In April 2014 I saw a photograph that made me grip my laptop and blink non-stop for ten minutes: Asher Svidensky’s picture of Mongolia’s only Eagle Huntress, 13-year-old Aisholpan from Han Gohadok, just south of Ulgii.
Eagle Huntress Aisholpan, photographed by Asher Svidensky. Visit Asher's website here (http://www.svidensky.com/). He is one of the most talented photographers around today. Prints of all his photos are available online.
The photograph of a young girl on top of a mountain loosing her golden eagle at twilight quite literally blew me away and when I saw it I decided two things. Firstly, that this was a children’s book waiting to be written. And secondly, that I’d go to Mongolia to see the Eagle Hunters for myself. And so, on 27th September this year, I boarded a flight with my husband, as well as thirty four Nutri-Grain bars (I’d heard the fermented horse milk and yak cheese were things to stay clear of) and a shedload of thermal vests.
Me with a two-week supply of cereal bars the day before my flight to Mongolia
We flew to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, on a Russian airline that sounded like a brand of yoghurt (Aeroflot) and spent the day there visiting Gandan monastery (a Buddhist place of worship that had been virtually destroyed by communists in 1938 and then re-built) and marveling at one of the world’s best collection of dinosaur fossils uncovered by the Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert. The next day we flew to Ulgii, the capital of the far west, and after meeting our translator and driver we set off in our 4x4 past turquoise lakes, golden larch forests and ice-dusted rivers to the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.
My husband, Edo, and I standing on top of our van
Where we pitched our tents in the Altai mountains
Me doing a star jump at Green Lake
We camped in -10’C beside fresh wolf tracks (I wore fourteen layers to bed and our water bottles froze in the night), we brushed our teeth under the largest and brightest canvas of stars I’ve ever seen, we did starjumps above Green Lake and we chewed on larch sap during breathers on our hikes (it tastes like cloves so it’s a bit like chewing on Christmas). Afterwards we stayed with a Mongolian family, at the only settlement in the mountains for miles and miles around. We ate the Five Fingers Meal (Beshbarmak) with them, a traditional dinner of mutton (torn from the bone by the head of the household), noodles, onions and carrots – eaten with your hands. We played games with sheep’s ankle bones, met a 5-year-old girl who spent her evenings wrestling a cat because there were no other children nearby (she was a story in herself) and slept in their one-room wooden house. Other occupants in the room we slept in were: one driver (who decided, at 2am to drive three hours to the nearest settlement to buy vodka to see him through the night), one translator, one 5-year-old cat wrestler girl, one alarmed cat, one dog, one mother, one father (and his loaded shot gun), one giant beetle and one goat.
Home of the 5-year-old cat wrestler, where we stayed the night and ate Five Fingers Meal
The following morning the father took us fox hunting on horseback – the families use fox fur to make coats to see them through the bitter winters – and we watched his 12-year-old son herding vast numbers of yak across the hillside. But the main reason for our visit was to live with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters, men (mostly) who tame golden eagles and loose them from towering mountains to hunt foxes, marmots and wolves. And so the next day we moved on to the Eagle Hunter festival, a gathering of the country’s finest eagle hunters just outside Ulgii.
Me with a Mongolian fox hunter
The Mongolia fox hunters spying for foxes
The Kazakh Eagle Hunters
Wearing traditional Kazakh dress, the Eagle Hunters compete to show control over their eagles. One hunter holds the eagle on top of a mountain and another hunter rides out on horseback below, calling to the eagle with whoops and cries and dragging a fox lure to coax it from the cliff. The eagle launches off the crag and then hangs in the sky, its feathers rippling in the wind, before arrowing its wings and diving down. It was a jaw-dropping sight… And the rest of the festival was just as impressive. I’ve taken part in a few Highland Games up in Scotland where I grew up and I thought they were hardcore (tossing the caber, hurling the haggis and tug of war) but they are nothing compared to the Kazakh Eagle Festival. Here, hunters gallop through mountains, stooping down to snatch up strategically placed coins, they race camels, fire arrows from longbows and wrestle dead goats while on horseback – before finishing the whole event up with a concert where women play dombyras (a long-necked lute) so fast it’s impossible not to get teary-eyed as such a spectacularly wild and ferociously beautiful culture.
