Mongolia’s most eligible eagle hunter
(CNN) – “Look over there. See that man this way?” asks Timur. “He looks so good.”
The nomad version of Brad Pitt, who returns home in “Legends of the Fall”, gallops towards us on a sturdy Mongolian horse. Bundled in a pinto jacket over richly embroidered trousers, he stands out. A fox fur hat warms his head and a golden eagle sits quietly on his right forearm, which is not just a prop for a kitschy Cologne advertisement.
“Look at his eyebrows and cheekbones,” continues our intrepid guide. “And look at how big and strong he is. The girls are crazy about him.”
“It’s true,” says Timur’s wife, Bata, and blushes slightly. “If I compared him to Timur, I would of course choose him.”
On closer inspection, the intruder’s weathered face reveals an outdoor life. But his jaw is certainly chiseled and his natural squint reminds me of a teenage Clint Eastwood as he gazes into the distance.
Yenisbek Tserik, whose name means “steel warrior”, is a semi-nomadic Kazakh.
But his stature is probably more impressive, which I only appreciate when he stands next to four other Berkutchi or eagle hunters who have gathered in front of us for a planned photo shoot and an interview session. He is almost a head taller, with broad, square shoulders and muscular limbs that are exaggerated by his bulky clothing.
His name is Jenisbek Tserik, a designation that means “steel warrior” – an apt description given his achievements. As a master rider, he is also a serial winner of tug of war competitions in which two fighters fight a goat carcass.
Yenisbek is so skilful that he was flown to Dubai to attend exhibition events. For a semi-nomadic Kazakh living in Mongolia’s most remote, westernmost province, Bayan-Ölgii, any trip abroad would be like visiting another planet. The dazzling Dubai would be a completely different universe.
Jenisbek is 26 years old and tells us that he is not married. Then he jokes that he has five girlfriends, including one in Dubai and one in Kazakhstan, who make up 90% of Bayan-Ölgii residents. I’m not sure if he’s serious, but from what Timur and Bata told me about him, it’s not beyond the reach.
Aside from the tug of war, Yenisbek is a master archer and has won numerous awards for eagle hunting in Bayan-Ölgii, where the centuries-old pastime is more common than anywhere else on the planet.
A proud story
Jenisbek is 26 years old and says he is not married but has five girlfriends.
Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Die Bilddatenbank RF / Getty Images
Eagle hunting can be traced back to a forgotten kingdom in Central Asia, where the direct descendants of Genghis Khan settled on the Aral Sea until they fled to the lawless region of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia.
When the Soviet Union and China established borders on both sides at the beginning of the 20th century, the Kazakhs were cut off from their homeland and could not return.
They continued to live as semi-nomadic shepherds in western Mongolia, where traditional pastimes such as hunting with golden eagles passed from generation to generation. Because such practices were suppressed in Kazakhstan during Soviet rule, Bayan-Ölgii became the core of the sport.
“For a Mongol, it is proud to train racehorses. For Kazakhs, it is their pride to train eagles to hunt,” explains Bata.
You can see it in the way they walk and how they behave. The five Berkutchi know they are being watched and they play along, blowing their chests out and stiffening their backs when a camera lens is pointed in their direction. Brow furrow and lip purse as if they had modeled all of their lives.
It is far from what life must have been like in this part of the world before tourism suffered after the first golden eagle festival held outside the provincial capital of Ölgii in 1999. But even now, foreigners are hardly pushing to come here. When I ask our local host about the numbers visiting the region this season, he replies that there are “many”.
“How many?” I ask.
From October to March, eagle hunters head into the mountains in pairs – one to rinse their prey, the other to rescue the eagle from above along a ridge line.
The numbers peak at the time of the festival in early October and during the smaller Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival that took place here in Sagsai two weeks earlier. Either way, up to 100 Berkutchi test their skills at events where eagles are expected to catch fox skins pulled behind horses or in races to scoop a coin off the ground on horseback.
A flirtatious competition is for a woman who whips to chase after a man who doesn’t always go out of his way to escape. I could imagine that Yenisbek has received a disproportionate number of lashes in recent years.
But only when the tourists have left does the eagle hunting season begin. From October to March, hunters head into the mountains in pairs – one to rinse their prey, the other to rescue the eagle from above along a ridge line.
The prize catches include foxes and rabbits, whose luscious coats make the warmest hats, just like those that crown Yenisbek and his companions.
The hunt can last for days and training requires patience as the eagles get used to their handlers and develop the necessary skills.
Have couples divorced, I ask Timur, when husbands spend more time with their birds than with their wives? He shrugs his shoulders.
If every unmarried woman in the valley is waiting for you, like for Yenisbek, who needs a woman?
Get there: Although Mongolia is currently closed to tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some tour operators are now accepting bookings for the 2021 Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii, which will take place in early October.