Kazakh Nomads of Mongolia | Eagle Hunters

Breathtakingly beautiful Mongolia is a fascinating place. Especially the more remote areas of this vast country. Areas that are not easy to get to, with few roads, and no conveniences of modern life. Despite extremely frigid winters, treeless steppes, non-arable, and rugged terrain, these areas in Mongolia have been inhabited by nomads since ancient times, like the Kazakh nomads.

Around half of Mongolia’s population lives in the contemporary capital of Ulaanbaatar, yet more than 25 percent still live a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle in the remote and rugged expanses.

How do they survive? What is life like? I had the opportunity to find out on a trip to one of these regions.

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia Eagle training
Kazakh Nomad and His Hunting Eagle

I spent two days in their winter home of Kazakh nomads of Mongolia, in the Sagsai region, which is over 1,000 miles west of Ulaanbaatar (1700 km). After this, I spent two days in nearby Bayan-Olgii (or Bayan-Ulgii), Mongolia, watching them compete in their annual Golden Eagle Festival, where they show off their expert horsemanship and prized hunting eagles.

The Kazakh Nomads of Mongolia

Although Mongolia has several subgroups of nomads, the Kazakh nomads of Mongolia are originally from neighboring Kazakhstan. When Soviet Russia took over Kazakhstan and tried to ‘Russianize’ it, banning their nomadic lifestyle, the only way they could continue was to move.

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia riding
Kazakh Nomad

Although Mongolia later aligned with Russia and adopted the same policies, the Kazakhs were in a such remote part of Mongolia, over a 1,000 miles from its capital, Ulaanbaatar, they were virtually left alone.

Today, the Kazhak nomads still live in the western part of Mongolia, near the Altay, or Altai, mountains.

Map of where the Kazakh nomads live
Northwestern Mongolia | CC by SA 4.0

They differ from Mongolian nomads in several ways, but mainly by the fact that they speak Turkic, rather than Mongolian, they follow Islam, rather than Buddhism, and they hunt with eagles.

After the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991 and Kazakhstan became a democracy, the Kazakhstani government has tried incentivizing the Kazakhs of Mongolia to return, offering them homes, jobs, and/or education. Although many have returned, many still remain. Those that stay, do so for the same reason they came here in the first place, to continue their nomadic lifestyle.

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia enjoying life
Kazakh Nomad and His Horses

The Kazakh Nomads Are Pastoral Nomads

The Kazakh nomads are pastoral nomads, which means their life revolves around caring for their animals. These animals usually consist of horses, cattle, camels, sheep, goats, and yaks. The Kazakhs are nomadic, moving their home, in order to find the best grazing pastures for these animals.

Although nomads can move four, or more, times a year, they generally stay in the lowlands in the winter and move to higher altitudes in the summer. Sometimes moving up to 60-90 miles (100-150 km) at a time.

Winter Home of Kazakh Nomads in Mongolia
Pastoral Nomad Life

The nomads ensure the animals are well-fed, and especially well-fattened, before the brutal winter. This allows them a better chance of survival. Naturally, some attrition is expected. I learned that a 10% loss was normal during winter. It can, however, be worse during a bad winter.

They care for these animals as they are their source of life, using them for food, consumed as meat and dairy products, wearing their hides, using the wool for bedding and insulation, as well as creating felt for covering their gers (yurts), and, of course, using them for transportation.

Surprisingly, their animals usually graze over wide areas, with no fences. You see them roaming freely and think they’re wild, as they’re often in the middle of nowhere. However, they are just given freedom, rounding them up when needed.

What may be perceived as a lazy lifestyle by an outsider, is actually a sophisticated system of rearing and breeding animals, combined with a keen knowledge of how best to utilize them for survival. All in extreme weather, in the middle of nowhere!

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia horses

Kazakh Nomads of Mongolia – Winter Home

In the winter, they live in simple, small, wood homes, covered with mud and dung. Purposely kept small so they are easier to heat.

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia winter home
Kazakh Winter Home

Although there is no electricity or running water, there are a few modern conveniences. For example, I saw small solar panels for charging cell phones. And at night, there was one lightbulb in the kitchen, connected to a battery by cable.

I stayed in the winter home here, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor, with two others as part of a tour. The house had windows, although they looked cracked. And although the front door was covered in fabric, to provide some protection against the cold, it did not shut tight (below).

Kazakh Winter Home

Kazakh Nomads of Mongolia – Summer Home

In the warmer months, the heavier possessions are left in the winter home and they move to higher altitudes for better grazing. They bring their ger with them, which is their summer home.

Ger, means ‘home’ in Mongolian. Gers, or yurts, have been used in Central Asia for over 3,000 years. This dwelling is a large round tent, usually made of felt or skins, wrapped over wooden supports. They are larger than the winter homes, as they don’t need to be as energy efficient.

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia ger
Kazakh Summer Home

Although they look complicated to assemble, set-up only takes about 2 hours. This allows them to move more frequently, if necessary, in peak grazing months.

Today, the ger are often transported by hired vehicles, however, some are still moved by camel, as they have been moved for thousands of years.

The inside is decorated with colorful, hand-embroidered, wall hangings and rugs.

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia ger
Interior of Kazakh Ger

The ger is usually not set up at the winter home, however, this one was up for our visit for other guests.

Cooking And Heating

In the kitchen of the winter home, and in the center of the ger, there is a low metal box for burning dung or coal. This is the stove, which is used for both cooking and heating.

