Ulgii is a nondescript town of 35,000 in the far west of Mongolia. It was a three and a half hour flight from Ulaanbaatar on which I was the only westerner. My presence caused no raising of eyebrows nor did that of a Kazakh eagle hunter who looked noble in his long chapan (great coat) and fox fur hat, aquiline nose, wispy goatee and startled eyebrows.
I was met by Bek (Bekjan) and we headed west out of town. It did not take long to leave town nor to leave the comforts of the tarmac road. “Mongolian highway,” Bek beamed at me with no noticeable dip in his speed. “Mongolian Rally,” I retorted. Bek Beamed back with even more pride.
The landscape was forbidding and harsh but imbued with a stark beauty albeit from within the warmth of Bek’s Toyota Landcruiser. The scenery was yellow, brown and black – the colour bleached out by the harshness of the elements – and covered with a dusting of snow.
There was nothing. The emptiness was profound. Occasionally we passed yaks, the odd herd of sheep and once a Bactrian camel. A man was walking in the distance at the foothills of the mountain. Where was he going? Where was there to go to? The only vestige of civilisation we passed was the nondescript one-horse town of Buynt where a group of men were cutting blocks of ice out of the frozen river to melt at home.
Three and a half hours later Bek stopped literally in the middle of nowhere. I got out and took a sharp intake of breath both from the cold and extent of my surrounds. I was in a wide flat valley flanked on both sides by high mountains. Everything was blanketed in snow. Pristine and immense, I could have gazed out over such vastness for hours but eventually took refuge from the cold in the small mud-brick Kazakh house in Mongolia close to the Chinese border.
Long before the drawing of arbitrary lines for borders reached these latitudes, this region was home to the first domesticated horses and the first hunting eagles: falconry was invented here. The Kazakh eagle hunters preserve the centuries-old tradition of riding with golden eagles to hunt for foxes, marmots and even wolves. Their love and knowledge of falconry is a source of pride and a badge of identity, as much as the extravagant fur coats and hats in which it resulted.
That is the extent of luxury in this part of the world, yet the welcome inside was both warm and friendly. The house was simple – no running water – with four separate rooms, two of which are separated by a stone wall. One room is kitchen/dining and the other three are bedrooms.
It is not the rooms that were inviting but the characters within. Dalaikhan, the eagle hunter, face creased by the elements, his eyes wise and alert. Tuyelbay, his loyal friend and berkuti – the Kazakh word for eagle is berkut and a hunter who trains and hunts with a berkut is known as berkuti. Kukhelbay, Dalaikhan’s brother, and his silent wife, Cakku. Jambal, their four year old boy full of pluck and determination – I have never come across a young boy so determined to ride a battered tricycle through inches of snow.
After introductions, much laughter and revitalising noodle soup, we head out to saddle up. I am given a short briefing: “Mongolian horses are dangerous.” Unnerved by this passing comment, I struggle to mount the stocky, sturdy Mongolian horse – the saddles are Mongolian and much smaller than western saddles, being my excuse.
I am enveloped by down, Gortex and modern brands whilst Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay are dressed in a fox fur jackets with a heavily padded glove on their right arm on which sits a hooded eagle. They mount their horses, making it look unnaturally easy with a seven-kilogram bird of prey perched on their right arm. She – the Kazakhs only use female birds as they are bigger than the males – is hooded with a specially made hood called a tomega to keep her calm.
Unlike the glorious bird of prey, I am ruffled. As if to add to my chagrin, Dalaikhan’s eldest son, Alpamis, named after a Kazakh hero, is assigned to accompany me. Worse still Alpamis puts me on a lead rein. A horse is worth US$800 alive and US$600 dead – I console myself that this is a surety until they realise that my horse-riding ability is not as bad as it appears to be.
Thankfully for me, we walk and only occasionally trot. Not so much due to my limited horsemanship but the terrain – we are climbing ridges to get vantage from which to survey the surrounding land. The horses are sturdy and strong, both physically and mentally. They plod inexorably upwards.
I scan the horizon redundantly. Superfluous in that an eagle’s eyesight is seven times more powerful than the human eye. Everywhere I look I am awed by the spectacle. This is a cinema on an epic and very personal scale. The scenery is overpowering. The lead characters are charismatic and iconic. At this precise moment, I do not want to be anywhere else on earth.
The hunters’ sense movement. The eagles’ hoods are removed. I shiver with frisson. I stare at the landscape in front of me with boyish desire, intent on being the first to spot something. A rabbit is sighted. Not by me. A cry goes up. The eagles are released. They swoop low to the ground. The prey is running. Desperately. The eagles are closing in. Then nothing. No success.
A dog yelps in fear as the eagles return and hover over it. The dog, unsurprisingly, does not follow us the next day.
It was all over in a matter of seconds. It seemed like minutes. Hours later we are back in the warmth of Dalaikhan’s Kazakh house. Layers shed, heavier with food and vodka, Alpamis plays the dombra, a long-necked lute. The women and children are next door. On the wall carpets, one in particular displays the dombra and swans, which are a symbol of love. Alpamis sings of love, the Altai Mountains, a comedian and being away from home – an occupational hazard for a nomad.
The singing ends but the conversation flows freely. Not least as I am intrigued to ask more about their lifestyle and their relationship with their eagles.
“What do you look for in an eagle?”
“Good claws. Big and strong. Wide chest. Sharp eyes.”
It seems fairly obvious but then Dalaikhan has been training eagles for 37 years – he was taught not by his father but by his uncle. He is also, incidentally, two time champion of the Ulgii Eagle festival. Dalaikhan has also taken eagles to compete in Kazakhstan but never won anything – hardly surprising in that it is a two-day journey by bus. Even I can see that this is not the best preparation for an eagle, prompting my next question.
