Adventure

Talon contest

Hunting with eagles on horseback is an ancient tradition in Central Asia – and not a pursuit for the faint-hearted. Against a severe, breathtaking landscape, Jack Dyson saddles up with Kazakh nomads for the adventure of a lifetime.

December 14 2010
Jack Dyson

I’m doing my best to keep up with the hunters, but all I really care about is reaching the bottom of the mountain in one piece. The slippery scree is precarious enough that if I were trying this on foot, I’d be tempted to go down on my backside. I’m not walking, though – I’m on horseback, and the great spears of rock jutting out of the hillside at knee height on the twisty descent make a mockery of any hopes I might have had for a damage-free dismount. Still: deep breath, smack of the whip on the horse’s flank, and over the edge we go. I’m about halfway down the slope, gripping the sturdy little horse until my knees ache as it skitters forward in a plume of dust and gravel, when a great big ear-to-ear grin sets in.

Normally, at this time on a Thursday, I’d be deciding between soup and a sandwich, or wondering who’s on Facebook; instead, I’m trailing the only people in the world who hunt with golden eagles, pursuing foxes and wolves in the Altai mountains, right at the farthest tip of Western Mongolia. I haven’t had this much fun in ages.

This adventure was born of a new and unique collaboration between Dunhill and London-based luxury adventure outfitters Black Tomato. Back in 1930, Clement Court, a founding director of Dunhill’s Paris subsidiary and widely acknowledged as one of the luxury authorities of his era, set off to travel overland to Japan, traversing Eastern Europe and Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and Korea. Dunhill has joined forces with Black Tomato to create a series of one-of-a-kind experiences, evoking the adventures along his route. This is one of them: a week with Kazakh nomads in Outer Mongolia, hunting with golden eagles, staying in a ger (or yurt, as the Russians call them); and it is a magnificent blend of the unusual and the extreme.

The short flight to Olgii from Ulaanbataar is oddly nostalgic, evocative of a simpler travel era; pretty flight attendants hand out boiled sweets mid-flight and drinks are served in actual paper cups, while passengers gaze out at the monumental landscape unfolding below. Touching down on the dusty, unpaved runway, the first thing you notice is the sheer size of the sky; it’s almost like being at sea. The plain is so vast and flat you can practically see the earth’s curve over the horizon, while at its far edges great craggy mesas rear up out of nothing. The weather is on the cusp of change after summer, but in this bright sun, around 1,700m above sea level in the extreme west of the country, it’s not yet cold. I’ve been lucky with my timing: the annual Eagle Festival starts tomorrow, so instead of going straight out to meet the hunters, I’ll stay here for a few days as they will all be gathering about 10km out of town. We’re very close to the Kazakhstan border, and about 80 per cent of the population of Olgii is Kazakh, including the hunters.

My guide, Agii, is a fascinating character. Stocky and broad-shouldered, he is at once considerate and determined. We’re the same age, but back when Gary Lineker still played football and all I wanted was a BMX, he was being raised in the USSR heartland. It is fascinating to hear about life under Communism. Brezhnev and others did a lot of bad things in the name of progress, he tells me, violently suppressing indigenous culture and individuality, starving people out of Kazakhstan, so they fled here. But perhaps because of the sheer scale of the country, a great many survived. Though his Kazakh nomad culture was cut back to the very root, it is now beginning to flourish again.

Next morning we drive across the plain to where the festival is taking place. A field has been marked out with white stones at the base of some cliffs, while a line of cars and a few gers of various sizes show off handicrafts. As people arrive – you can see cars, horses and bikes kicking up dust clouds in the distance – a PA system is set up on a flatbed truck, on which the judges are sitting at a long table, and starts blaring out an extraordinary soundtrack – equal parts Ennio Morricone spaghetti western, Bollywood instrumental and Riverdance. The two days that follow are a fantastic, often surreal, mix of English summer garden fête and über-macho showdowns.

The first real event begins: eagles are carried by friends and family up to the clifftop, then their masters, on horseback at the bottom of the slope, call them, one by one, with shrill cries. The idea is that the birds are timed as they plunge from the sky onto the gauntlet of their owner – who is supposed to be moving at full gallop when they land. Despite the hunters’ best efforts, however, this proves almost impossible, as the spectators’ heckling and hubbub puts off the eagles. At least half of them ignore the commanding whistles and wheel off into the sky, their proud owners cantering after them somewhat shamefacedly. The winning bird takes just seven seconds to launch itself into the air and plummet to land on the gauntlet as its master tears on his pony directly towards the (somewhat alarmed) judges at full stretch, reining in just in time. It’s glorious to watch.

Next day, a mood of unrushed disorganisation prevails, as crowd and participants alike are a great deal more relaxed. There are more horse events, including a kiss chase, in which boys pursue girls at a screaming gallop to steal a kiss, and the girls beat them away with ferocious whips. Hunters are scattered in loose posses around the arena (these festivals are apparently a good time to do business), gossiping like badass pirates at a reunion, costumes glittering in the sun as small clusters of tourists pluck up the courage to interrupt and ask if they can take photographs. The hunters bask in the attention and organise an impromptu ride-by, but soon the crowd’s attention is back to the arena, where, after the chaotic camel race, the buzkashi has started. This traditional test of mettle and strength is a tug-of-war between two men on horseback; in lieu of a rope, they use a goatskin (in ages past, it used to be a live goat; and in the age of Genghis Khan, a live prisoner of war). Occasionally the tussle goes into the crowd and kicks up great clouds of dust as everyone scatters – health and safety practices are limited at best – but that only whips the crowd up more. It’s like sports day in the Wild West.