The first night I stayed in the winter home, dung was burned in the stove to keep us warm. It didn’t, however, burn long, becoming cold in the wee hours of the night. The next day a delivery of coal was made, which was used the second night. It burned much longer and warmer. In fact, the house was almost hot in the early evening. It still did not burn all through the night, however, so early morning was still chilly!

Although there was frost on the ground in mornings, and us tourists were freezing, the nomads seemed impervious to the cold. I only saw them wearing coats for ceremonial reasons (like eagle hunting or photos). Of course, later in the year, it gets much, much colder, so I think their bodies have acclimatized.

The Kazakh Nomad Diet

As the nomads live off their animals, their diet is rich in meats, dairy, and a variety of dried cheeses, like aaruul. Interestingly, I was told their bread is imported from Russia, as few crops actually grow here due to elevation and harsh winters. This also means there are few vegetables.

When we arrived, we were given a snack of tea boiled with milk, bread, butter, jelly, candies, and a variety of their dense, salty, dried cheeses (below).

We mistakenly thought this was our dinner and asked for spoons, for what we thought was soup. It turned out to be tea boiled with milk. I’m sure they’re still laughing at us, but they only spoke Kazakh, so we really weren’t sure.

Evening Tea In the Kazakh Winter Home

Note the black battery on the table connected to the light bulb above, providing the only light in the house (right of the teapot)

In November, they start the process of drying animal meat for winter. As we were here in October, this hadn’t happened on a large scale yet. We did, however, see some meat hanging in the small building next to us.

Our tourist diet was altered from traditional nomad food, but probably not by much. Most meals consisted of noodles with meat, carrots, and potatoes. Sometimes, tomatoes and onions were added.

Although our tour guide is not a nomad, both his parents were born nomads, before moving into permanent homes. When I asked him what his favorite food was, his answer was ‘meat’. When I asked ‘what meat’, he shrugged, indicating any meat.

Meat is a big part of the diet throughout the country, nomad or not. After all, in remote areas, most people are not far removed from nomadic life (like our tour guide).

Water

There is a well located by the home for water. It does not rain much in this region, but the water level in the well looked high. A decent water source is probably one of the reasons they winter here.

Facilities

There was a cupboard by the front door with a sink, but no running water. A pot of water, placed nearby, was used for washing hands and brushing teeth. The used water drained into a bucket below the cabinet, which was disposed of outside.

The toilet was about 100 yards from the house. It was simply a shallow hole in the ground with corrugated metal about waist high on 3 sides. There was no roof or door. It felt strange to have cows and horses watching you do your business, but we were in the middle of nowhere. There were also no other options!

(Video from Kit Stover)

Kazakh Nomad Extended Family Units

The family unit is important to Kazakh nomads, all sharing chores for survival, thus they live in extended family units. The Kazakh nomad family we stayed with had two houses, for the family of two brothers. His mother is in the photo below with his two young children. Sorry for the bad photo, but it was dark inside the house…

Kazakh Grandma and Her Grand Babies

The women work all day to prepare the food and care for the children. His mother, a 60 year old grandmother, was in amazing health. She was up early milking cows each morning and non-stop busy all day.

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia milking a cow
Milking the Cow for Breakfast

The men raise, breed, and care for the animals, as well as attend to any home necessities.

In the photo below, they’re fixing a horseshoe. I had been riding this horse earlier out on the steppe (more on this below) and it kept missing a step on one leg. When we got back, I was surprised when they almost immediately flipped her on her back to fix it. The most unusual way I’ve ever seen a horseshoe fixed!

Kazakhs Nomads of Mongolia Fixing a Horses Shoe
Fixing A Horseshoe

The grandparents were solid as rocks. The kind that know how to handle anything and are ready to help if needed. The parents were busy with their day to day tasks, as well as preparing for the upcoming Golden Eagle Festival, while the kids were typical children, full of giggles and mischief. Shy around us at first, but quickly becoming intensly curious and playful.

No one in the family spoke English, but it was very apparent there was a strong bond and a lot of caring between all family unit members. A very integrated unit.

Riding with The Eagle Hunters

As we arrived a few days before the Golden Eagle Festival, we went horseback riding with the men to watch them practice with their prized eagles. We rode out onto the steppe where there were hills to take the eagle up to.

Kazakh Nomad of Mongolia With His Prized Hunting Eagle

These eagles, trained from chicks, take 3-4 years to train completely. Eventually forming a very strong bond. To read more about eagle hunting, and the training process, see my post on Hunting With Eagles.

To practice, one brother rode the eagle to a nearby hilltop. The other brother rode a distance away and called to his eagle, while holding bait (bits of meat). With each attempt, he moved farther and farther away. The eagle immediately flew to the bait each time. See the short video below.


We couldn’t communicate as they only spoke Kazakh, but they both had a very focused, quiet intensity about them that I read as excitement for the upcoming festival. Little did we know, the older brother (to my right) would win first place!

Me Holding The Hunting Eagle

Final Thoughts

My two days living with these nomads was unbelievably fascinating. It’s amazing how they carve out a life in such a remote land. It was such an honor to be part of their day and see how they live. And sometimes, in the chaos of modern life, I think back to the simple, but harsh beauty of the lives of the Kazakh nomads of Mongolia.

To do a similar tour, staying with the Kazakh nomads and attending their Golden Eagle Festival, contact Altai Expeditions. This did not feel like a formal tour, which I generally abhor. It was more like having a local guide, one that would answer all our questions and help is understand the finer details. On top of this, our group was small, just me and another couple, so three visitors, plus our guide and his mother, to cook for us.

Kazakh Hunting Eagle On An Ancient Tombstone

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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