“There,” whispered Alpamas. I followed his finger but saw nothing. He launched a series of rocks. Twenty metres in front of us, something bolted: a manul, also known as Pallas’s cat, a rare and beautiful animal, stocky and flat-faced. The cat looked terrified but the rocks were the least of its problems. Suddenly, two giant, dark shapes appeared above, sweeping across the snow — golden eagles, with wingspans of two-metres or more, working together tracking the cat’s desperate zigzagging, inches off the ground. The eagles thrust forward their talons, each the size of a child’s finger, and the prey disappeared under a canopy of feathers. There was a shrill mewling protest, then silence.
I was with the Kazakh eagle hunters in the extreme west of Mongolia, one of the remotest places on earth, the far fringe of a country bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined. The Kazakhs are a nomadic people spread throughout not just Kazakhstan but a swathe of Central Asia. For more than 2,000 years they have lived a subsistence life based around their tavan hoshuu mal — or five-animal herds consisting of yak, goats, sheep, Bactrian camels and horses — and have trained, and hunted with, golden eagles. Until very recently, eagle-hunting apart, this traditional life was typical for the majority of people right across the Mongolian steppe. But things in Mongolia are changing, and fast.
My journey to visit the eagle hunters was almost over before it began. Just 200m above the ground at the airport in the capital, Ulan Bator, my pilot abandoned his landing. Smoke, he explained as we went around, had obscured the runway. “The smoke here is very, very bad,” said Buyandelger, my guide for the week, once we were safely down. As we drove into the city — officially the world’s coldest capital, with a record low of minus 49C — a pall of acrid smoke hung around us.
Buyandelger — Mongolians only tend to use one name — explained that, since the break up of the Soviet Union, Ulan Bator (or UB as it’s known to locals) had trebled in size, becoming home to at least 1.3m people, more than half the country’s population. We drove past sacred shaman ovoo poles by the roadside, draped in blue silk khadag scarves, and past coal-fired power stations pumping out columns of sulphurous smoke into the cold air. Then past sparkling Louis Vuitton and Swarovski shops (catering to the new coal and copper-mining economy) and old Buddhist temples under siege from towering five-star hotels and swish apartment blocks going up alongside.
“And this is a ger district,” said Buyandelger (or Buya for short). On an escarpment, as far as the eye could see, were thousands of gers, the classic circular yurts of the Mongolian nomads. We took a walk, as if through a bonfire, each ger pouring out smoke from its coal fire. “Over 60 per cent of the city’s population lives in a ger,” Buya explained. The nomads have arrived in UB over the past 15 years, driven here by a changing climate, with summer droughts and catastrophic winters called zuds (white death) that have wiped out entire herds. “Their animals were everything: meat and milk, clothing and transport. They have no animals now, so they have no choice,” said Buya.
The next day Buya and I left behind the smoke and took a flight into the cloudless munkh khukh tengri (eternal blue sky), as Mongolians call it. Below were the ghostly outlines of huge former collective Soviet fields and the infinite steppe dotted with white gers, sparkling like little mirrors in the sunshine.
We flew for four hours to the small town of Ölgii, close to the Russian and Chinese borders. The few foreigners who have seen eagle hunters in action have tended to do so here, at an annual festival held on the outskirts of town in October. There are hotels in Ölgii, and the festival makes a convenient way of seeing the spectacle, but our plan was to leave the town behind, to go out into the wilderness to stay in the nomads’ own homes, experience family life and watch them hunt for real. This was a recce, run by the tour operator Steppes Travel, to trial the logistics (its first trips for paying guests depart later this year).
From Ölgii, we drove — off-road — for five hours, careering across snow and ice with larks flocking around the 4X4, passing nothing but the odd horseman tending his tavan hoshuu mal. Finally we arrived at my eagle-hunting family’s winter home, a single-storey mud-brick building in the lee of a mountain, with a summer ger stored in pieces on the roof, ready to be moved by camel to the summer pastures in spring. My hosts were Kalehkhan and his wife Gakku, both 45, and their four boys, Jarken, two, Jambel, three, Jakhlag, 12, and Jargal, 14.
As we sat on low stools around a table, Gakku brought in the first course, a big plate of yak dairy products arranged in tiers like a wedding cake: sweet clotted cheese, dried curds and cubes of yoghurt so hard they could only be sucked, all served with salty tea into which we melted yak butter. In summer, Kalehkhan explained, while the animals are grazing and the human need for fat and protein is diminished, nomad families subsist largely on “white” food. In the corner, Gakku fed yak dung into the fire.
Then came the main course, a huge platter of meat that looked as if a sheep had exploded: the centrepiece was the head, surrounded by the stomach, spine, colon and neck. A prayer was said, giving thanks to the animal, then Kalehkhan ripped off a piece of cheek and handed it to me, explaining through Buya that, as the guest (and only the second foreigner they had seen in two years), Kazakh hospitality insisted that I eat first. After that, there was a frenzy of flesh-tearing and raucous slurping, hands dripping in juices. “We Mongolians love meat,” said Kalehkhan, tearing at the liver. “Grass is for goats, meat is for men.”
