Mongolia-China border. The leeward, eastern side of the valley rises in rolling hills, yellow-green-grass-bare-rock-stark like everywhere in the Altais I’ve been so far; but the windward side, the far side, displaces me to Europe. Deep green grass and groves of pine trees skirt chocolate-colored, snow-capped peaks.
We camp for one night on that far side. Next morning I go on a walk with the other PCVs and my brother. Alex takes us to the top of a rise, where we can see the forested foothills fall before us, then climb to where the tree line starves them of earth.
“It smells like pine,” I say gleefully, breathing in.
“I didn’t notice,” my brother remarks.
We spend that first night with a friend of Sabit’s. Three gers are set up in a level dip near the lower edge of the forest; a pen, open and empty for the late afternoon, and a shed half-hidden in the trees suggest that this is the family’s usual summer home.
We are greeted by Sabit’s friend, his extended family (brother, wife, sister-in-law, mother, the usual gaggle of children), and a dog kept close to the campsite by a weight around its neck. Another dog, less friendly, is tied to a stick at the edge of the clearing. At the grandmother’s direction, we troop into one of the gers for milk tea.
Kazakh gers are higher-roofed than Mongolian gers, and huge; too large to be heated in the wintertime. Every inch of the walls is hung with traditional Kazakh embroidery, and the beds that circle the edge of the ger are made up with rich fabrics and curtained into small private cells. We cluster around a table on the far side of the ger, across from the door and behind the central stove.
The countryside guest-table is different from the town’s, a cluster of food made by the host’s own hands instead of a myriad of bought products. We drink tea with cream and butter, eat baursak and three kinds of cheese.
I am sitting at the far end of the group, beside Tess and her mother and far from my own family. Tess’s mother says nervously that she doesn’t want to drink the tea, would that be rude? Tess coaches her to touch the tea to her lips, then put it down, hand over the bowl, to say she’s done. I watch my family for some reaction to this become-familiar custom, but their faces are blank with the polite American’s wish not to offend the unknown.
My father tries dried curd and nearly cracks a tooth, and then we leave to make camp.
Thump. Thump. Thump sliiiiide thump.
I start awake and stare blearily at the wall of the tent, now smeared with mud. “Who did that?”
“I think it was a goat,” Tess says, amid the blaas and sneezes of a herd released from its pen. She adds, “I hit back.”
I’m returning from my morning necessary trip when I spot the friendly dog, the one with the weight around its neck. I stop and click my tongue at it, and the апа — the grandmother and matriarch of this family — spots me standing at the top of the hill. She motions for me to follow her.
I look at the dog. She follows my gaze. “Жақсы ма?” I ask uncertainly, very much wanting a dose of animal affection.
“Жүр,” she says serenely. Come.
I click my tongue at the dog. It half-rises, and the апа drops it with a sharp word.
I follow the апа into her ger.
Alex is already inside, drinking a bowl of milk tea; one of the younger women serves me a bowl as well. I settle in beside him and sip slowly, enjoying the early-morning peace. One of the little babies is still asleep behind parted curtains.
The апа tells us to eat some cheese and baursak. We obey. The апа tells Alex to translate for me, and we assure her that I understand, though I suspect Alex has a better grasp of gum-muffled апа Kazakh than I do. Satisfied, the апа says a few more things, which I recognize as imperative statements and nod knowingly in response to.
I wonder, sometimes, when this ritual became comforting instead of foreign.
The other side of the lake is less lush, but warmer. We lounge with our feet in the water, eating hardboiled eggs; in the evening I hike up a nearby mountain with Alex and my brother. Tumbles of igneous boulders dot the sparse grass, and pine scrub nestles in windward dips. I feel as if I am walking on an alien planet that has just begun to recover from a rain of meteors.
“What’s the plan for today?” my father asks as we disembark from the plane in the capital.
I blink at him, take a breath for patience. I had forgotten how reasonable, how common this question is in a country that takes reliable scheduling for granted. “Haven’t got that far yet. First we check into the hostel.”
“I just don’t want to end up sitting around in the hostel.”
“What’s wrong with sitting around in the hostel?”
My brother, sensing danger, intervenes. “Who cares as long as we’re sitting around with Renee, right?”
I realize that my statement has failed to convey what I want it to, anyway: Doing nothing is relaxing, sometimes. Maybe we’ll be tired later and want to relax. Why should we force ourselves to go-go-go just because we made a schedule that says we should?
Striving for a middle ground, I say, “First we’ll check into the hostel, and I have to deliver this package to Tuul’s son. Then we’ll pick somewhere to eat lunch. After that we can decide what we’ll do for the afternoon. Okay?”
We run out of sightseeing halfway through the last day, and when my father asks, “What now?” at four o’clock I seriously reconsider the advisability of a schedule. Then at least I’d have numbers to point to and show how none of the sights took half as long as I’d intended.
My father leaves at ten-thirty. I go out for one last meal at Burger King, only to find it closed. So are almost all the restaurants on Peace Ave. Ulaanbaatar is a small city in the international scheme of things.
The flight back to my aimag is full, but there are only two or three Mongolians on it: the tourist season has begun in earnest. Everyone is speaking English. I put in headphones and curl up irritably against the window.
There are two others on the flight from my aimag’s small foreigner community, people I haven’t seen since summer dispersed us several weeks ago. Catching up with them, I feel myself slipping back into my skin.