Ushkish and Berik, clad in dark jackets and boots, ran along rocky mountain ridges high above the Mongolian steppes. On each man’s gloved right arm, an eagle perched heavily, their powerful eyes covered with brown leather hoods so they wouldn’t be tempted to take flight. Then the Kazakh hunters paused to scan the vast valley below, searching for the ideal place to release their birds, trained to hunt for prey.
I trailed the swift hunters over several small mountain crests, dodging scrub plants and gray rocks, nearly breathless on the high-altitude path. Finally, I caught up with my guides, Brad Ruoho and Kim McCluskey, co-owners of Ely-based Adventure Sherpas. But not Ushkish and Berik.
Winded and unable to reach the hunters, the three of us scrambled partway down the mountain and returned to the SUVs to rejoin the rest of our group.
Our drivers headed straight downhill at an alarming angle, using an old stream bed as their road. At the mountain base, we climbed out of the vehicles and were hit by a fierce wind. That’s when we heard the hunters, now high above us on the mountain ridge, exclaim in Kazakh.
Midway up the mountain, a small brown animal dashed between the rocks. The hunters took off the eagles’ hats and let them go. The birds spread their great wings and soared upward, arcing to the right. The fox, outsmarting the keen-eyed predators, bolted to the left, finding safety under big rocks on the next ridge. The eagles circled back to the hunters, beaks empty. We could not help but cheer for the crafty fox that got away.
I’d come to the Altai Mountains on an Adventure Sherpas tour. Our group of 12 was made up mostly of Minnesotans who’d left warm weather and falling leaves for frosty Mongolia. We’d come to sleep in cozy ger tents, the traditional yurt abode of the Mongolian steppe; sip mare’s milk tea; climb mountain glaciers; ride horses to an ancient battle site; attend the annual Eagle Hunting Festival in Ölgiy, and to witness the traditional eagle hunting we were immersed in that day.
Our first stop in Mongolia was Ulaanbaatar. After a few days in the capital to adjust to the time change and see a few sights, we boarded a small propeller plane for Ölgiy, a provincial capital in northwestern Mongolia and home to the Kazakh minority. We flew above picturesque beige deserts, stunning snow-capped mountains and high steppes dotted with deep blue lakes.
In Ölgiy, we were whisked away by our Kazakh guide, Dosjan, and his devoted drivers, Shokan and Baagi, in three black 4-by-4s. After we stocked up on tires, gas, food and water for our trek into the remote mountains, we hit the “road” — dusty trails heading out into barren plains surrounded by mountains bigger than the Rockies.
We stopped to view 4,000-year-old petroglyphs etched in black rock, inhaling the scent of sage from low, scant bushes as light caught on the ibex and other animals depicted on the rock wall. We drove upward into the Altai near the Russian/China/Mongolia border, following the path of a thin cold river threaded among the huge mountains.
At a shepherd’s home near Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, our accommodations were simple gers, round tents made sturdy with collapsible scaffolding, made smoky by yak-dung fires. We spread our sleeping bags on twin metal-framed beds as we admired the walls decorated with handwoven tapestries and ropes.
After a hearty dinner, we retired to our gers. Our blackened stoves were kindly loaded throughout the night by the shepherd and his family to keep our fires burning. Outside Mars and Venus shone brightly on the horizon, the Milky Way banding the sky, brilliant in the crisp night wind.
We rose to a glowing sunrise and white frost glittering on the surrounding jagged mountains as the baby goats bleated and yaks grunted in their pens. We sipped steaming coffee with milk and devoured a breakfast of oatmeal, toast and eggs. Our morning’s departure was delayed by snow, and our hostess, Student, and her daughter-in-law, Koyka, invited us into their ger and served us sweet, hot mare’s milk tea. The walls were beautifully decorated with Koyka’s hand-sewn appliqués and colorful weavings, bright as the thick felt rugs that warmed our feet.
To the glacier
After our delightful visit, we trundled into the vehicles and slowly made our way into the steep mountains. Our drivers carefully maneuvered over the rutted tracks, past the national park’s entrance marked with a worn metal sign. As we traversed rocky washes and icy streams, each turn revealed snowier peaks, another mountain. The snow blew harder.
At the 10,000-foot peak before the glacier, the 4-by-4s started getting stuck. Our determined drivers tried again and again to gain the cliff, only to spin out on ice hiding beneath the snow.
Snowflakes fell furiously as Dosjan darted into the vehicle with the best tires, and after a few false starts, mounted the cliff only to become precariously stuck sideways. The Minnesota men trudged up to dig out the vehicle as the wind whipped our faces. After much shoveling and laughter, we freed the SUV, then lunched on tuna noodle salad, fried bread and crunchy pickles.