The days’ events end with a live kill. First a fox, then a wolf (no shortage of either around here) are released and make a run for it, but are soon demolished by the winning eagles, much to the delight of the crowd, which pursues them, cheering like crazy, to get in and watch. With that, it is done. We pile into Agii’s 4x4 and drive into the sunset – he and I in the front, while the back holds food, several bottles of vodka, two eagle hunters, one eagle, a cook and someone’s grandson, all singing folk songs and chattering away. The road is one that we make ourselves, popping off the trail to follow winding dry riverbeds.

Round one bluff, we pass a herd of dopey-looking camels taking shelter beside some dramatic tors. This really is enormous country, combining the desolate openness of the outback with the dramatic rock formations of the Scottish Highlands. And it goes on as far as the naked eye can see. We arrive after dark at the ger camp – I’m on my own in what is clearly the most palatial ger; inside it’s a riot of colour, with beautiful painstakingly embroidered hangings on the wall. Dinner is a hearty stew; we toast one another over several vodkas. As I’m falling asleep, I hear the low mournful baying of a wolf in the distance.

Next morning, together with Sailau, the senior eagle hunter whose land this is, Agii and I make our way down to the hunters in the neighbouring valley. Sailau has a wicked sense of humour and can’t quite seem to get over how tall I am (he also keeps trying to pair me off with Jenka, our cook, much to our mutual embarrassment). The other hunters, Agalai and Botey, have pitched their summer camp at a beautiful setting near a bend in the river, surrounded by low scrub and gently yellowing trees. Three eagles are perched, silent and still with hoods on, next to the tents. We’re ushered into Botey’s ger, where we plan the day, snacking on biscuits and drinking endless bowls of salty tea with big dollops of cream in it. By the door, a fresh lamb kill is hanging up, in various cuts of meat and tripe. Its lungs have been filled with water, which drips slowly to the floor. Apparently, when all the water is absorbed, the lungs are fed to the eagles as a purgative. I change the subject before I lose my appetite entirely.

Twenty minutes later we’re saddled up and on the move, scooping up eagles and supplies. The horses are diminutive compared to rangier breeds back home, but they are astonishingly tough. The hunters have stands built into the pommels of their saddles to support their bird arm. Almost all the riding is done hands free; they seem to steer by shifting their weight on the saddle. I’m remarking on this to myself when we suddenly break through the low scrub, splash across a swift-moving stream and go straight up the rocky hillside in front of us. It really is almost straight up: Sailau stuffs a whip into my hand, mimes flogging my horse wildly with it, then whacks it on the rump – and we’re off at a perilously steep angle. It’s a hair-raising scramble but I lean into it, and up we go.

At the top of the escarpment is a view that’s almost apocalyptic in the severity of its beauty: gravel hillsides several storeys high, steep slate drops, monolithic shards of rock everywhere and, at the edge of the cliff, a great wheeling cloud of vultures, waiting for their chance to get at a pony carcass. We pause for a quick vodka, which I gratefully slam down, before riding down the other side. The hunters explain that they lost a goat the night before to a wolf, so they’re keen to make a successful day of it. As we ride on, by sharp precipices and up and down incredibly steep slopes, we survey several gullies for signs of fox and wolf activity. Towards the end of the day, we finally strike lucky: a fox is spotted.

The men release their eagles with delighted screams and gallop away. I do my best to keep up, but only just get to the ridge in time to see the birds strike. It’s astonishing – the speed and accuracy of it.

The hunters are straight in, whooping in the fierce wind. They get to the fox before the eagle destroys its pelt and truss it up, still alive. It’s put up a sound fight, taking a piece out of Agalai’s finger and slashing one bird’s leg with its teeth, but neither wound is serious. They call their birds and canter to the top of the hill, while Sailau lingers at its base. Noticing my mystification – why is the fox still alive, why are they going back to where they came from? – they explain their idea: I wasn’t close enough earlier, so they want to recreate the strike for my camera, and give the birds more practice.

This time, however, the wily fox makes a successful break at the hill’s base, and tears straight back up it. Eagles are lightning-fast in a dive, but no good at attacking from a climb. Before, the men had been genteel and trying to look their best for me; but now their blood is up, they are hunting in earnest. Thus far I haven’t managed much more than a scrambly canter, walking and trotting on the tricky bits.

But Botey and Agalai now gallop away quite literally at breakneck speed, up the most impossible inclines and then off into the hills, following their birds on the trail of their quarry.

Over half an hour later, navigating largely by guesswork, Sailau and I catch up with them, cresting a ridge just in time to see them race pell-mell over another one, their ponies’ hooves pounding great puffs of dust out of the hillside. When we reach them, Agalai has lost his hat – but they’d gained the fox at the very edge of the plain, and are fairly glowing with delight. A great hunt: one rabbit and one fox, which we count as two since they have had to catch it twice. We lope back to the ger in high spirits, five abreast, the fox lashed to my saddle. That night, over a dinner of lamb stew and potatoes, we all eat from the same dish, drink plenty of vodka and toast one another, not just in Botey’s ger, but in Agalai’s too, before we then convene in mine for a third and final dinner. It’s the most authentic camaraderie – true hospitality. They talk about what they and their families have talked about since their history has been recorded: horses and tools, wolves and eagles. Long may it remain that way.