On day two of the cross-country horse trip, we awoke to the sounds of geese along the lake, with the goat herd bedded down in front of the ger. Such beauty. As soon as breakfast was over, we were on horseback, headed over the mountains. We had another fantastic day of riding, with the three eagles being exercised throughout the day. One scary moment occurred with two of the eagles tangled and went down in a clenched heap. It took Armanbek and Abutalb several tense minutes to gently unclench each talon to get the girls to let go of each other. Thankfully, neither eagle was hurt.
I’ve enjoyed watching how these Kazakh men are with their animals. When we stop to rest, they slide the bits out of the horses’ mouths so they can graze without being encumbered. They also slip the felt pads out from beneath the saddles so the horses can cool their backs. I watched Armanbek pick mud and materials from the broomtails as well, using a stick as a brush. The men all talk, coo and sing to their animals – whether it is a single eagle, the horse being ridden, or the herd of goats in front. Every hand I saw raised to an animal, even in the process of death, was raised gently.
The three eagle hunters and their crews all converged at a winter house for the night. We had lots of fun, playing cards, eating and singing, taking turns trying out my hot-pink iPod. The other men slept in the other side of the house, while our group slept on our side. A building full of snoring men – oh yes, I traveled 7,000 miles for this.
The winter house has a solar panel hooked up to provide power to a two-battery setup in the living room to handle two overhead light bulbs. Several of the gers we have been to have satellites and television as well.
It was warm in the winter house all night, which was a pleasant change from the night before. The men were out early, catching the horses and getting us ready for the day. It was very windy and we rode for four hours before stopping atop a mountain for a break.
I had a near-perfect moment that day. We had ridden for hours, and stopped at the crest of a mountain to rest our horses and let our van catch up to us for lunch. The wind had been blowing like crazy. We dropped off our horses, set the eagles on rock perches, and lay down on the ground on the slope. I closed my eyes and turned my face toward the sun and was perfectly content – it really did feel like home. It was that moment I knew Mongolia had become part of my soul.
We ran the horses across the steppe. Armanbek had another young man bring me Armanbek’s horse whip, then tried to talk me into racing him. I laughed and started, but watched as Armanbek dropped onto one knee, at a gallop, with the eagle in the other hand, and I pulled up. He thundered across the steppe on a beautiful paint horse, with the eagle in his right fist, down on his left knee. It was the finest act of horsemanship I’ve ever witnessed in all my life. He did it two more times throughout the day, but I could never get a picture. The look on his face was pure joy.
Our truck caught up with us, and we dropped down into a valley for lunch, starting a fire outside another winter house to heat everything. The men promised fox hunting in the afternoon, so we rode with them again. We rode horses over mountains that only mountain goats should traverse. We flushed one fox, but the eagles didn’t see it. These men are like excited redneck hunters everywhere – they whoop and holler and love what they do. They help care for each other’s birds. This is a culture of eagles, so everyone pets, touches and carries them. These eagles are treated as they they bring good fortune into their lives.
These are some of the warmest and most generous people on the planet. It doesn’t matter that I don’t speak Kazakh and they don’t speak English because we communicate really well anyway. They eat communally and live communally. What is for one is shared with all. Aralbai growls a lot, which I find endearing rather than intimidating. The men are full of laughter, teasing and story telling. The women work harder than the men. The men are very social, and very physical with their affection. Taking a tea break is routine (either Kazakh tea or English tea). Chores seem to be done according to hierarchy. Young unmarried men will help in the kitchen.