Riding with the Kazakh eagle hunters
Altai Mountains Mongolia
For thousands of years, hunters in Western Mongolia have been hunting fox, wolf and marmot with the help of the majestic golden eagle. An ancient tradition of skill and craftsmanship. Writer Marco Barneveld and photographer Frits Meyst visited the Golden Eagle Festival in Bajan-Ölgii and travelled into the Altai Mountains with these hunters. “Can the fox escape?”
The big void
This part of the earth is enclosed by landmass all around, creating an extreme continental climate dominating daily life. In this cold desert, the mercury can drop to minus fifty in the winter months. But in the summer, you can be panting and sweating in temperatures over forty degrees Celsius. Rain is scarce. This region is actually largely characterised by the big void. There are no trees, there are no roads, there is hardly any habitation. What remains is an immense, stretched, sloped, almost extra-terrestrial landscape with some sparse blades of grass, bleached bones of a once proud horse or sheep and many stones on a sandy earth. The rough rule of nature makes me feel very small for a moment. We people have nothing to say here for the time being. Mother Earth is ruler. For now.
The landscape is an immense, stretched, sloped, almost extra-terrestrial landscape with some sparse blades of grass and the bleached bones of a once proud horse
Driving can at least be called safe here. Bumpy, yes, but there is nothing you can crash into. “Possible holes and stones flying up when driving are the biggest danger you’ll get”, says Ardaq, while we drive through an endless desert in his rickety, Russian-built jeep. The herds of ungulates, eagerly looking for that one though leaf left on that one pitiful bush, can be seen scurrying from far away. The animals see the huge dust clouds behind the car from miles away too, and skittishly look for salvation elsewhere.
These inhospitable plains were the birth ground of the Mongol Horde, bringing death and destruction in search of land, food and happiness. Led by Dzjengis Khan, seen by the Mongolians as the father of the nation, these warriors on horseback expanded the Mongol Empire to the second largest world empire ever. Only the British Empire was bigger. The Mongolians called themselves ruler of what is now Hungary and Poland. It must have felt like an earthquake when the droves set out to battle with their hundreds of thousands of hardy horses.
Led by Dzjengis Khan, the warriors on horseback expanded the Mongol Empire to the second largest world. Only the British Empire was bigger.
Golden Eagle Festival
Now too, the ground thuds with the sound of the hooves. A drove of horses and riders thunders towards me at high speed. The blue sky vanishes behind the fine dust. The first two riders are yanking a decapitated goat between them like madmen, a puppet stuck between the powers of the muscles of horse and man. I find myself in the middle of this violence, some other travellers as well, but I feel completely invisible. If I don’t watch myself, they walk straight through me, horse and rider alike. That makes it extra unique to stand in de middle of this. This is their party, so much is clear. And I get to watch. Feigned manoeuvres of the small, thick-set horses try to mislead the other riders. A fur hat flies through the air, determined shouting from fanatical, hoarse throats. A fist hits a chest, and as a consequence, a young rider in the front takes hold of the goat. But that very punch triggers rage from the crowd, who run after the riders in anger, protesting at the top of their lungs. A rock flies through the air, missing the rider with the goat by a matter of millimetres. A man, standing on the roof of a dented Russian-made jeep, request everybody remains calm through a tinny sounding megaphone. Nobody seems to listen.
Welcome to the Golden Eagle Festival, UNESCO world heritage, held every year in October. It is a tribute to hunting with the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). From far and wide, ethnic Kazakhs visit the festival to demonstrate their skills and craftsmanship to each other. “Some arrive here on horseback, riding for days to be able to attend”, says Ardaq Altayli. The inhabitants of this region have been hunting with birds of prey for thousands of years, a tradition that has its origin around six thousand years ago in Central Asia. For centuries, this symbiosis between man and bird of prey has been passed on from father to son. Today, it’s no longer about the meat, you can hardly bring in enough for the daily food of a mature golden eagle itself.
The eagle doesn’t have a name, so we name him ‘Eddy the Eagle’, after the notorious British ski jumper
Khokh Serkh National Park
“It’s about being one with the land”, explains golden eagle hunter Erbol Hadilbekuli, sitting on his horse, with his eagle on his arm. “It is about the excitement of catching the eagles when they are young. The art of taming it. Craftsmanship.” Erbol wears a tomach on his head, a handmade hat made from the fur of the paws of the foxes his golden eagle captured. His traditional coat is thick and heavy. Resistant to winter cold and richly decorated with characteristic embroidery. Handmade as well, during the long, dark nights at the light of the hearth in his ger.
