Eagle hunting is not the art of hunting eagles – rather that of hunting with eagles. I was in western Mongolia to meet the rare group of people who killed animals with the help of eagles. After a couple of days of travelling, I arrived at the eagle hunter’s hut with my driver and cook. As we arrived I noticed the row of horses skulls adorning the hill next to the hut.
The man was not home yet. We used the stove in the middle of the room, burning dried yak dung, to keep the room warm and to cook. Two fox pelts hung on the wall. On the floor lay what looked like a little bag made of the fur of a hare. Slightly more gruesome was the headless face of the hare lying outside the house.
After a couple of hours the eagle hunter returned from a hunt with his son, his eagle and a pair of tourists. The man was very tall, standing at least 15cm taller than me. His attire was very elaborate and colorful – bright purple with a lot of embroidery and decorations. He also had a belt studded with many pieces of metal. His woolen hat also had a brightly coloured top. He introduced himself to me as Erwol. Erwol, I was told, meant “strong boy” while his son’s name, Brkut Jan, translated to “eagle love” in Kazakh.
We had lunch together and then went out for a little demonstration with the eagle, named Thastluk. Erwol dressed me in eagle hunter regalia and handed me his glove. Then he handed me a bone with a big chunk of meat attached. I held it in my gloved hand, raised it high and waved it at the eagle. After hesitating for about fifteen seconds, she finally flapped her wings, took off from her perch and glided over. She landed on my glove and tore at the meat. I looked at her talons – some were over 7cm long. One would not want this bird to land on one’s bare skin.
The other tourists returned to Olgii after the show. I remained and readied myself for a horse ride. My fellow foreigners had spent some time advising me on horseriding before they’d left. The final piece of advice? “If you do fall and break your neck, you are a long way from help, so try not to.” I was dressed for the weather. I had four layers covering my torso (thermal undershirt, t-shirt, fleece and down jacket) and three over my legs (full-length thermal pants, jeans and down pants). My driver came over and put an additional layer on me – a thick black fleece robe that was really good protection against the wind.
I got on the horse. Brkut Jan led my horse from ahead of me. Erwol led the pack. He was in full regalia with the eagle on his arm. His horse was bigger than Brkut Jan’s and my horses, necessarily so given Erwol’s physical stature. The horse’s colour graded from black in front to grey in the middle to white behind. Erwol had the eagle on his arm. She was not exactly light. A piece of wood stuck up from Erwol’s saddle; he rested his arm on this; the bird on his arm. We rode for about an hour through some rocky and occasionally steep terrain. My effort was concentrated on not falling off my horse, not panicking overtly and repeatedly telling myself that the horses were surefooted creatures. We stopped at a ger belonging to Erwol’s sister.
The ger was one of the smallest gers that I had seen. It had slightly more than enough space for two beds and a stove. Erwol’s family served us homemeade bread, cheese curds and cheese of various types along with the ubiquitous milk tea. The most intriguing kind that I came across was the really hard cheese. Try as I might, I was not able to bite into it. Brkut Jan suggested that I drop it into the milk tea and so I did. After I finished off the milk tea, the cheese was soft enough to consume, but still not something that I would recommend. We then headed back to the hut. I was a little confused about one thing: why did we take the eagle along on this ride?
As night fell, I noticed that not only was there no electricity, the hut did not have candles, lamps or torches. We needed the light from our mobile phones to see. I found this to be odd. Even I had brought a headlamp since I did not want to rely on the mobile light. We spent a little bit of time conversing, but it was not effective. My driver spoke only a few words of English and the cook was only slightly better. We made little headway and turned in early.
I awoke at 7AM the next day with someone pulling at my toes. Erwol took me outside to show me a group of ibexes up in the mountains in the distance. Excited, I quickly did the morning’s essentials and dressed myself for the hunt. I was ready in ten minutes. Everyone else slowly got up, cooked and had breakfast and we took off more than an hour later.
I was slightly more confident of the horse riding this day, but conditions got worse. For starters, it snowed. As we went through the roughest parts, I noticed that we had frozen streams to cross. Some of the streams would hold the weight of the horses and their riders. Most would not. The horses would need to step on the ice, break through it and find their footing on the rocks below. “These horses are sure-footed creatures,” I repeated to myself, especially as I watched Brkut Jan’s horse slip and regain its footing multiple times as it traversed the rocks.
As we moved, Erwol pointed out the ibexes on a hill to our left. The sight of us panicked the goats and they started to run. I could not figure out the logic behind their path. They seemed to be running to intersect with us. After a few minutes, they ran across our path and onto the hill to our right. I had thought that the goats could have gone over the hill to their left instead and stayed safer there. In any case, an ibex is too big for an eagle to kill.
Then the terrain got harder. We started moving over snow-covered landscape, with the horses occasionally refusing to go over some areas of smooth snow which I learned to recognise as potential crevasses. At one point the snow was so deep that I found myself lowered to almost my normal height, despite being seated atop the horse. We came across a herd of yaks. This was a small herd of cattle but there was a large number of calves in the group.
We started herding the cattle. This confused me a bit. We were on a hunt. I expected some amount of stealth and the element of surprise as we went out to capture a fox or a hare. Was this some sort of master plan to distract the quarry with the animals while we took them out? We herded the animals for about half an hour and I started to get bored proper. I wanted to see the eagle sink its talons onto a terrified animal knowing that it was about to be killed and eaten. At the very least I wanted her to fly toward an animal making it run for its life. Instead we were herding cattle. Coincidentally, my left toes were starting to go numb. After another half hour of cattle herding, I brought up the matter of my numbing toes. We left the cattle at a point much higher than we had found them and set back down toward the hut.
I was not sure what to think. Erwol and his eagle were a magnificent sight together. Seeing him ride the horse with Thastluk on this arm was majestic. The fox furs on his wall gave him additional legitimacy. At the same time, his apparel were too bizarre for a hunter on the hunt. I expected dirty clothes that would blend into the snow, drenched with the blood of gutted animals. I expected a hut that had candles where he would return from the hunt and cook his catch. I did not expect him to be a cattle herder, and if he was, he wouldn’t take his eagle with him to do that. The man was also a bit too photo-savvy, stopping at many points for taking photos when I was eager to continue the hunt.
While the experience was nothing less than fantastic, it was also surreal. I had been taken for a tourist ride.