This was high on my list, ever since I’d learned about it on the Netflix show “Departures”. I knew that I had to do this once I got to Mongolia. For me, this was a priority over seeing anything else in the country. When I inquired about this activity in my hotel in Ulaanbaatar, they told me that I had arrived a little late and that it would be hard for me to find any tours going anywhere. It was the end of the tourist season and the Eagle Festival in Bayan Olgii had already taken place a couple of weeks earlier. I knew about the festival and had wanted to go to it but I got caught up in China learning Kung Fu so I decided to postpone my trip to Mongolia by a few weeks. I got a bit nervous and thought that I had made a mistake by not coming earlier but I still did not want to give up on completing this goal of seeing the Eagle Hunters. I needed to find someone that would take me out to the Altai Mountains in West Mongolia and perhaps take me out hunting. I went to a couple of tour agencies in Ulaanbaatar where I was told that something could be arranged from the city of Olgii but that it would probably be very expensive as there was no one else interested in going out there after the festival. It was too cold. I decided to look on my own on the internet and found a website called Indi travel where you post a message of what you want to do on a public board and guides will reply with their offers. I received a few offers but I didn’t want to take any of them as I had no idea who these people were. There were no references tied to anyone replying to my post. I decided to keep searching on my own. I finally found a company named Bek Travel with the website address of www.backtobektravel.com I had seen some good reviews on this company on Trip Advisor so I decided to give them a try. The owner Ainabek, aka. Bek, responded to my inquiries offering exactly what I was looking for. He accommodated to my budget and gave me a nice low-season/single traveler discount and still tailored a tour to include everything that I wanted to do- to stay with an Eagle Hunter and his family, and go out hunting with him. The nice guide at Golden Gobi where I ended up booking other tours to the Gobi dessert and Central Mongolia helped me buy a plane ticket to get to Olgii. I was ready for my adventure!
Hunting with Golden Eagles, or Bürtkitshi is a tradition that dates back to 935 AD; which has been kept alive until now due to the relative isolation of the Kazakh people. The Kazakh are nomadic people that settled in the Altai region in Western Mongolia during the Communist period in Kazakhstan. I had the privilege of spending some time with Ardak and his family. Ardak learned the art of bürtkitshi from his father as the tradition demands. I saw up close and personal the spectacular bond formed between man and animal during our hunting expeditions. It is a hard life in the Altai region where the temperature can go as low as -30c. This was one of the most culturally authentic experiences I’ve had on this trip, and definitely one of the highlights so far. Here is my recount of my trip day by day:
Bek drove from China through the night to meet me at the airport. He turned out to be a very interesting and nice business man. After inviting me to a yummy Turkish lunch in town, he turned me over to Doggie, the friendly tour guide who would act as cook, driver and translator for me during my trip to the Altai region. Before getting on the road, Doggie took me to the local market so that I could buy some proper Kazakh boots for the winter, some camel socks, sun glasses, and a gift for the family. Some of the essential things that I needed to survive. I had previously bought some other winter clothes in Ulaanbaatar. After trying on a couple of pairs of boots, I opted for a very nice pair of stylish traditional Kazakh woman boots made in leather and insulated with sheep skin. When I was done with all of my shopping, including fake Chanel glasses, I had spent the equivalent of US$48. What a bargain!
After a long and bumpy ride through the steppe, passing herds of camels, sheep and horses, we got to the house where we would be spending the next few days. Ardak and his lovely wife Bedel came outside to greet us and welcome us into their home. During the winter they stay in their brick house, the Ger (traditional Mongol tent) is only used during the warmer seasons. I also met their son Alps and one of the neighbor boys. Alps had recently finished his high school education in the Altai Village and had returned to home to help the family with the animal herding, and eventually get married and begin a family. It is tradition for the oldest son to bring in his new wife to his parents home where they all live together as a family. Ardak and Bedel also have an eight-year old daughter who was away attending boarding school in Altai. After sharing some delicious hot sheep milk tea, Kazakh bread and some yak cheese, I was introduced to the other celebrity of the family, Ternik. A beautiful large golden eagle, an important member of the family, who together with Ardak have formed an incredible team of Hunters. Ardak is a world renown berkutchi, as I understand it, one of twenty in the part of the Altai region where they live. He learned the trade of Eagle Hunting from his father as it is customary. This is a tradition that has been around for centuries and is passed on from father to son. Once a year all the Berkutchis in the region gather with their eagles to compete in various activities in the annual Eagle Festival in Olgii. Ardak is one of the best and on the walls of his house there are many awards that Ardak has gotten through the years.
