Month: May 2016

Filming a Documentary Under Extreme Conditions

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To say it was cold was an understatement. The early mornings, when the natural light was good for our photography, hovered around -20 F.  Thank goodness there was no wind and the sun was out to help warm us up.

Mornings were so cold that glasses were frosted and not usable

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Ardak’s horse had some frost also

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I dressed in 5 layers on top and 4 on the bottom. The boots I purchased in town worked great.

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I filmed the full moon one evening, and it was just as cold as the morning

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My breath at minus -20 F illuminated by my headlamp

While filming the moon my tripod froze to the lens base, and I had to bring it inside to thaw out so that I could take the lens off

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Driving out to our filming spot each morning was just magical with the clear skies, snow, and beautiful mountains. The morning views made the cold more bearable.

The setting moon

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The sunrise
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It took lots of equipment and peeps to get just some of the footage we need for the movie. We are going back in June, when Ardak might release his current eagle forever, and obtain a new one. Will show those pictures when we return.

Setup prior to filming

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How we obtained some of our video and photos

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Filming

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We used a GoPro for some of our video. Its light weight and small size allowed us to mount it where needed.

Sometimes we mounted it on Ardak’s horse

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It took a little ingenuity and trial and error to get the GoPro to work when mounted on the eagle.

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Click on the picture below to see the result of our efforts

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The Eagle in Action

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Action shots of golden eagles do not come easily. They don’t feel obliged to follow the script for our movie most times, so filming them can be seat-of-the-pants. My experience with wildlife photography in general was a big help. The biggest help was Ardak, the master eagle falconer we stayed with. Without his significant help and cooperation, along with Bek and his assistant guide Jupar, we we not have obtained any pictures or footage for our movie.

Our two great assistants in action.

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 Oops, wrong photo, sorry about that!

Bek up early, making sure all of our equipment was in the car and we were ready to find Ardak. That is the fox that Ardak killed one day prior to be used for filming and to train the eagle.

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Bek helping put the GoPro on the eagle

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Bek being the decoy to get our proper angle for filming. You can see the GoPro on the eagle’s back.

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Bek helping get some shots when I was busy getting video footage

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Jupar helping set up the tripod

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Jupar helping with the eagle at the end of the day’s shoot

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Bek and Jupar helping film an interview with Ardak in his house

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 Once we identified the place to film by the angle of the sun (all pictures and video for the movie are with natural light) and Ardak’s input, he let the eagle loose.

Before it was released the eagle would chirp excitedly knowing it would be hunting

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The following set of photos give you an idea of how the eagle approaches its prey. Enjoy!

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Slow motion video of Ardak releasing his eagle as it flies past us

We put a GoPro on the eagle’s back and obtained some great footage for the documentary

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Flying into a rabbit

Soaring after a rabbit

None of this would have happened without the master eagle falconer named Ardak. Click on his picture below to learn more about him.

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Ardak- the Master Eagle Falconer

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Ardak’s skills were taught by his father, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. The female eagle lives with him literally, and he takes it out almost every day. It is a major commitment of time for a nomad that has grazing livestock to attend to.

Our first view of his eagle when we first arrived and it was outside sunning

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The neighbor has an eagle also, and they would both be outside at times

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The eagle lives in the house with Ardak and his family. It sits there calmly with all the action of cooking and visitors going on around it

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The eagle knows when it is time to eat though!

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Ardak mixes rabbit meat with water before feeding

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Eagle dinner time!

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The eagle is a voracious eater

When we first arrived Ardak took his eagle out for us to calibrate our cameras for eagle filming later
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We had a chance to get up close and personal

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The eagle is used to hunt rabbits and fox. To be able to film it in the actual hunt for a rabbit is difficult due to the small size of the rabbit, the distance, and speeds involved. We did most of our photography with a rabbit and fox that were recently killed by Ardak for the pelts and meat like he does routinely. He saved them as training for the eagle, and we used them in our filming.

Ardak would ride off with the eagle in the morning to a place that most likely would have rabbits or foxes to hunt. We would leave early in the morning for good photography light. He went first on horseback, and we would drive ahead to set up our filming.

