Mongolian Kazakhs are Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority group representing 3-4% of Mongolia’s population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3.2 million people). The largest group of Mongolian Kazakhs make their home in western Mongolia in Bayan Ulgii Aimag with a smaller group in Khovd Aimag.
Language and religion are just two markers that make the Kazakhs of Mongolia culturally and ethnically different from Mongolians. Kazakh is the dominant language in Bayan Ulgii although Mongolian is the official language of government and business. Local schools teach in either Mongolian or Kazakh. The Kazakh population is predominantly Muslim (whereas the rest of Mongolia is predominantly a Buddhist country).
Not all of Mongolia’s Kazakh population are eagle hunters. Mongolia’s Kazakh population are divided between herders and those based in the rural towns including working in service industries such as teaching. Of those that are herders, approximately 300 are eagle hunters (Bayan Ulgii Aimag). (This doesn’t mean that they hunt eagles – it means that they use eagles to hunt with.)
The tradition of hunting with eagles – known as ‘berkutchi’ – was added in 2011, as an example of living human heritage, to the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
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 (early November through to February). 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.’
The eagles are typically female golden eagles as they are larger and considered stronger.
We offer a hunting with eagles experience – where you are hosted by Kazakh families – all headed by eagle hunters – and you will get to experience the Kazakh way of life as well as the tradition of hunting with eagles. We work with the families directly throughout the year and have formed long-term local community partnerships with them. Our experiences are put together in a way that 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 live prey is pre-captured, held and then released on purpose for our guests to be able to photograph the experience. We will never arrange any artificial experiences as they damage the culture, the way of life or the wildlife itself.
For those concerned about the welfare of the eagles, the Kazakh eagle hunters have a respectful yet practical approach to their eagles – they have a close connection with their eagles – they are virtually family members although it is sometimes hard for outsiders to recognise this. The eagles are released back into the wild after about ten seasons so that they can breed. Once released, the birds are observed to make sure they successfully reintegrate back into the wild.
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 approximate 220km 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 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 beshbarmak – 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 a 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 accommodation wise? In the summer months, it will be a Kazakh ger (yurt). 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 15 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.