“What makes a good trainer?”
“It is a hobby. If someone wants to be an eagle hunter then the whole family have to like it.”
I discover what he means as my bladder gets the better of me and I stagger outside for a pee. In doing so bumping into the eagle in the darkness. Not outside but inside. She, the eagle, sleeps in his bedroom.
Dalaikhan brings the eagle into the room where we are. Her presence fills the room. The light does not trouble her. Nor the ambient sound. She responds only to the sound of Dalaikhan’s voice. Dalaikhan explains that eagles feel the emotions of humans – for example when humans are angry the feathers of the eagle stick up. Her feathers are beautifully calm.
Yet in spite of this connection, such affection, surprisingly, the eagle has no name. She is number seven. Simply a number in a long lineage – Dalaikhan has trained seven eagles. Like all of his eagles, he took her from her nest when she was young.
“How did you catch her? How do you catch an eagle?”
“It is a difficult process.”
Wonderful understatement. Eagles attack when their chicks are being taken. The eagles don’t bite but they flap their wings and it is all quite intimidating for the eagle hunters who lower themselves down a rocky outcrop to the nest by a rope using a stick to balance and stop themselves twisting on the rope. In the past there were many fatalities.
Dalaikhan has had her for seven years and she will soon be released to the wild
“So that she can have her own family.”
“Do you have a favourite eagle?”
“Number six. She was brave but her best skill was her scouting.”
“Did you release her?”
“No she died,” the sadness in his voice palpable. “She was bitten by a rodent. The bite swelled. She died.”
He does not feel sad when releasing an eagle but did feel sad when number six died. He felt grief at seeing her empty perch. He buried her. He has never been hurt by an eagle. Physically. Kazakh eagle hunters never keep any part of the eagle, whether talon or feather.
I am truly fascinated by this man. In awe of his bond with his bird and this ancient art. I want to know more.
“What do you think of the thirteen year old girl who recently won the eagle festival at Ulgii?”
“Her father and grandfather were eagle hunters. She has it in her blood but I am not sure about her future. When she marries her lifestyle will change.”
I think how easy this is to apply to someone else and would he say the same about his children and grandchildren. Will not their lifestyles change?
Dalaikhan’s response is typically measured, “Alpamis has not yet captured an eagle but he knows eagles and is interested in it as a hobby. I am one hundred percent sure that his son, my grandson, will be an eagle hunter.”
“If you are so sure then why do you live in Altai (the nearest village is some twenty miles away) and not out in the valley?”
“For my children, for school,” was Dalaikhan’s assured reply. He knows that if his hobby is to survive he and his children need to adapt: they do not want to become relics of the past.
Invigorated by this insight and the bright blue sky we awake to, I am captivated by my surrounds. The sun dazzles my eyes. The cold bites my legs. The snow squeaks underhoof as we head into the wilderness and the beckoning silence.
We scale the ridge like a Sioux scouting party, gaining height, gaining vantage. The views out of the landscape make me feel as though we are on the edge of the world.
On the snow-covered plains at the foot of the mountains, dark specks are hundreds of head of sheep and goats, tearing at the sparse vegetation. But it’s not on the herd that the eagle’s eyes are fixed but rather that elusive fox. It is down there, invisible to the human eye, creeping from the shade of a rock, somewhere.
Eagle number seven sits patiently. She scans the landscape. Surveys. Scours. Looking for the slightest movement.
Cries go up. The eagles are quickly released they fly low to the ground. There is much shouting, hooping and encouragement. Again to no avail.
We continue our search. Climbing ever higher. We have climbed 800 metres to reach the top of the ridge, 2,600 metres above sea level. There can be few more alien concepts than the sea in this remoteness.
Dalaikhan and Tuyelnay stand silhouetted against the most immense backdrop, eagles proudly on their arms. Unaware of the enormity of their environs, Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay descend into idle chitchat. They decide to retreat to lower ground. Out of frustration, training or a desire to impress – I am not sure which – they leave their eagles behind. The eagles sit patiently as we descend.
Many metres lower and minutes later, Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay call to their eagles. I look round to see the eagles screaming in like racing yachts with a fierce wind behind them. They slice diagonally across the sky with a sudden, stunning turn of speed. For a moment, all I can see is wings. And then, with the insouciance of an illusionist, they are sat on their respective gloves. Their impressive talons the only betrayal of their innocence.
The search continues. I am not sure for how long – I am absorbed by the cinematic qualities of the moment. Another cry goes up. I sense a different tone to Dalaikhan’s voice. He is animated. This is not for show. We are beckoned down the mountain – on foot rather than horseback as it is too steep for us on horseback. Yet Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay trot down the slope with ease, almost nonchalance with a seven-kilogram bird of prey proudly to their side.
“Manul, Manul,” they cry pointing at a cluster of rocks. I strain my eyes in search of this animal that I had never heard of. What am I looking for? All I can see is rocks. Even with my binoculars.
I discover afterwards that a Manul is a local word for a Pallas’s cat. I am no more enlightened. Further research reveals it to be about the same size as a cat but with a thick tail with clear black rings.
A stone is thrown and the cat darts out. Was it really just in front of me? Only yards away? It was only a flash, but even I that fleeing (sic) glimpse, it was much stockier and longer – perhaps due to its long dense fur – than a cat.
The eagles are released. They fly high. They fly swiftly. They swoop in unison. It is over in a matter of seconds. A flurry of feathers. The manul scampers free. All that remains is the eagles locked in combat. This was not how it was supposed to end.