Golden Eagle Festival Part 2 – Mongolia 10-2014

October 26, 2014

It was 23°F outside under a blazing blue sky as the second day of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival began. Different from the previous day’s event where eagles had to attack a dead rabbit or fox being drug behind their trainer’s horse, today they had to zero in on their owner who held a chunk of meat in his gloved hand while riding at full speed across the field. Sharp talons extended, as soon the eagle had landed on the glove it was breakfast time. This too was all timed by officials and the Kazakh hunter would race by the judging stand with his eagle enjoying the ride with wings open in an impressive display of the close relationship of man, horse and bird.

While the next competition was being organized, we wandered around the gers where beautiful “tus kis” (hand-embroidered tapestries) used to decorate the ger walls and other souvenirs were for sale. Several locals had set up grills to cook “shashlik”, skewers of mutton and fat sprinkled with their own special spices, served with raw sliced onions and bread.

Among the local Mongols, there were several archery contests. In one competition, instead of pointed arrows, they used blunt tips and the goal was to hit small leather balls that had been lined up about 30 yards away. It looked like bocce ball with a Mongolian twist. Their accuracy was impressive.

Golden Eagle Festival, Olgii, Mongolia 009

Meanwhile, the camel race was being staged. It was not as action-packed as we might have imagined, since the ungainly bactrians are not really into galloping across the stony desert.

Back in the main arena, the final competition for the eagle hunters was getting under way. A sheep carcass was tossed on the ground and the riders, two at a time, would pick it up and get a firm grip for an exciting tug-a-war that could last several minutes until one of the riders succeeded in wrestling the bloody carcass away from the other. The horses played a critical roll in the battle and the skill of the riders was amazing as they kept their grip on the carcass and used the power of their stocky Mongolian horses to the best advantage. Competition was fierce and we spotted quite a few who were nursing their bleeding knuckles.

In past years, the winner of the eagle contest was allowed to send his eagle after a live fox or a small wolf pup as a final demonstration of the eagle’s skill for the crowd. The fox this year died or was killed, so a wolf pup was to be used. However, there were so many sympathetic spectators that someone purchased the poor wolf to spare its life. How it will manage in the wild of the coming winter in the mountains full of other hungry eagles is a good question. As cruel as some may think it is to hunt cute little foxes or wolfs or rabbits and other small animals with an eagle for “sport”, we meat-eaters regularly kill deer, moose, elk and even a cow or a lamb to eat. Eagle hunting has been a tradition in this part of the world for over 2,000 years. Nothing goes to waste. Gathering winter pelts is part of the hunter/herder’s livelihood and still provides the warm clothing for the severe winters.

As a side note, when the trained eagle has reached the age of about 10 years, she is taken to a mountaintop, presented with a dead sheep as a going-away present and released to the wild to once again live a life of freedom and to breed.

All in all, a very exciting two days of a spectacle we could probably not see anywhere else in the world. Now it was time to make a new plan. As much as we would have liked to drive back to Ulaanbaatar, taking our time to visit some of the remote families herding their sheep, yaks, cows, horses, camels and goats along the way and then heading for the Central Gobi desert to celebrate Monika’s birthday, The Turtle V needed some repairs on the rear suspension and a full check-up after its grueling 900-mile crossing of the Altai Gobi. The first step was to wash off the mud and dust. Clean trucks run better.

Note: Click a photo for a bigger picture and then scroll quickly through the first few frames to get a feeling for what transpires in just a few seconds!

 

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Golden Eagle Festival Part 1 – Mongolia 10-2014

October 22, 2014

After a harrowing 5-day/900-mile, (1,500 kilometers), drive across the amazing expanses of the northern Gobi Desert, (see previous blog), we arrived at the site of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival just outside of Bayan-Olgii in Western Mongolia, (You recall, this is the “middle of nowhere”.), and parked to join the growing crowd of spectators. We knew there were a couple of problems with the rear suspension, but nothing that needed our immediate attention. The sun was shining in a futile attempt to warm an icy wind gusting across the field of competition. The temperature was hovering around freezing.

Things were just getting started with the first big contest. Ethnic Kazakh eagle hunters from all over this part of the country had gathered, reportedly some 72 of them. Dressed in their finest attire, they were a fierce bunch indeed. The real stars were the Golden Eagles, huge birds of prey, some weighing over sixteen pounds with wingspans up to 8 feet. In these mountains of the Mongolian Altai, eagle hunting has been a tradition for over 2,000 years.