Before sunset Alps takes me out for a test drive on one of the horses. They want to see how well I can ride and if I am properly dressed for the long rides that await us in the coming days. After about an hour I decided to give up as my feet, my knees, and hands were all freezing. It was -15c outside and I was in pain. When I come back into the house the son gives the news that I need more clothes and Bedel immediately brings her boots to me while I warm up near the brick wall heated by the fire. At this point I am wondering if I will make it through the days ahead. Doggie tells me he will let me borrow his trousers and his deel, the traditional long insulated overcoat that all nomads wear when outside.
The neighbors come for a visit and Doggie shares some beer he has brought from Ulgii. They proudly show me their family albums; which contain photos of previous foreign guests, competitions, and most importantly family memories through the years. I also had the privilege of watching Ardak feed fresh sheep liver to his eagle. After the feeding he put the head cover back on its face so the eagle will not be disturbed and stressed by the different things going on around it. Ternik just stays quietly in her corner, moving its head as it follows sounds around the room.
I slept very well, in my own beautifully decorated room with fox furs that Ternik has caught in the past. We have all of the necessary ammenities here to enjoy a pleasant stay. There is a sink to wash with water that comes out of a container. There is light and charging capabilities powered by a car battery; which is recharged by a solar panel. The fire fueled with yak dung never ceases throughout the night. I like it here so far, the family has been very welcoming and courteous.
Day 1 of Hunting with Eagles:
I got up early and Adark and Bedel invited me to have breakfast with them. Doggie had set up a table in my room with an impressive spread of snacks that we “Westerners” enjoy like chips, wafers, bread, peanuts, Nutella and jam. Adark helped me move the breads and the Nutella to their living room so I could join them for some goat cheese and milk tea. After breakfast everyone went out to complete their daily chores with the animals. I waited patiently until it was time to go hunting. Doggie helped me get into all of my heavy clothes that would protect me from freezing while riding on the mountains. Once I was bundled up and unable to move comfortably, they led me outside to my horse. This morning Adark and I would go together. Ternik was ready to hunt, holding on to Adark’s arm; which was protected with a leather glove. The eagle weighs about 15lb; which is not very heavy but it would be hard to hold while riding for hours so Ardak places his arm on a stand; which is placed on the side against the saddle. Since I am not an experienced rider, Adark held on to a rope tied to my horse (just in case), and we headed towards the mountains. We began to go up and up until we reached the highest point. Eagles need room to fly so it is imperative to begin the hunt from high up. Adark got off his horse, put Ternik on the ground with its head still covered and proceeded to look for foxes through his binoculars. He would make a few deep throat calls to scare any foxes out of their hiding places so they would run into the open fields and he could release Ternik. Today there would be no hunting as no foxes appeared.
At one point Adark got off his horse and somehow broke his belt. He released his eagle into the air. He made a new belt with a rope, got back on his horse and proceeded his work to get the eagle back on his arm. Adark kept calling Ternik who was flying high in the air, but still near us. He eventually pulled out a raw rabbit leg that he had inside his boot and held it up in the air. Ternik immediately smelled it and began his flight toward Adark. This very large and majestic bird grabbed on to the meat but did not manage to land on Adark’s arm. He kept moving his big wings in the air. As you can imagine, any movement from this large bird can be quite intimidating to anyone standing around. My horse was startled but I managed to keep it still. There were a few more tries until Adark was able to get Ternik to grab on to his arm and stay. It was an incredible thing to watch, it takes a lot of skill and bravery to manage such a large wild bird, all while riding a horse.
Although Ardak was holding on to my horse’s rope, I still had to maneuver it up and down the mountain and whip it a few times to catch up to Bek. The rope was long. I felt comfortable riding and trotting up the mountains but I must admit it was terrifying to go down the steep hills. It felt like I was going to loose control and fall over my horse’s head, land on a sharp rock and kill myself. Once in a while my horse would loose its footing and slip, and take small jumps as it recovered its step. I was hanging on for dear life and thankfully managed to stay on my saddle the whole time. I had ridden horses when I was young a couple of times at my uncle’s ranch in Colombia. I had also been riding in the Gobi for a couple of hours but on flat terrain. This experience was different for me, it was my first time riding on steep hills full of sharp rocks. After about three hours of riding it was time to get back to the house. Once we were down from the mountain, he released my horse’s rope and let me ride home on my own. My horse went very slow and apparently I was not using my whip hard enough to get him to go faster. I could not catch up to Ardak but I was not worried as I could see the house in the distance and the terrain was fairly flat at this point. I was content to go at my own slow pace, that is until a neighbor friend showed up and made a few noises at my horse that made it take off in a fast trot. It was very uncomfortable but fun at the same time. Luckily we never gained too much speed. I say luckily because the temperature was -15c and the wind was blowing quite hard on my already frozen face.
