Tucked neatly among the hills at the foot of the imposing Altai Tavan Bogd Mountain range lies the peacefully sombre town of Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii province. Famous for amazing food, embroidery, and hospitality, the people of the town live their day to day life in the mystical dwelling of 35,000 strong.
The Kazakhs make up Mongolia’s second-largest ethnic group and most live in the western Bayan-Olgii province, which has been a semi-autonomous homeland for Kazakhs since 1939. Although many Kazakhs returned to Kazakhstan in the 1990s following the fall of the Iron Curtain, many have subsequently returned to Mongolia as here, the nomadic way of life is far more intact; nomadic herding lifestyle was severely suppressed by the Soviet Union in Kazakhstan. Among them and scattered across the province are the renowned eagle hunters.
Made famous by the award-winning documentary “The Eagle Huntress”, the international interest in their traditional, as well as modern influenced, culture has risen significantly in recent years.
You may have seen their pictures, dressed in meticulously embroidered Kazak deel, or an exquisite fur coat, with a golden eagle perched on one hand and sitting tall on a horseback, their astounding figure strike inspiration in mortals like us. The eagle hunter tradition itself dates all the way back to the 2nd Millenium BC in Central Asia, with the ancient way of life surviving throughout the violent regional history by being passed down from parent to child, whether a boy or girl. Currently, there are an estimated 250 eagle hunters in the region.
Some of their hunting equipment includes a leather glove, a small blind for the eagle and usually a bag filled with treats for a job well done, and of course, a good horse is mandatory. There is a local proverb: “There are three things a real man should have: a fast horse, a hound, and a golden eagle”. Some eagles are also donned with special bands and fur, a trophy from their bounty.
The locals consider hunting with eagles an art form as it takes grueling training for both the eagle and the master. Only female eagles are utilised as they are much heavier and more aggressive than their male counterparts, and the eagles are “captured” when they are about a year old. Older eagles are much harder to train as the wilderness sets in and their behaviour becomes much more independent.
The Golden Eagle, or aquila chrysaetos, can weight up to 6.5 kilograms with a wingspan of seven or eight feet. With vision about eight times sharper than human, they can spot a fox or rabbit up to a mile away. These huge birds of prey dive bomb to their targets and dig their claws deep in their necks, mostly dragging them across the ground and eventually eliminating their prey. The spoils of the hunt are then usually made into a decorative pelt in the hunter’s ger or traded away.
A local eagle hunter, Botei, said that “training an eagle to become a good hunter is like raising a child. You have to feed them, you have to teach them and sometimes you have to cry with them when they get hurt. But an eagle master does not name their eagles as eventually, they will have to let them go and let the eagles spend the rest of their lives in the wilderness soaring across the peaks.” The locals compare letting an eagle go to a child leaving their family for greener pastures and it is a ceremonial event sometimes celebrated by the entire family coming along with the hunter to bid their friend a fond farewell. Usually, an entire goat or sheep is slaughtered to be left with the eagle to feast on.
… And our trips
You have seen the videos, you have read up about it. Now it’s time to see it with your own eyes!
We currently run four trips that offer western Mongolia and the renowned eagle festival. For those who are visiting Mongolia for the first time the Autumn Adventure & Nomadic Elements are a perfect fit. These itineraries offer an extensive loop around the Gobi and central Mongolia, then the September eagle festival out west. Or you may just be interested in the western section and the eagle festival, which the September departure Eagles of the Altai 1 and it’s early October counterpart Eagles of the Altai 2 offers. Aside from the Autumn Adventure, all the rest of these tours also offer a few nights of homestay alongside an eagle hunter’s family, too!