Golden Eagle Fest Part 2 Mongolia 016

In turn, each hunter, mounted on a stocky Mongolian horse, would start at the end of the field and call to his eagle, which at that moment, timed by the officials, would have its hood removed and be released by an assistant from a nearby hill. If the eagle was well trained and in tune with the game, she, (yes, females are normally used because they are larger than males), would hear the call of her owner and spot the dead rabbit or Corsac fox pulled behind his horse at a full gallop.

Approaching at speeds up to 150 miles per hour, (241 km/h), the eagle would zero in on the bait, and braking slightly at the last few seconds, hit the target, sharp talons extended, with up to 700 pounds of impact. Normally, in a real hunt, this would kill or at least stun the prey instantly. At this point, the trainer would quickly dismount and retrieve his bird to its perch on his thick leather glove, offering some tasty pieces of mutton or perhaps a rabbit leg. For the eagle, it may be sport. It may be a challenge. For sure, it’s about getting food, so in the mountains where hunting is done in the winter, the trainer must remove the eagle from the dead prey before the pelt is damaged.

If you look at the series of photos below, you may get an idea of the action which took mere seconds to photograph at a “high-speed continuous” setting. It was a very impressive demonstration of speed and power.

Each eagle contestant was timed from her release to final impact on the target. A fast kill could be 14 seconds from start to finish. In some cases, the eagle would circle for a few minutes, just enjoying the freedom of flight. In one case, spotting the dead rabbit drug behind her trainer’s horse, as the eagle came in for the kill, her attention strayed to a small dog in the crowd of spectators and, looking for something more filling, suddenly veered off and hit the poor dog. The trainer quickly rescued it, but we don’t know if the dog survived. The eagle was just doing what her instincts told her to do……get food.

Exhausted from our drive, we retired to the warmth of The Turtle V to take a shower and cook dinner. A nasty wind whistled outside. As we had many times on this trip, we were very glad to be in a warm hard-sided camper with the luxury of hot water and the convenience of our Thetford Porta Potti. The Espar Airtronic air heater purred away at its “maintenance” mode and our Espar D5 Hydronic, working with the FlatPlate fluid heat exchanger, gave us all the hot water we could use.

After a shot of Genghis Khan vodka, we slept soundly, glad to be off the road and looking forward to the next day’s competition.

Note: Click a photo for a bigger picture and then scroll quickly through the hunting scene to get a feeling for what transpires in just a few seconds!

 

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Golden Eagle Festival – Getting There – Mongolia 10-2014

October 16, 2014

Yes, we know. If you have been trying to following us from Greece to Turkey to Georgia to Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan to Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan and across all of China—-well, travel has been a bit hectic. Keeping up with visa entry deadlines and just life on the road has left little time and energy to sort photos and write blogs. We will backtrack and give all the details when we slow down, but in the meantime, life has been too exciting to leave you hanging in the Taklamakan Desert in China, our last posting.

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we had learned from our Lonely Planet Guide that the annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival was taking place the following weekend on the other side of the country. All plane flights were booked so the option was to drive. Anyway, getting there is half the fun, right?

We are now in Olgii, Western Mongolia. In 1996, as we crossed all of Russia, we followed an obscure trading route along the Mongolian border to a town called Kosh Agach, described by our Lonely Planet Russian Guide as “close to the middle of nowhere”. Olgii is just a few hours south of Kosh Agach, so I think we have reached “the middle of nowhere”.

When the pavement ended, we were looking at a maze of two-tracks wandering across the grassland of the northern part of the Gobi Desert, (second in size only to the Sahara). This was a “National Highway”. No problem. While Gary watched for washouts, potholes and sharp rocks, Monika scanned the distant web of two-tracks and obscure road markers to make sure we were still going the right direction. It would have been very easy to get lost. Often the most obvious track lead off to a ger over the hill or to a small community not on our new Mongolia Tourist Map.

Nine hundred miles and five 10 to 12 hour days later, driving on 3-inch washboard, gravel, mud, crossing a river or two and the surprising short sections of blacktop, often not even sure if we were on the right road, we arrived in “the middle of nowhere” and parked in a dust storm at the site of the 14th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival.

 Was it worth it? We’ll let you know after we replace a few broken bolts on the suspension and crawl underneath to see what else is loose.

