Eagle hunters are a dying breed in Mongolia; hopefully the government’s attempt at reviving the centuries-old tradition pays off.
Asker’s family of eagle hunters.
Story and photography by Maxby Chan
One cannot describe Mongolia without mentioning her famous son Chinggis Khan. In 1206, Chinggis Khan founded the Mongol Empire that became the largest contiguous land empire in history. Mongolia is the largest landlocked country in the world without access to the sea. She is about the size of Texas with only a population of 3.3 million people.
The purpose of my journey to Mongolia was to visit the Kazakh Herders of the Altai Mountains. The year before, I had met Asker Vlhpan, a Kazakh herder, and told him that I would return. We have kept in touch online throughout all this time.
Asker and his family stay in lands close to a remote village near the Russian border on the west of Ulaanbaatar. To get there, I must take a two-and-a-half-hour domestic flight from Ulaanbaatar to Bayan Uglii. At Bayan Uglii, it was another about 5 hours’ drive to Altai village. Asker’s winter residence was about another 10km from this village.
As there were no direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Ulaanbaatar, I must first travel from Kuala Lumpur to Incheon, Korea, and then transfer to either Mongolian Airlines or Korean Airlines to Ulaanbaatar
Aigerim releasing her eagle to hunt. Eagles have excellent eyesight and can spot a small prey more than a kilometre away.
Asker’s family consists of himself, Asker Vlhpan, 41 years old, head of the Kazakh family; his wife Akhgul, 39 years old; and five daughters namely Baghjanar, 19, Ardagul, 17; Aigerim, 13; Aiijark, 11; Janerke, 10; and one son, Nargulan, 18.
Chinggis Khan Statue Complex was built in honour of Mongolia’s famous son.Asker’s eagle hunter friends.
Both Nargulan and Aigerim are eagle hunters like their father. Aigerim is well known as one of the few female eagle hunters. She has won a few regional and national eagle hunting competitions.
In the Kazakh tradition, eagle hunting skills using golden eagles are usually transferred down from father to son. It is an exception rather than the rule that Kazakhs will pass the eagle hunting tradition to their daughter.
Asker has three semi-permanent shelters in the grazing grounds of the Altai Mountains to mark their territories. The family has one shelter for winter, one for summer, and one for both spring and autumn. The livelihood of the Kazakhs family is animal herding. Their herd comprises goats, yaks, horses, and sometimes camels, all grazing at the grounds around the Altai Mountains.
Kazakh herding their herd of goats, yaks, and horses. In the background is the Altai Mountains.
Aigerim, then 13 years old, was one of the few girls who was trained in the traditional art of eagle hunting.
Many Kazakhs have traded their horses for a motorcycle to travel the vast landscape.
There were three Ger tents erected to house our group. A ger is a circular tent made from a lattice of timber framework and covered with an outer canvas shell and lined with animal skins, mainly goat skins on the inside. At the centre of the Ger is an all-purpose heater and cooking stove which has a chimney that extends beyond the top of the Ger.
Each ger was about four to five metres in diameter and can house about 4 to 6 persons. The toilet was an open pit with two planks across. It was surrounded on three sides with hollow bricks. Toilets are usually situated about 30-40 metres away from the tents. There was no running water and electricity was provided by a small generator.
Training eagles to hunt
Kazakhs have adopted falconry practices since the Bronze age. It starts with capturing a female eaglet from an eagle’s nest high up the cliff. They only train female eagles because it is stronger and bigger than the males.
One must wait till the mother bird has gone looking for food before approaching the nest. Sometimes, they must retreat when their mother comes back. Golden Eagles are powerful and ferocious birds. Their sharp claws are deadly. The hunt for an eaglet usually takes about a week in the wilderness of the Altai mountains and plains.
The Kazakh word for the Golden Eagle is Berkut. The eaglets are fed with fresh meat and kept inside the house. Eagles will only listen to one master. The person who trains the eagle will have to feed it and take care of its needs.
A hunter showing off some of the techniques of eagle hunting. Golden eagles often weigh about 12 kg.
Nargulan, Asker’s son tending to the eagles. The hunters must climb up to a high vantage point so that they can spot their prey and beckon their eagles to catch it.
Tea prepared by one of our drivers in his home at Altai Village.
The training starts when the eaglet is about six months old. There are many techniques to training eagles and each family has its own secret techniques. By about one and a half years old, the eagle is ready to hunt.
Eagles hunt for foxes, rabbits, and other small animals. The deal is that the eagles eat the meat, and the hunters get the fur.
The Kazakhs keep the eagles for about five years. After that, the eagles will be released back to the wild. The hunters will pack a freshly slaughtered goat and leave the eagles with it so that they can survive in the wild for a few days before adapting to their natural habitat.
Eagle hunting is a dying tradition. There are only about 250 eagle hunters left in Mongolia. Recently, the Mongolian Government has tried to rekindle the interest in this tradition by organising domestic and international falconry competitions.
The competitions are held to expose this ancient tradition to local and foreign tourists. However, if you want to understand the authentic way of life of the Kazakhs, you will need to stay for a few days with a Kazakh family.
Asker and his family were good hosts. They prepared all our meals from breakfasts, teas to dinners. They even made sure that our Gers were well-heated in the cold winter nights.
Preparing the eagle for the hunt. The eagle wears a leather hood over its head which is only removed when it is ready to hunt.
What we liked were the after-dinner chats. We communicated with Asker and his family through an interpreter.
He told us about how he met his wife. He was 17 years old when he went on an outing in the Altai Mountains with his father. They had been riding and exploring the area for a few days. One day, when they were on their way home, it grew dark, and they had to take shelter at the nearest house they came across.
It is Kazakh tradition that they do not turn away any guests who seek shelter for the night. The night temperatures here can drop drastically. Finding a shelter is crucial for survival. Akhgul cooked dinner for them, and it was love at first sight.
When Asker and his father returned home, they sent matchmakers to Akhgul’s family but each time, they were rejected. This went on for three years. Akhgul, meanwhile, was undecided on her suitors. So, one night, Asker and a few of his friends went to Akhgul’s house to “kidnap the bride”. The rest is history.
Bye to nomadic life?
The Mongolian Government has provided a boarding school at Altai Village for Kazakh children. The school provides education up to secondary level. After that, they must go to Bayan-Uglii for upper secondary and then to Ulaanbaatar for their tertiary education.
Baghjanar, Asker’s eldest child, went to the university to study Tourism Management. Asker hopes that more of his children will be able to get a university education. The cost of a university education is steep by Mongolian standard, at about US$2,400 a year.
A bird’s eye view of our camp and Asker’s herd in the foreground. Nargulan was in charge of herding it to the grazing grounds in the morning and herding it back in the evening.
His family’s earnings from herding and selling some handicrafts are not that lucrative. Neither is their occasional hosting of tourists.
However, Asker hopes that some of his children would move to the city and bid this nomadic life goodbye. He will pass down his herd of animals to his only son, Nargulan, and hope that he would continue the Kazakh tradition.
I asked him if he has considered giving up his nomadic life. Asker laughed and replied in the negative. APR
Maxby Chan is an adventurer and photographer. Check out his blog at www.photosafari.com.my or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photosafari.com.my regularly organises photography trips for like-minded enthusiasts.
The town of BayanUglii or Bagan-Oglii on Western Mongolia has a population of about 100,000 people.Gandan Monastery is a Tibetan-style Buddhist Monastery at the centre of UlaanbaatarAigerim is having a morning chat with her eagle.Tea time where yak milk tea is their favourite drink.A boarding school at Altai Village for Kazakh children.