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2021: Eagle Hunters of Mongolia

Key Information

Date: Saturday, September 11, 2021
Duration: 13 Days
Cost: 2021 (provisional): £3990, $5390, €4730 Ulaanbaatar/Ulaanbaatar. Single Room Supplement: £120, $160, €140. Deposit: £500, $650, €550.
Places: 7

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Imagine a world that is wild, untouched and so remote that it is one of the least inhabited areas of the least inhabited countries on earth. A world where the shadows of clouds dance with shards of light from the sun across vast, treeless expanses. This is western Mongolia. A world that is home to a group of people that have developed a unique relationship with one of the world’s most revered birds of prey, the Golden Eagle. This is the world of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters, who not only survive out in this amazing landscape, but who have developed a relationship with eagles to hunt with them for prey, including rabbits and even foxes.

The tradition of eagle hunting in Mongolia is believed to have been developed in central Asia more than 1800 years ago. Since then the lives and traditions of Mongolia’s eagle hunters have defied history, geography and dramatic political change. Only female Eagles are used to hunt as they are considered more valuable due to their larger size and powerful hunting prowess. During the time the eagle is captive, an extraordinary bond is formed between the hunter and his bird. It is, however, a relationship that is only temporary. After around ten years, a hunter will take his eagle far away from his home and into the mountains. There he will stay with the bird until sunset and he will release it, returning to his home in the dark so the eagle is unable to follow him. This separation allows the eagle to ‘re-wild’ and have chicks of its own.

Today in Mongolia there are still about 250 Eagle hunter families in total and the Sagsai region of the Bayan-Olgii (or Bayan-Ulgii) province acts as the heartland for these hardy nomadic people.

Wild Images is embarking on a very special journey to both live alongside eagle hunter families and attend the annual Kazakh Altai Eagle Festival at Sagsai, where the eagle hunters gather to compete in hunting competitions and games, and show off their ability to hunt.
Our journey will start in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. From 1924 until 1990, during which time Mongolia was a vassal of the former Soviet Union, Ulaanbaatar had most of its Mongolian lamaseries and shrines swept aside to make way for uniformly drab, Soviet-style boulevards and buildings. Modern day Ulaanbaatar, or UB as it is affectionately known, with its grey facades and outlying ‘suburbs’ of gers (yurts) housing recent migrants, definitely has a very frontier-town feel and it offers a stark contrast to the wild, empty, remote beauty of most of Mongolia.

On our first day in Ulaanbaatar we will make our way to the beautiful monastery (or khiid) of Gandan. Its full name ‘Gandantegchinlen’ translates roughly into ‘the great place of complete joy’ and this beautiful, Tibetan style monastery is one of the few of its kind that survived the religious purges, inspired by the Soviet Union, in the 1930s. We will walk the squares and prayer halls of this wonderful monastery taking photos before we move on and visit the gigantic Sukhbaatar Square that was constructed in honour of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the hero of the revolution which secured Mongolia’s independence from China. We will then make a visit to Zaisan Hill to get an overview of the city, the Tuul river valley and the surrounding hills before we return to our hotel for a welcome dinner.

The following day we will transfer to the airport to take a morning flight to the remote town of Hovd, where our drivers will collect us and take us out to the Tsambagarav Mountain National Park, where we will continue into the region of Tavan Belchir, or the five pastures, where we will meet our host family of Kazakh Eagle hunters. This sparsely populated, beautiful region of western Mongolia is crowned by two permanent snow-capped peaks – Tsambagarav Uul (4,025 metres or 13,206 feet) and Tsast Uul (4102 metres or 13,459 feet).

“Fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people” – old Kazakh proverb.

Over the coming days we will live alongside a family of Kazakh eagle hunters in large Kazakh yurts, that are a more elaborate and distinct than basic Mongolian gers. While living with an eagle hunter family we will learn how these incredible people survive in such a remote part of the most sparsely populated country on earth. We will also watch them hunting with their magnificent birds of prey. From nearby hills we will join hunters as they scan this incredible landscape with their birds, looking for creatures to hunt. If their sharp-eyed eagle spots a hunting target, it signifies the sighting by calling out. The hunter then releases his eagle to fly off and capture the potential meal it has spotted.

At other times we will join our host family in their yurt to photograph the every day life of a Kazakh eagle hunting family as we watch them prepare food, look after children and enjoy family discussions in the same way they have done for generations. Typically Kazakh families live together in a single yurt, which holds items that are important for their nomadic lifestyles including milk churns, meat mincers, bed frames and family portraits. Beds and clothing are often made of skins of yaks or wolves. Horses are central to the nomadic Kazakh way of life and while we are living with families we may be invited into a warm and beautifully decorated family yurt to drink some fermented mare’s milk which is a staple part of the Kazakh diet. For Kazakh people daily life includes feeding and caring for their herds of yaks, goats and horses and all members of a Kazakh family are expected to help out with chores that are vital to their traditional lifestyle.

