Tour Leader Postcard from the Field: Mongolia

By Dr. Stephen Halkovic, Asia Transpacific Journeys Tour Leader / PhD in Inner Asian Studies

As I unpacked from this year’s Mongolian tour, I reached into a side pocket of my carry-on luggage and found a very crudely carved bear. It was only about four inches long and made of reindeer antler. It was unimposing with no real value as a work of art. However, the memories that it produced in me are unforgettable.

Lake Khobsugol and its reindeer population
Lake Khobsugol and its reindeer population

No matter how many times I have been to Mongolia, and by now it is probably sixty times, something new always seems to happen. This year our tour took us to the eastern side of Lake Khobsugol. This is a much less developed part of the lake, but with a new and wonderfully located ger camp on a beautiful cove.

The day after we arrived the group set off some by horseback an hour and a half ride and some by boat to visit a reindeer herding family. These reindeer herders live under incredibly difficult conditions. Their dwellings are similar to native American tepees, and they live in them all year long even when the temperature drops to more than 40 degrees below zero. Our group sat and talked to the herder while our local guide translated. These herders have to be totally self reliant, making sure to keep their herds in the best possible shape as their lives depend on their animals.

This couple was so gracious to us sharing their homemade bread and cheese with us. As he spoke about his religion—he is a shaman—he lit his pipe. The group was immediately fascinated for the pipe was about a foot long and both the stem and the bowl was made out of a single piece of larch. This was something that I had never seen before. At the end of our visit he took out some antler carvings and members of our group bought some of these for 1 or 2 dollars. Finally one of the group asked if they could buy his pipe. He had two. He agreed for $2. Someone else asked to buy the second pipe and he sold it as well. Before we left, we found out that this was his second wife. His first was eaten by a bear.

As we left the tent the herder presented me with his bear carving. This was his totem as a shamen. At dinner that evening our conversation revolved around our meeting with the reindeer herder. Some were worried that the herder would not be happy not having a pipe to smoke.

The next morning we had an eight o’clock departure in order to reach the airport for our flight. Waiting for us by our vehicles was the reindeer herder. He had made two new pipes overnight and they were eagerly purchased. I will never forget the wonderful bear carving and the industrious pipe making carver.

Dr. Stephen Halkovic has a PhD in Inner Asian Studies, specializing in Mongolia/Tibet/China from Indiana University, and taught there for 14 years. While teaching at IU, he started to lead tours to Soviet Central Asia and Mongolia during the summers. In 1980 Stephen started lecturing and leading tours into China. By 1984, he was much more interested in the travel business than academia and started to lead tours full time throughout Asia and remote regions throughout the world. Since the ’80s he has led 100 trips to China, over 50 to Mongolia, and more than 15 to Tibet. He is the author of two scholarly works on Mongolia. His unsurpassed knowledge, infectious laughter and engaging style make him a superb travel companion.


Dr. Halkovic leads many of our Small Group Tours, limited to 18 travelers, including Mongolia: In the Path of the Nomad, departing annually in July.

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