“Aht” I yelled out loud enthusiastically, “aht, aht!” pointing at my horse, on my first day horse trekking in Mongolia.
“Jack sur, jack sur!” replied Khadaran, the Khazakh wrangler riding next to me, tasked with the job of making sure I stayed on the horse, “good, good!” Looking around, his gaze eventually settled on the low mountains we were riding along next to, “tau” he said loudly, pointing. “Tau tau taaaauuuuu,” I slowly replied, trying as hard as I could to commit the easy word to memory.
10 minutes later, I’d ride up alongside him pointing at the same mountains, “Toe?” I enquired hesitantly. “Joq! Tau, tau,” he patiently replied.
Cue 3 weeks of this.
It has been a long, long time since I’ve traveled to a country where English is not widely studied or understood. It seems I’d gotten lazy and dependent; I needed this reality check. I had been living it easy and stuck in a bubble for far too long. Mongolia would change that.
Actually, Kazakh Mongolia would change that. I was so far off the grid on my Zavkhan Trekking expedition, I wasn’t even in a place in Mongolia where Mongolian was the first language.
Deep in the Altai in western Mongolia, so close to China you can actually see it at some parts, Kazakh reigns strong. While everyone studies Mongolian at school at one point or another, between themselves, family and everyone else around, it’s Kazakh that’s spoken. After that likely it’s Russian, and if you’re lucky, there’s a kid or two who knows how to say “hello!” as you pass by.
But that’s not too likely.
Meet the team!
And thus began my Kazakh lessons with our mostly Kazakh support team. In addition to our amazing guide Ian Robinson – a kiwi who has ridden across Mongolia, Tibet and Afghanistan – we also had Anar as a translator from Ulaanbaatar to keep us going.
These guys were the backbone of the trip and it wouldn’t have been possible without them and their expertise.
Amangal was the trip manager and quite possibly the most incredible woman I’ve ever met. She knew some English but it was her smiles, bellowing laughs, near constant singing of classic Kazakh folk songs for no particular reason, that really communicated her personality.
She was in charge.
On our first day when we arrived in Bayan-Olgii off the plane from the capital, she greeted us in her finest, wearing heels, a sparkly knee-length dress and a camouflage sunhat. The first thing I noticed was her big smile and two gold teeth. Seriously, could this woman get any more awesome?
She would give me hugs and kisses on the long hard days riding, and me through the scariest river crossings and sneak extra servings of mutton soup for dinner when my back was turned. On the second to last day she was one of the first people to run up and envelop me in the biggest bear hug whooping out loud when I galloped into the camp, on my own for the first time, as proud as anyone.
Knowing I was into photography, anytime she spotted something beautiful, she’d shout “Liz, Liz! Camera, camera!” and stop everything so I could come take a photo.
It was on the 8th day when she called me her “daughter” for the first time, and on the 9th day when she thoroughly chastised everyone when I fell off for the first time, deeply upset that something bad happened on her watch, even though it was nobody’s fault except my stubborn fat horse.
Can you tell that I miss her?
Moetkhan and Khadaran are the two head wranglers and the guys who I owe my newfound riding skills too. Khadaran (pronounced Hatran) was short and stocky, definitely a bear in a past life, who would amble around slowly on two feet but fly on horseback. It was mostly his horses that we were using, and if you looked closely, you could almost always detect a super cheeky glint in his eye.
He really enjoyed playing jokes on of us, including the other Kazakhs, pretending to spot leopards in the hills or tell me wolves were nearby when I was trying to take star photos. At night he would spontaneously burst out in song in the ger while Amangul played love songs softly on the dombra. Completely tone deaf and only knowing half the words, he would sing on and on making us laugh.
He helped me from day 1 to learn to ride, probably more in the interest to keep me from injuring one of his herd, but still. He’d help me get my horse to go faster, and would haul me out of the saddle at the end of a 9 hour day riding when my knees would no longer support me.
A total ladies man, Khadaran had Anar translate a story for me on the very first day.
While we were riding, he asked if I had a boyfriend (typical), and told me that in the olden days if a woman turned a Kazakh man down and if he still wanted her, he’d throw her on a horse and steal her away anyways, laughing maniacally.
This of course got the other Kazakhs laughing while I told him I’d whip him if he tried anything, and that I was already engaged (lying through my teeth, gentlemen, wink wink).
Blowing his nose to the left, he turned to his right and winked at me. Nothing like a snot rocket to get a girl’s attention. Did I mention he was 52 and we had just left his family’s ger where I met not only his wife, but his father, children and grandchildren. Awkward!
Besides Amangul, Moetkhan was my favorite of the team. He was 60, had white hair, and always wore a tall, peculiar hat and his horse’s bridles had a few rings hanging off the bottom so he jingled like Santa whenever he was riding.
He is also one of the best riders in the Altai and it was like he was part of the horse. It was incredible to watch him ride.
Usually he had a small cigarette dangling in the corner of his mouth that he’d roll while riding in newspaper he had tucked away. He also only had two teeth.
Generally he rode in the back of the group keeping an eye on everyone (me), so we spent a lot of time together. Sometimes if my horse was misbehaving or would trip and I would almost go flying, I’d look back at him for reassurance, and he would just smile, laugh loudly and yell “jack sur, jacks sur!” “Good, good!”
One time he came over to find me in the camp to show me a dead snake he found. Using his hands and motioning enthusiastically, he told me the story of how the snake, jalang, was caught by an eagle, burkit, and then dropped from a high place (verified by Anar).
Jybek was around my age and the cook on the trip, making us amazing meal after amazing meal.
She spoke some English and was always keen to practice. My friend Echo and I bonded with her about halfway through the trip after trying to wash our hair together and scrub as best we could down by the river.
