A typical Mongolian ger out on the Mongolian steppe. In this image you can see the families working horses waiting to be ridden as well as the hand-made dairy products drying in the sun
The Mongolian Ger
August 25, 2019
Reasons to visit Mongolia - sacred stone shrines on high passes
Reasons To Visit Mongolia
August 29, 2019
Kazakh eagle hunter with eagle

Mongolia’s Kazakh Eagle Hunters

The Kazakhs are Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority group representing 3-4% of Mongolia’s population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3 million people). The largest group of Kazakhs make their home in western Mongolia in Bayan Ulgii Aimag with a smaller group in Khovd Aimag

Sailaukhan - one of Mongolia's Kazakh eagle hunters

Aisholpan the Eagle Huntress

When to visit

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 Kazakhs are known for their tradition of hunting with eagles – known as ‘berkutchi’ and in 2011, UNESCO added Kazakh eagle hunting to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as an example of living human heritage. 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 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 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 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. 

Gers belonging to Mongolia's Kazakh eagle hunters in winter in Mongolia
Seasons are very distinct in Mongolia and each one brings its own unique perspective on the life of an eagle hunter.
  • Spring – Kazakhs do not typically hunt with their eagles from March as the prey such as foxes are carrying their young. However, it is a great time of year for a homestay as the livestock are giving birth and cashmere is being combed. Also, the Nauryz Festival – the celebration of the coming of spring that takes place throughout Central Asia – is also celebrated by the Kazakhs of Mongolia. Nauryz takes place on March 21st and 22nd. As well as the community parade in Ulgii there are often informal eagle festivals taking place as well.

 

  • Summer – The eagles are being rested so there’s no training, no flying and no hunting. But, why not explore on a horse trek accompanied by the eagle hunter.  They can show you the location of the nests where they take their chicks, their favourite hunting grounds and a more hidden side to their home landscapes.

 

  • Autumn – Experience one of the two eagle festivals – both held in Bayan Ulgii Province. The first takes place on the third weekend in September. The second is held in the provincial capital – Ulgii, and takes place on the first weekend in October. Neither are traditional celebrations – both are created and sponsored by tour companies. However, both festivals help to promote Kazakh culture in western Mongolia and as well as the main competition, which focuses not the working relationship of the hunter with their eagle, horse games are central to both festivals. There are many traditional Kazakh horse games that feature in Kazakh celebrations. Most focus on the power, dexterity and courage of the rider and their horse and the relationship between them. Both festivals are very popular (expect a lot of visitors. And a lot of cameras).
Traditional Kazakh horse games. You can experience this when hunting with eagles in Mongolia
Getting there

 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.

Ulgii - the provincial capital of western Mongolia

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.

Experiencing Kazakh hospitality in western Mongolia

Some of the dairy products on the welcome table in a Kazakh eagle hunter home

 

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. 

Accommodation

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.

Winter home of a Kazakh eagle hunter

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.

Bashakhan - Kazakh eagle hunter

 

If you’re interested in experiencing the way of life of Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters then have a look through the Mongolia tours and experiences that we offer. 

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I’m Jess Brooks. I have been based in Mongolia since 2006 and am the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia - a registered Mongolian business and social travel enterprise that focuses on providing travellers with a real 21st Century insight into Mongolia. Together with my beloved Mongolian team, we focus on tourism that makes a positive difference. I'm also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - awarded for my work in Mongolia and a published guidebook author - having worked together with World Adventure Guides to produce a digital interactive guide to Mongolia. http://www.jessbrooks.co.uk/
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