Finally we were off to start the epic adventure of tackling the remote west. Japur got my border permits, and entry tickets for me free of charge from obscure looking men adorned in riff raff uniform. The head ranger wasn’t in office so we headed to his village to find him. The village had a mosque and that was about it. He was delighted to receive us and wished us safe travels.
He gave me some extra bits and bobs of paper and stamped them which would ensure I’d be fine in the red tape department along the skittish border dividing China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia. I was a little daunted by the fact that I would be spending the next week with a complete stranger who’d picked me up in a crummy post office in Olgii. He’d be solely responsible for driving me around the middle of nomad’s land, making sure we’d find families and friends to feed us and offer us accommodation along the way. The thought of him pulling over and murdering me, stealing my money and feeding me to the wolves really crossed my mind a couple of times! I guess such a vivid imagination stems from living in South Africa. Fellow tourists often asked me “How did you do it, all alone?”, “Weren’t you afraid ” I always reply: “I come from South Africa, I know a thing or three about crime and how to look out for myself.” Usually shuts them up.
So we drove for a while, I was in my happy place again. Completely mesmerized by the astonishing surrounding beauty, my hiimori was back and cantering. What freedom, what complete quiet peaceful freedom. The soul needs space, it needs to fly away and return as it wishes. When it leaves, you have to confront and feel through the loneliness. I’d let go of it for a while, I was glad it had returned.
‘Kazakh’ means free warrior steppe roamer. Kerry Kazakh, c’est moi. I’m a wanderer, I love ambling along and boy do I take time to take it all in. I could drive for miles and just stare. Stand and just stare. It clears the mind and helps me put life into perspective. I l ike to think about how the light from the sun takes 8 and a bob minutes to travel to touch my skin. Someone once asked me what I think about when I stare out into the yonder. I think about the universe at large, the world and how to fix it. I think about my family and how grateful I should be. When I travel, I just live and breath life and smile.
Our first stop was at a local family who turned out to be good friends of Japur. Everyone in the area it seems is somehow related. It was really wonderful to be with a nomadic family without other tourists and enjoy a meal without the sense of obligation. It felt truly authentic, no tour operator nonsense at all. The family farmers and eagle hunters, (they use their eagles to hunt-they don’t actually hunt eagles!). We sat and had a midday meal. The chai was typically Kazakh in that it was served with a nice dollop of butter and salt. The usual yogurt, fermented mare’s milk, cheese, and bread was delicious. It had to be ’cause that’s all I would be eating for the next few days. Dairy and carbs and mutton.
The family was just gorgeous, they gleamed in their ger among their vibrant wall hangings (tush) and beautifully decorated felt carpets (koshma). The little bambino was just so cute, she had the windswept red cheeks of a kazakh nomad and her father was a rough and tumble hardy farmer who had survival etched in every wrinkle and pore on his tanned face. They also showed and played their dombra pour moi.
The gorgeous young lads of the family were more than happy to show off their pet wolf and handsome steppe eagle as well as pose for some photos. The two strapping young guns had the most breathtaking green eyes. The little wolf cub was wild, I’ve never seen anything like it. I was desperate to see a wolf, but not in chains like this one. The father showed me with great animation how they’d club it to death ( a bullet would tear the pelt ) and they’d sell the skins to Russians for a good fee. I was shocked, they all laughed at my facial expressions throughout the story telling and told me not to feel bad about it! Wolfs were a menace and a constant threat to their livestock. A part of me was heartbroken that this thing would be killed in such a brutal way.
The eagle was lovely though she was pretty heavy! My skinny arm could barely hold her up without trembling. Japur explained to me how the hunters train them to hunt rabbits, foxes and that they can also kill wolves. Female eagles are always chosen and trained up. The bond between the hunter and his eagle was incredible. He spoke to her and reassured her with such familiar intuition that I got the chills just listening. They’ve become an extension of one another. I could see how much she adored him. It takes years for such a bond to be felt and for the trust to be welded. She totally belonged to him, spiritually. When she soars the steppe in flight, she takes him with her. He flies with her, he sees what she sees from above and speaking the language of the world they manage to bring food to the table in the depths and despair of winter. I left a piece of my heart with her, and asked her to scour the steppe carrying that little piece. I know now, that I’ll soar those devastatingly beautiful mountains as long as she lives.
This in an art that so incredibly important, culturally and spiritually. Sadly a Eagle Hunting is becoming a dying sport, with the youth losing interest in their nomadic heritage But the small Kazakh community in Olgii and surrounding areas fight to keep it alive as much as they fight to keep their nomadictraditions alive. Long may it last, inshallah.