The Kazakh Eagle Hunters of Western Mongolia
The sun was setting as we drove through the snow-capped Altay Mountain valley between southern Mongolia and northern China. Not even an imprint of tire tracks existed for us to follow. We had not been on a road (or the idea of a road) for hours. Though our Russian UAZ van was steadfast, we, on the other hand, were bouncing around the inside like popcorn. We were tired from several days of travel, and we were hungry and thirsty.
Our adventures were taking us to visit the nomadic Kazakhs in western Mongolia. The Kazakhs are the largest ethnic minority in Mongolia, representing, as of a decade ago, 4 percent of Mongolia’s total population.1
As the sun fell from the sky and we came around a pass to a snow-filled valley, all our feelings of hunger and fatigue melted away. Off in the distance, Wise Traditions podcast host Hilda Labrada Gore and I could see five gers (yurts) with smoke billowing out from the top. Surrounding the gers were dozens of long-hair yaks, horses and what we had traveled so far to see: eagles! It mattered little that there were no cars in sight, no bathrooms (there hadn’t been any restaurants or bathrooms since we left the capital city of Ulaanbaatar), no trash cans and no signs of modernity—our euphoria upon finding our eagle hunters cannot be overstated.
The snow fell quickly as we hurried into the main ger for warmth. (The UAZ van, though sturdy, was not warm.) Our Kazakh hosts greeted us with long hugs, deep eye contact, bright smiles and large bowls of steamy mare’s milk tea that felt warm and familial in our hands. They placed large bowls in front of us with cultured cream and yak ghee to add to our tea, motioning with their hands for us to add more and more to our bowls as they prepared dinner.
They also presented us with a large plate of what looked like cookies; through our translator, I learned that these were actually cheese curds—100 percent cheese. As I bit into one of these dairy delights, called aaruul (or qurt in Kazakhstan),2 my bliss hormones went through the roof. I urged Hilda to try one, saying “These can’t be just cheese,” and when she did, she, too, was certain they must also contain flour and sugar. (The Kazakhs also make a form of cheese curd “donuts,” called eezgii.3) Only days later when our hosts demonstrated the making of their cheese curd “cookies” did I realize that nothing had been lost in translation. They had truly mastered the art of dairy fermentation. I am continually confounded that these Mongolian cheese curd “cookies” have not become a worldwide gastronomic phenomenon.
We learned that the women are expert seamstresses, renowned for their brightly colored embroidered wall hangings, bedding and rugs. My heart sang as I watched the mother alternate between stirring a big pot of meaty broth and working on her embroidery.
A SIGHT TO BEHOLD
It was toasty warm in the ger, and Hilda and I quickly began removing layer after layer of clothing as we snacked and chatted with our new friends. We learned that the family had two teenage daughters who were training to be eagle hunters, and they had already won several eagle hunting competitions. They proudly displayed dozens of medals sewn onto the cloth wall alongside their weekly post-hunt, fox-fur handicrafts.
The eagle hunters have many championship competitions throughout the year. In these competitions, the eagles are placed on a faraway mountain range, while the hunters are down in the mountain’s valley. When the competition begins, the eagle hunters call out to their eagles, and the first eagle to mount its owner’s arm wins the competition. This can occur in as little as twenty seconds. It is a sight to behold. Later in my travels, I witnessed two eagles fly down from a mountain peak and kill a large animal in a matter of minutes.
A NOSE-TO-TAIL, HIGH-FAT DINNER
The daughters came in for dinner and were greeted with long warm hugs and bright smiles by all. The love between the family members was radiant.
We all sat down for dinner, which was one large family-style metal plate full of steamed/ boiled goat—from nose to tail. I adored the fact that the men’s responsibility at dinner is not only to cut the meat but serve the food. It was difficult to discern the specific cut of meat handed to us, as the meat had fallen off most of the bones and what was left was a pile of tender meaty goodness. The exception was when they spooned the brain out of the head and shared it equally among us. We were also served horse sausage and plenty of rich, flavorful broth. Every bite was delectable, with no seasonings needed.
