Mongolia: Hunting With Altai Eagles (First of Five Parts)

My World in a Flashpack
February 12, 2012, 3:21am
Author With Altai  Golden Eagle And Kazakh Berkutchi Host, Tekei
Author With Altai Golden Eagle And Kazakh Berkutchi Host, Tekei
MANILA, Philippines — Clawing my way up the crags as I dangled 10,000 feet over the frozen steppes of Kharijarik in the Altai Nuur — the Mountains of Gold in Bayan Ulgii, I braced myself against gale-force winds that threatened to peel me off the rock face. Above me, my two wolf-dog escorts barked in frenzy, urging me to follow them over the peak.
Even breathing was agony here, at minus 30 degrees Centigrade. It was like inhaling a million needles each time although I was drenched in sweat under five layers of fleece, down and polartec.
Thus, swaddled like an astronaut, I hoisted myself over the top shelf. The wolf-dogs nuzzled me as I panted beside them. Snow powdered their dank fur but I was grateful for their warmth. Then my eyes focused on the loose scree on which I sprawled.
The wind has uncovered a shallow grave strewn with bleached bones and brown wing feathers—all that remained of a majestic golden eagle, the third hunting partner of my Kazakh host, Tileukhan—“Tekei”.
So, his wolf-dogs led me here. It was on this eyrie, under the bluest of heavens, that Tekei caught his newborn eaglet. Following ancient custom, he laid her to rest on this same peak when she was killed.
Here, the spirit of the golden eagle (“berkut”) can watch over her master’s “ger”- the circular tent made of animal skins where nomads who hunt with eagles (“berkutchis”) like Tekei live.
Tekei hand-raised this eagle like his own daughter. For seven years, they hunted foxes together until that day she flew over a bluff out of her master’s sight and surprised a wolf. She stooped on the huge canid and attacked him even as he tore her to pieces.
Wolves have never been prey for these 20-pound raptors but “berkutchis” have trained their birds to go after big game for the past 6,000 years. Working in pairs, Altai golden eagles can bring down a 100-pound wolf. But Tekei’s eagle was alone. By the time he reached the scene, the wolf had killed her and fled.
As I stroked the bedraggled pinions, the wolf-dog nearest me growled. His tawny fur bristled, doubling his size in an instant. His brother too stood frozen. Both pairs of lupine eyes were riveted on dark specks moving below us.
Following their gaze, I made out a pack of seven wolves. The alpha loped ahead, tail held high. Behind him, the others followed in single file, silent as wraiths in the gathering darkness.
Perhaps one of these wolves fathered my canine escorts. Perhaps the alpha himself killed Tekei’s eagle. Thankfully, we were downwind. They cannot pick up our scent.
The wolf-dogs all but dragged me back to their master’s lodge. In camp, baby goats and a lame black billy trotted out of the gaps in their enclosure to meet us. Tekei’s most precious “berkut” raised her hooded head at the sound of my feet scraping the stones. Perched on a three-footed wooden chair called “tugir,” the four-year old golden eagle lives in her own house beside the family’s.
At least four generations ago, Tekei’s forebears emigrated on horseback from Kazakhstan to Bayan Ulgii, Mongolia’s “Roof of the World,” to the extreme West, on the borders with Russia and China, a remote land of mountains, deserts and glaciers.
While he is a true nomad, Tekei built this lodge on an 8,000-foot high ridge of the Altai, in the wintering place he inherited from his father. He hewed every log with his own hands, building a semi-permanent cabin plastered with river clay where his family can retreat in times like this, when it’s too cold to live in a “ger”.
Comes spring, the family hauls their “ger” to a campsite 20 kilometers away. In summer, they move for the third time to find pastures for their 800 animals — goats, sheep, cattle, yaks and “naks”– hybrids between cows and yaks, a bull camel, a handful of half-wild Mongolian horses, along with two wolf-dogs, a cat plus Tekei’s golden eagle.
For the night, Tekei locked his herds inside stone enclosures, the tops of which doubled as racks for saddles and clumps of drying dung bricks for fuel. Only the wranglers, our expedition cook and her child, occupied the “ger” beside his lodge.
