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Mongolia
Lost in Altai
Altai, in Mongolia’s far west, is a landscape of dusty deserts, snow-capped peaks and eagle hunters; it encapsulates the mystique and wonder that shrouds Mongolia. Our digital postcards capture this vast untamed place and some of the people who call it home.

The sun is setting and we are lost. The three dogs that accompanied us to the lake have disappeared and with them hopes of finding our way back to the house.

 

 

A thick blanket of snow hugs the landscape, disguising any clues of where home is. We shouldn’t have stayed so long, but the turkish delight coloured sunset was too delicious to resist and we were greedy to savour every last morsel.

 

 

Our adventure into Mongolia’s wild west began the previous day in Olgii, the capital of the Bayan-Ölgii, the most westerly of Mongolia’s 21 Aimags.

Seka, our driver, arrived and we loaded up the Uazik (the finest vehicular creation of the Soviet era) with supplies for a few days. It was early October and the weather already wintery.

 

 

The scenery flashing past the Uazik windows transfixed us, evolving from dusty deserts to frozen rivers to snow storms.

 

 

We travelled along rocky dirt tracks, through rivers crusted with ice that looped through the landscape and past bouncing baby yaks frightened by the sound of our passing van.

 

 

The appearance of fuzzy, brown bactrian camels striding across the steppe and grazing against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks never once lost its novelty.

 

 

 

We spent the first night in the shadow of Shiveet Mountain, with a family of yak farmers. Their home; a simple wooden house set in a pasture with a river snaking through it.

 

 

No light pollution, no sound, a tranquil calm so intense that it was almost enough to block out the sub-zero temperature.

 

 

Inside the snug house, the family laughed and gossiped over a feast of fatty lamb.

 

 

Inside the snug house, the family laughed and gossiped over a feast of fatty lamb.

The women start the day in the yak pens, reuniting the baby yaks with their mothers. Once the milk is flowing, they yank away the baby yaks and perch on small wooden stools, collecting the milk into metal buckets beneath.

 

 

The baby yaks are lined up in a kind of yak nursery at the back of the pen before being released out to pasture for the day. Dairy is a cornerstone of the Mongolian diet, consumed fresh or preserved as an array of different products like aaruul (dried curd) and cheese.

 

 

After half a day of driving deeper into the west the weather took a dramatic turn and when we arrived at the homes of the eagle hunting families everything was dusted with snow.

 

 

The eagle hunters’ wives received us with a table burdened by snacks and steaming mugs of Suutei-tsai — a milky concoction with a whisper of tealeaves boiled through and a glob of butter melted in.

 

 

The only obvious sign that these were eagle hunting families; the fierce looking eagle perched on a log outside.

 

 

We’d heard and seen so many tales about Mongolia’s famed Kazakh eagle hunters that we’d begun to think that it was all myth and tourist hyperbole. But as we began to trudge through the snow to visit the nearby Khurgan Nuur Lake, the two eagle hunters appeared on the crest of a hill, returning home from a hunt. Both men on horse back and swathed in furs, one carried the fierce looking eagle on his arm and the other with a rifle slung over his shoulder. They looked majestic.

 

 

Now, we’re wandering through the snow, in the pitch-dark trying to remember which direction we came from. Is the dim light we can see in the distance real or just a reflection? A buzzing sound comes in to earshot and a motorbike appears. One of the eagle hunters has come out to find us, they worried when we hadn’t returned before dark. Feeling foolish we jump on the bike, grateful for the ride back to the house.

 

 

Inside we huddle around the stove to revive the sensation in our toes and fingers while the eagle hunter’s wife brews some suutei-tsai to warm us up.

We take in the simple surroundings; drying meat hangs from the arches, bowls of aaruul and boortsog (fried dough) sit on the table, a bed in one corner of the room and the stove, towards which we all gravitate, is just off centre.

 

 

After dinner we create a cozy nook, layering piles of blankets on the floor, slipping into our sleeping bags and weighting ourselves down with more blankets. We drift off to sleep in wonder at the strange, beguiling magic of this place.

 

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