The Kazakhs use generous servings of yak ghee as a dipping sauce for the meat. Despite having personally been in a mostly ketogenic (high-fat) state for the better part of fifteen years, the high percentage of animal fat within the Kazakh diet was indeed humbling. The experience opened my eyes once again to the monumental contrast between what many call the “ketogenic diet” in developed nations and ancestral ketogenic diets.4
After dinner, our hosts walked us over to the beautiful, bright, warm and welcoming ger where Hilda and I were to lay our heads for our stay. That first night, it was unclear where one might find the “ladies’ room” (from my prior travels, I assumed anywhere outside would be acceptable, but not knowing the culture yet, I didn’t want to offend). Being cognizant that snow leopards, wolves, bears and poisonous snakes abound in that region solidified my decision to stay in the ger, don every layer of clothing and fur I possessed, curl into bed and watch the gentle dance of fire from our hearth. These adventures are always a welcome test of character, and I never mind an opportunity to harness discipline over bodily functions. With heavy eyelids and a blazingly grateful heart, I quickly drifted asleep.
IN THE SADDLE
In the morning, we woke rested and wildly energized. We had anticipated a freezing ger, as the stove requires fresh coals or stool patties every two hours, but the fire was still roaring. Clearly, our loving hosts had come in and out of our ger throughout the night to keep the fire going. If I were to wager, I would bet that the Kazakh love language would be acts of service.
Outside, the girls were milking the yaks as the sun rose with a pastel splendor. The air was crisp as we made our way into the breakfast ger. Neither of us was hungry, but the sheer generosity and splendor of our hosts led to a feast of mare’s milk tea, yak ghee, cheese curds and leftovers from dinner.
Our hosts invited us to spend the day horseback riding through the mountains to train their newest eagle and go hunting. As equestrians will know, horse saddles vary by region and continent—a learning curve that continuously humbles me. Imagine, if you will, Hilda and I mounting these wild-for-nine-months-of-the-year horses with new-to-us saddles and attempting to command such mavericks. Naturally, we fumbled! Juxtapose this scene with the majesty of our hosts, resplendent in head-to-toe fur, with their regal posture, steadfast strength (they carry their eagles while riding), a twinkle of joy in their eyes and generous song and laughter throughout the excursion.
EATING WITH THE SEASONS
The Kazakhs are nomadic and often have two to three set locations they move between through the seasons. That first day, we rode to their winter encampment. They are herders by trade and send the eagles hunting for fur rather than meat; polyester clothing is entirely unsuitable in harsh winters.
The more time we spent with them, the more it became clear that the seasons deeply influenced all aspects of daily life. Unlike other carnivore and near-carnivore cultures I have stayed with, the Kazakhs eat radically different foods from one season to the next. In the summer, their diet consists nearly if not entirely of dairy foods. The sheer variety of crafted dairy products—exceeding over two thousand different products—is impressive. In the spring and fall, their diet consists of yak, sheep and goat meat along with mare’s milk and cheese curds. And in the winter, horse meat (often made into sausage) is the staple.
About 3 to 5 percent of the Kazakhs’ diet comes from non-animal-based foods. For example, sea buckthorn berries have long been a traditional food, medicine and herbal tea, with the latter acting as a lovely vehicle for mare’s milk and ghee. Over the last hundred years, a small percentage of the diet changed when the Chinese began importing white flour. The Kazakhs use this flour to make paper-thin and wide noodles to soak up the broth of their meaty dishes, as well as paper-thin dumplings bursting with mutton meat. For our host family, the journey into town by horseback is an all-day affair, and as such, they make it infrequently and only to retrieve strict necessities. Therefore, although flour does now make an appearance in their diet, it is not a mainstay.