Suddenly, the flurry became a blizzard, blowing sharp cold pellets with forceful winds. Luckily, the ground was warmer and the snow scant as we descended, though the creeks had iced over in that short time. We saw a golden eagle and gorgeous vistas, rocks red and gray and brown, sharp peaks streaked by vertical lines of white creeks.
The next morning, we headed southeast to Mongoit (Snake) Valley. The young men drove fast and confidently, sometimes playing chicken to overtake each other. There were no fences, no electrical lines and no asphalt roads to mar the view of the mountainous vistas. We rarely saw other people, just a few black Russian flatbed trucks, an improbable motorcycle bumping along, a lone herder on a camel on a high ridge, watching his sheep. We passed adobe winter homes with towering stacks of dried yak patties and goats grazing on the sparse steppe grasses.
When we arrived at our camp on the plains, we were treated to hot showers and a hearty meal served by Dosjan’s excellent cooking staff. Thick blankets awaited us on our metal-framed beds.
After strong press coffee and breakfast the next morning, we mounted brown Mongolian horses using a wooden step stool. The horses were rather small, the leather saddles lean against the animals’ blanketed backs. I had not ridden in many years, but my horse was calm and sturdy. We spread out across the valley, heading west to see the “Stone Men,” rock-figure monuments to the thousands of Turkic warriors who died in battle on the high plains in the fifth to seventh centuries. The simple, stark, black stone outlines of men, the vastness of the steppes, the soft and careful steps of our horses crossing the cold creek and the strong wind were our history book that day.
Secrets of eagle training
On our way to our last camp in Khara Khoto in nearby Tolbo village, I rode with our youngest driver, Baagi. He did not speak English, but he had some great tunes. We sang along to “Popping Tags” and “Gangnam Style” as we sped past Muslim cemeteries, mud-bricked homes surrounded by fenced animal pens and sparkling lakes until our camp appeared on the horizon. A string of gers nestled at the bottom of a hill below the modest adobe home of Beken, the esteemed eagle hunter and the father of hunters Ushkish and Berik.
Beken’s wife and daughter-in-law welcomed us into their cozy house, where sweets and snacks were generously piled on their dining table. They served us hot yak milk as Beken explained the challenges of training eagles. Only female eagles are used, and they are kept hungry as they learn to eat from the hunter’s hand. Each eagle serves for seven years, after which they are released with ceremony.
Outside, we took turns holding Beken’s eagle. She was terribly heavy and imposing as she perched on the long leather glove, her leather cap shading her eyes as she twitched her head from side to side.
When we arrived in Ölgiy the day before the Eagle Hunting Festival, the town seemed stark, dusty and barren, but it soon filled with honking cars parking at odd angles and pedestrians navigating the potholed sidewalks outside the Tsambagarav Hotel. After our time on the steppes, we were shocked by all the people — bundled Mongolians jostling to make their purchases at the open-air street market, blond-haired foreigners dressed as Afghani traders, boisterous beer-drinking Australians in huge parkas, eagle hunters in traditional garb — all here for the festival.
It was held several miles out of town at Sayat Tobe (Hunter’s Hill) on the plain next to a river. Dosjan had set up a beautiful ger for our meals, and his chef, assistant chef and mother cooked us a delicious dumpling feast.
During the opening parade, the eagle hunters rode in front of the stands, showing off their high leather boots, elaborately decorated padded jackets and fox-fur flapped hats. Among the 70 male participants were two girls: Aisholpan, who had been featured in a recent BBC article and was drawing the attention of foreign photographers, and a younger girl of about 9 with a disarming smile. The girls rode their groomed horses proudly, aware of the sensation they were causing as they participated in this traditionally male activity.
The games included picking up coins from the ground while riding on horseback and tug-of-war with a dead sheep, the riders hanging sideways off their horses. Hunters demonstrated their prowess by calling their eagles from the cliff above the festival grounds. The camel race was chaotic and fun, as the excited crowd surged forward into the staging area. The festival space was ringed with merchants selling delicately embroidered bags, thick felt rugs, colorful appliquéd clothing and eagle hunting paraphernalia. The dusty air smelled of savory skewered grilled meats. Dogs sauntered about, and one competing eagle snatched up a small white dog instead of the meat in his trainer’s hand. Aisholpan won the competition and was celebrated in the closing ceremony.
We left early the next morning for Ulaangom to catch a plane to Ulaanbaatar. We drove up into mountainous high plains again, the distant peaks covered with snow. The sunrise colored the whole sky — red, orange, then pink against plates of clouds and the jagged black silhouetted hills. In the distance, an eagle soared, dark against the sunrise, a fitting farewell as we left our Kazakh friends and the majestic Altai Mountains.
Kathryn Kysar is a writer and chairs creative writing at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. She lives in St. Paul.