If you ask even a Kazakh from Kazakhstan where the most traditional Kazakhs live, they will generally mention the Tsambagarav Mountains in far northwestern Mongolia, rather than anywhere in Kazakhstan itself. Living with a family of true Kazakh hunters for three nights will be an unforgettable experience as we learn about their lives in this incredible region first hand.

From the Tsambagarav we will then transfer to another homeland of eagle hunters at Tsengel Soum to experience life with another eagle hunter family.

Our journey through northwestern Mongolia will climax with a visit to the spectacular Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival at Sagsai, where we will spend two days enjoying and photographing the festivities including hunting competitions and the wild game of Buzkashi.

As an initiative of the local population, the Sagsai region began to celebrate the Eagle Hunting culture with a festival over a decade ago. During the Eagle Festival, hunters are judged for their traditional attire, the equipment of the eagles and the horses they use to hunt.

Festival competitions include the game of Kokbar, or a tug of war played on horseback using a goat pelt as the rope. Another game, the Tenge Alu, is a contest where hunters attempt to pick up a token from the ground without getting off their galloping horses. Women also get involved by racing their horses against men in a tournament called a Kyz kuu, a flirtatious event where, if the man wins, he gets a kiss. If the woman, however, beats her male rival, she turns and races him back down the field with a whip in which to strap him – a highly entertaining event for all of the festival guests!

The Wild Images type of holiday, where we stay with local people, is very important for supporting the family economy of people living in this region, especially for the local nomadic hunter families who have the opportunity to increase their income.

Flights out of western Mongolia are famous for delays (this is a mountain area and unsuitable conditions for flying are not uncommon). As a result it is very unwise to plan on flying back to UB and departing internationally next day. You can end up missing your flight and having to pay again!

So, following our visit to western Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar, we have arranged a visit to the beautiful Hustai National Park, situated well to the southwest of the city and home to the wild and pretty Przewalski’s Horse, a species that has been brought back from the edge of extinction.

After our return to Ulaanbaatar, we will be transferred on a two hour trip to Hustai. Our first excursion will be to visit the remarkable Neolithic graves of Öngut, which date back to the 6th or 7th century A.D. We will then make our way to the lovely Tuul River and its willows. Amur falcons are relatively easy to see here. Later that day we will take a drive to search for some of the free roaming herds of the Takhi, or Przewalski’s Horses. Hustai is one of only three locations where this extinct (in the wild) species of horse was reintroduced after they disappeared in the 1960s due to hunting. They have never been domesticated and the Przewalski’s Horses in Hustai remain the only true wild horses in the world today. During the day these beautiful horses usually stay high in the mountains and are rather difficult to see, whereas very early and late in the day they usually come down into the valleys for water and to graze. The chances of seeing these pretty wild horses is high during our late afternoon drive.

The next morning, we will visit community groups living in the buffer zone of the Hustai and learn how they keep their livestock. We will enjoy a traditional lunch of ‘buuz’ (meat dumplings) with the local people who work as conservation partners of the Hustai National Park before returning to Ulaanbaatar for a final night.

 

Accommodation, Food & Road Transport

Food while staying with the eagle hunters will be simple but plentiful. Kindly note that on this unusual journey we are unable to cater for a vegetarian diet.

Road transport is by 4WD vehicles as roads are often quite rough.

 

Walking

The walking effort is mostly easy, but there will be opportunities for short but more demanding hikes in the areas where the eagle hunters live in order to capture those special images of hunters and eagles on wild ridges or other great spots.

 

Climate

At this season the weather conbditions in both western and central Mongolia are usually cool, dry and sunny, with typical daily maxima being between 10-15°C (50-59°F). At night conditions are fairly cold (between 5°C or 41°F and a little below freezing), but nothing remotely like the very cold conditions prevailing during the Mongolian winter months.

 

Photographic Equipment

If you use a full frame DSLR or mirrorless camera, for much of the time when photographing the eagle hunters in western Mongolia, you will want to cover focal lengths of around 24-105mm and 70-200mm. A really wide angle lens will also be useful.

For photographing hunters from a distance, consider bringing a larger zoom or prime telephoto lens for photography, of up to 400mm.

Those using crop-sensor cameras should adjust the suggested focal lengths as appropriate.

If you bring a good quality bridge camera instead of a DSLR or miurrorless it will be best if it has an optical zoom of 18-20x or more, combined with a reasonable wide-angle at the other end of the zoom range.

If you have a phone or tablet that can be used for photography, you may find one useful around people.

Similarly if you have a Polaroid camera like the Leica Sofort or an Instax Mini, these are wonderful to have on hand when you spend time with the eagle hunters. If you decide to bring one of these, please bring lots of film with you as the photographs you produce will be quite popular!

Be sure to bring plenty of spare battery power. There will likely be only limited access to power when we stay with the nomads.

If you would like to talk over suitable equipment, please contact our office. We will be happy to advise.

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