The next morning we walked across the snow to Kalehkhan’s corral, where our horses were being fitted with winter shoes. These squat, tough little animals, no bigger than 14 hands, are fast and can travel 100km a day. In the 13th century, they were Genghis Khan’s secret weapon as he forged the biggest land empire in history.
My horse was hobbled then, bucking and snorting furiously, thrown on to its back and restrained with a knee to the neck as the nails were hammered in. “Mongolian horses are half wild, half trained,” said Buya, and I couldn’t help but think that a knee in the neck would do little to elevate this one’s mood. “You need to show them who’s boss or they will have a big laugh with you. Have you ridden much?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh dear,” said Buya.
A wrangler with emerald eyes handed me the reins. The faces of the others — the sharp, weathered Slav features and the softer Tibetan ones with feather-shaped eyes — spoke of thousands of years of migrations across the steppe.
A distant sound of hooves and, there, thundering across the frozen steppe, were Tugelbaya and Dalaikhan, both 55, the latter in a fox-fur cloak and hat, his dark trousers embroidered with holy Tibetan script in vivid colours. Perched on their right arms, two golden eagles, wings splayed. It was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen.
We set off to hunt, climbing steadily, my confidence climbing too, with every sure-footed step of my horse. We rode along exposed narrow ridges, where the wind ripped at our faces, making the minus 28C feel much colder. Sheer drops fell away to the Sagsai valley far below, where herds of tavan hoshuu mal looked like specks of coal dust on a canvas of white. “There are more animals than men [in Mongolia],” wrote the poet Zahava Hanan, “so they still have the world as God made it.”
Surrounding us, the profound silence and vastness of the Altai Mountains, a jumble of sweeping peaks like a frozen ocean. Riding alongside me was Alpamas, 27, Dalaikhan’s son, who started singing softly. “That’s a song about good horses,” said Buya.
As we rode, Dalaikhan explained that hunting with eagles began 2,000 years ago but that now it is only the Kazakhs in Mongolia who maintain the tradition. “Fine horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakhs,” goes an ancient proverb, he said. He told me how the hunter (known as aberkutchi — Kazakh for eagle is berkut), is lowered on a rope down a cliff to a nest. How he selects the chick with the strongest claws and eyes — only the females, as they are bigger — all the while being attacked by the parents. How the training takes six years. The birds live until 25 or so, he said, and when they are 12 they are repatriated to the wild, so they are able to breed and thus provide another generation of hunting birds. It was another example of how these nomads worked so closely with the natural world, an ancient, interwoven bond of sustainability.
. . .
A cry. A rabbit had bolted. The eagles were immediately unhooded and launched. From our position on a ridge at 2,600m, it was like being in the upper circle of a theatre: we watched as the two birds wheeled and swooped, a noiseless aerial ballet, the two supreme horsemen tumbling down the mountain in pursuit. The rabbit escaped. The birds returned, Dalaikhan’s eagle misjudging its landing and skewering his arm, a crimson filigree decorating the snow.
That night, after dinner, vodka was produced and a Mongol three-toast ritual observed. Buya dipped his ring finger into the liquid and rubbed a little on his forehead, letting the rest run down his hand. This, he explained, dated back to the poisoning of Genghis Khan’s father by an enemy. If the alcohol discolours the ring, it is lethal.
Alpamas took a dombra — a Kazakh two-stringed instrument, strummed like a lute — off the wall and started singing a mournful song about mountains, long-dead ancestors and, of course, beautiful horses. In turn, Buya began throat-singing, or khoomii, where changing the shape of the mouth creates overtones in the chest and abdomen to reproduce the sounds of storms and animal noises in elegiac, unearthly harmonics. In the corner of the room, the hooded eagle sat on a stool, quizzically turning its head back and forth. Outside this little mud-brick building in the middle of nowhere, the Mongolian winter blew hard.
On my final day with the hunters, we caught the Pallas’s cat. Or, rather, we didn’t. A few seconds after it disappeared beneath the wings, it emerged, miraculously, and sped away. For me it was the Disney ending. For the hunters, it was lost fur and meat. Disney endings have no place in this environment.
As we rode back, I asked Buya what he thought the future held for Mongolia. He told me how 30 per cent of Mongolians still lived a nomadic life but the number was falling; about the riots in UB in 2008; the 45,000 new cars in the city every year; the unemployment in the ger districts. “Every year, thousands more come from the countryside. Children living there are afraid of animals. Can you imagine?”
There was a cry of chu, chu, and suddenly we were galloping, flying across the steppe; these sublime horsemen, eagles on their arms, laughing and hollering, and me, terrified, hanging on for grim death.
De FINANCIAL TIMES, 21-22/03/2015
Photographs: Mike Carter