travel diary: kazakh

Early October marks Western Mongolia’s largest event, which is pretty small by global standards, and even Mongolian standards (as compared to Naadam).  Still, the Eagle Festival is a fascinating glimpse of one of Mongolia’s largest ethnic minorities, the Kazakh people.

Kazakhstan is obviously a large country, and just next door, separated by a sliver of Russia.  But Kazakhstan has long since gone Soviet, and the Kazakhs in Mongolia have managed to preserve traditional Kazakh culture to a surprisingly authentic degree.  This is helped by Mongolia’s relaxed policies on integration, allowing Kazakhs to maintain separate schools in their own language.

Unlike the rest of Mongolia’s minority groups, the Kazakhs are distinctly different, in looks, language, religion, food, and culture. They are Muslim, though not often religious (despite preparation of halal meat).  They maintain traditional foods from central Asia, while incorporating some of Mongolia’s most popular dairy items.  And they share Mongolia’s love of horse riding and the wild outdoors.

In the first weekend of October, the Kazakhs of Mongolia display another popular cultural tradition – eagle hunting.  For a while, eagle hunting was on the verge of dying out, until one of Mongolia’s largest tour operators began sponsoring the Golden Eagle Festival.  So, with its origins in attracting tourists, the Eagle Festival is expected to be a glamorous sham of an event.

It was nothing of the sort.  Small and even a bit intimate, the eagle festival was two days of rodeo-style entertainment.  We started in the main square of town for the parade, where the locals dressed in their finery and marched around.  Then we piled into our vehicles and headed out to a small canyon outside of town, where a large ring had been set up for events.

There are three main events at the eagle festival, two of which involve eagles.  The first is a competition in which eagles are launched from a high point on a bearby hillside, and sent to capture a small bit of fox fur that the trainer is dragging on the ground behind his horse.  The second is similar, but this time the eagle is meant to land on the hunter’s arm.  I found the second to be by far the more exciting of the two.

But my favorite activity was the third, in which two men on horses played tug-of-war with a goat skin, pulling each other over and under their horses, often galloping off and in circles before one of them managed to pull the skin away from the other.

The rest of the festival was typical, with vendors set up selling skewered meat, Kazakh embroidered goods, fur hats, and other items.  I even tried a bit of horse intestine, which was disappointing in its almost normalcy (except for the chewiness….).

But the Eagle Festival is not the only attraction of western Mongolia.  The most mountainous region of Mongolia, Olgii and the other western provinces are incredibly beautiful landscapes.   The moutains rise tall and proud, and the lakes are often half-frozen in the fall.  In particular, the salt accumulating along lakeshores reveals a very different view of the Mongolian countryside.

Mongolia’s highest peaks rise in the west, in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.  And not far from the park’s entrance live Kazakh herders, moving from their summer gers to their winter houses while we were there.  We had the opportunity to hike a bit in the snow of the mountains, while staying overnight with some of the local families, who fed us traditional Kazakh foods like “five fingers”, a delicious dish of salty steamed dough and roasted mutton eaten with both hands and much gusto.

We also had the opportunity to purchase some traditional crafts, and our host told us that much of the old embroidery is difficult to find anymore in Kazakhstan, and becoming more rare in Mongolia itself.  I felt lucky to be able to purchase one, made in 1952, which I hope to restore upon return to the US.


1 Response to “travel diary: kazakh”

  1. 1 טיולים December 2, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    Great! loved it.. LIKE :>

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