17 November 2017

Photo Essay - Hunting With Eagles


Hunting with eagles (‘berkutchi’) is a form of falconry traditionally found throughout the Eurasian steppe. It is still practiced by the Kazakhs of western Mongolia. Winter is hunting season and a great time to accompany a Kazakh eagle hunter on an extended trip. The following images were taken by our guests who joined us this September and October.




So I can hear the initial question.  Winter in Mongolia? Isn't it cold? Yes. But the cold is an important part of what makes Mongolia and its landscapes extraordinary at this time of year.   After 12 years of living and working in Mongolia (it is still my home), winter remains my favourite season. Winter in Mongolia makes the landscapes look even more vast. It seems endless. The beauty of it makes you catch your breath.

By EL Guest Antoinette Von Grone

By EL Guest Sam Reinders
Not only do the landscapes come into their own but the ger becomes very much the nucleus of the herders' way of life with the livestock being brought closer to the homestead for protection. Because of this, as a visitor, the families’ way of life is brought closer to you. Winter in Mongolia is a time of year when families have more time to spare and are freer and more relaxed. 

By EL Guest Sam Reinders
So that's the formalities over and done with.  

Why hunting with eagles?

Hunting with eagles (‘berkutchi’) is a form of falconry traditionally found throughout the Eurasian steppe. It is still practiced by the Kazakhs of western Mongolia. 

By EL Guest Sam Reinders
The Kazakhs are Mongolia's largest ethnic minority group with around 150,000 residing in western Mongolia -  even though the region of western Mongolia is physically separated from Kazakhstan by a 47-60 km mountainous stretch of Chinese and Russian territory. 

By EL Guest Meei Wong
The largest group of Kazakhs make their home in Bayan Ulgii Aimag with a smaller group in Khovd aimag. There are also smaller populations in Ulaanbaatar and its surrounding districts. The Kazakhs represent 3-4% of Mongolia's population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3 million people). 

Most of the eagles flown in are female ‘eyasses’ - young female eagles taken from nests. Female birds are considered braver, fiercer and stronger. All the eyasses scream when hunting (known also as food-beg). This helps the  eagle hunter to keep track of the bird.


By EL Guest Antoinette Von Grone
Getting there

There are year-round domestic flights to Ulgii from Ulaanbaatar with both Hunnu Air and AeroMongolia. There are not daily flights but there's a good service. Ulgii is the provincial capital of Bayan Ulgii Province. It might feel a little like having arrived at the end of the road but it is worth spending time in - especially time spent exploring the black market. 

By EL Guest Meei Wong
What will you be eating?

Horse. And mutton. And mutton and horse. Seriously? Yes. Kazakh cooking is based on boiling with horse and mutton. It's fresh and delicious though. Mongolian dishes are frequently found as well. 

It's no problem if you're vegetarian or vegan but remember that hospitality is a key ingredient in the Kazakh culture. As Kazakh culture dictates, they are warm and generous hosts so you shouldn't refuse anything too forcibly.

If you’re visiting a Kazakh family you will probably get to try the besbarmak - a dish consisting of boiled horse or mutton. This is is one of the most popular Kazakh dishes and is also called 'five fingers' because of the way it is eaten - using your hands. Traditionally, the chunks of boiled meat are cut and served by the host in order of the guests’ importance. Other favorite Kazakh dishes are kazy a traditional sausage made of fattened horsemeat  -  often part of a celebratory meal. 


By EL Guest Antoinette Von Grone
 
By EL Guest Antoinette Von Grone

By EL Guest Antoinette Von Grone

Accommodation?

Well. If you like the idea of a memory foam mattress then probably look elsewhere. The same applies if you need a daily hot shower or an insulated flush toilet.

Kazakh eagle hunters offer their homes up for visitors to stay in. It is a homestay but also see it as a micro business - accommodation offered by individual families as a way of substituting their income as herders, providing a little extra financial security.

What to expect? It might be a Kazakh ger insulated for the winter temperatures or it might be the traditional clay brick houses that Kazakhs favour in the winter months.

If you want a shower, head to the local town shower house in Ulgii. You get your own private cubicle with plenty of hot water - just queue with the locals and enjoy experiencing a little of their daily way of life


By EL Guest Meei Wong

By EL Guest Antoinette Von Grone

And let's finish with a tip. For a more pure experience,  leave the planning entirely in the hands of the eagle hunter - the arrangement of the hunting, the location and the accommodation. Why? It makes for a more authentic style of trip.

And a second? Remember that the primary purpose of why Kazakh eagle hunters take their eagles out in the winter is to hunt prey - especially foxes or rabbits. There's no guarantee that you'll see a kill but in the winter months, that is the purpose of such trips. Just as a gentle reminder.

 The plug (of course!). Interested? Curious? Not too sure? Why not have a look through the Mongolia tours that we offer at Eternal Landscapes. Alternatively, just email me (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk) - I'm always happy to be of help and all advice is free with no sales pitch. 

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