We would start early in the very cold morning since we were using natural light and the best light is when the sun is rising or just before setting

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Off he would ride to our pre-arranged rendezvous point

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We would go ahead and film him as he approached when possible

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Ardak would climb to a good vantage point and scan for rabbits or foxes. He used some very old binoculars, but he had eagle eyes (excuse the pun), and nothing would escape his gaze.

When he first arrived to his vantage point he would wait for us

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The eagle would be anxious to hunt

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He would scan for several minutes at a time

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When he found a rabbit he would shoot it and bring it back to feed and help train the eagle. I have no idea how he shot this rabbit using a very old 22 caliber rifle with iron sights.

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Ardak was very cooperative, and would repeat any action so that we got the footage we needed. It gave us the opportunity to get some good still shots and some great footage of the eagle in flight.

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Click on the photo below to see our page of the eagle in action

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We filmed under some pretty challenging conditions. Click on the picture below to see what it was like.

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Mongolia 2016

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Dr. Palazzolo and Dr. Kennedy  went to Mongolia in February of 2016, when it was bitterly cold, in order to watch a master falconer use his golden eagle to hunt foxes and rabbits. It was a preliminary trip for an indie movie we are making on the relationship between a Kazakh nomad and his golden eagle.

We stayed with a nomad (and his family, including eagle) named Ardak

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We had a wonderful time with Ardak and his family, and can’t wait to go back!

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We are going back in June of 2016 to continue filming (we are bringing a DJI Phantom 4 aerial drone this time). After the June trip we are going back again for the eagle festival in October.  When we return we will start editing the documentary.

Many nomads congregate in early October at the eagle festival to reinforce their unique bond, celebrate their culture, keep this tradition going, and put on a show for visitors

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Dr. Kennedy went there in the fall of 2015 for preliminary work and to lay the groundwork for our video work in February of 2016. She made a connection with a great travel company called Back -to -Bek Travel (http://www.backtobektravel.com) run by a Kazakh named Bek that speaks fluent English and sets up tours. A trip to Mongolia with him is highly recommended, especially for the eagle festival in October.

Dr. Kennedy knows how to ride a horse, so Ardak let her ride along when they took the eagle out hunting

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When I first mentioned to family and friend we were going to Mongolia the response was never lukewarm. Most people asked “are you crazy”?  A small percent said “I would love to go”!

When I called my mom and told her  I was going to Mongolia, and for her to start knitting hats for the kids we would encounter, she asked “are you crazy”?

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Before we begin, let’s go over some anatomy and see where Mongolia is on the big map. It’s between Russia and China. There is no more Outer Mongolia. What used to be called Outer Mongolia is now just called Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is the part of China that is just below the Mongolian border.

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We spent most of our time in far western Mongolia, which is the land of the semi-nomadic people called Kazakhs. Their possessions are few, and usually consists of their horses and livestock (and of course, their golden eagles).

We flew from South Korea to Ulaanbatar (large red circle on right), then flew to far western Mongolia, to a town called Olgi (smaller red circle on left). After spending the night in Olgi we drove 5 hours south to Altai, marked as X on the map below. It is here we stayed with Ardak and did our filming.

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Bek will do anything to make your trip a success. In this short video he mentions this in regard to getting the footage we wanted for our documentary. It was taken during a birthday celebration for Dr. Kennedy as we were toasting to her health with vodka.

This fascinating trip is broken down into 4 areas. Click on the links below to learn much more, and decide if you want to visit some day.

 

Traveling to far western Mongolia

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The master eagle falconers

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The golden eagle in action

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Filming a documentary under extreme conditions

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Logistics of Going to Mongolia

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Wildlife documentaries are unscripted, and take hundreds of  hours filming to produce a 2 hour movie.  Golden eagles don’t tend to know their lines all that well, so patience is the most important piece of equipment to pack into your bags.

Before we left we worked on a script for the documentary in order to give us an idea of the video we needed. Dr. Kennedy has trained in this area at UCLA’s film school, and with the help of a professional editor, we had a framework on what we needed to film

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By the time we came back from the February 2016 trip we threw half the script out the window and went to plan B. After we return with footage from the June, 2016 (woohoo, it will be warmer then) we will probably be at plan C.  When we finally get down to editing its probably plan D. Such is the life of a wildlife documentary.

