Big Bulls … In Mongolia

By Bob Robb

In September, 1994, I was invited by a U.S. hunting outfitter to travel from my home in Nowhere, Alaska, to Mongolia. The trip was financed by the Mongolian government, its purpose to promote sport hunting of what are called Maral stag—a subspecies of elk that, to my eye at least, pretty much mirror our Rocky Mountain elk. Today the various international hunting organizations classify them into two elk subspecies—the Altai Wapiti (Cervus canadensis sibiricus) and the Tian Shan Wapiti (C. c. songaricus)—that inhabit the mountain ranges and boreal forests of southeastern Siberia, parts of China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with the best current hunting opportunities found in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Back then, nobody went here to elk hunt. It took me three days to get there, with overnights in San Francisco and Beijing, followed by a couple of days in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, where we toured the yurt of Genghis Khan before flying north. Once off the plane we then piled in battered old Russian military jeeps and trekked four hours over bad roads to a mountain camp of yurts set near a very small village of goat herders. We had an interpreter and some locals who would be our “guides.”

I was bowhunting, and when I heard bulls bugling nearby, was pumped out of my shoes. My guide and I set off just after dawn. We crept toward a raucous bull in the timber, me cow calling and the bull screaming and pressing hard. It was all coming together, and then … nothing. Shit. The wind was perfect, then he was gone. I discovered why when I turned to look at my guide, who was now accompanied by a half-dozen villagers who had come to take in the show and were standing in the wide-ass open, a hundred yards behind me, smoking. Once we sorted all this out, the hunting was ridiculous; I killed a fine bull the next day, and my companions dropped a couple dandies with rifles.

But, as is the case with any international hunt—and especially an exploratory adventure—the hunting was the least exciting part.

The food was basically boiled mutton and cabbage, twice a day. Being a bit of a seasoned adventurer at the time, I had the forethought to bring along two dozen freeze-dried meals, four Costco packs of mini candy bars, and some water purification tablets, so I was good to go. Also, a dozen rolls of toilet paper, since there was none to be found in the country, anywhere, even in the cities. Pure gold.

One afternoon, the local village chieftain had us to his yurt for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. His wife, decked out in her finest Sunday-go-to-meeting outfit, offered us a plate of  nice baked flatbread alongside what the locals call boodog. As it turns out, boodog is a deboned tarbagan marmot—an 18 lb rodent—that is cooked by inserting preheated stones into the abdominal cavity, the skin then being tied up to make a bag within which the meat cooks. Of course these things also are carriers of a pneumonic form of the plague. To wash it down the chief poured us little cups of mare’s milk vodka, a disgusting combination of mare’s milk and urine fermented in an earthenware cask and kept by the door. That shit stunk so bad I could not get it to my lips. Instead, I used a little diversionary tactic and surreptitiously poured it into a house plant, which thankfully did not wilt on the spot.

As the lone bowhunter, the hunting was tougher, and when the rifle guys punched their two allotted tags, the outfitter—essentially a hustler—decided they would all take off and leave me in elk camp while they rolled a couple hundred miles to sightsee, or something. “We’ll meet you back in Ulan Bataar,” he said, “the guide will drive you in the jeep.” You’re shitting me, right? You want to take the only good vehicle, all the good food, and the interpreter and leave me here? “No, that’s all right,” I cooed. “One bull is enough for me, no need to be greedy. I can be packed up in, like, three minutes. How’s that?”

So back to Ulan Bataar we went and caught a flight to Beijing, where I stayed two extra nights to take in a tour of the Ming Tombs and walk on the Great Wall. One of the most memorable side trips of my life. At the time, the Chinese were doing lots of construction in Beijing in the hopes of attracting the 2000 summer Olympic Games, which ended up in Sidney, Australia. To make a long story short, they were doing a ton of concrete work without rebar. One morning I watched in horror as the recently-constructed foyer of a large hotel collapsed, killing several people. I had a camera handy and started taking pictures. Several minutes later the police had me in a back room, screaming like I was with the CIA or something. “No pictures! No pictures!!” they screeched, ripping the slide film from my Minolta. 

Sans camera, I was on the next plane for Tokyo, then Honolulu for fuel stop, then San Francisco, then Anchorage, then Valdez, Alaska, where I lived. Took 3 ½ days to get home. As soon as I got off the puddle jumper in Valdez, I immediately kissed the tarmac and started singing “God Bless America.”

There truly is no place like home. Especially when home is the good ol’ USA.

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