A walk on the very wild side

Mabel Sieh

A former Hong Kong student discarded comfort to learn how Kazakhs live in the Gobi Desert

Mabel Sieh |

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Christopher Schrader learns to hunt with eagles.
For 80 days between December and March, Christopher Schrader lived the life of a Kazakh nomad, eating Kazakh food, wearing Kazakh clothes, herding animals and hunting for wolves in bitter temperatures that sat between minus 15 and minus 60 degrees Celsius.

Schrader's nomadic adventure was inspired by another expedition last summer when he trekked across Mongolia's Gobi Desert with 13 international adventurers. Along the way, he met a local nomad Alibek and decided to stay with his family in an isolated mountainside home, outside Bulgan Sum, deep in the Altai Mountains.

"I wanted to see what it was like to live like a nomad and learn to be spontaneous," recalls Schrader, 19, a former student of Li Po Chun United World College in Sha Tin. "On a typical day, I woke up at 8am and had fried dough and tea for breakfast. Then I would get on a horse and take 1,000 goats and sheep into the mountains to graze."

Every few days, he would have to wander deep into the mountains looking for water for his herd, or venture off to collect the yaks and protect them from wolves.

"It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack," he says.

Schrader, who's originally from the Netherlands, is a founder of Hong Kong's Youth Endurance Network which organises an annual 24-race to raise awareness about the problem of human trafficking. He says living in a nomadic culture with no Western comforts or modern technology taught him about real hardship.

"It's such a hard life," he says. "They have to work with hundreds of animals. There is no time for recreation. Alibek's two younger brothers who are 10 and 12 years old need to look after the animals far away from home on their own.

A boy their age from the Netherlands will still be taken care of by his parents."

Danger was never far off, especially during Schrader's adventures hunting with Sailau, a legendary Kazakh eagle hunter. "There were times when I thought I could be attacked by wolves or slip down a cliff and die," he says. "The trip was not a 'challenge'; it's something Kazakhs do every day. It's your life."

The experience gave him some clarity in life.

"When I was on my own caring for the animals, it felt like I was the only person in the world. I had to totally rely on myself. Life is so primitive and real and I loved it.

"I appreciate their family traditions, living in the toughest conditions and constantly moving homes depending on the weather. Their family and neighbours are the only thing that stays the same. I've heard touching stories of how families helped and supported each other. Everything is about everybody's life."

One time, Schrader saw frozen fish in an icy river. At that moment, he felt time stood still and he reflected on his young life. It was timely self-evaluation considering the new journey he will embark on this autumn: entering Harvard University in the United States.

He also dreamed up plans to replicate the nomadic experience for students in Hong Kong by bringing them to Mongolia.

First, he will share his story with students - he's already been invited to speak in a few local schools.

"My message is be spontaneous," he says. "Do what you really want to do in your life. Be open to every opportunity and take risks. Enjoy the moment and don't rush through life."

For more details, visit his Facebook page