Hong Kong’s Felgate family flew to Mongolia for an unforgettable experience with the nomadic Kazakh tribes. Mum Sandra tells Carolynne Dear why it was the trip of a lifetime.
Damel and her father demonstrating the art of eagle hunting.
Sitting around a bonfire in the wilds of western Mongolia, our host pulled out a bottle of white wine. Perfectly chilled in the local river, it complemented our simple meal of grilled fish beautifully, although I have no idea how he had managed to get hold of it.
Earlier that day, myself, my husband and our three children had helped the tribe we were staying with catch grayling in the nearby river. We had stuffed the fish with wild-growing mint and thyme and and had now set them to cook on a huge fire. The ensuing meal was accompanied with much laughter and bursts of song and our busy, everyday lives back in Hong Kong had never seemed further away.
I’ve always dreamt of travelling to Mongolia. It’s one of the few truly wild places left on the planet.
As a family, we were looking for a quiet place where we could think and recharge, reconnecting with each other and with nature. We were craving peace and quiet, where nobody could hide behind a screen and all there is left to do is to talk, play cards, draw, sing and laugh.
We also wanted an immersive insight into a simpler way of living before these ways of life disappear completely. I guess in summary, we were looking for a digital detox and a true break from our life back in Hong Kong.
Earlier last year I had attended a talk at Hong Kong’s Royal Geographic Society led by Adrian Bottomley of bespoke travel company, Whistling Arrow. I loved the sound of his adventures and went home and pulled up the website. A family booking to Mongolia quickly followed.
It was a camel-trek to reach the Mongolian nomad hosts.
And so it was that myself, my husband and my children - 14-year-old Theo, ten-year-old Eden and eight-year-old Nova - found ourselves on a flight last July, bound for Mongolia.
We flew to the far west, to the area that borders Kazakhstan, where we were met by our guides.
The trip objective was to spend time with two nomadic Kazakh eagle hunter families, living alongside them and taking part in their daily lives. We had also chosen to trek for a few days, supported by Bactrian camels, to reach the first family, although it is possible to drive.
To say it met our expectations of getting away from it all would be an understatement. There were no power lines, no electricity, no running water, no planes overhead. A digital detox was what we had wanted and this was exactly what we got.
From the airport we were driven through the most incredible landscape to a large lake at the foot of the Altai Mountains. And from here that we started our trek to the first eagle hunter family.
Any apprehensions that we might have had melted away the moment we met our hosts. The nomadic families were so warm-hearted and interaction happened very naturally. Despite the language differences, we were quickly engaged in conversation and invited into their gers for tea, vodka and dinner. We got the feeling they were genuinely excited to have us there and enjoyed our company.
On our first day, we were introduced to the eagle hunter, his family and his brother’s family and were invited to a big family celebration involving Mongolian wrestling. It was one of the most extraordinary days of my life.
The terrain is vast, with endless vistas.
The next day, the eagle hunter’s oldest daughter, Damel, demonstrated the art of eagle hunting. Her strength and skill blew us away, just one of the family’s two eagles weighed a whopping ten kilograms.
It also proved a valuable lesson for our kids to meet the nomadic children and see how they helped out with all the chores. Even the youngest fetched water from the river, milked the cows and goats and made sure the animals were safely locked back in their pens at the end of each day. The children also assist with herding and hunting from a young age.
Our days were blissfully free of fixed schedules. Whenever we felt like it we could go for a beautiful wilderness hike or a (chilling) swim in the river. Whistling Arrow provided fat bikes, there were horse riding opportunities and we were also invited to help out with the tribe’s animals.
On a couple of occasions we were also invited to join a local festival or a family gathering. We had no fixed itinerary and just went with the flow. It was marvellous.
The kids, of course, had a ball. From riding horses (and camels!) to interacting and playing with the local children, they had a great time. We’d brought a football with us and this opened many a door for us, with hours of fun along the way.
We had two fantastic guides and although the camel and horse men didn’t speak any English, it didn’t seem to matter. The camel man took Nova fishing with him, Theo was taught Kazakh songs and Eden came home able to ride a horse.
My husband particularly enjoyed a trek up to a remote waterfall where he had a wild swim in the freezing water.
But I think the highlight for me was the welcome we received from the nomads. They seemed so excited to meet us and couldn’t have been more hospitable. Tea, bread and vodka were always at the ready and every day we were shown new locations to explore. The scenery was absolutely spectacular.
And each evening we returned to the comfortable Kazakh gers that Whistling Arrow had pre-assembled. The kids had their own ger and each tent had a warming fireplace that was lit for us every night. We slept in proper beds with pillows, duvets, sheep skins and woollen blankets. The Kazakh gers are beautifully decorated with hand embroidered felt tapestries.
Additional home comforts included a shower tent with piping hot water; something I certainly had not been expecting.
We also had a dining tent. Fresh fruit and vegetables were served every day, as well as wild foods and flora and fauna that we had collected and prepared, much of which I recognised as similar to my native Sweden. We wanted to eat as local and as authentically as possible. We tucked into grilled lamb from the local herdsmen, fresh yoghurt and cheese, wild onions and rhubarb, wild herbs and freshly caught fish. On several occasions the locals handmade delicious noodles for us, something the kids still talk about now.
Travelling in the summer months, we enjoyed sunshine and temperatures as high as 25 degrees. But there was also the odd hailstorm and we did have a windy night by one of the lakes while we were trekking. We hid in our snug tents and watched the surrounding peaks being slowly blanketed with snow. Even though it was summer, I would advise fleeces and windcheaters as packing essentials.
It was a special and humbling trip, mostly thanks to the relationships Whistling Arrow has forged with the local families. Running multiple expeditions to this remote corner of Mongolia means the company has expert, first-hand knowledge and we could never have hoped to have gained such access to the people and locations that we did without them. We were incredibly well looked after.
I would return to Mongolia in a heartbeat. I loved the beautiful landscapes, the snow-capped mountains, rivers, lakes and meadows full of flowers. Who knew wild rhubarb grows in western Mongolia? And who knew how many fish we would manage to catch in the rivers?! The trip will be forever etched in our memories.
The eagle hunters
Hunting with eagles is a traditional form of falconry found throughout the Eurasian Steppe. It is practised by the Kakakhs in Kazakhstan as well as in the province of Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia and in Xinjiang province, China.
There are around 250 eagle hunters in Bayan-Olgii in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. Tribes hunt with golden eagles on horseback, chasing red and corsac foxes. Each October, Kazakh eagle hunting customs are celebrated at the annual Golden Eagle Festival.