The Happiness Idea World

Mom’s #HappinessIdea to promote eco-tourism in remote Kazakhstan

Kazakh mother travels overland from Mongolia to Kazakhstan to pursue her #HappinessIdea to establish eco-tours in one of the remotest regions of Central Asia.

Two years ago, when we first met Amangul Sakei, we made a short film about her. Back then, my friend Nicki and I were “hunting” stories of people pursuing their happiness. Amangul’s story was particularly inspiring. At 40-ish (Amangul never revealed her age, despite my best attempts to politely glean this info from her), she had the youthful and ruddy skin of a sunburnt child and a joyous giggle to match. Amangul was leading our expedition into remote eastern Kazakhstan. Along with a posse of male rangers, she and John Williamson, co-owner of New Zealand-based Zavkhan Trekking, guided about a dozen of foreigners, of varied nationalities, deep into the steppe.

When Amangul was a little girl, her father told her she must pursue her happiness. At a young age, she knew her happiness was travel. Amangul grew up, got married, had three kids. At this point, her childhood dream to explore looked a little tricky to realize. But Amangul has a supportive husband. Somehow, they worked out a way for her to be gone for many weeks at a time, far from their home in the Bayan-Ölgii province of western Mongolia. Sometimes she guides in the vast Mongolian steppe; other times in Kazakhstan. She always guides on horse.

Now, one afternoon, after our expedition had stopped for the night to set up camp at the base of the Altai mountains, Amangul and Nicki and I went for a walk. It had been particularly cold that day; sunny and crisp. It felt as if it would snow. As the three of us walked, we chatted as best we could. Amangul spoke some English; Nicki and I had learned enough Kazakh to get by. We came to a stream. Kazakhstan doesn’t do much anything by halves, certainly not its nature. The stream wasn’t just cold and rushing. It was like stepping into the path of a semi-frozen fire hydrant. Amangul giggled at my timidity (I hate cold, wet feet!) and goaded me. All three of us crossed.

On the other side of the stream, we continued to chat and walk. Quickly, it grew dark and it was difficult to find our footing, especially when we had to cross that cold, rushing stream again. When we returned to camp, it was up to Amangul to prepare dinner for everyone. She was cold, and I could see she was tired. But she went about her meal preparation in cheerful silence, occasionally accepting a swig of whisky from one of the expedition members.

Amangul’s #happinessidea is to carry on doing the work that she loves, guiding people in a land that she is both passionate and knowledgeable about. All she needs is you, as her guest.

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