Where Eagles Dare

I could say that the thunderous “whoosh” of a large golden eagle’s wings as it took off from just next to me was one of the most astonishing things I had ever heard or seen. Yet in the Altai region of western Mongolia, even more astounding is the opposite, the complete and total lack of noise. The silence is so loud here that one’s heartbeat and breath start to resemble large airplanes, as they drum and heave to cope with the frigid pre-winter air. Perhaps they serve as the planes themselves, making up for the jets that don’t exist here, as this is one of the few corners of the world that remains off of any flight path or radar.

The only aircraft to be found in the Altai are the eagles, soaring above the still valleys and rounded peaks that dwarf the region. There is not a single tree, shrub, nor any trace of human habitation to be seen for an eternity here, and due to their proficient eyesight, the eagles are used for hunting by the Kazakh nomads, who capture them as young birds, raise them as a family member, hunt with them for years, and then eventually let them go, sending them back to the air currents to which they belong.

It is a harsh existence being an eagle hunter. The winters out here routinely dip down into the minus forties and fifties; there are few towns with any kind of amenities or services, and even far less tire tracks which serve as the excuse for roads out here. Food is scarce, and the hunters make sure that every scrap and morsel of the foxes, marmots, hares, and occasional wolves that their birds bring down are used; for hats, coats, and for nourishment. The Kazakhs survive though, and seem to embody that of the free spirit out on the open range, living simply in their sheepskin covered gers (yurts), and spending the days traveling with their horses and eagles.

This is the land of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, both who were proficient falconers themselves. This is the least densely populated place on the planet, with an average of less than two human beings per kilometer, home to snow leopards along with the last population of undomesticated camels. Survival out here is truly for the fittest, but even as a temporary visitor, shivering in my manmade down clothing, it is worth the hardships and lack of conveniences to witness this great spectacle of silence.

Dinner is normally a bit of fatty mutton gristle, remnants of a stored sheep, served along with a glass of fermented mare’s milk to warm up one’s insides. Bathing in this temperature would be out of the question, and even in summer, the lack of abundant running water makes it a dubious proposition. Toilet visits are just as daunting. Well, perhaps not, as one Mongolian said to me, “the entire country is your toilet, just open the door and go outside!”

The cell phone has arrived here though, perhaps the only trace of modernity other than the odd plastic grocery bag found floating around the gers. But from my perch, I have no reception. Instead, I use my last remaining battery life to power the phone’s camera to catch the eagle taking flight. The hunter removes its blindfold, watches it as it senses a prey somewhere out on the horizon, and then we both sit in silence as the large wings open up, soaring out and up away from us.

My hunter recites a Kazakh proverb which sums up the hunters’ lives out in one of the world’s most remote places, saying “fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people,” and I nod in agreement. In a world of increased conformity, it is an honor to spend some time in a place so mesmerizing, so silent, so harsh, and so free.

D Stamboulis

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