Water is sparse across the Kazakh territory, but interestingly, it is not sought after. In fact, throughout Mongolia we heard several myths about avoiding water, not camping by water, not getting wet and so forth. Rapid flooding also can occur throughout the country, which helps explain the lack of roads. Ice baths are not a tradition here (much like my experience in Greenland). For much of the year, it is simply too dangerous to get wet. However, if one rides to the villages, bathhouses are available where yogurt and dairy are used to cleanse the skin and the hair. As one might imagine from all the lactic acid and probiotics, the skin and hair of the Kazakhs really do glow.
One might wonder what the Kazakhs drink, if not water. Their beverages are primarily dairy-based, and they consume them in abundance. In addition to the raw mare’s milk, there is a frothy fermented beverage called kymyz.5 It can be either long fermented (slightly alcoholic) or short fermented and used for therapeutic and prophylactic purposes. In the high vitamin K2 content.
Shubat (also referred to as kymyran and yuye) is another mildly alcoholic fermented drink (7 percent alcohol) made from sour camel’s milk.6 It is made in a special leather container and is typically fermented for two to three days. Both the Kazakhs and the Mongolians hold dairy in such reverence that they will build a separate ger solely for the purpose of impeccable dairy fermentation.
THE CARNIVORE EDGE
Many wonder how so many traditional regions exist with such robust physical and mental health on a diet without fruits and vegetables. Yet time and time again—whether I am in subtropical Kilimanjaro (with plenty of vegetation), in the Arctic or the Amazon—it is the carnivore tribes that exude the most strength and power compared to the more plant-heavy tribes in any given region. Not strength through violence, mind you, but regality. What scientists have been rediscovering over the last several decades is that animal-based proteins, fat-soluble vitamins, sufficient cholesterol and stable blood sugar are all significant factors to mental fortitude.7 I have found that stunning benevolence comes with mastering the self and having a steady state of mental fortitude.
As with many of my travels, I observed both the Kazakhs and the Mongolians to have impressive and abundant character traits of grit, stoicism and resilience—traits sorely missing in much of the world. Kazakh children are raised to face challenges from early on. In the northern regions of Mongolia, some nomadic tribes have been known to put babies out in the cold without clothing. If they survive the frigid temperatures, they are warmly welcomed into the clans. Only the strong are respected. In many regions, a boy is considered a man when he can mount his horse. Childhood is short.
Despite these aspects of the culture, the Kazakhs are warm and nurturing. Both the men and women spend most of the day singing. The women sing as they collect milk in the morning, and they sing as they cook and sew (the Kazakh tents are fully covered by brightly stitched wall hangings, carpeting and bedding, all made by the female family members). The Kazakhs are quick to embrace both each other and strangers in long solid hugs, and they are quick to smile. When the Kazakhs migrate away from their ger, they stock the kitchen for any passers-by, as they believe that we are all one. To further their bond with nature, they also possess many deep relationships with animals, developing strong bonds with their eagles as well as their dogs, horses and livestock.
Aristotle posited that human behavior is a kind of akrasia, a moral weakness and lack of will resulting in taking actions against one’s better judgment. He felt that self-mastery and power over oneself (enkrateia) was imperative; however, Aristotle’s disciple Xeno put forth that enkrateia is not a virtue in and of itself, but rather the basis upon which all virtues are built. In other words, those who master others (for example, through fear and violence) may inherit the throne, but those who master themselves will inherit an empire. I think it is no coincidence that the Mongol Empire once stretched from Europe to Korea. The Mongolian diet and cultivation of mental fortitude has them uniquely poised to do so again if they so desire.
When I left Mongolia, I left part of my heart with the eagle huntresses. It is such a gift to be so warmly received. Long hugs, deep eye contact, giggles and a desire to be close are traits that most would not associate with teenagers. Perhaps, dear reader, you have not had the chance to see such things, but I have, and I can tell you that healthy teens are warm and joyful.
“FACES COVERED IN SMILES”: MONGOLIA’S ENDURING TRADITIONS
By Hilda Labrada Gore
In October 2022, in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert, I picked up a handful of stones. I wanted to bring them home as a souvenir, but my Mongolian guide and companion, Deegli, demurred. “Legend has it,” she explained to me, “that if we take stones from the ground, they miss their home for three years.”
