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Hunting with Eagles – by Shoba Gopinath

In September 2016 Shobha Gopinath joined ORYX on our Mongolia Photography Tour which focused predominately on the sensational Eagle Festival in Western Mongolia. Staying with some local families in their Yurts and learning about the Mongol culture and traditional way of life enabled Shobha and the other guests to experience this ancient culture in an intimate way, and relate their experiences through a collection of striking photographs.

Shobha has documented her Mongolia Photography Tour through a variety of posts, and today we would like to share with you her post on “Hunting with Eagles”.

Grab a beverage of choice and enjoy the splendours of Mongolia through the eyes of Shobha!

We had to check out at 3.30am to get our flight at 6am to Bayan Ulgii, capital of the far western Ulgii region. The airport at Bayan Ulgii is small as was the plane we took to get there, a Fokker 50 propeller. While we were told Mongolia is not a light packing destination, we also had severe weight restrictions because of the small plane! It was a contradiction in terms and it made packing a challenge indeed.

We were met by our local guide, Oyunaa, and our two drivers, Unurru and Hasan, all part of the local guiding company that Oryx was using called ‘Eternal Landscapes’. Our transport for the trip were two Russian Furgons with cheerfully decorated interiors. Hardy vehicles, they are a match for any swanky new 4WDs. For some inexplicable reason, without planning it that way, we ended up with a ‘boys’ vehicle and a ‘girls’ vehicle.

We had breakfast at the home of Jako, our Kazakh translator. These four lovely people – Oyunaa, Jako, Unurru and Hasan were instrumental in making everything on our trip go so smoothly. They coordinated everything from loading, unloading, cooking our meals, making sure we had the essentials.

We spent the morning walking around and ended up at the Bayan Ulgii main square where Marius instructed us in panning, high key photography etc – needless to say we became an attraction at the town centre! Some looked at us curiously as we panned in unison; others just went about their business, ignoring us.

It was after lunch that our adventure truly began.

Our first stop was the home of Bashakhan, in the village of Ulaankhuus. The terrain was rough, there were no roads but we were surrounded by such breathtaking beauty of infinite plains. The famed steppes of Mongolia with the majestic Altai Mountains as backdrop! ‘I’m actually here’ was the thought that ran through my mind.

mongolia photography tour

mongolia photography tour

The skies too were seemingly infinite. Mongolia is also known as the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky as they have 250 days of sunny blue skies a year. (Please note, ‘sunny’ does not mean warm!) The mountains had such pastel hues like I’ve never seen anywhere else. At one point of our journey, we had to cross a river and that was such a thrill as Unurru drove the Furgon confidently through the river!

We were warmly greeted by the family in their ger. The nomads of this region are known for their hospitality. Their doors are always open and any passing visitor is welcome to their food. They generally move twice or thrice a year. The dismantling and erecting of the ger is an art form. It takes about 2 hours for them to dismantle and another 2 hours to set up again. We were served salted yak milk and dried curds and cheese. Milk and meat are the mainstay of the nomad diet.

Eagle Festival in Mongolia

One of the things I had mentally braced myself for was being served boiled goat’s eyeballs or goat’s head, delicacies of Mongolian cuisine. I am pleased to report that our food was prepared by Oyunaa and gang and it did not not entail such delicacies.

The original plan for the Mongolia Photography Tour was for us to pitch tents next to the family gers. Since the weather turned, the family gave up their gers for us and they slept in a low-rise flat-roofed concrete house within the compound. Wow, we didn’t expect that!

As we entered the family’s ger, all the various rules of etiquette I had read came to mind:

“When you enter a ger, do not step on the threshold. Move in a clockwise direction when entering a ger, first to the west and then north (ger doors always face south). The east side of the ger (on your right as you enter) is normally where the family will sit and the west side (on your left as you enter) is for guests. Do not walk between the central supports of a ger”

Eagle Festival in Mongolia

Bashakhan’s family seemed quite relaxed about it and only requested that we do not walk between the central supports as they believe it would split the family asunder.

That evening, Bashakhan introduced us to his eagle, ‘White Necklace’. She was a beautiful, magnificent creature!

Eagle Festival in Mongolia

Hunting with eagles is a 4000-year-old tradition of Central Asia especially among the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. The female eagle is taken from its nest as a chick (a perilous undertaking to say the least) and is nurtured and trained by the hunter to hunt small animals like fox and rabbits. The open plains make hunting a challenge, so the eagle does the hunting. The hunters only keep the eagles for 7-10 years and then release the bird into the wild. This can be a very emotional undertaking as the eagle-hunters believe the spirit of the eagle is intertwined with their own spirit.

Eagle Festival in Mongolia

With the festival just days away, he had a few practice runs with White Necklace. It was quite a beautiful sight to behold. Bashakhan handled White Necklace with such tenderness and love. That he is a kind and gentle man, was apparent from the way he was with his little grandkids. But the way he communicated with his eagle was nothing short of extraordinary. Bird and man were bound by an inexplicable link.

photography tours

photography tours

The practice involved the eagle being released from a rooftop by Bashakhan’s son and on hearing the call from Bashakhan, it flies to land on his protected arm with speed accuracy and agility. The second exercise was similar except Bashakhan would lure the eagle with a dead rabbit, dragging it along the ground as he called out to the eagle. All this was done for our benefit to introduce us to the rules of eagle hunting. This is usually done from a mountain top at a great distance and on horseback! Tomorrow we shall witness a practice session on the mountains.

Tonight we spend our first night in a ger!

Shobha Gopinath
Website: www.shobhagopinath.com

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