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Taklamakan Desert, China – August 28, 2014

September 6, 2014

August 28, 2014

China! We finally arrived in Kashgar, the Magical City of the Silk Road. Our cute guide, Zhang Zhiqiong, was waiting for us. An English major, she chose the rather unusual name of “Green” as her English nickname. Why? Because she was born on Earth Day.

Our 30-day driving schedule across China arranged by NAVO will be grueling, and we have no time for blogs. Google, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. We just wanted everyone to know we are fine.

 

September 1, 2014

As for our journey across the Taklamakan Desert, we chose to first start on the southern end, then cross the desert and continue along the northern edge to Dunhuang on the east side. (Kashgar-Mingfeng-Taklamakan crossing-Luntai-Turfan-Dunhuang)

We stayed overnight in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert on the outskirts of the only settlement along the route, Tazhong.

 

More some other time!

Gary and Monika

 

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Pamir Hwy #1, Tajikistan 7/2014

August 20, 2014

Turning off the Wakhan Corridor, we breathed a little sigh of relief, but really, compared to the roads we had driven through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan just to get to Khorog, the Wakhan had been a drive in the park. Now we headed west again, back to Khorog to resupply and to experience the Pamir Highway, reported to be vey beautiful and supposedly the best highway in the country. Humm??

We immediately hit pavement. Wow!! Real blacktop. Should we air the tires back up? Well not quite yet. The Pamir is paved, sort of, in-between the potholes the size of toilet bowls and sections of dusty gravel and rocks. Maybe 20 years ago it was a good road, but the convoys of overloaded Chinese semi tractor trailers hauling everything from earth movers to plastic household goods and rice have pretty much destroyed the road bed and no effort has been made to repair it. It was so bad, for a while, we almost turned around. Very glad we didn’t. The road didn’t get any better, but the scenery was spectacular, even more impressive than the Wakhan had been.

Local people were welcoming and friendly. Kids waved. A few times we were invited for “chai”, but we promised to stop on our way back. Already being familiar with Khorog, we knew the market and where to camp, get Internet, water and fuel. We arrived just before dark so we parked and headed straight to the well-known Indian restaurant for, (as we had been told), an excellent dinner and even a decent glass of wine. We deserved it!

We spent three days recuperating, meeting new people, shopping and catching up on our email and blogs (joke!!). The roads, (sic), we had followed since Turkey had pounded and beaten The Turtle V unmercifully. If it had feelings, it must have felt like one of those slave prisoners tossed into the Coliseum in Rome, set against wild animals and vicious gladiators armed with chain-whips, spears and clubs. The truck had survived, but tires, suspension, clutch, brakes, steering, and every mechanical component you can imagine has been severely tested. Careful preparation at Ken Imler’s Diesel Performance in Sacramento and our own choice of the best aftermarket products available have paid off. We can’t possibly list all the important companies who have helped build and outfit our expedition trucks for many years, but if you are curious, they are listed on the Suppliers Page on our web site.

After a rather futile attempt to wash off the mud and dust from the last thousand miles, we filled water and fuel and headed back east on the Pamir Highway, on our way to the Kyrgyzstan border. We knew with dread what the first part of the road conditions would be like, but we looked forward to a few stops to revisit new friends we had met on our way back from the Wakhan turnoff to Khorog.

 

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Wakhan Corridor #2 – The People, Tajikistan 7-2014

August 8, 2014

People in the foreign countries we are visiting are part of the joy of overland travel, and for sure, the children are the most fun. They have no fear, no set opinions, no religious or political concerns. They are just curious that strange people in a strange vehicle from a place they may never have heard of suddenly appeared. We can show them on the map on the side of camper where we live, but usually it’s beyond their imagination. A balloon, one of our photo cards or some fun stickers from our sponsors always bring smiles. When they spot our truck coming, they often run to the side of the road and wave. Our passing may be the most exciting thing that has happened all week.

In villages along the road or in the big markets, there are many wonderful women. The lines in their faces show the hard life they have endured, but the smiles are always there. Men and older boys are more interested in The Turtle V but we can’t really answer their main question, “How much does it cost.” We just say that we don’t know because we have many sponsors. To explain why a custom expedition camper might cost over $180,000 is more than they can really grasp, so we try to avoid the question. Young girls are sometimes a little shy, but their magical smiles are a treasure. Family ties are extremely important, and we try to catch a photo when mother and daughter or father and son are together.