Mary Ruddick, an ancestral nutritionist (and a guest on the Wise Traditions podcast) is the individual who invited me on this trip. We were on a week-long journey in the desert and, in every direction as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but earth—mountains covered in grey, chocolate brown and sepia tones, and extensive plains in the same shades. There were no signs, roads or structures for kilometers, and few signs of humanity. . . with the exception of the van that we were traveling in.
We had stopped, on this occasion, by the side of the road for lunch. “Fast food,” in most of Mongolia, consists of whatever provisions one has brought for the journey. Deegli had a small propane stove and, when hunger struck, we would simply stop wherever we liked and have an open-air picnic. Deegli would cook up some lamb and fat with a few noodles tossed in, and serve it up with Mongolia’s favorite beverage: milk tea.
After lunch, and after our conversation about the legend of the stones, I decided to leave the handful of pebbles behind. What I kept instead, I now share here—memories of ancient beauty in the Gobi Mountains and of the warm hospitality of the Mongolians, despite an inhospitable environment, as well as a brief account of their diet, which has been the bedrock of empires.
Today, anyone can grab a can of spray paint and tag a brick wall without a second thought (other than perhaps hoping they will not be apprehended by the police). People can design digital graphics and share them with the world in a matter of minutes. This instantaneousness is in stark contrast to the artistic communication experiences of those who walked this earth thousands of years ago, who certainly had to give serious consideration to what they wanted to communicate to their community and to future generations. To make a lasting mark in the rock required effort and intentionality. Naturally, whatever was depicted would need to be of the utmost significance.
The Gobi Desert houses Mongolia’s largest national park, Gobi Gurvan Saikhan. On the Western Beauty mountain range there, Deegli had us stop and embark on a “treasure hunt” of sorts looking for petroglyph carvings on the mountainside. Most of us are familiar with hieroglyphs (carvings or paintings on temple walls, such as those seen in Egypt). Petroglyphs are similar: symbols and images etched in stone. Experts suggest that petroglyphs, like hieroglyphs, have religious and cultural significance—serving linguistic or communication purposes—though to this day they are not fully understood.
Archaeologists estimate that the petroglyphs found in this area were carved during the Bronze Age, approximately 3300 B.C. to 1200 B.C. The mountainside we were exploring is commonly referred to as a “Museum of Petroglyphs” since the carvings can be spotted at every turn. Indeed, we came across carvings of deer with antlers reaching to the sky, mountain Argali sheep, wolves and Siberian ibex. Carvings likely etched at a later date were more complex, depicting men on horseback, hunting with bows and arrows, tools and childbirth. It was fascinating to see “wise traditions” carved into stone: babies being birthed and animals prized for their spiritual connection to the heavens as well as for their provision of fur and food.
In her companion article, Mary explores the traditional diet of the Kazakhs. I remember turning to her at one point and commenting that it seemed to me that vegans and vegetarians would starve to death in Mongolia. The land is simply not arable. There is enough for the animals (yak, cattle, goats, sheep, camels and horses) to graze on, but not enough to grow produce of any kind. Consequently, Mary and I were not only not surprised that we were served primarily animal products at every meal—mostly meat, fat and dairy products like butter and curds—we were delighted! Here is an overview of the sorts of meals we had:
- Breakfast: Delicate, freshly made airy biscuits fried in animal fat; a variety of cheese curds (some hard and dried, about an inch in size; others, biscuit-sized); clotted cream made from yak milk; tea with yak butter.
- Lunch: Noodles prepared from scratch and cooked in a delicious broth, along with meat and fat.
- Dinner: Everything from beef to horse to lamb.
At dinner, meat was central. The men removed the meat from the bone and put it on a communal plate in the middle of the table. They carved it up as everyone helped themselves, even extracting the brain from the head of the animal and bone marrow from the bones.
Our faces were covered in smiles—and often slick with the grease from the fat—at the end of each meal. We marveled in joy at how we were dining on the food that had built empires. No wonder the Mongols were able to expand their territory time and time again, over the centuries—their diet was made of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet.
