Chilling With a Movie Star
It’s not often that you lunch with a movie star while hordes of people wait outside hoping to catch a glimpse or a selfie with your dining partner. It’s less often that said VIP is only a 17-year old girl in pigtails. And it’s definitely not often….well, never, really, that said VIP is an eagle hunter.
But so it was that on a freezing Sunday in early October during our Mongolia photography tour, 4 ORYX clients, our guides and drivers and I had lunch with Aisholpan Nurgaiv – star of The Eagle Huntress, the Hollywood epic that tells the touching and inspiring story of her fight to become the first eagle huntress in 12 generations in her family.
While she is not the first female to hunt with eagles (any Hollywood export comes with a hefty extra twist of marketing) and the tradition of women as eagle hunters goes back at least 1000 years, Aisholpan’s story is certainly the first to make it into pop culture. Soaring, drone-shot footage of eagles riding the thermals over the vast Mongolian landscape is worth the cinema ticket in itself but it is Aisholpan’s charisma and likable character – and her cheeky smile – that tugs at your heart strings.
She comes to lunch armed with all three of those characteristics. We’re snacking on shorlog (meat skewers barbequed over an open fire) and sipping on pungent seabuckthorn tea. Aisholpan brings her mom to the shindig. She’s 17 years old now – and looks more like a young women than the fragile girl we see in the movie. We start chatting through Jaco – our Kazakh translator. She’s happy to answer our barrage of questions and I think laughs a little at the fact that we’re so star struck. When it comes to my chance to ask a question I ignore the translator and ask her simply if she can understand me in English. “Of course,” she smiles. Yup, I thought so….
We continue in English, which she’s happy to show off. She may be a teenager from a small nomadic community – but underneath the shy veneer she’s sassy, well travelled (thanks to promoting her movie!) and keen to share her story. We ask her about Ak Kainat (“White Wings”, her eagle) who at 8 ½ feet in wingspan is practically bigger than her. She’s “parked” outside the tent we’re in, tied to one of the guide ropes. (Did I already say this scene was surreal?). She’ll probably release her back into the wild when she finishes school and goes to university. It’s definitely not something she’s looking forward to.
She has one more year of school – and then it’s time for university. Her dream is to become a surgeon. She doesn’t know where yet but I wouldn’t be surprised if the likes of places like Harvard aren’t already knocking on the door of her ger. Thom and Antoinette – who are from California – quickly mention that some of the best medical schools in the world are in their state and offer her a place to stay if she ever needs it. Stranger things have happened…
As quick as she arrives she’s gone – but not before a quick photo shoot in our makeshift outdoor photo studio of black material clamped to our pimping Russian van. Pose. Smile. Click. Repeat. The crowd grows quickly and is soon monstrous. We bid our farewells, say raqmet (thank you in Kazakh) and wish her well for the competition (She doesn’t have as good a year this year as last, and doesn’t make the finals…not quite the Hollywood ending. But a real one. Which is somehow even better).
Through it all she is a picture of grace and calm. The kind of patience you need to train an eagle. Especially in a world where you’re an outsider and most of your fellow competitors don’t think you’ve got what it takes to win.