Tajikistan is a Muslim country, but a very liberal one at that. They are Ismaili Muslim and do not observe Ramadan. There was no call to prayer in the morning. The beautiful dresses of women might shock the eye, but they did cover their often-attractive figures. On the flip side, tight jeans and form-fitting blouses were not unusual, and a headscarf very optional.

From Turkey and east through the Stans, Monika’s worry of how she must dress and act in these Muslim countries turned out to be unfounded. Always wearing a headscarf and a full-length skirt with a long-sleeve shirt was not necessary, and being able to look men in the eye and shake their hands was not a problem. In fact, as we have done in Mexico and South America for years, when we reach a border check or a police ID stop, I stay in the truck and Monika gets out with our paperwork. The guards, all men, show her ultimate respect and perhaps are even a little thrown off guard that they are dealing with an attractive woman. The “macho man” relation is out the door. It’s kind of funny to watch.

Everyone you see in these photos and all that we met were neat and clean so it is hard to imagine that most did not have running water in their homes nor “bathrooms” as we imagine them. Often the best was an outhouse in the backyard with a “squat hole” and a pitcher of water.

After driving the Wakhan Corridor, we returned via the Pamir Highway back to Khorog to resupply, and that was another adventure.

 

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Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan 7-23-14

July 24, 2014

Ever since we began planning our adventure along the Silk Road, the Wakhan Corridor had been an intermediate goal. It was part of the route that Marco Polo took on his journey across Central Asia in the 13th century. The Corridor itself was created during the Great Game era (1800′s) by the Russian and British who decided their empires should not have a joint border in order to avoid conflicts, so they created this buffer zone, an artificial finger sticking towards China. They gave it to Afghanistan that is quite unfortunate, as the local population is far removed from Kabul and gets little support or attention.

While we expected the mostly unpaved route through the Wakhan Corridor could be difficult, we were shocked at the roads we had to drive from the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, to Khorog, the center of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, which required a special permit. Once the pavement ended in the Panj Valley of the Wakhan Corridor outside Langar, the last village of the agricultural area, we switched to low range and 4×4 to negotiate the difficult sections more easily. But in fact, to our surprise, much of the road was quite passable although very bumpy and extremely dusty. Traffic was light. Small Chinese micro vans and burros seem to be the modes of transportation in the valley. 4×4 SUV’s in the higher, uninhabited altitudes worked better. Herds of cattle, goats and sheep occasionally crossed in front of us.

The attraction of this route along the Afghan border was always the beautiful mountains, some of the highest in the world. As we followed the Panj River and the later the Pamir, always along the Afghan border, the mountain range to our left has often been referred to as the “Roof of the World”. On the southern border of the Wakhan Corridor, the Hindu Kush Mountains could be seen in Pakistan.

We had hoped to meet some of the natives who live in the Pamir Mountains, herding their goats and sheep. To our surprise, most of our interaction was in small villages in the valley where potatoes, wheat and other grains were grown. The area is particularly famous for their apricots of which there are some 160 varieties throughout Central Asia. It was the perfect season for these delicacies. Children were selling buckets of apricots along the road and were waving at us to stop. They were hard to resist at 10 or 20 cents a pound, picked ripe right off the tree. Children, men and women waved as we passed. We sometimes stopped to give the children balloons or stickers from our sponsors.

Our camps were often near a village and occasionally, people would invite us for chai (tea) which we usually declined, knowing that times are tough and they often serve more than tea. People were very busy working in their fields and gardens. For us, it was also the reality that while everyone has a cell phone (or so it seems) and many have satellite dishes, none of them have running water and sanitation conditions are very third world.

We had hope to see a few of the endangered Marco Polo Bighorn Sheep but all we saw were marmots in the higher altitudes scurrying around and the occasional shrine with Ibex and Marco Polo sheep horns.

Some of our camps were above 13,000 ft. and we were able to enjoy hot water and even a nice shower thanks to the new high altitude compensation kit installed on our Espar D5 Hydronic coolant heater.

As we left the valley and climbed into the Southern Alichur Range towards Khorgach Pass, the scenery was shockingly beautiful with its lack of vegetation. Even at this elevation, a few flowers grew. Where sparkling creeks cascaded down from snow clad peaks, grass and small shrubs were growing but the perfusion of wild flowers we had seen in other high altitude areas like the California Sierras or the Swiss Alps, were missing.

