When Eagles Choose Your Clothes
It's hard to know what the best way is to preserve practices that are peculiar to a dwindling culture. Before the days of global communication and easy travel—plane, train, or especially car and truck— people in the same community passed information from old to young, one generation to the next, and much of that information stayed there. Geographic obstacles limited the spread of a culture, but also protected it from outside influence. Eventually isolated areas developed language, customs, music, and other practices that were unique, either by chance or by challenges developed to cope with environmental conditions.
Mongolia's isolation comes from its deserts and mountains, its lack of roads or cities in most of the country. Even including the Inner Mongolian region of China, the once powerful Mongol empire is left with only several million people sharing its common language. Within Mongolia is a small minority of ethnic Khazakhs, who mostly live in the western part of the country. And among Khazakhs, there is a much smaller group who have maintained the tradition of raising and training golden eagles for use in hunting. Before polyester fiber, nylon and microfleece was shipped from China in trucks, eagles were working with humans to find animals whose skins could be used to keep the Khazaks warm in the brutal winter of the western mountains. The need to hunt has declined as these cheap man-made alternatives have flourished, and without this practical need the number of people practicing eagle hunting declines, to the point where it is hard to find young Khazaks interested in continuing the practice just to uphold a cherished tradition.
Photo Op, Eagle Festival
Some hope comes from eagle hunting's current popularity with tourists. In Khovsgul, there is a group of tourist-supported reindeer herders with no tradition of eagle hunting that has taken it up to increase their draw to tourists. Eagles can be seen on the road to Terelj National Park to the east of Ulaanbaatar, and in the parking lot of the big Chingis Khaan monument, but they do not hunt. To see eagle hunters you need to go west, to the rural parts of Khovd aimag, or better, to Bayan Ulgii. Or, you can go to an eagle festival, as I did this weekend, at a resort near Ulaanbaatar's Chingis Khan International airport.
On Saturday morning I took a bus south and then west on Chingis Avenue, to Eagle Festival 2016
with my friend Batjargal. We arrived at the Chingis Khan Ger Camp shortly after eleven, in time to see a couple dozen fur-covered men mount horses, eagles clinging to their heavily gloved right arms, then ride up the valley and out of sight. After several long (it is -18°C, around 0°F) speeches by officials in front of an oversized central restaurant-ger, the eagle hunters made their re-entry, riding single file to a spot up the hill from the large ger before descending to a space carved out of the crowd by police with yellow tape. There were more speeches as photographers in the crowd jockeyed for the best position from which to photograph the eagle hunters.
Eagle Festival 2016, Chingis Khan Ger Camp
Viewers from all over the world have seen the same pictures that I have online, some of the best and most recent from Asher Svidensky
as well as the documentary by Otto Bell, Eagle Huntress
, whose subject is a young woman who breaks the gender barrier to learn this male tradition. (Aisholpan Nurgaiv, now 15, appeared at the festival with her eagle.) Photographers (from all over the world) were seeking a view to portray these hunters in an authentic way—one that didn't include the restaurant ger with the awning above its door, parked cars, children with pink plastic sleds, or foreign visitors with large cameras and tripods. More and more though, tourism and media have become an authentic part of these practices, and have shaped them for success in a context that is far removed from their origins.
Old hunters and young are aware and unflinching before a camera, and they exhibit a calm skill and devotion to their birds. But they must also be aware that each of the hundreds of visitors has paid 20,000 tugrigs ($10 USD) to see them. Training eagles, not to mention eagle hunters, is a long, time-intensive process. Without the attention and the money these hunters gain it will be ever more difficult to attract new apprentices.
Despite the crowds, it is still a treat and privilege to watch these magnificent birds and the partnership they have with their handlers. (Khazaks do not use the word owner
, because they will return the birds to the wild when they reach eight or nine years old.) Although there were several events held at this festival, the two main competitive events involving eagles might be compared to events at dog obedience school. The first was the come and sit
event, where a hunter leaves his eagle with another handler and rides down the hill and calls for the bird. When all goes well, the eagle takes to the air and swoops to a landing on the hunter's forearm. The other large event was much like a fetch
—the carcass of a fox or marmot is dragged down the hill behind the hunter and the bird is released from the top of the hill with the hope that it will tackle the dragged animal. While there were many successful entrants, there were also those that reminded us that these are wild animals, that they have minds of their own, and that no matter how good the relationship between bird and hunter, it is one that can't be taken for granted. Batjargal explained an announcer's warning, in Mongolian, to pay attention to small children and pets. Eagles have been known to find them attractive as prey.