Western Mongolia’s Altai region is one the most remote spots on the planet. Few roads traverse this massive area, and the high icy peaks of the Altai Range bordering Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China and Russia form an impenetrable wall that keeps all modern encroachments at bay.
I was standing on a barren, 3,000m-high peak in Bayan Olgii province with Bikbolat, a noble-looking ethnic Kazakh bundled up in a fox skin fur cap and long sheepskin robe. An eagle perched on his arm was looking keenly across the horizon for something to hunt.
Bikbolat is one of just 250 eagle hunters left in this region, practicing the art of berkutchi just as his ancestors did and carrying on a tradition that has been in existence across the Central Asian steppe for 6,000 years. Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan both had thousands of hunting birds, and their falconry expeditions were well documented by Marco Polo.
Ethnic Kazakhs make up the majority of the population in Bayan Olgii, driven here by Russian Empire troops back in the mid-1800s. The eagle hunters preserve a way of life far removed from much of the modern world, surviving brutal winters, living off the grid in gers (portable round tents), training eagles and hunting on horseback.
The connection between hunter and eagle is strong. As eagles are fiercely independent, they need to be trained from an early age to create trust. Bikbolat explained that training young chicks can be preferable as they are tamer and won’t harm children or sheep, but older birds are actually better hunters with the killer instinct needed to bring down wolves and foxes. He informed me that females make the best hunters: not only are they more aggressive, but they’re a third heavier than their male counterparts.
Once trained, a task that can take up to several years, the eagle goes out with the hunter on horseback, riding on his left arm. The bond can be so close between veteran hunters and their birds that the slightest change in talon pressure on a hunter’s arm alerts him that his bird has picked up a scent.
Some Kazakh hunters have antiquated Russian rifles, which they use to pick off hares, but most of the hunting is left to the eagles as their vision is eightfold that of their owners. While their main victims are corsac foxes, prized for their extremely warm pelts, and marmots, caught for their fur and meat, the powerful eagles also take down owls, wolves and even snow leopards.
Most of the hunting takes place during winter when the birds are at their leanest and hungriest. But I was there in autumn, and when Bikbolat looked out at the steppe below us, he shook his head and said that the lack of early snowfall was making it hard to spot tracks. This wasn’t an ideal time to hunt. However, he kept his eagle sharp, placing some small bits of meat further down the slope and then removing the blindfold that covered the eagle’s eyes when it was resting to keep it calm and alert. The bird’s eyes darted at us briefly, and then swooped off Bikbolat’s gloved hand, finding and attacking the meat like a trained assassin.
Each September, a large eagle hunters’ festival takes place in Olgii, the capital of the region, drawing many of the hunters to compete for cash prizes. In addition to showing off their skills, the men engage in traditional Kazakh games like kokbar, a tug of war played on horseback using a goat or fox pelt as the rope; and tenge alu, a contest where the hunters attempt to pick up tokens on the ground without getting off of their horses.
While it’s definitely a masculine environment, women also get to show off their horsemanship during matches of kyz kuu, a flirtatious event where men and women race. If the man wins he gets a kiss, but if he fails to catch the woman before the finish line, she turns and gallops after him back down the field, brandishing a whip with which to strap him, much to the amusement of all the onlookers.
However, these age-old traditions could all soon disappear.
Overgrazing of Mongolian lands in recent years has meant there’s less wildlife to hunt, and the arrival of tourism has brought pressures for wildlife preservation upon the Kazakhs. With more Kazakh families sending their children to the cities to earn incomes to supplement their livestock farming, Bikbolat said that hunting has become less vital to survival.
Still, the cloaks, hats and other clothing the hunters wrap themselves in during the winter are made from fur pelts, and the eagles themselves are treated with honour by the hunters, and are always released back into the wild after 10 years.
More importantly, berkutchi serves as a rite of passage for Kazakh young men, as the highly specialised skill of training and bonding with eagles is passed from father to son. In Bikbolat’s case, the lineage of eagle hunters goes back 12 generations and is an immense source of pride for the family.
Bikbolat told me an old Kazakh proverb that sums up the hunters’ lives here in the wild open spaces of the Altai: “Fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people.”
I saw in his weathered face a reverence and respect for both his companions and this traditional way of life, as much as for the desolate, beautiful landscape around him that he calls home.