Cow Patties, Claws, and a Camel at a Mongolian Homestay
Story and photos by Julia Hubbel

Spending four days on the cold plains of Mongolia exposes the hard scrabble life of a farm family and their assorted animals.

mongolia travel story

The sun was just coming over the golden-brown hills as I made my way towards the outdoor privy, which was a wobbly tin affair balanced over a long drop dug deep in the earth. To the north and south were long, broad piles of cow patties drying in the sun. Fuel, a lot of it, for the brutal winters. Sometimes it gets down to fifty below zero.

It was cold, all right. As I passed the one-story farmhouse on my right, I approached the shed where the golden eagle was tethered. It was getting hungry, as they do this time of year, in preparation for the hunting season. She was still young. Her eyes burned at me with a terrible intensity.

The next thing I knew she hurtled aloft, and had attacked my left foot. Her claws got entangled in the laces of my boot. Her huge wings flapped in frustration. Not only was my boot not food, but now she was briefly caught. I stood stock-still. Her beak slashed. She was angry. I was terrified. I called to the house, but nobody could hear me, as the wind snatched my voice and threw it north.

mongolia eagleThen, the eight-week-old black fluffball of a working dog came tearing up the rise as he did most mornings, when he usually tangled my feet on the way to the toilet.

I hardly had the time to form the thought Oh NO before the eagle launched off my left boot and dug her claws into the puppy.

The puppy screamed.

So did I. I leapt forward, grabbed the bird from behind and startled her into letting go of puppy breakfast. I immediately scooped up the yelping dog and ran to the house.

A few minutes later, two family members marched outside with coats, enveloped the bird carefully and retied her tether. Very securely. She was only doing what she does. And, she was hungry. The puppy was fine. Scared, but without noticeable perforation.

Just a day in the life at the home of a Mongolian huntress.

Greetings and a Ger

Three days prior, I had arrived with my two guides, Seku and Sultan (who spoke minimal English) to this farm, which lies to the north of the Western Mongolian town of Altai City. It was late September. As we drove from the city to the farm, we passed Bactrian camels grazing quietly by the roadside, their great furry bodies thick in preparation for the coming winter. The camels lifted their regal heads, stared, and returned to their grazing.

I had no idea that part of what awaited me at the farm was a baby Bactrian.

As we bumped down the dusty road, we paralleled the river whose headwaters we had just explored a few days prior. The massive mountains, now dusted with early fall snow, loomed in the background. As we approached, I noticed the white nomadic house, or ger, in an open field across from the main farmhouse. The family members, all relatives of Sultan's, were busy finishing off the insides.

Just for me—my own traditional ger! As we got out of the car, two of the men carted a smoking stove and its long stove pipe across the lumpy soil. That was my heat source.

As the three of us approached the ger, followed by a suspicious white dog and the black puppy, I got a noseful of the sweet sage that is so typical of Mongolian grasses. Inside the ger, the smell was even stronger. There, the entire family was hard at work setting up the beautiful embroidered handcrafts that are handed down through the generations. Each design, as Sultan explained, told stories of marriage, love, community and family. Each large embroidery spoke to the skills of its maker, in this case a fifty-ish matriarch whose husband was in the hospital.

mongolia family singer

Her daughter, Serka, was the huntress. She and her two young children were crouched around the tin stove, feeding cow patties into the opening. Slowly the ger warmed, with a combination of the good company, laughter and the bubbling stew that would be my dinner.

Her young husband tucked embroidered wool felt kites underneath the radiating spokes of the ger. Then he pulled out the two-stringed dombra, which is one of Mongolia's national instruments, and serenaded me a welcome to his home.

Sultan, an excellent musician in his own right, pulled out his guitar and joined in. I was embraced by the family as a guest, and I was to make myself at home.

mongolia eagleOutside, Serka had perched her young eagle on a carved piece of wood. Unhooded, the eagle stared at me when I approached her. She was being shown off for my sake, and she was stunning. Serka's been training with her husband for two years now. It's almost time for her to complete in some of the nearly two hundred eagle festivals that now dot the countryside as winter approaches. The eagle tracked my every move, which is extremely unsettling when you realize that you're a potential meal.

That night I was invited to help with the milking. The icy winds and the arthritis in my thumbs prevented me from taking on that task, but the family was happy to heap others on me. I couldn't wait to find out what they might be. As a farm girl, chores, and hard ones, were a part of my upbringing. There would be plenty of those to go around.

The ger was only lightly insulated, the outside walls having been made of felted sheep's wool. Shortly after the stove went dark, the temperature in the ger plummeted. I curled up in my dense Nemo bag and drifted off to sleep, the smell of sage filling my nostrils.

The Whistling Winds of Mongolia

Mongolia is a country shaped by winds. At night, they howl like Halloween banshees, pushing icy fronts into the valleys and stripping the poplars of their leaves. The top of the ger has a small hole, or skylight, which is manipulated with a system of ropes and fabric. What little heat there might be in the ger once the stove goes out swiftly dissipates through the thin sheep's wool, but the room retains at least some warmth.

Not much though. When I woke up at 3 a.m., which is my habit, it was freezing. I walked outside to take care of business and was nearly bowled over by the bursts of wind. I hid in the lee of the ger, and hurried back to my sleeping bag. By the time I talked myself into getting out of my bag to begin the morning—in this case get a fire started as quickly as possible—the temperature had plummeted.

mongolia outhouse

Following the same steps as I'd watched others use to start my stove, my hands shaking with the cold, I urged a lit match against bits of twig and cardboard. A few thin cow flop patties slowly warmed to the task, and in minutes a blaze had begun. With all the enthusiasm of the overly eager and nearly frozen to death, I upended my big white bag of cow patties into the hole in the top of the stove. I was desperate to get the ger heated.

The fire promptly went out, but not the heat. The cow patties smoked. In fact, so profusely that in seconds I couldn't breathe.

By now the sun was beginning to shed a little light, and the farm's matriarch was out getting ready to milk. She spotted me outside my ger, swinging the door back and forth to clear the smoke, which was pouring out into the morning air.

I have never seen a post-fifty woman sprint so fast.

She thought the whole ger was on fire. It sure looked like it.

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