An Eagle Hunter wrestling for a dead goat at the festival
An Eagle Hunter reaching for a coin at the festival
Two Eagle Hunters wrestling for a dead goat at the festival
Me in a traditional Eagle Hunter coat (made from ibex fur)
The eagles were incredible. With wingspans of two metres and cries that hung in the wind long after their beaks closed, it’s no wonder they’re listed one of the world’s most spectacular birds of prey. But there was one person at the festival who was perhaps even more breathtaking than the eagles themselves: Aisholpan, the only female eagle hunter in Mongolia, and at 14-years-old, one of the youngest hunters to compete. Though she was surrounded by men twice her age and three times her size, she more than held her own, her hair bunched in white ribbons perhaps the only nod to her gender. Aisholpan is the daughter of one of the most legendary eagle hunters in Mongolia, Agali, and after the festival we went to stay with her family in their ger (felt tents sewn by Mongolian women and heated by animal dung hurled into a furnace).
Agali with his horse and eagle
Me as an Eagle Huntress (or trying to be)
I milked cows at sunrise with Aisholpan’s mother, Alma, drank beer and sang Mongolian songs with Agali and, of course, we went hunting with Balapan, one of the family’s prized golden eagles. Mounted on Aisholpan’s horse, I slipped on the animal hide glove and then Aisholpan passed me her eagle, as casually as if she were passing me a cup of tea. The sudden weight of the bird (they can weigh up to 8kg) sent my arm plunging down and I realised why the Bertuchi (eagle hunters) have wooden poles attached to their saddles to rest their arms while holding the birds. Aisholpan giggled as Balapan stretched out her wings, flapped and screeched, then Agali took the bird off and told us to get ready for the hunt. We rode out across the valley together and wrapped in a yak coat an eagle hunter called Bashakan had leant me, I tried to look all brave and huntressy and forget about the fact that the metal-decorated hunter saddle was biting into my bottom. Agali explained that the hunters take the eagles from their eyries as chicks then they keep them for ten years, treating them like members of their family (many live inside the family’s houses and all have different temperaments – some are lazy and irritable, some are kind are gentle), before releasing them ten years later so that they can breed and fly wild.
Me with Aisholpan and her prize horse and eagle
Me hanging out with Agali
Me milking cows and sunrise
We rode the horses up to the highest point on the cliffs then Agali’s friend, also on horseback, led his horse half way down the mountain and began flanking round the side of the hill to flush out any foxes that might be lurking there. We waited on horseback, just the eagle yapping into the wind, and then Agali slid off his horse, motioned for us to do the same and we crouched, half hidden by a rock. ‘Fox,’ he whispered, pointing down below. It took me a minute to locate the fox racing across the open valley below us but when Agali lifted the eagle’s cap off, the bird’s eyes locked onto it within seconds. It launched from Agali’s arm and he cried out, like a call to battle: ‘wooo wooo BAH BAH!’ then we were scrabbling over the rocks, boots skidding on the scree, to get a better view as Balapan soared over the valley. Agali raised his arms and whooped then the eagle plummeted down onto the fox and I remember thinking that in that moment I was watching the closest thing to magic I’d ever seen in my life.
Riding with the Eagle Hunters
Lake in the Altai Mountains
Out on my Mongolian travels there were long-drops for loos, hand-wipes for showers, cardboard-tasting cheese and winds that whipped dust over everything you owned – but there were also eagles, fierce huntresses and whole mountains flooded pink at dusk. I went out looking for a story and I came back with a notepad full of scribbles, doodles, and notes. And sometime soon, there will be another Elphinstone story on UK bookshelves – about a young eagle huntress in Mongolia and her gold-winged Balapan.
A Mongolian ger in the sunlight
Me writing Book 3 in the Dreamsnatcher trilogy by Tolbo Lake after sunset
Yak selfie. Because why not.