We find ourselves at a six-hour drive from Bajan-Ölgii, where the Golden Eagle Festival takes place. This part of the Altai Mountains is called Khokh Serkh National Park, or Blue Goat national park. Last night we slept in a simple hut. On horseback, we follow the valley where once a glacier flowed. On both sides, high moraines, deposition of stone that forms on both sides of a glacier, look down on us. ‘I am riding through the desert on a horse with no name.’ The song from the American band America, released in my birth year, 1972, echoes through my head. Erbol laughs when I ask him about his horse’s name. “Horses? They don’t have a name”, he laughs, while a pearly smile breaks his weathered face because of my ignorance. The eagle doesn’t have a name either. So Frits the photographer and I name him Eddy the Eagle, after the notorious British ski jumper.
Our eagle definitely isn’t clumsy like the original ski jumper, but there is a commonality. Birds of prey hunt downwards. That’s the reason golden eagle hunters look for high vantage points to hunt. An eagle can spot its prey from 1,5 kilometres away. Those eyes are the eagle’s strongest sense. The leather cap decorated with silver that the eagle wears on his head is the key to his tameness. As long as he wears the cap, he can’t see anything and sits still. Up until the owner takes it off, and the bird detects a prey. Then, the bird of prey launches itself in free fall, down on the prey. When the animal doesn’t break its neck from the impact of the bird dropping on it like a stone, the eagle pierces the eyes of the unfortunate animal with its sharp claws. Not that the golden eagle returns to the hunter by nature. Not at all.
When the prey doesn’t break its neck from the impact of the bird dropping on it like a rock, the eagle pierces the eyes of the unfortunate animal with its sharp talons
“You have to catch them when they’re young”, explains Erbol. “As a boy, I used to go up the mountains to climb to the nests. It can be dangerous if the mother attacks you. When you catch an eagle, you start a long process of taming it and making it return. I do that by rewarding the bird with meat when he bites in a piece of fur. And to practice with dead rabbits. But it can happen that, after very long training, you take an eagle hunting for the first time and it takes to the skies immediately, never to be seen again.” Erbol laughs. “It really is an art.” Personally, I feel kind of sad for the golden eagle. That mighty animal hooded and tied. But who am I? I wasn’t born on these hard steppes, wasn’t brought up with these traditions. My opinion is a grain of sand in this endless sandpit.
Circle of life
We actually came too early in the season. In winter, when a thick blanket of snow covers the hard ground and a freezing wind blows over the icy plain, the hunting season for the hunter and his eagle starts. Rabbits, marmots, ground squirrels and foxes have an extra thick and with that an extra beautiful fur in winter. Especially the corsac fox, seeing as there are only very few wolves left, is a much-wanted prey with its gorgeous tail and beautiful colours.
Kill or be killed goes for everyone in the food chain around here. Except for humans.
And then, all at once, one appears. On top of the moraine, a red corsac fox looks over the ridge to see what is trudging through the valley. Because the fox too is curiously looking for prey. The eagle cannot hunt upwards, but Erbol’s dog can. Like a jack-in-a-box, the dog shoots upwards. My heart skips a beat. A mixture of excitement and pity for the fox runs through me. The dog starts the chase. Can the fox escape? Luckily for the fox, he is just a tad quicker. But a little later, we see no less than four eagles high above us taking turns in diving down. Would they have seen the same fox? We cannot see the outcome, but nature is brutal here. A hard circle of life, in which mankind plays a small part as well. Kill or be killed goes for everyone in the food chain around here. Except for humans.
Who wouldn’t want be riding with an eagle hunter?
On the ground in Western Mongolia, our accommodation, visit to the Golden Eagle Festival, our interpreter, cook and chauffeur were perfectly arranged by Blue Wolf Travel. In Ölgii, the capital of the province Bayan-Ölgii, Blue Wolff has its own hotel and a ger-camp. They think along pro-actively and their English is good. Something you won’t find everywhere in this region.