When we entered the house we found about twenty people gathered on the floor, sitting around a giant spread of sweets, biscuits, wafers, candy, and fruit. Their family had come over for their monthly get-together. They asked me to go in one of the rooms to get comfortable (take all of my heavy clothes off). They closed my door and for a moment I thought they did not want me to join the festivities, but I quickly understood why they did it. In a few moments everyone became silent and one of the men started praying in Arabic. It was time for prayer. Most Kazakhs practice Islam and they pray before every meal. Once the prayer session was over they opened my door and invited me to join them on the floor for some tea and sweets. About an hour later the platters of boiled lamb started flowing in. Some of the men got their knives out and started to cut the meat off the larger pieces and everyone began to eat. No plates, no utensils, everyone just grabs what they want to eat with their hands. We all savored on this succulent lamb, wiping the grease off our faces with our hands. They kept passing me meat to make sure that I was getting enough. Once the meat was all gone, they brought in bowls of lamb broth for everyone. We followed the lamb eating frenzy with more milk tea and sweets. Most of the family went outside after the meal and I stayed to help Bedel put the remaining food away and wash the dishes. There is no running water in the Altai region so we had to boil water, and pour it in a big bowl where we placed all the dishes. No soap is used, just hot water. As soon as we had tidied up the room, a new group of people came in and the entire spread of sweets was pulled out onto the dining room again. I decided to go for a walk because I knew that if I stayed, they would offer me food again. It is very rude to refuse food and you have to eat everything that is put in your bowl.
I walked around the house, went to the nearby river; which was in the process of freezing over, and discovered a couple of wolves that they had chained to metal poles outside. I later learned that these were captured as young pups and held in captivity to keep other wolves from coming and eating the live stock. I walked over to the stables and noticed the men were starting to bring in the yaks and the cattle to put them away before sunset. It is cold and the animals are all gathered in areas enclosed by stone walls. The men had also come together to weigh all of the cattle and number them by using a special paint on their fur. Adark came out and noticed that I was watching the action from afar and asked me to join him as he led me to where the men were. What a great first day! I felt like I had learned so much about the Kazakhs in just a few hours.
Day 2 of Hunting with Eagles:
Today we woke up to -20c but we went out hunting again. This time we were joined by a neighbor eagle hunter named Rom. He joined us on his horse half way up the mountain. Once again we reached the top of the mountains to scout for foxes. Ardak and Rom took turns throwing rocks down the mountain to try to get the foxes out of their hiding places. Nothing came out. Rom’s eagle escaped for a while so we hung out in the area waiting for him to recover it. It seems the hills got steeper and going down became harder as we went down in a straight line, no zig-zagging. I had to pretty much lay back on my horse and push hard against the stir-ups in order to not fall off. At this point riding up and down these rocky mountains has not been easy so Ardak still holds on to my horse’s rope just in case I can’t stir him in the right direction or the horse decides to take off fast. They tell me to whip it hard to get it going but I just don’t have the heart sometimes. This poor horse is working hard enough as it is carrying my weight (and his) up these steep hills.
After about three hours of hunting we came back to the house with Rom to have a traditional Kazakh lunch made by Doggie. I took advantage of having the hunters’ attention to ask a few more questions about their art. I learned that Rom’s eagle’s name is Balapan. The eagles are taken as babies from the mother’s nest up high in the mountains during the summer. They train them for about one month before they take them out hunting. At five years old they release them back to the wild. During the winter they weigh around 5 kg and they are very hungry so it is easier for them to hunt. During the summer they get up to 7 kg and they get too heavy and lazy to hunt. Ardak is currently training a second eagle which I saw him feed at night. It was very restless and confused with the lights from our headlamps.
After lunch all the men prepared to go on a fishing trip and Doggie invited me to come along. I asked if I could try fishing and he said that perhaps if they caught a lot of fish, then I could try (a gentle answer for no girls allowed?!). We had to cross the river a couple of times to reach the part where the water was still running and where they wanted to fish. We crossed the river over the frozen part; which gave in as we crossed and the car got stuck. It took them a good half hour to get out of the iced water. We got stuck a second time but they quickly got it going again. I never got to try fishing but I enjoyed the beautiful scenery around, and of course watching and learning about the Kazakh men. They do fly fishing, they used no bate, whenever their line and hooks froze, they would suck on them to melt the ice. We took a break to enjoy some beer and cookies by the river.
