With a throaty roar the hunter yanked off the leather hood and the giant eagle shrieked and lunged forward. With just a few flaps of its massive wings it swooped gracefully over the rocky crest and down the side of the scrubby hill. Beyond, the seemingly endless expanse of the desolate Mongolian plains stretched out to the horizon, but the eagle’s focus was far closer. The fox had just broken cover and was now desperately running between the boulders at the bottom of the slope. The hunter spurred his horse and gave chase in a cacophony of yells, whoops, and clattering hooves. Below, the harsh cycle of nature played out as it must have done for millennia: The eagle drew lower and closer to the desperate fox, huge talons extending. Suddenly the two distant figures had merged into a rolling scrabbling ball of fur and feathers.
I had bumped into Doshan, a local guide, the day I arrived in Khovd, and he had offered to show me eagle hunting in action.
So, early the next morning we search the countryside in his old Russian jeep. “Berkut!” Doshan exclaims excitedly. The eagle hunter and his young apprentice are mounted on tough looking ponies, a vintage rifle slung casually over the boy’s shoulders. Perched calmly on a long leather glove covering the older man’s forearm, is the ‘berkut’ or Golden Eagle.
The next hour is spent climbing rough terrain trying to keep up with the mounted Kazakhs. We breathlessly ascend rocky hills; the hunter watches from the summit while the boy beats through the boulders below with a stick, hoping to flush out some prey.
On the third hill, everything happens in a blur: The yell, the launch, the elegant swoop. I scramble after the hunter and when I catch up he is attempting to prize the animals apart. He kneels on the fox, jams a stick between its jaws and distracts the eagle with a strip of meat. Then with a sudden motion the apprentice raises his stick and hits the fox hard across its snout with a loud crack. I feel rather sick and probably turn a shade of grey. The Kazakhs notice my reaction and roar with laughter.
It’s getting late and its goodbye bear-hugs all round. As I watch boy, man and eagle ride off into the cold desolate landscape, I feel lucky to have had a fascinating glimpse into this ancient way of life. But I also have an unsettling feeling, that I am a rather fragile interloper in a very different and far harsher world which, out here on the vast steppe, has not changed a great deal since the time of Genghis Khan.
From The Maestro of Mongolia Expedition, October 2011
One moment I was eating baked beans, the next surrounded by shadowy men with guns. I was terrified, if they were drug smugglers we might be shot and dumped in the river.
There was no moon, the remote valley was pitch black and the metallic click of the gun had been terribly audible above the low rumble of the river, frighteningly unexpected and close. I frantically swung my head torch around and at the edge of its weak beam glimpsed grey green figures drifting between bushes and crouching in the long grass. They all appeared to be pointing machine guns at me.
I’d left the southern Tajik city of Qurghonteppa early that warm sunny morning with a couple of guys from the United States, who were looking to hitch a ride into the Pamir Mountains. The route was the old Soviet built M41, better known as the Pamir Highway, tracing a branch of the ancient Silk Road. It would take us along the Panj River, which forms much of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, before heading high up into the Pamirs.
The road proved to be in terrible condition and it was a long, exhausting day. Sunset found us on a deserted stretch of broken road in the steep sided valley and we pulled over to camp in scruffy sparse woodland. Here the river was perhaps fifty metres wide and the opposite bank rose steeply into a series of gullies and cliffs. Afghanistan is the world’s biggest producer of opium and this porous river border is notorious for being part of a major smuggling route to Europe.
I was famished and fired up my stove. I had just taken the first mouthful of baked beans when we heard the strange noises. Then there were aggressive shouts in Russian and, heart now racing, I glanced at my two American friends. They already had their hands up above their heads. I looked at my plate, then at the shadowy figures holding guns, and hurriedly dropped the beans on the floor and followed suit.
Our assailants kept their distance but made it clear that we should turn off our torches. There followed an excruciating silent stand-off in the dark. Eventually a white Lada came bumping along the road. A man emerged, barking staccato sounding Russian into a mobile phone. He then thrust the phone to my ear. A voice spoke in heavily accented English on the other end of the line: “I’m sorry but you have alarmed border patrol. Suggest you drive nearest village and find house sleep”. I felt like kissing the phone with relief.
The following morning, soon after leaving the village, we passed a group of Tajik soldiers. Were these perhaps the same as from the night before? One of them, spying our approach, cracked a big grin, and threw both his hands up above his head in mock salute. Feeling rather foolish, we turned our backs on the border and headed for the hills.