With our hosts in the gers (yurts) in the western province, nothing was wasted. We dined nose-to-tail on every bit of the animal—from the organ meats to whatever gristle and cartilage was available. Even when we returned to the capital city, we found the restaurants replete with nutrient-rich food like broths with animal intestines, liver, pork skins and more. Some of the families we visited wanted to offer us little candies purchased in remote towns. As guests, they presumed that we would enjoy what they considered a rare treat, but we emphasized our desire to eat the food that was native to them.
In the capital and everywhere we went, we made friends quickly. Initially, I thought we were being treated well because we were foreigners. Later I found out that it is the custom in Mongolian homes always to have some food at the ready, in case someone journeying from one place to the next needs food and shelter. This seemed to me to be a kind of “Hospitality 10.0.” The family needn’t even be at home for the guests to make themselves at home as they pass through.
This level of hospitality could be a function, in part, of the fact that Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world. There are only four people per square mile. Horses outnumber people thirteen to one, and sheep outnumber them thirty-five to one. Perhaps Mongolians so often found themselves in need of hospitality on their travels that it led to the inclination to offer hospitality whenever possible.
At any rate, at whatever ger we stayed in, our hosts made the effort to get up in the middle of the night and stoke our wood-burning stove to provide heat all night. Yak manure and unrefined coal were added in the wee hours of the morning, with the smoke escaping through the pipe and hole in the center of the ger. We slept in toasty comfort, despite the frigid temperatures outside. (We were technically in Mongolia during fall, but the distant mountains were snowcapped and, in some regions, snow covered the ground as well.) To stay warm throughout the day, there was the milk tea to warm us from the inside out. Our hosts wore long-belted robes lined with sheepskin, with loose sleeves and bottoms to allow for freedom of movement when performing tasks like milking yaks or training eagles.
During one of my last visits in the Gobi, I was granted the opportunity to stay in the ger of an eighty-eight-year-old Kazakh grandmother, Balgiikhuu. She had six children and forty (!) grandchildren, and I couldn’t resist asking her a few questions. Through a translator, she told me about her children and how they help her with herding now that she and her husband are older. She also discussed their diet, recounting how their day begins with milk tea and includes mostly meat and dairy products from their animals (goats, yaks and camels).
What struck me the most from our conversation was her reply when I asked how her parents cared for her when she got sick as a child. I thought she might mention some ancient, traditional remedy to cure a stomachache or headache. Instead, she said that she simply had no concept of “sickness” at all when she was a child. The wise traditions of her people had served her well, indeed. And I got a glimpse (and a taste) of how they might serve the rest of the world as well.
Hilda Labrada Gore is the host of the Wise Traditions podcast and co-chapter leader of the Washington, DC chapter.
- Barcus H, Werner C. Kazakhs of Mongolia. Macalester, n.d. https://www.macalester.edu/geography/research-barcus/kazakhs/
- Uteuova A. A Central Asian dry cheese made of fermented milk, qurt is a versatile treasure of nomadic people’s ingenuity. BBC, Apr. 27, 2021.
- Ancient recipe: Eezgii [roasted cheese curd] (Mongolian, at least 14th century CE). Pass the Flamingo blog, Nov. 21, 2017. https://passtheflamingo.com/2017/11/21/ancient-recipe-eezgii-toasted-cheese-curd-mongolian-at-least-14th-century-ce/
- Danan A, Westman EC, Saslow LR, et al. The ketogenic diet for refractory mental illness: a retrospective analysis of 31 inpatients. Front Psychiatry. 2022;13:951376.
- Kazakh dairy products. Advantour, n.d. https://www.advantour.com/kazakhstan/food/dairy-products.htm
- Ishii S, Nurtazin S. Properties of camel milk liquor (“shubat”) in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Milk Science. 2014;63(2):55-62.
- Masterjohn C. The pursuit of happiness. Wise Traditions. Winter 2008;9(4): 14-24.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2023🖨️ Print post