Mongolia, often referred to as Asia’s last unexplored frontier, is also described as the land of Asia’s cowboys. Indeed, the rugged culture of “felt tents” embodied by the nomadic family of Genghis Khan is one still practiced by almost half of Mongolia’s 3 million people today, only sometimes there’s now a TV or radio receiving scratchy signals inside the ger. The difficult lifestyle is one that’s gone virtually unchanged for centuries, and at no time is this more evident than the month of February.
The national holiday of tsagaan sar, “white month” or “white moon,” is a holiday the exact date of which Mongolian astrologers argue over. This year it is celebrated on the three days of February 7-9, and mothers in city apartments and gers alike have been at work making buuz, or mutton dumplings, for weeks in preparation. The country quiets down from mid-December through to the end of February, since holiday and December 31st festivities are followed so closely by this very Mongolian celebration of the lunar new year. Through the month of February, family members visit each other far and wide over this frozen desert sprinkled with Buddhist nomads, greeting by layering their palms face-up and asking, “Amar bain uu?” Instead of the usual “Cain bain uu?” (literally, “Are you easy?” instead of “Are you good?”) and showing off their very best deels, traditional coats that stretch almost to the ground and that many Mongolians still wear normally, even to business meetings.
All this is not a display for tourists, as is often the case in other post-Soviet Central Asian countries. The majority of older people on the streets of Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar still dress in the deels, pointed boots, and tall hats of yore, and residents of both country and city still regularly drink salted milky tea and airag (fermented mare’s milk) and eat dishes of lamb and horse meat. Regional culture is celebrated with vigor, as on this day at the onset of white month, at the Dundad Zuun Tourist Camp around 65 kilometers outside of Ulaanbaatar, where the Eagle Festival is in full swing. Hunters in dark, thick deels and red, tasseled hats circle in front of the cheering crowd on thick-set horses, and on the bent arm of each rider a huge hunting eagle, fierce of eye and claw, spreads its black and white feathered wings and waits to released to the immaculate sky.
This year the eagle festival is not hard to get to. Round a corner on the main road about 60 kilometers northeast of Ulaanbaatar and there opens out a valley dotted with wooden houses and grocery shops like a piece of American, Midwestern suburbia, surrounded by implausible geographical structures the likes of which give Yellowstone a run for its money. This is the beginning of Terelj, the national park outside the city district of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia’s central province, dotted with such sights as the Mother Stone, Turtle Rock, and plenty of altars made of piles of stones topped by tree branches festooned with blue Buddhist khadags (prayer flags). Beside one of these altars are usually parked at least a couple minibuses or jeeps, and Mongolians of all ages walk their three-circle rounds about the altar, tossing a pebble after each rotation and muttering prayers.
This is the first time the Eagle Festival is being held in Terelj rather than the westernmost province of Bayan-Olgii, where Mongolia’s Kazakh, Sunni Muslim minority is largely settled. 600 hunters usually participate in the festival, but because of the grueling, four-day journey from Bayan-Olgii, only 22 hunters aged 18-80, have made the trek. Lucky for those who live in the capital, though--it’s close enough to make a day trip out of Ulaanbaatar on the weekend; local businesses like Ayunchin Guesthouse offer up a mean cheeseburger and choice wines an hour’s drive outside the city among Terelj’s stunning mountains, with ger camps open to customers who’d like to hole up in a fire-warmed nomadic house for the night.
On the road to Terelj, snow swirls laterally, twirled this way and that by the cars that pass each other dangerously on the hilly-two lane “highway”. Train cars crawl quietly by on the trans-Siberian railway a few hundred meters from the road, the only dark movement in the white, white landscape. The sole interruptions made in the otherwise unbroken snow are the tracks of jeeps that swerved off the concrete road entirely—something that anyone going to the countryside to visit a nomadic family member does regularly, for miles and miles. (Rural Mongolia is perhaps the only place where a vehicle hyped by “test course” commercials on closed, desert-like courses in California might actually be bought for the purpose touted there.) In the early 90s, it was difficult even to get chewing gum in Mongolia, and the meal coupons and bread lines one imagines along with post-Soviet economic freefall were not only real but made even more unendurable by the severe weather—Ulaanbaatar is, point blank, the coldest capital city on the planet.
It is also one of the most polluted cities on the planet, but only for the coldest three months of the year, when the temperature never climbs above -5 Fahrenheit in the sun and the comparatively warm exhaust just drifts in the tiny valleys between Soviet-era apartment blocs. Fortunately, the visible grey-brown smog ends right when the city does, beginning a seemingly endless supply of the freshest air on earth. Even Mongolia’s president has come out for a breath of it, riding in one of the many tinted-windowed, siren-flashing cars forming a fast, beeping procession on the left side of the road (Mongolians are supposed to drive on the right).