At night we were invited to dinner at the neighbor’s house. The families kill a sheep once a week and take turns feeding each other. There are three houses in this area and they all pretty much live as one big family sharing everything. A platter of freshly cooked lamb was put in the middle of the table and everyone ate pieces of meat with their hands as two of the men cut them off of the bones. The neighbor’s young kid was taking the brain out of the skull and my hostess Bedel offered me part of it right away. You always have to accept whatever they offer not to offend anyone. And so I had to eat the warm and soft brain, not my favorite… We had a lot of sweets, cookies, bread, and tea afterwards. The grandfather and grandmother began to ask Doggie about me, if my parents were still alive, if I had brothers, if I was married. They were very surprised with every answer. They did not like or understand that my parents were separated when I was five, or that I was still single. They were sort of disturbed by it all so Doggie told them that he could marry me (jokingly) and they smiled. During this trip I have definitely disappointed a lot of people when it comes to answering these type of questions. Everyone in the middle East and the better part of Asia seems to get married very young, have kids right away, and stay married for life.
We came back to Ardak’s house and I started brushing my teeth but I noticed that Bedel was cooking some more lamb to feed us. I excused myself from eating again. I have never seen any other people (culture) eat so much, but I guess they burn calories fast by working hard in the freezing cold all day. They eat every chance they get, and they drink milk tea nonstop. It is so cold here that their bodies constantly burn calories, so they need to replenish very often. I am just glad I am not staying here more than five days because I would probably become fat very quickly.
Day 3 of Hunting with Eagles:
Today was a super special day as it had snowed the night before and all was covered in snow. We had a long day of hunting, about five hours. This time we were joined by another neighbor eagle hunter; whom we ran into on the mountains by chance. The two men rode together with their eagles in front of me and I continued to stayed tied to Ardak’s horse. He switched my horse to a faster one but I was able to handle it well and so I thought. I asked Ardak to release the rope and not to worry as I would follow closely but he disagreed with me. I think he was afraid that this faster horse would run away and I would loose control of it. It did not bother me too much as the rope was long and I was still at liberty of stirring my horse as I pleased but I had the security of Ardak being close by in case anything happened while riding up and down these steep rocky mountains. We had a spectacular day out, it was beautiful as everything was covered in snow. We saw three foxes at different times. The eagles were released to catch two of them but the foxes were too quick and got away. The eagles were also released to go after a rabbit. It was great seeing two eagle flying out together and competing against each other for the pray. The rabbit jumped over them as they got close to the ground and it managed to escape. On our way back to the house, Ardak stopped to try hunting with his riffle but again the rabbit he was after escaped. It was a magnificent last day of hunting but I was exhausted and my whole body was hurting from the trotting. I didn’t take my iPad out with me on this trip since it was snowing and I didn’t want to risk getting it wet.
Later during the day their daughter Molder arrived, she was visiting for the weekend. We had a few more visitors throughout the day (as usual), including a famous singer lady that delighted us with playing a traditional Kazakh instrument and she sang a song about the Altai region. Later in the night we made dumplings together, the entire family making different shapes with the dough and having fun. Ardak’s eagle hunter friend Mor joined us again for another great meal. He was there to accompany Ardak to the mini eagle festival in Tolbo, another village south of Olgii. Before going to bed, I presented the family with a gift of sweets. Ardak was leaving at 5:00 am the following day and I would not see him again. Bedel gave me a nice hand-made embroidery; which was very unexpected and greatly appreciated! It made me feel special and a bit sad that I was leaving so soon.
My last day in Altai:
It was my last day with the family and since there was no hunting this morning, I had the opportunity to walk around and watch the daily morning routine. I saw the ladies of all three houses milking the yak together, the little girls playing with a sleigh on the frozen river (whom I joined for a while), and the men slaughtering two goats, skinning them and taking them apart to cut the edible parts (practically the entire animal). I learned that each family needs to kill a total of ten sheep, one horse, and yak in October while the animals are still fat. They will store all of the meat in a room designated as the freezer. This meat needs to last them the entire winter from November to May. While they worked on two sheep, they had two goats tied up to a pole nearby. It seems at least one of the goats could sense what was about to happen to them as it kept making really loud noises; perhaps in protest. It was interesting to watch, and I am sure this site would have been very disturbing for many but for me, it was just an example of the way of life here.
I can’t thank Bek, Doggie, Ardak, Bedel, their family and friends for making this dream come true and making my stay in the Altai region very special. As stated before, this is one of the most culturally authentic and unforgettable experiences of my entire trip. I will cherish these memories forever. I am now back in Olgii where I will stay a couple of days enjoying a warm shower, doing laundry, and writing on my blog before taking a plane back to Ulaanbaatar. For the shock factor, I never showered in five days or changed my clothes! What can I say, it is the nomad life. I did clean daily with wipes so I didn’t feel that bad. It was just like being on long camping trip! 😉
For more information on doing a tour to go hunting with eagles, please check out: http://www.backtobektravel.com