On one occasion we were able to assist a couple with a dead fuel pump. They had been sitting on the side of the road for two hours with no vehicle passing and temperatures were down to 5 °C / 41 °F and evening was approaching quickly. Gary had the wire and connectors needed to jury-rig their fuel pump and after an hour, they were gratefully on their way. They presented us with a fresh loaf of Nan (flat bread) and some curiously tasting mothball size yoghurt/salt balls.

While there is much more to be said about this amazing section of the famous Silk Road, we hope the pictures below will give you an impression of our experience.

Despite the rumors of border conflicts, we encountered no problems of any kind and even the Afghanis across the river sometimes waved back to us.

 

 

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Georgia 6 – Food, 6-2014

July 18, 2014

Years ago when we traveled in Mexico we used to laugh at people coming south with their motorhomes, cupboards full canned food, on the assumption that people in Mexico didn’t have any. Now, as we travel through some of the most remote countries in the world, some may wonder how do we survive? What do these people eat? You may see some interesting answers in the photos below as we traveled through the country of Georgia. There may be twenty ladies selling tomatoes, onions, beets, peppers, cabbage,—all and more than you can imagine. The question is, who has the best? What does the cheese taste like? Can we taste? Of course!! Is it “moo”, (cow) or “baa”, (goat)? Is that meat pig “oink-oink”, or moo? Seriously, the biggest problem of finding food in these countries is limiting our selection to what we can use in the next few days, because little roadside stands are often selling the same as we drive along.

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Khorog, Pamir, Tajikistan – July 15, 2014

July 15, 2014

Yes, our blogs are way behind again. We will get them caught up someday, but at the moment we are so busy keeping ourselves and the truck alive and experiencing this amazing part of the World that we have traveled so far to see. We made our way across Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and finally to the country of Tajikistan. Internet connections are frustratingly difficult. We are in Khorog, Tajikistan and today, we’ll be starting to drive the famous Wakhan Corridor along the Afghan border where Marco Polo traveled along the Silk Road.

Tajikistan 0017

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Georgia 5, 6-2014

July 4, 2014

 We had been looking forward to Georgian wines since we had our last sip of Italian Nero d’Avila. To our disappointment, most of the stores in Georgia stocked plenty of beer, vodka and juices, but rarely more than a few wines. Much of the table wine we found in the country was either homemade or produced by wineries and sold in 5-liter plastic containers. It was invariably on the sweet side. This was not Napa Valley, where there is a winery every couple of miles advertizing their wine-tasting rooms, tours and pick-nick facilities. If these exist at all in the Kakheti wine country valley, they are set up for tour buses, not individuals.

At length, we did find two wineries that were very interesting. The Numisi winery in Velistsikhe was located on a dirt side road with no signs outside of any kind. It had an interesting museum of antique wine making equipment. The old winery itself still had the huge amphorae called qvervri buried in the ground where wine was traditionally aged. For $10 each they offered a tour of the museum and a generous sample of their red, rosé and white wines, plus a dangerous chacha (grappa style) distilled from the seeds and stems, all accompanied by fresh cheese and bread. We learned that they are apparently known for their Saperavi wine made from an indigenous red grape. The owner, Nunu, a delightful lady herself, gave us the tour and let us peek into the cellar where 10–year old cognac was aging in barrels. Quite content that we had discovered Georgian wine, we camped right in front of the winery that night.

The second winery we discovered with the help of the informative Tourist Information Office in Telavi was the Twins Old Cellar Winery. Obviously set up for tour buses, we would have never found it on our own. They had a fabulous museum and exhibits of how their traditional wines were made. Even then, their best dry red they called “The Black One” because of its incredibly dark color, was sold in beautiful ceramic 1-liter bottles, ($25) or a 5-liter plastic jugs, ($35), an unfortunate choice since this type of wine deteriorates quickly once exposed to air.

We were fortunate to see the next generation of giant amphorae being prepared and buried in the ground for the unique aging process. Once the special clay amphorae (urns) are fired and aged, they are treated with a lime type cement on the outside and then again heated with fire on the inside. A coat of liquid bees’ wax permanently seals the surface. Buried in the ground, the year’s vintage is sealed and stored for at least one year. These amphorae are cleaned and re-used for generations.

We were told that Russia has banned the importation of Georgian wines, mostly sweet, and wineries are now adapting more modern vinting processes to produce the dry wines preferred by the European and US markets.

Driving through the Kakheti Valley, we could have been in the Napa, Sonoma or any other valley in California, but clearly, the way to explore the wines of Georgia is with a private guide or by tour bus.

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