That Time We Lived With Eagle Hunters
Our propeller plane cruised noisily above Olgi, the strong winds making the landing a tricky one. It felt like being inside one of those toy planes, compared to the A380 jumbo jets From my little window, I saw nothing but a large white blanket that stretched for miles, draping gently across mountain ranges and barely developed roads. A heavy mist that only comes to be in extreme cold hung in the air, and I shivered just thinking of stepping into it. Low houses with grey roofs peeked through the snow and the lack of people made Olgi seem like a ghost town.
Located in the western region of Mongolia, Olgi is where the famed eagle hunters call home, and we were there to spend 2 nights with them. For those 3 days, we would eat their food, experience their way of life and momentarily, see Mongolia through their eyes.
From the airport, we set off in 4×4 off-road vehicles through the wide open plains Mongolia is known for, passing herds of wild horses grazing on the meagre offerings of the earth in winter, and even a lone shepherd with his flock of sheep. We drove through small towns that were firmly shut against the -30 degrees Celsius cold and just as the sun set, we turned off the road and onto bumpy land, driving what seemed like forever, surrounded by nothing apart from the sea of stars twinkling overhead.
Eventually the cars come to a stop in front of a low, stone house that I’m sure Google Maps would never have been able to find. An equally low stone wall surrounded the compound and we could just about make out the horses sleeping in their stalls through the headlights of our vehicles. The front door opens and several bulky figures emerge just as we throw our doors open and step into the freezing cold. We meet the family of eagle hunters, bundled in their furs and leather, and knowing that we were unused to such temperatures, hurriedly ushered us into the warmth.
I bent and stepped through the front door into their equivalent of the foyer. It is pitch black, but as my eyes adjust in the darkness, I make out 3 oblong shapes in each corner. It is the eagles we have traveled so many miles to see in action, asleep, with little leather hoods covering their heads. This, I later learnt, is to keep them docile.
The house is modest. Her walls are covered in hand-woven tapestries, as the floors are with rugs. Basic furniture is scattered throughout the 3-roomed structure, with the odd saddle here and there fulfilling both purposes of form and function. The kitchen is no more than a stone stove in the corner of what would be their living room, the fuel made from dried animal droppings that are collected every morning. A glint catches my eye, and on a wall shrouded in shadows hangs dozens upon dozens of medals. I learn from our guide that they were won by the father and older son in eagle hunting and archery competitions held in the yearly summer Ulan Bator festival.
When the hullabaloo of settling in clears, we take our seats at the dining table. I am eager to try the local fare, not that I had the vaguest idea of what that would entail – my closest experience to Mongolian food so far was a gentrified Mongolian BBQ restaurant in Ulan Bator that was decidedly, not very Mongolian.
Like a storm, our cook loads the table with plates of food before we even realize. There are platters of sweet biscuits, a bowl of sugar, a huge thermos of boiling water and 6 large lamb dumplings for each of us, served with blanched vegetables. It is simple fare, but surprisingly delicious (even for someone who doesn’t usually eat lamb) and it quickly warms us up. Next up is a dish of whole lamb, and I literally mean whole. The matriarch of the family proudly holds a large platter filled with steaming lamb meat, and atop the pile of meat is a sheep’s head in all its glory, it’s eyes and tongue visible through the boiled flesh. A bottle of vodka is pulled out from one of the many bags our cook has brought, and we feast the night away.
The next morning, we take a quick, comforting breakfast of instant coffee and energy bars brought from home, fortifying our reserves before heading out to spend the entire day in the cold. Today, we get to see the famed eagle hunters in action. They emerge from the low house, resplendent in their traditional garb, each outfit complete with a large, majestic eagle perched on their arm.
We head to higher ground, they on horseback and us clumsily driving across what must be the world’s bumpiest terrain. The eagle hunters make their way up a small hill as a horse drags a rabbit’s corpse below, the “hunt” for the day. We wait with baited breath as one of the hunters raises his arm high above head, and lets out a call the eagles are trained to recognize as the sign to attack. Without missing a beat, his eagle swiftly takes flight and swoops through the air like a hot knife slicing through butter. It dives for the rabbit and as quickly as it began, it was over. We would see this display several more times as we attempt to capture the perfect shot, and each time would prove more dramatic than the last.
It is this harmony between man and wild, this unique co-dependence, that we have come to bear witness. We have crossed oceans and lands to capture a legacy and preserve it for future generations, and through it all we learn that wherever in the world we call home, whomever we call our family and whatever tribes or cultures we identify with, we share this existence on the same earth, and home is truly, whatever we choose to make of it.