Our day with Eagle Hunters in Mongolia
The Kazakhs say that the place in which they feel their heritage and culture is most concentrated is in Bayan-Ölgii, a small aimag, or province, in western Mongolia. They first moved here in the 1840s, fleeing the expanding Russian Empire, when the Chinese and Russian borders separating Kazakhstan from Mongolia had not yet been drawn.
It was here that we came across the men (and a handful of women) who hunt with eagles. You’d be forgiven for thinking that eagle hunters were the stuff of myth and legend, but in this remote corner of a little-visited nation, the ancient practice still continues. The tradition reaches so far back into history that it even features in the writings of the legendary explorer, Marco Polo.
Eagles, which are essential to catching the prey that provides the means to survive a harsh Mongolian winter, are either captured from the nest or trapped in the wild as a young adult bird. The latter is preferable as, at this stage, the bird has already learnt to survive on its own and has the predator’s killer instinct. Eagles remain with their hunters – a prized possession – for seven years before being released back into the wild to breed. During this time, they are trained to work closely with their hunters to catch foxes whose thick pelts are used for winter coats and blankets. Our visit to Bayan-Ölgii coincided with the Sagsai Eagle Festival, the smaller of two annual festivals and a chance to display the prowess of both hunters and birds. Only the most well-trained eagles will follow their hunter’s unique calls and fly down off the mountain to land on their outstretched arms.
The excitement started in the early morning as we rode the five kilometres from our camp to Eagle Hill. In the chilly dawn, plumes of dust rose from speeding Furgons and galloping horses, all converging on the same point. Through the haze, a mass of vehicles, people, camels and horses loomed into view. The atmosphere was bustling and exciting: despite it being a hobby for most of the year, eagle hunters take great pride in their birds and the annual festival is taken very seriously. Indeed, the competition was so fierce that, as the day drew on, many a contest was to end in a brawl.
While the eagles are, without a doubt, the main event, the festival also allows a chance for the skill of riders to be tested. By far the most exciting and unusual competition is known as bushkashi (the less exotic-sounding translation being ‘tug of war with a goat’). Not one for the squeamish, nor the animal rights activist, this game involves two mounted riders each trying to haul a headless goat carcass from the other’s grasp. ‘Kiss and Catch’ is another favourite, involving a husband-and-wife team galloping down the track, the former attempting to dodge the latter’s enthusiastic whipping.
Besides copious quantities of Mongolian vodka, Kazakhs celebrate with music and that evening, when the games were over, we were treated to hours of Mongolian folk songs about blue skies and the homeland, accompanied by the national instrument, the morin khuur (or horse-head fiddle).
The numerous festivals of Asia’s many nations are each distinct and magical in their own way. This one stood out for its raw authenticity: it was an unrehearsed, unchoreographed chaos of competition and celebration. There were no sidelines, few rules and only honour to fight for. When the last notes of melody had faded away under the star-studded sky, the distant whoops and cheers of eagle-hunting champions and their fans could still be heard on the breeze.