Armanbek on horseback with his family's eagle.
View of the crowd at the smaller of the two eagle festivals.
The three eagle hunters I traveled and hunted with.
Cashmere is hand-combed from the goats, so each one is used to being
Armanbek releases an eagle for her flight in the competition.
The eagle spreads her wings with Armanbek as they ride.
Armanbek practices for his run in the "pick up the coin" game.
by Cat Urbigkit
November 8, 2008
I spent several weeks in October in western Mongolia, in a mountainous region that is heavily Kazakh. This is an account taken from entries in my journal, leaving out the details of my journey to get there, and instead focusing on some of my experiences in the countryside, from my favorite part of the trip.
Within minutes of leaving the town of Olgii, we arrived at a small, local eagle festival, with 18 hunters and about 40 tourists. There were eagles on motorcycles, tied to the front of trucks, and just everywhere you looked. There were men sitting on the ground in small groups, talking, with the eagles on the ground next to them. The men all posed with their birds as soon as they saw a camera on them. I simply couldnít believe how welcome these people made me feel, and how much they liked being photographed. I generally try not to be obtrusive when Iím taking photos, but these people truly welcomed my camera, inviting me to get the images. I later learned that they donít have many photographs, so they ones they have are very valued.
I took lots of photos, and got right into the thick of things, and as the judges were announcing the winners, there were a couple of hunters who grew more and more agitated, obviously disagreeing with the result. I jumped up on a bench next to the announcers stand where I could get a good view and be out of the way of the horses, and started focusing on the agitated hunters. I watched as four Mongolian policemen came up onto the announcers stand and said the festival was over, for everyone to leave.
The judges jumped into the van next to the stand, and I
watched as one pissed-off hunter took off after them,
attempting to block the van from leaving (on horseback,
with his eagle), smacking the top of the van with his
horsewhip. I started shooting photos, from my overlook on top of the bench, as the hunter argued with the police. As it was ending, I took one last shot, only to have one of the policemen turn around and look right at me. I turned away really fast, jumped off the bench and tried to get away, but when I started out through the crowd, I felt a hand grab my arm and spin me around. It was the policeman, saying something I couldnít understand, but really upset. I gave him the big eyes, "Iím sorry, I donít understand," and that made him say, "Iím sorry" as well. We continued going rounds until some good soul, a Kazakh horseman, came up and intervened, telling me "police photos are very sensitive" as the cop continued to point at my camera. I walked them through a few of my photos, deleting them one by one as the cop watched. I then switched back through the photos in the other direction, so it appeared there were no more photos of the cop and the dispute. The policeman calmed down as I said "delete" each time, and seemed satisfied that I didnít have any more sensitive photos. The very tall policeman was actually very nice, and seemed as relieved to be out of the situation as I was.
As I turned away to go, my guide Erlan caught up with me
and said, "What happened?" I explained about my temporary
detention, and managed to catch the good Kazakh as he was
getting back on his horse, thanking him for intervening on
my behalf. Then we were ready to leave. In the process we
gained our eagle hunter, Aralbai, and another hunter
(Abutalb), along with both their eagles, which had been
bundled into small bundles tied with rawhide. We drove a
few miles out, and then stopped on the side of the hill,
on a rise, where the last cell phone service was available.
We met up with another group of hunters, with everyone
drinking vodka and talking on their cells. Apparently one
of the hunters, Bakht, had taken second place, so it was
cause for celebration.
Our next stop was at the top of a big hill. We had raced the other vehicle up the hill from the valley below. We were told there was a slight problem with the vehicle. It took two vehicles of Kazakh men, but eventually they fixed the problem underneath our van with a roll of wide scotch tape.
As we journeyed forth those first few hours, we stopped
occasionally to meet up with the other truck and have a
drink. Our eagle hunters were charming, breaking out into
song as we drove, and the tone was that of a western ballad. It was wonderful and we teased them about it.
