Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fly Like An Eagle

As much as I loved Pamukkale, Turkish food was not and never will be the highlight of a trip to Bayan-Olgii.  That honor goes to the eagles.

The eagles were not the only thing going on out in this valley eastward from Olgii last weekend, but they are so amazing that they deserve their own post.  I took a LOT of photos of them, because they really were that cool.  It is hard to stop yourself.  And it's not just because of the birds - the Kazakh hunters (yes, Kazakhs in Mongolia - we'll get to that in my next post or two) are equally stunning.  Engrish asked me when we were walking around if I could tell the difference between the Mongolians and Kazakhs, and I could.  When she asked me which I found was more attractive, I had to go with the Mongolians, but the an artist, there is something so visually compelling about their weathered faces, their light colored eyes... 
On the trip out to the valley we drove past several groups of hunters riding out.  During the festival there are contests between them - calling their eagles down from the mountain.  On Saturday they were supposed to have come to the hunters' arms, but since our flight was delayed all damn day we missed that.  Sunday, on the other hand, the hunter rigged a sort of fox skin that they dragged behind their horse for the eagle to catch.  Some of them did better than others.  We saw some pretty sweet dives, and it was amazing to see how fast they flew.  Some of the eagles, when released, did a nice lazy circle around the spectators, or flew back over the mountain (they're well-trained, so I'm assuming they came back eventually).  And then there was this:
That guy is not nearly terrified enough.  A couple weeks back I stumbled on an article about footage from a camera on a Russian wildlife preserve.  It was there for the Siberian tigers, but it caught footage instead of a golden eagle taking down a deer.  That is how powerful these birds are.  In eagle hunting, they simply run down the prey and their hunter comes to club the animals, but they are more than capable on their own.  Well, friends of Engrish were telling us about the first day of the festival, and how a guy was climbing up the hillside where he wasn't supposed to be, and that one of the eagles attacked him, rather than flying to his hunter.  Mostly we didn't feel like we'd missed out on too much because of our delay, but that would have been classic.  We had barely finished talking about it when suddenly, one of the eagles swooped down ON THE SAME MAN!  We had no way to tell if it was the same eagle, but the fact that the guy got attacked twice over the weekend maybe ought to tell him something.  My takeaway is that if you look like an old, slow member of the "herd" (us spectators), you should not isolate yourself around predators.  Shit's gonna get real.
The eagles were everywhere.  This is the ger where Engrish, Geek, and myself stopped for khuushuur around noon.  This beauty was sitting there, patiently waiting.  I held a golden eagle when we were in Terelj at the end of summer, and they're heavy, so it's not surprising to see one parked in a ger...on a Kazakh carpet for sale...on the back of a motorcycle...
If you look closely at this man's arm, in fact, you will see a wooden prop.  This helps the hunters to hold up their arms for their eagles to perch on.  Looking at the hunters, I got the feeling that they weren't dressed up for the festival.  These were their working clothes.  Engrish, Geek, and I bought some antique Kazakh embroidery for wall-hangings, and as we watched the hunters, we began to suspect that our beautiful tapestries may have come off the legs of some hunters' pants, and that made me laugh to think of it.  They must think we tourists are crazy - spending so much money on their old, battered pieces - while gladly pocketing the money and making new clothing and tapestries with bright and beautiful colors.
The Eagle Festival has become my favorite thing I've done in Mongolia.  Get yourself out there the first weekend next October.  If waiting that long is too hard, hunting season is about to begin, and there are groups that run tours in which you travel with the hunters.  They don't always bring down prey, so be sure you go for the journey, not the destination (so to speak), and bring your long underwear because it gets pretty cold.

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