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.