The other group eventually went another way, and we went
ours, only to get lost in the dark, in the wild steppes of
Mongolia. It took many hours, but we eventually pulled
into a yard with goats and a barking ger dog. We got out
and went into the most beautifully decorated Kazakh ger.
It was huge. Kazna, Aralbaiís wife, greeted us as we entered.
Kazna prepared a communal feast, with everyone gathered
around the large platter of meat, eating with their hands,
knocking bones together to get the marrow. We drank
Kazakh tea, and when they broke out the vodka after
dinner, I had a sip and went to bed. These are warm,
generous people, and very gracious hosts.
On my first morning out in the Mongolian countryside, I
awoke when the top of the ger was pulled back by Kazna,
the lady of the house, letting in the morning light. I could hear someone moving livestock, a manís voice, singing to his animals as he rode horseback.
In celebration of our presence, and in anticipation of the
eagle festival, Armanbek brought a goat to the door for
a blessing before quietly killing it (no noise at all, and no mess, with everything used, saved and cleaned up).
The family was soon busy cooking, cleaning up the pelt
and getting ready for us to leave, to begin our three-day
ride to the festival.
I watched one of the women burn the goat head, then
scrape the hair off, taking off the outer horn shell, and
then boil the head in a pot. It eventually became the center of the huge lunch feast, with relatives from nearby there to share in the festivities. The goat was served with deliciously rich yellow potatoes and fresh sliced onion.
All the cooking is done with cattle dung as fuel. Cattle dung is collected in small piles in the fields before it is gathered, dried in a stockade, then stored along the outside stockade walls for use in winter. The smell of burning cow dung is a sweet, pleasant smell, and I liked it much better than the coal-fired heat we used elsewhere on our trip. It burns hotter and faster.
As soon as lunch was over, it was time to leave. I hurried to say goodbye to the women inside the ger, then we were off on the horses. Iíd heard horror stories about how the Mongolian trot would jar my kidneys, and Iím certainly not a great rider, but the horses we rode and their paces were excellent. Iím too used to fat American horses, which is something like straddling a barrel for a short-legged broad like me. The Mongolian horses are narrower, which makes riding easier on the knees. I rode a Kazakh military saddle, which was fine as well. The horses had straight, strong legs and their trot was pleasant, and covered miles and miles. We ended up having so much fun on horseback, that the fifth day, they had to tell us we couldnít ride anymore, and we were so disappointed. I hated getting back in the van, but the remuda headed back to their home while we headed elsewhere.
While we rode, the weather was just like Wyomingís: the wind blew, there was a dust storm, it rained, sleeted and snowed, all in one afternoon. Armanbek rode with us, eagle on his arm, stopping every now and then to drop her on a high rock before riding down below and calling her back to his fist for a meat treat. It was beautiful.
Later in the day, Aralbai rode with us and we stopped at a small bachelor ger alongside a lake. A man and his son were inside and we had a quick Kazakh tea there, then onto further around the lake to the herder ger, where we were to spend the night. As it turns out, our van driver and a 6-foot-tall (at least) herder are related, so they had to celebrate, which means killing another goat. The herders and people out in the countryside use motorcycles as a major mode of travel, but otherwise seem to spend all day with the animals, on foot. They went out into the night, and by the light of the motorcycle, picked a goat, brought it into the ger for a toast, then took it back out and quietly dispatched it. Fortunately, the party moved to a neighboring ger, and our guide tucked me into a sleeping bag right after dinner. There were at least 8 visitors to our ger that evening, people appearing from out of no where. Since this was a herder ger, it is much more utilitarian than the beauty we saw in the Kazakh family ger.
On day two of the cross-country horse trip, we awoke to the sounds of geese along the lake, with the goat herd bedded down in front of the ger. Such beauty. As soon as breakfast was over, we were on horseback, headed over the mountains. We had another fantastic day of riding, with the three eagles being exercised throughout the day. One scary moment occurred with two of the eagles tangled and went down in a clenched heap. It took Armanbek and Abutalb several tense minutes to gently unclench each talon to get the girls to let go of each other. Thankfully, neither eagle was hurt.
