As the pandemic continues to affect the world, I remain in Mongolia since its borders closed down in early March 2020. During my eighth month in the country, I decided to base myself in the village of Sagsai in Western Mongolia. The Kazakh nomads dominate this part of Mongolia where eagle hunting remains a relevant part of the culture. I’m staying with a family whose lineage includes some of the prominent eagle hunters in the region. About 5,000 nomads live in Sagsai, some of which migrate to other places depending on the need of their herds for pastures.
My lovely host, Bakhitgul, is a teacher in the one and only school in the village. While here, I decided to volunteer and teach English to the children. During one of my classes, I asked the students what places they recommend that I visit in Western Mongolia. A few of the students mentioned Dayan Lake, located 200 kilometers north of Sagsai. After deciding to explore Dayan Lake, I obtained a permit and hired a Russian van and driver.
Dayan Lake is 50 kilometers from the border of China. During winter, a community of around 50 Kazakh nomadic families lives next to the lake. Dayan Lake is known for harsh winters with snow reaching up to 16 feet in height. The drive itself is scenic and showcased Mongolia's rugged and vast landscapes that were already covered with snow as winter arrived early this year. Along the way, we saw a number of lakes, snowcapped peaks, and herds of goats, sheep, cow, yaks and horses.
The Dayan lake community is noticeably small. Apart from a school and a military base, there’s no other infrastructure that’s in operation within the community. Dried dung and chopped wood are displayed next to the wooden houses. By the looks of it, the locals were busy preparing for winter as they slaughtered goats, sheep and cows to create their supply of meat for the next few months.
For the night, my driver and I found a family happy to host us. Our hosts lived a few meters uphill from the center of the community with a scenic view of Dayan Lake. Our host family consisted of a husband and wife, their two kids, plus the father’s parents. They also had two dogs, a cat and a herd of goats, sheep and horses.
It was a warm and comfortable stay as the family kept the stove fire burning through the night. It’s always amazing to witness how resourceful locals can be when it comes to running their household. They used wood and dung to keep their homes warm. To get water, they collect and melt the snow all winter. We ended our evening eating the famous local dish called Besbarmak (or Five Fingers) and drinking bowls of milk tea.
Besides enjoying the wintry landscapes, our itinerary for the next day involved fishing in the nearby lake. Unfortunately, too much ice made fishing too difficult. After a few attempts to find a viable fishing spot, we gave up. We headed back to our host family’s home to drink tea once more before driving back to Sagsai. As we headed out, our host family prepared meat from ten slaughtered goats, enough for the entire family until early spring.
Despite our bad luck with fishing, we had sunny, blue skies for our drive back. This was a major improvement from the previous day’s wind and grey clouds. The drive back in the Russian van was a memorable experience in itself. Although the ride was bumpy at times, it was nonetheless relaxing as I watched nomads and herds go about their daily routines. Nomads and their animals have imparted a clear lesson to me all this time, and that is, I never have to question the abundance of nature and freedom that exist here.
Marinel Malvar de Jesus is a former lawyer who now runs her trekking social enterprise, Peak Explorations, and travel media platform, Brown Gal Trekker. She is also the founder of The Porter Voice Collective, a non-profit organization that advocates for the basic human rights of porters on mountain trails worldwide. Marinel is a human rights advocate, a writer and a global mountain nomad. Most recently, she discovered her passion for storytelling via film making to create equity and inclusion in the outdoors and adventure travel industry.