We took lots of camera equipment and cold weather gear. The cameras and lenses consisted of the following Canon gear:

  • C-100 Mark II video camera
  • 1Dx still camera (will be bringing the 1 Dx Mark II also when we return in June)
  • 7D Mark II still camera
  • 5D Mark III still camera
  • Go Pro Hero
  • 50mm f/1.2 prime lens
  • 24-105mm f/4 zoom
  • 100mm f/2.8 macro
  • 135mm f/2 prime
  • 70-200mm f/4 zoom
  • 400mm DO f/4 prime
  • 500mm f/4 prime
  • 1.4X teleconverter
  • 2X teleconverter

In addition we had 3 tripods, lots of batteries, two computers, and several external hard drives. Now all we had to do was to figure out how to get all the camera gear, clothes, presents, (and cheerios) to fit into our bags.

My living room several days before our trip. The pictures speak for themselves.

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We were able to stuff all of this into our 8 pieces of luggage.

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The airport in Seoul, Korea is called Incheon. Like many Asian airports, it is large, busy, spotless, and beautiful. There are people in the restrooms that spend their day cleaning from one end to the other, back and forth.

On one signboard, for a 2 hour period of time, departures only, there were 150 flights from the main terminal. This gives you and idea of how busy these Asian airports are.

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As we walked to our gate we passed a classic music concert in the airport

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After a long layover at Incheon,  and another 4 hour flight, we landed at Chinggis Khaan International airport in Ulan Bataar. Notice how they spell what we could call Genghis Khan.

Its not quite the same thing as the airport in Seoul

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The temp when we landed (yes, that is in F). Ulan Bataar is one of the coldest cities in the world.

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We stayed at a hostel called the Golden Gobi. It is a meeting place from travelers all over the world. It cost $28 per night for two people. Most everything in Mongolia is inexpensive compared to other countries.

It came as a nice surprise that the Ritz-Carlton had a hotel in Ulan Bataar

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The proprietors were friendly, it was clean, and most important, the heater worked

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We decided to eat authentic Mongolian food our first night, so off we went in search of local eats. We bundled up and walked the streets until we found a restaurant that fit the bill for authenticity- Round Table Pizza!

After the long time it took to get here a little comfort food from back home seemed like a better idea than authentic

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This is your first chance to practice your Mongolian

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Just in case your Mongolian is a little rusty, here is your interpretation
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After a glamorous night at the Ritz it was off to the airport again for our 4 hour flight west to Olgi in far western Mongolia. It was a turbo prop filled with people.

On this flight we had a chance to view the landscape that would be our home for over a week

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When you land at Olgi you get your bags while they are still outside

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As you can see by the size of this police station, Olgi is not one of the world’s larger cities

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At Olgi we met Bek and his assistant Jupar, purchased some winter boots (for $60), and had lunch.  After lunch it was time to go over camera equipment with the guides. Dr. K would be spending her time with the GoPro, I would be splitting my time with the still cameras and the Canon C-100 Mark II video camera.  We needed the guides to  help take still shots to make sure we had all the camera angles we needed of the eagle while on Ardak’s horse and in flight.

Bek and Jupar were fast learners, and soon were able to put the equipment together and mount the gear on a tripod

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Off we went to teach them how to use all this stuff we brought. First we started on static objects like people, then moving objects, then finally we used a surrogate eagle to simulate what they would be shooting at Ardak’s.

Japar and Bek, our two budding photographers, in their Nat Geo poses

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An example of one of their shots on static subjects. You felt like you were in Russia with the way the people looked

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We then moved to a moving object and they did great. Notice how bundled up the people need to be in this below zero weather.

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Once they had their moving shot skills down pat we moved on to our practice eagle shots (they did not pay this guy enough to run around pretending  he was an eagle). I really only did it to keep warm, but I never told them that.

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We took Bek, Jupar, and his family to dinner that night. This dinner was our first exposure to how cute and well behaved the children were in Mongolia. We found all the kids, including the kids of the nomads, to be well adjusted and happy.

