Matt and I now have a lease on an apartment near the centre of town. We have regular coffee haunts. We have weekly routines and jobs. We have shiny plastic cards that evidence our right to live in Mongolia, albeit as aliens. Despite being able to play the part of a resident, I am often in reality a blonde haired, boof-headed tourist. I’m reminded of this every time I pass the Mary & Martha Fair Trade shop, which I do at least twice, sometimes four times, a day. A cheerful young girl in a blue t-shirt will attempt to thrust a brochure in my face and wish me a happy ‘welcome to Mongolia’. I’ve started scowling as they approach, which is effective and less tiring than explaining again my living situation, but it really isn’t very nice of me.
Unfortunately, boof-headed tourists sometimes do thoughtless, stupid things. Myself included. We certainly aren’t perfect, but Mattie and I try to do the right thing by our animal friends. We don’t eat them. We’ve given up eating eggs because you can’t buy free range ones here unless you know someone in the countryside who has their own chickens. I will be very surprised if, come December, our apartment has not been transformed into the Winter Palace of the Dogd Khan, thanks to one of the local street dogs. (Mr Limpy, Mr Dapper Neck Scarf, Little Miss Trotty Paws who gets a pat outside Peaberry Cafe – I’m looking at you.)
We try to do the right thing, but sometimes boof-headed tourist mode kicks in. A few weeks ago we were visiting the giant statue of Chinggis Khan to the east of Ulaanbaatar. Out the front, a man had tied two golden eagles and a vulture to a log, a leather cord attached to their feet. It’s a common sight at tourist destinations here, the idea being that you pay to be photographed with a bird of prey. At the suggestion of one of my local friends, I found myself pulling on a thick leather falconry glove. No, scratch that. That wording sidesteps responsibility. I didn’t find myself doing anything. I willingly put my arm into a falconry glove and put my arm out for the eagle to climb onto. She obediently did. The falconer motioned to me to waive my arm up and down. I did. He told Matt to take a photo. Matt did. The eagle spread its wings in trained response. She was enormous. Very heavy. Very beautiful. But glazed eyed and sad-looking. Matt handed the man the 3,000 tugrik he demanded.
Less than ten metres away, I said to Matt: ‘Why on earth did I do that?’
‘I don’t know’, he said. ‘I wish you hadn’t.’
Perhaps it was in part because I didn’t want to offend my friend. And, to be honest, I was curious about having a look at those enormous birds.
I’ve included some photos of how these birds ought to look. I’m not putting up the eagle photo Matt took for me. I’m ashamed of it. Others might disagree. Perhaps for some, meeting the eagles at Chinggis Khan monument is a trip highlight. Others might say that the falconer needs to make a living somehow. But I’m not sure. If she had been an eagle in rehabilitation at a wildlife rescue centre, I think it might have been different. If she had remained on the arm of a Kazakh eagle hunter from the western aimags, it certainly would have been different. But using an eagle who should be soaring over the steppes purely to entertain tourists? I don’t think that’s right.
What do you think?
Like what you’ve read? We also have a blog about cycle-touring in Europe. Check it out here: https://journals.worldnomads.com/katescarlett