If you’re interested in spending time experiencing the way of life of Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters then hopefully this informal post will give you a few useful details about how to plan such an experience. All images were taken by the EL team or our guests – this is the Mongolia you would also experience.
Mongolia’s Kazakh Eagle Hunters
The Kazakhs are Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority group with around 150,000 residing in western Mongolia. The Kazakhs represent 3-4% of Mongolia’s population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3 million people) and the largest group of Kazakhs make their home in Bayan Ulgii Aimag with a smaller group in Khovd Aimag. That means you basically want to be heading to Bayan Ulgii Aimag.
The primary purpose of why Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters have eagles is to hunt prey – especially foxes or rabbits for their fur. That makes it primarily a winter sport. It is the deep winter that you get to understand the bond between the hunter and his eagle. In the words of Australian photographer Palani Mohan:
‘They have an extraordinary bond with the golden eagle, which to them represents the wind, the open space, the isolation and the freedom found at the edge of the world.’
However, we have a request. In the winter months, although we arrange for our guests to accompany one of the Kazakh eagle hunters we work with on a trek, we do not arrange a hunt. Our experiences are put together in a way which benefits and supports each family, rather than disrupting their lives. We don’t ask them to change their daily schedule or to put on an ‘act’. We do not arrange contrived experiences where the prey (whether that be a fox or wolf cub previously caught) are released on purpose for our guests to be able to photograph the experience. Please also say no to any artificial experiences to help protect the culture, the way of life and wildlife itself.
There are year-round domestic flights to Ulgii (the provincial capital of Bayan Ulgii Province) from Ulaanbaatar with both Hunnu Air and AeroMongolia. There are not daily flights but there’s a good service. It might feel a little like having arrived at the end of the road but Ulgii itself is worth spending time in – especially time spent exploring the black market.
(If there are no available flights to Ulgii then consider flying into Khovd and transferring the 200km by road to Ulgii. Most of the road is now asphalt and there are public buses available for those who don’t arrange a transfer.
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 favourite Kazakh dishes are kazy a traditional sausage made of fattened horsemeat – often part of a celebratory meal.
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. 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.
What to expect? In the summer months, it will be a Kazakh ger. Step inside one and one of your first impressions will be the warmth and colour of the woven carpets, textiles and embroidery work that decorate the interior. In the winter months, it will be a traditional clay brick house that Kazakhs favour in the winter months.
Your hosts would be the eagle hunters and their families. If you choose to travel with EL then these are personal friendships that we have personally built up over the past 13 years. We use no agents or tour operators – we work directly with all the families and build up long-term local community partnerships with them as this leads to a more respectful working relationship for them and a more personal insight for you as our guest.