These are Jupar’s kids. The little man in the middle did not stop staring at us and smiling .
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The next day we drove 5 hours south to Altai where Ardak’s winter house was located and our home for the next week. It was Dr. P, Dr. K, Bek, Jupar, and Bek’s two nieces, who would be our cooks, for the next week.

We loaded up Bek’s magic bus with Jupar and the two cooks inside, along with our food and hay for Ardak’s lifestock

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Bek, Dr. P, and Dr. K jumped into Bek’s Russian made Patriot SUV

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Off we went through the beautiful Mongolian countryside. These low res pictures for the web do not do justice to the scenery. The sky was this blue throughout our trip.

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 We encountered groups of camels along the way. They  are all part of a herd that is owned by a nomad.

Do you know what two flavors camels come in?

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We also encountered nomad families moving their meager belongings to the high country

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Their calf was in the bed of this old Russian truck

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Satellite dish on top

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Grandpa and grandma were in the front seat

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Along the way to Ardak’s we stopped at the house of a master falconer named Mana. Dr. K stayed with him in October of 2015, and she wanted to say hi to him and bring him gifts and pictures she took during that trip. We were guests for lunch.

The porch in front of Mana’s house

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 Mana and his wife were great hosts and put out a big spread for us

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Their grandkids were super cute

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This was our first opportunity to see a golden eagle. This one was hanging out in the kitchen.

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Mana’s son fired up the stove and the feast began

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When the food came out Bek explained what we were eating.

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Khurt is hard cheese

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They mix cow and yak milk with their tea

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Everyone joined in the feast and the stories started. Bek interpreted everything perfectly since his english is excellent (he learned a few new slang words from us), and he is intimately familiar with the nomads.

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They were thrilled to see themselves in the pictures that Dr. K brought them

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They appreciated the presents we brought them

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And loved the hats my mom made for the children

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They gave us presents in return

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They even gave us eagle feathers. These feathers are illegal to bring back into the U. S.

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After lunch we took some pictures with the eagles and hawks (the bird on the left is actually a buzzard).

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We drove a few more hours, past a Mongolian army checkpoint, through the town of Altai, and finally to Ardak’s.

No pictures are allowed at military checkpoints, so don’t look at these

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The town of Altai. We felt like we were in Siberia.

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Rush hour traffic in Altai

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When the Lakers are in town this is where they play

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After 5 days of travel from the U.S. we finally  made it to Ardak’s. These nomads are master horsemen, and their lives revolve around their livestock. In the winter they set up a permanent home with an area for the livestock. In summer they move and go into the high country to let their cattle, yaks, goats, and sheep, graze.

Ardak’s saddle just outside his house

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The livestock pen where the animals spend the night, protecting them from the elements and also the wolves

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This is a yak. They can tolerate the extreme cold better than a cow, but produce less milk.

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The cows are given blankets to help them get through the cold nights. To get the best of both worlds they breed the yaks and cows.

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Ardak’s family welcomed us like old friends. The food never stopped, they could not do enough for us, and the kids were entertaining.

Our first encounter with Ardak

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Ardak with his daughter

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His daughter was our entertainment for the week with her nonstop curiosity about us

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Ardak’s wife and Bek’s nieces started the cooking as soon as we got there, and kept us well fed at all times. We ate traditional food at times, ate the American fare that Bek brought for us, and nibbled on our own snacks brought from the U. S. (usually that meant Cheerios and dried mangoes).

The ladies cooked up dumplings made with lamb and cow meat

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A typical breakfast was an omelette, bread, and of course, cheerios

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A typical lunch was  fresh vegetable soup with some meat

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The table at the room we stayed in was never devoid of food and drink

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Dr. K had a birthday while there, so they made a special birthday cake. Can you guess the ingredients?

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After they sang happy birthday we had a toast. The nomads are not drinkers, and only drink on special occasions. The heavy Russian influence in the area means we will be toasting with vodka.

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All this time the Ardak’s eagle waited in the kitchen for her turn to eat. Click on her picture below and you will learn much about her and see just a few of our thousands of pictures and video of her hunting with Ardak for our documentary.

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