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Published: December 30th 2020
Had I not been asked to join a photography trip, I would not have gone to Bayan Olgi, the Western part of Mongolia bordering with Kazakhstan at the end of August last year. Getting the visa was without a drama as the Mongolian Embassy in Jakarta was thinly staffed. After much of persuasion, we managed to get our visa in time and left for Ulaanbataar, transiting in Hong Kong.
It was great to be back at Ulaanbaatar as I could see the development progress in such a short time. I did recall there were not many tall buildings seen during my visit years ago, during which main roads had potholes. This time, the traffic was heavy, tall buildings sprang and roads were nicely paved. It was amazing to see how coal did to the economy. Mongolia is one of the largest coal exporters to China. I forgot how difficult it was to exchange USD to local currency as most foreign exchange stores were closed when we reached the city. Fortunately, restaurants accept USD and agreed to pay our change in local currency.
The next morning, we left early for the airport to take a three hours flight to Bayan
Olgi with Aero Mongolia Airlines. Arriving at Olgi airport, we could not help smiling as our luggage were left outside the airport building to be self-picked up. The smile got bigger when we exit the airport and saw a funny looking vehicle waiting for us. It was a Russian made van, which was one of the most popular vehicles in Mongolia, designed for dust road and tough driving. Amazingly, it could fit eight of us, including our luggage, sleeping bags and stove!
Our photography guru, Umam, had planned the trip for 6 nights and 7 days, with a title that was hard to decline “if you can dream, we can make it happen”. Indeed, it had been my dream to see those eagle hunters in the remote part of Mongolia. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by our smiley face guide, Erlan, Kazakh origin, who had been doing his job for more than 10 years. It is advisable to use local guide when traveling to Olgi as the locals speaks Kazakhs. After getting our breakfast, we all set for the adventure into the most remote region of the country.
Interestingly, before we left the small town
of Bayan Olgi, our driver made a stop at the mosque to give donation for the safety of our trip. Unlike other parts of Mongolia, the Western part of the country consists of Kazakhs population, majority of which are Moslem. Within 10-minute drive, we were greeted by the vast emptiness that linked land and sky! Indeed, five of us could not contain our excitement, and with camera in our hands, we started clicking here and there. We had not driven far when we stopped in the middle of Steppe for lunch, while seeing groups of herds being led by nomads.
As we drove on Steppe, we kept making a stop for capturing the beautiful landscape that we were barely near our destination at dusk. Our driver somehow knew how to navigate even though there was no path. When asked, he said he identified the direction from the surrounding hills, while in the evening, he would use the stars as guidance. The thought of continuing the journey on Steppe in the dark was daunting. Thankfully, everyone agreed to spend a night at Olgi. As this was unplanned, we were offered to stay at the house of our driver’s family.
Even though the family lives in a brick house, the family considers themselves as semi nomadic. At the front yard, there was a round platform to be used for a yurt if needed. We were served with soup and bread for dinner. Just like any other house in the remote part of Mongolia, it does not have an attached bathroom and running water. For city folks like us, it was our first test (and we survived!). After dinner, we left for milky way shooting. The only regret I had was I didn’t bring my blanket. The temperature must have dropped close to 5c while we were standing for hours to get the milky way shots.
The next day, we left after breakfast and headed towards Tolbo Lake, 50 km South of Olgi, to meet an eagle hunter. There was no other way of communication as there was no signal. We had to make a face to face arrangement for the photoshoot. Tolbo Lake is a high mountain fresh water lake at an elevation of 2.080m (6,824ft) above the sea level, located in western Mongolia.The 185 square km lake, located in the middle of Bayan Olgi, is frozen during October
to May. Little that we knew there was a paved road connecting Olgi to Khovd City, passing through the lake. As we drove on the steppe, we could not help getting out of the vehicle to capture the beauty of the landscape. From a distance, we got the glimpse of dark blue water. What an eye candy! It was Summer, which was supposed to be the warmest time to visit the lake, yet the wind was strong. We decided to simply enjoy the view and and had lunch picnic by the lake.
After lunch, we continued our journey towards Altay Tavan Bogd National Park, the highest point of Mongolia at 4374 meters above sea level. It is the border between Mongolia and Russia as well as Mongolia and China. Other than a few cars crossing the steppe, we mainly saw many herds along the way, cows, goats, sheep, horses and camels.
As we reached it, we were greeted by our nomad host, Sabai and Sabira. There were two yurts for guests, next to which was the winter lodge. At the backdrop was a breathtaking view of the snow-capped mountains. The 5-meter width yurt is being heated by a
traditional stove located at the centre of the yurt, fueld by dried cow-dung. The steam was released through a chimney, which was closed in the evening. The kitchen area was on the right-side of the door, while the remaining space was used for dining area, to be turned into a sleeping area in the evening. The yurt wall is covered with colorful hand sewn tapestry, made by our host.