Tekei’s startlingly blue eyes crinkled in a smile when I entered the one-room cabin with a South-facing door. Bad luck blows in from the North, the direction of strong winds, he told us before.
My host puttered about indoors in a skull cap, sheepskin vest and the traditional “gutul” boots with toes turned up so they won’t catch in the stirrups should he fall from his horse. His hand was still bandaged from a recent tumble. Though he has been astride horses from age two like most Mongols, accidents still happen in the very rough terrain.
His wife, Abijak, busied herself making tea. She was dressed for company, with rubies in her ears, silver bracelets on her wrists, head wrapped in a scarf, flowery dress topped with an embroidered vest.
Of their eight children, only two stayed behind—17-year-old daughter, Jaji, and newly-married 24-year- old son, Khanat, who opted to be a nomad-herder like his father. The rest preferred the city—four live in Kazakhstan, while two stayed in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Bataar.
On their low table, Abijak laid out home-made fried bread, candies, fried cheese, rock-hard milk curd, butter, dishes of Russian candy and weak milk tea.
Tekei motioned Tom and Steve, the globe-trotting American priests who joined me on this Boojum expedition, to sit at the place of honor, near the center of the lodge. As custom dictates, the men were served first. This is a chauvinistic society, after all. Boys are more valued than girls.
I settled down to the right of the door — the “woman’s side,” where Abijak kept a cabinet of kitchen utensils plus half a dozen metal jugs of drinking water—boiled ice from the frozen stream down the mountain. The left is the man’s side, where Tekei’s rifle hangs.
The family’s beds hugged the corners, gaily colored with embroidered coverlets, folded blankets bound with matching cloths. Khanat and his wife Amangul’s new bridal bed was elaborately curtained. Abijak’s hand-woven rugs draped the walls. Carpets she worked on all winter covered the floor. At the center altar, the pelt of a pole cat dangled.
Every night, the American priests curled up inside their sleeping bags on the floor with our Mongol guide-interpreter, Zaya. At least, the family gave me their spare bed. Over my headboard swung Jaji’s “dombr” lute with two strings, beside the skin of an Altai snow cock—a ground-nesting bird preyed on by eagles and snow leopards.
“Snow cocks fan out their tails to ward off attackers, but it is useless defense against Tekei’s bullets,” Zaya commented as she spooned butter in her tea to salt it. Tom and Steve bit into their chunks of curd, hard enough to be chopped by an ax, winced and gave up.
Tekei laughed and dropped fragments of curd into his tea to soften while his wife hurried back to the hearth to melt a pan of snow for watering the livestock. Jaji, red-faced from the freezing wind outside, rushed in with a basin of dung bricks to feed the fire as Amangul checked the huge cauldron of boiling mutton.
The American priests wondered aloud what I found in my twilight wanderings. Zaya translated for Tekei as I narrated my encounter with the wild wolves. The old hunter cocked his head, suddenly interested. The wranglers—Irken and Sanat, crowded close to listen. Then the men talked fast in Kazakh.
My heart thundered when my host rose from the table and took down his rifle from the wall. Jaji shook out bullets from a kettle and gave them to her father as the men made for the door.
Before they set out, however, Zaya asked me where the pack was heading. I gave them the wrong direction, of course. Outside, it was snowing hard and I prayed the wolves’ tracks will be obliterated. I’ll never forgive myself if the majestic alpha is slaughtered for his pelt.
I was so glad when they returned much later, empty-handed. But I kept my face expressionless.
Unsuspecting, Zaya confided, “I ate wolf meat mixed with dumplings when I was sick. It’s hot in the belly, good medicine. Wolf meat heals lung disease. Wolf brain cures head ailments. Those with chronic indigestion eat wolf intestines.”
How strange. Mongols believe Chinggis Khan and their forefathers descended from the Altai’s blue wolf. Still, they have no qualms about killing their spiritual ancestors for fur and meat. To kill a wolf in January, or even to see one, brings good luck for the whole year, they believed.
(Next week: Training Golden Eagles to Hunt with Humans)
(For questions, comments, suggestions, etc. please contact the author



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