Yep. Its been a while. And since ever since returning back site, I feel like a tornado picked me up several weeks ago and I’ve just landed. Its all I can do sometimes to stare at my luggage and wonder where all this stuff I’ve accumulated over the last two years will go. Getting the momentum back up has proven to be a challenge. Its hard to think I will leave.
In the meanwhile I can inform you all about the last several months as another form of procrastination.
I was fortunate to hear through another Peace Corps Volunteer of an opportunity to work at a camp in Bayan Ulgii, the furthest western aimag, and the most remote. Over the last two years there haven’t been PCVs placed out there for a variety of reasons, so any opportunity to do work out there is much appreciated. Bayan Ulgii isn’t just known for being the most remote aimag in Mongolia, but its also known for its large population of Kazakh people who reside there. The provincial capital was actually founded in 1840 to provide refuge for a Kazakh population that was fleeing Russian control. I’m sure that tidbit will come up at your next cocktail party.
Funded through grant money, the organization was able to fly me from the capital to Ulgii, about a 2.5 hour flight. My compatriot left a week before me , as I had prior obligations at another seminar, so I flew in by myself to get picked up by a driver. Right on landing I saw and heard Kazakh everywhere. One of the first questions my driver asked me was “oh , do you speak Kazakh ? “. We chilled at a home for some stores to open (I was forewarned to bring some extra food) and watched a Kazakh news station. After the relatively homogenous Mongolian culture I have been exposed to over the past two years, to be exposed to a different narrative of Mongolian life was incredibly enlightening.
Once we left town it was about a two hour drive to Zost Zuclan, a rural camp with cabins , dormitories and a cafeteria. The camp was located in a river valley and surrounded by mountains. Upon arriving I was pretty much taken up in a pretty rigorous schedule. We co taught three three hour and a half lessons a day, as well as organizing activities and competitions for the 26 kids at the camp. The main focus of the camp was English with a component of creative and critical thinking skills. With that teaching schedule and working 6 days a week, the camp just flew by.
Of course the kids that were accepted to this camp were also amazing. I would call them triple threats – most of them identified as Kazakh , and spoke Kazakh at home, while attending Mongolian schools and speaking Mongolian there, and finally learning English as a foreign language. When I talked to them they would often say “Oh we are Kazakh, but we live in Mongolia so we must speak Mongolian”. They often spoke of summer trips to Kazakhstan. Apparently there is a 3 day bus ride you can take from Ulgii to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. They seemed befuddled at my insistence that , with the exception of university students from Ulgii, that I never needed to learn Kazakh at site . Of course the students had a penchant for blaring out Kazakh pop songs over the campsite during their breaks. That last thing was a little less then ideal.
The four weeks of the camp flew by and before I knew it , the camp was finished. We drove with the kids back to the provincial center. With a couple days between the camp finishing and our flight back to the Ulaan Baatar, me and my travel buddy had an opportunity to see another reason why Ulgii is famous… we got to visit a family that raises Golden Eagles for hunting.
Kazakh eagle hunting traditions are eons old and are a main reason why so many tourists visit Ulgii. There is an eagle festival that occurs in October that features hunting competitions and general ‘eagle-ing’ skill ( I know that you can say falconing and hawking but whats the verb if it is an eagle?) . The man we stayed with is one of the patriarchs of the tradition, and is used to tourists visiting and learning about his birds.
Eagles usually lay clutches of two eggs every couple of years, and build their nests on the jagged peaks that typify the mountains in Ulgii (it also helps that there are no trees) . Every couple of years or so nests are sought out by groups of eagle hunters and once one is located a single chick is picked from the nest. The chick (which is huge, about the size of my fore arm) is then brought to a fake nest that the trainer builds himself. From then on , from what I understand, the eagles are trained to regognize people as easy and reliable sources of food. But even then the relationship is tenuous. Eagles are only flown in winter when game is scarce, otherwise they fly off never to come back again. Even so, at the end of ten years of hunting , eagles are often released into the wild to have a chance to lay their own eggs and repopulate. As a practice it seems very sustainable. Also, there are only 60 people in Ulgii who are ‘professionals’ as our host kept saying.
Of course no visit to an eagle hunter would be with out pictures of these beautiful birds! Or pictures of me holding an eagle in traditional Kazakh garb! The one I’m holding is around 2 years old, her name is Ternig, and she was about 15 kilograms. In other words she was heavy!
So there you have it, my summer in a nutshell. Of course, while its not quite over, as I was transiting through Ulaan Baatar, the first of my co-hort is closing their service and heading off to America. One friend has already posted pictures of his numerous food adventures stateside which I DO NOT appreciate 😛 . On a more serious note as I was leaving Ulaan Baatar to catch my flight for a last two weeks back at site, I said goodbye to some incredibly good friends. Of course as the taxi took me away “Hotel California” started playing which felt ridiculously poignant. I will see them again, but as they are out of the realms of texting, it almost feels like I’ve suddenly grown phantom limbs. I’ve said it before, I’ve said it again… You don’t necessarily join Peace Corps to make American friends, but you do, and they became essential parts of your service.
Of course as people are leaving and moving on, I’m moping around making numerous to-do lists. I need to write my last documents about my service , detailing the good , the bad and the ugly. I need to clean out and clean my apartment and pack the last of my things. I need to meet with supervisors and sign a multitude of paperwork. As I have 10 days and counting left at site, it’s the culmination of so many things and all sorts of emotions. As I keep on warning my lovely sister as her arrival approaches ” I’m going to be very strange, slightly bi-polar and very dazed and confused when you arrive… just FYI”.
Till Next Time – V.