Sharing stories and practicing English and Kazakh words, she’d come hang out in my tent in the afternoon and we’d go through age old girl grooming rituals – combing our hair, moisturizing and generally laughing.
She’d sometimes show me how to cook on the iron stove in the ger, and was so happy to introduce me to her parents and family when we stayed at their house in Bayan-Olgii the last night of the trip.
We were joined by Amangul’s two sons on the trip, 17-year-old Inkarbek who rode with us as support wrangler, and 15-year-old Germanbek, who was there to purely cause mischief with Khadaran.
Inkarbek was pretty shy and quiet, and definitely had a gentle soul. A great rider, you could tell he was always trying to be on his best behavior and do his job as well as possible.
I remember one morning we were saddling up to get going when one of the horses was just laying down in the field further down. Inkarbek went over to get him, and instead of giving him a whip or a shout to get him going, like anyone else there would have done, he knelt down and whispered to the horse, talking to him and stroking his side until he got up on his own. It was a beautiful moment to witness.
Germanbek, on the other hand, got the naughty genes, and loved to make jokes and ride a horse that was both too big for him and too wild for him. (I’ve told the story behind his name here on my last Coffee Diaries post; Germanbek means “German Prince”).
When Khadaran would tell us a long winded story that took ages for Anar to translate, Germanbek would sneak up behind him and imitate him, making everyone laugh until Khadaran would give him a wack and tell him to shut up.
Adelkhan, Amangul’s husband was quiet and one of the drivers along with Kallippa, who made sure things got where they needed to go, wrestling with the boys in the evenings and getting us from place to place.
It was like traveling with family!
The Coffee Diaries with my Kazakh family
About halfway through our trip, we had one of our longest days in the saddle, in the Tavan Bogd National Park, leaving Amangul to guard the ger. We rode for 9 hours deep into the park following the occasional deer trail but mostly just forging on with no path, making for some very tough and technical riding.
It was the end of the day, and my legs were dead as we lead the horses on foot down through what I’m convinced is the longest valley in Mongolia. Bit by bit I fell behind, with only Moetkhan for company as the rest of the group disappeared down the valley.
The tall grass had been stomped down by everyone else, turning the “trail” into a slip and slide. Not to mention they were covering sorts of wonderful obstacles like marmot homes, creeks, and giant holes.
About the 3rd time I slid down on my butt I was on the verge of tears, Moetkhan sat down beside, and started digging into the ground, eventually pulling up a big wild onion to cheer me up and distract me! Laughing he took a bite and handed it to me, when I promptly took a bite and choked, my god it was strong, and we started digging together, harvesting a feast of onions to bring back to Amangul to cook up. Taking his time, he rolled another newspaper cigarette while I pulled myself together before we set off walking again.
Smiling, I started to forget about my frustration of being in the back, exhausted and sore. We laughed and I pointed out plants to Moetkhan, butchering their names in Kazakh.
Eventually Khadaran popped out horseless from the deep bush to the left, carrying a small tree, that he and Moetkhan bickered over for a few minutes. Eventually they explained to me that it was the type of plant they they would clean, polish, carve and turn into a whip for their horses.
Every so often one of them would disappear and come back with an even bigger tree, tossing the earlier specimen aside in favor for a better one.
By the time we arrived back at the camp together, a barrier had been torn down, and we were friends, if not family, in spite of the fact that I was a useless horse rider and that the only words in Kazakh I knew were “horse, hello, bread, sheep and good.” Oh, and sometimes, mountain. And a few random plants that I’ve already forgotten.
But that didn’t matter.
While everyone was settling down to late afternoon tea as the sun was setting, I presented Amangul with the onions I collected and ran to my tent to fish out coffee to share.
In a culture built around hospitality, respect and sharing, I knew I had to do my part whenever I could.
Running down to the river, I filled up my mug and brought it back. Without heating it, I poured in a pack of the Starbucks VIA® Iced Coffee for them to try.
Baffled by the fact that it was drunk cold, they obligingly took sips sitting in the grass by the horses down from the ger.
Laughing (the Kazakhs laugh and smile more than anyone I’ve ever met) we reenacted our hilarious and slow descent for Amangul, while I made a few more cups of coffee for them.
It was an incredible moment, far out in the wilderness shared with a group of people who by means, I couldn’t actually even speak to, and yet, somehow we still managed to communicate. I loved being able to reverse the roles and be able to share something which for us is as natural as a cup of coffee, but to them is not the same.
Not only being a place so pure and remote, an eden where the water is literally pure, surrounded by beautiful mountains, tall grasses and sleepy horses rolling around in the distance, I couldn’t be happier.
Moetkhan and Khadaran along with Amangul took me under their wings on this trip, which at first I was a bit hesitant about, thinking that I was the weakest link and therefore needed protecting and supervision, which is probably true to some extent, but I also realized at the end of the trip that it went much deeper than that.
To say that it was because I was doing something wrong or wasn’t strong enough is just my inner demons barking, and far too simplistic a response for what was really going on.
I made a serious effort day every day to spend time with these people, going our of my way to spend time with them and observing them, doing my best to interact and engage with them as best as I could.
People are people, no matter where you go in the world. Probably the best lesson I learned in Mongolia, and one that has changed me for the better.
By the time I left Mongolia, it felt like I was saying goodbye to family.
of these people, of their stories are precious to me, and just thinking back on my time with them, their warm hospitality, friendly openness and constant laughter brings a smile to my face on the other side of the world.
Have you ever traveled to a place where you couldn’t communicate verbally? How did you learn? Did it shape and affect how you travel?
Many thanks to Starbucks and Zavkhan Trekking for hosting me in Mongolia. Like always I’m keeping it real, all opinions are my own, like you could expect less from me!