Iíve enjoyed watching how these Kazakh men are with their animals. When we stop to rest, they slide the bits out of the horsesí mouths so they can graze without being encumbered. They also slip the felt pads out from beneath the saddles so the horses can cool their backs. I watched Armanbek pick mud and materials from the broomtails as well, using a stick as a brush. The men all talk, coo and sing to their animals Ė whether it is a single eagle, the horse being ridden, or the herd of goats in front. Every hand I saw raised to an animal, even in the process of death, was raised gently.
The three eagle hunters and their crews all converged at a winter house for the night. We had lots of fun, playing cards, eating and singing, taking turns trying out my hot-pink iPod. The other men slept in the other side of the house, while our group slept on our side. A building full of snoring men Ė oh yes, I traveled 7,000 miles for this.
The winter house has a solar panel hooked up to provide power to a two-battery setup in the living room to handle two overhead light bulbs. Several of the gers we have been to have satellites and television as well.
It was warm in the winter house all night, which was a pleasant change from the night before. The men were out early, catching the horses and getting us ready for the day. It was very windy and we rode for four hours before stopping atop a mountain for a break.
I had a near-perfect moment that day. We had ridden for hours, and stopped at the crest of a mountain to rest our horses and let our van catch up to us for lunch. The wind had been blowing like crazy. We dropped off our horses, set the eagles on rock perches, and lay down on the ground on the slope. I closed my eyes and turned my face toward the sun and was perfectly content Ė it really did feel like home. It was that moment I knew Mongolia had become part of my soul.
We ran the horses across the steppe. Armanbek had another young man bring me Armanbekís horse whip, then tried to talk me into racing him. I laughed and started, but watched as Armanbek dropped onto one knee, at a gallop, with the eagle in the other hand, and I pulled up. He thundered across the steppe on a beautiful paint horse, with the eagle in his right fist, down on his left knee. It was the finest act of horsemanship Iíve ever witnessed in all my life. He did it two more times throughout the day, but I could never get a picture. The look on his face was pure joy.
Our truck caught up with us, and we dropped down into a valley for lunch, starting a fire outside another winter house to heat everything. The men promised fox hunting in the afternoon, so we rode with them again. We rode horses over mountains that only mountain goats should traverse. We flushed one fox, but the eagles didnít see it. These men are like excited redneck hunters everywhere - they whoop and holler and love what they do. They help care for each otherís birds. This is a culture of eagles, so everyone pets, touches and carries them. These eagles are treated as they they bring good fortune into their lives.
These are some of the warmest and most generous people on the planet. It doesnít matter that I donít speak Kazakh and they donít speak English because we communicate really well anyway. They eat communally and live communally. What is for one is shared with all. Aralbai growls a lot, which I find endearing rather than intimidating. The men are full of laughter, teasing and story telling. The women work harder than the men. The men are very social, and very physical with their affection. Taking a tea break is routine (either Kazakh tea or English tea). Chores seem to be done according to hierarchy. Young unmarried men will help in the kitchen.
The two-day eagle festival outside Sagsai was a thrilling event, with 82 hunters on horseback with their birds, flying to the fist and to the lure. There were other events, including a camel race, a horse race, goat tug, and other fun events, but the eagles were what had brought us all to that valley. Because one of the two airlines had shut down fights the week before, there were less tourists than the year before.
It was a great day that ended too soon. Armanbek participated in several of the non-eagle events, so we cheered him on. But his presence there was really to help our three eagle hunters. It was Armanbek who stayed with the eagles at the rock perch and settled them in there as the hunters rode down below and prepared to call them to the fist or lure. One of our hunters, Bakht, ended up in second place Ė at both eagle festivals we attended.
The Monday after the eagle festival was slated to be election day in Mongolia, so many of the eagle hunters left mid-day on Sunday, hurrying home to be there to vote. We had a long, slow and painful goodbye with our Kazakh friends. I was later disappointed to read that several regions of Mongolia had such a low voter turnout that they were going to have to have re-elections.