It’s minus 40 degrees F, the snow is waist deep as a 13 year-old girl trudges to the top of a 12,000 foot peak. If that’s not enough, she carries a 15 pound highly mobile killing machine – a golden eagle. Atop the peak she sets it free to swoop down onto its prey – an unsuspecting fox.
Hunting with eagles started before Genghis Khan’s time, and Mongolia remains strongly tied to its primordial past. One of the reasons you go there is to connect with people chiseled by their nomadic history and to connect with yours.
Falconry is practiced in many countries today, but only in Mongolia can you find eagle hunters. The tradition stems from neighboring Manchuria starting around 950 AD. Today about 250 people are still hunting with eagles in Mongolia across the western Altai province; Tusker Trail’s back yard. Tusker’s Mongolia trek journeys across these lands and Tusker trekkers encounter the Kazakh hunters regularly on their trips.
Hunting with eagles is a father-son apprenticeship program where female eaglets are taken from their nests and trained to hunt. The females are larger and said to be more aggressive than males. When the eagles have bonded with their human master they are ready for the trip to the summits of surrounding villages where they are set free to hunt. Nothing is wasted from their effort. The meat is shared with bird and master. The animal fur makes warm coats and the meat helps the Kazakhs get through the long winters.
After six to eight years, the eagles are set free so they can mate and produce the next generation of hunters.
Meet Aisholpan Nurgaiv
Males are the dominant players at the Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival held every September in Sagsai. The competition pits eagle hunters carrying their birds on horseback and letting them go at full canter. The first female to compete in the festival is 13 year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv who, since winning has become a Mongol celebrity. With the making of “The Eagle Huntress” she has become internationally known. This documentary by director Otto Bell screened at the Sundance and Telluride film festival in 2016.
The film captures Mongolia in all its harsh and beautiful wildness while making Aisholpan a global symbol for girl power. Forget Katniss of Hollywood’s “The Hunger Games,” Aisholpan is the real Mongolian deal.
The film was hatched after Bell saw a BBC YouTube of her that had gone viral in 2014 and shows how difficult it was for Aisholpan to become accepted as an eagle huntress. Princess Nirgidmag who hunted with eagles in 1932 was among the first female eagle hunters in Mongol modern times.
“She loves to win. There is this 13 year-old girl who loves to hang out with her friends and paint her nails, but she is an incredibly strong and determined young woman as well,” Bell told the Toronto Star after a screening there this fall.
Eagle huntress in all of us
Going to Mongolia isn’t going to make us falconers, but it could inspire us to seek challenges we thought we could never attempt. If nothing else, being in the land of the eagle hunters reawakens our wild side and brings us closer to it – the essence of true adventure travel and the essence of your true self. On the trek, we meet the eagle hunters.