After having our welcome snacks and drinks, we left to have surrounding scenery captured in our camera. We could not hide our excitement when we saw a clear water river, only to find out it was prohibited by law to contaminate the water. The river can only be used for drinking water. Ouch. How we missed clean, running water! In the evening, the wind blew strongly while temperature must have dropped below 5 degree, I skipped taking milky way shots and comfortably curled up in my sleeping bag. In hindsight, staying in a yurt with no electricity was not an ideal choice for photographers; our guide had to go to a military camp nearby to get our battery charged.
It was difficult for me to wake up at the
wee hours the next morning to capture the sunrise. While everyone left, I was invited by our host, Sabai and Sabira, to have breakfast with them. Located next to our yurt, the 4x5 meter lodge had a storage room and kitchen near the door, while the rest of the room was used as dining area during daytime and converted into a sleeping area in the evening. The couple had prepared breakfast for me, and as a guest, I was seated at the head of the table. Served on the table was home-made tea, butter and cheese, made of yak milk, and bread. The couple have five children, four of whom go to school in Olgi, and only the youngest son stayed with them. Other than this family, there was no other yurt nearby. The family live in solitude and entertain themselves watching Kazakhstan movies and music on tv. The Mongolians in this region are Kazakhs origin and speak Kazakhs.
When everyone was back, we packed our stuff and left for the much awaited moment: Eagle Hunter photo shooting. When we arrived, sunlight had softened and in no time, we were busy with our tripod and camera. The Eagle Hunter
arrived in a motorbike, accompanied by his father. He must have felt like a celebrity as five us of us continuously captured his image from all angles and directions.
For accommodation, our guide altered the plans from staying in a yurt to the house of the Eagle Hunter; this way, we could charge our camera battery. As soon as we arrived, curious neighbors started to arrive at the doors. Sheepishly looking at us, they were smiling and giggling. The most rewarding part of the trip was the sunrise photo session the next morning. Located on a hill overseeing the steppe, it provided a breathtaking view of horses grazing on Steppe. Then, our guest star arrived: an Eagle Hunter appeared on a horse. At last, we managed to get the pictures that we had dreamed of: the Eagle Hunter galloping on a wet steppe, creating a splash of water on the grass. On the last day of our stay, our guide must have felt sorry that he decided to change our accommodation to a hotel in Olgi.
On our last day in Olgi, we had a chance to attend the Eagle Hunter Festival, held every year at the end
Not a perfect shot but it's my first Milky Way picture
of August – Early September in this region. We were lucky to have visited one, which was not too crowded. It was like a playground to me as there were too many objects to be captured! My endorphin ran high. Eagle hunters on their horses were everywhere, young and old. This is the festival where people from the village have a chance to gather and meet their friends. The competition was measured by speed and accuracy of the eagle flew towards its destination, agility as well as the costume of the Eagle Hunter. The Mongolian learned how to ride horses as soon as they started walking, and in this region, horse riding is still the main method of transportation.
We were lucky to have seen Kokbar game, where two horse riders had to grab headless, freshly slaughtered goat body at the shortest time. It is said the sport originated even before Genghis Khan era in the 13th
century. What strike me the most is the equestrian skill of the players as they literally twist, swing and pulling their bodies on moving horses while trying to grab the dead goat. Eagle hunter sport almost disappeared completely in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, but
today, the tradition remained kept by the ethnic Kazakhs. Thanks to the festivals, we could see young Eagle Hunters equally excited attending the events. We met with 14-year Sultan and his 16 year brother, Serem, both were teenage Eagle Hunters who came to the festival with their parents.
On our back to Olgi, while photographing a yurt in a distance, I came across a young nomad sitting by the tree with his horse while herding his sheep. With a sign language, I convinced him to come near our car. His name was Kardibek. The 20 year nomad lived with his family in the yurt that we shot during winter and returned to the mountain in Spring. As the Yurt was made of animal skin, it’s easily assembled. When they have to move, they pack everything, put in a truck and find another location suitable for the herds. After being photographed, he asked to have the pictures sent to his Facebook account. Unfortunately, I was not able to find him on Facebook; perhaps, he used Mongolian alphabets (similar to Russian alphabets).
On the last evening of our trip, our guide invited to his house for dinner with his wife
and two children. Sadly to say, our trip had come to an end. The one week trip had made us like a family. Thanking our guide, driver and cook, we promised to return to Mongolia to visit Gobi Desert and reindeer village of Tsaatan this year. We had no idea Covid 19 changed everything!
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