Mongolia’s intriguing position between the two superpowers of China and Russia and its unbelievable mining resources make for a country on the move. It’s a vast, pristine land of both unmitigated love of tradition and unmitigated growth. The American Ambassador, appointed by the current administration, goes from hosting receptions for left-leaning activist Fulbright fellows in his living room to flying to Washington last October for the signature of a $300 million Millenium Challenge package for Mongolia. Mongolia does need it—a few “big freezes”, as they’re called, killed the livestock of thousands and thousands of herders over recent winters, swelling the population of Ulaanbaatar from roughly 1 to 2 million, and the city lacks the infrastructure and the immigrants the particular skills to make this an easy transition. In the city of Ulaanbaatar, where a statue of Chinggis Khan presides over smooth, wide Sukhbaatar Square south of the Government house, cell phones and wallets are stolen regularly, and the heavy vodka-drinking tradition is evident in pools of frozen vomit on the sidewalk come Saturday morning.
Everyone, from local Mongolian families showing off their camels for a couple thousand togrigs (a couple dollars) a ride to the newly minted Mongolian urbanites in designer jeans who pay to ride them, is out for the Eagle Festival. Various Ambassadors and other VIPs stand up on the deck of the only non-ger in the area; the rest, a mixture of traditionally and modernly dressed Mongolians and American, British, and Australian expats and tourists, gather at the ropes sectioning them off from the eagles and their masters, jostling for a view in the clear, -24 Fahrenheit air.
And the view is spectacular: the waiting arms of the hunters crooked like the unlikely, austere natural rock-scape above it, where golden eagles whose wings, when opened, easily hide the head and shoulders of their masters, are laboriously carried on foot to a high enough rock from which to soar at the sound of the hunter’s high-pitched cry below. The eagles and their trainers, who perform on horseback, enact a ritual that has gone on for 6,000 years in the mountains of central Asia. The eagles are trained similarly to hunting falcons, and festival-goers have been warned not to wear fur or anything with red color. The ceremony starts with the 20 or so hunters parading up and down the crowd to wild clapping, holding the eagles aloft, the splendid birds’ sharp claws and beaks close enough to cause the spectators to step back. Then the hunters begin the three rounds of the ritual that determines whose eagle is the most dexterous and loyal--not a small determination among a culture of men who go virtually without sleep for the eagle’s youth in order to cultivate an all-consuming and intimate 20-year relationship with the eagle, who is hooded when it is young to make it dependent on its master. First the crying hunter rides his horse at a run through the clean snow, dragging by a rope the carcass of some unfortunate, furred creature (word on the street is that the hunters arrived in Ulaanbaatar without enough bait and so had to buy a bunch of rabbits at the market at the last minute), and there follows the unequivocal arc of the eagle off the high rocky perch through the dry, lucid, sub-zero desert air, bearing down with centuries’ worth of natural agility and magnificent speed to a skidding collision with the prey.
Even when the eagle misses, it’s nothing short of breathtaking. To their credit, these eagles have been traveling for days to be here, so no one is surprised when an eagle doesn’t spot the prey at first or prefers instead to fly in an impressive circle above the crowd, as occasionally happens throughout the afternoon—it’s still visually pleasing, and even a little thrilling; when one eagle is brought through the crowd on the way up to the VIP porch, standersby are startled at the still-fierce alertness in the eyes of a bird who must be very, very tired. The eagles perk up after the ritual, when four live rabbits are let lose and the eagles and spectators both enjoy the carnage. The metaphor for “eagle eyes” is elucidated by these birds in the bright, white cold; the scurrying bunnies don’t stand a chance against these predators who seem the biological embodiment of accuracy.
After a few hours filled with golden eagles diving, the horsemen play a game in which a few of them hold by its hooves a dead goat and ride at top speed, and the last one astride a horse holding the carcass wins. It’s not an easy game to win; the horsemen sometimes ride bent to the side almost at a right angle in order not to lose hold of a hoof. Still, it’s less alluring to most of the crowd, and besides, -24 can be tough on the toes. Anyone who steps outside in this weather with wet hair will notice their freeze within seconds. Men who piss on the sides of buildings can watch their steaming urine slow like chocolate sauce. At this temperature fairy-dust ice settles on eyelashes and cheek-hair and any part of a scarf someone’s breath touches, and mucus has an annoying habit of freezing on an intake of breath and melting just enough to run at the exhale. Luckily, there are perhaps ten public gers set up for the event with fires blazing inside the stove at the center of each. Entire Mongolian families take turns settling down in them for a packed lunch of milky tea with pieces of meat at the bottom of each cup, with distant family members and old friends stooping down through the door to an exuberant tsagaan sar welcome.
The entire Eagle Festival program will repeat in the afternoon for the latecomers, a good move on the part of the event’s organizers, who clearly know how Mongolians treat time. The VIPs have their photos taken with the hunters, who kneel with eagles on their arms. Slowly the crowd thins out to the last strains of the slightly campy Mongolian pop music that blares alternately with the bilingual commentating, some headed home in private cars to the city, others in packed buses to nomadic outposts near and far. Mongolia has always been a place of intensity, and it has its share of growing pains. But today, as some of the freshest air in the world was breathed by folks in deels and sports jackets in a collective gasp at the heart-moving, arrow-like descent of an eagle out of the frozen desert sky while the president stood nearby, one thing is clear: Mongolia is not growing away from its heritage.