(CNN) – “Look over there. Do you see that man coming here?” asks Timur. “He looks so handsome.”
Galloping towards us on a strong Mongolian horse is the nomad’s version of Brad Pitt returning home in “Legends of the Fall.” Tied inside a pinto jacket above richly embroidered pants, he really catches the eye. A fox fur hat warms his head and up quietly on his right forearm is a golden eagle that is not just a support for a cheesy cologne ad.
“Look at his eyebrows and his cheekbones,” continues our local guide. “And see how big and strong he is. The girls are going crazy over him.”
“It’s true,” says Timur’s wife, Bata, blushing slightly. “If I were to compare him to Timur only in appearance, I would naturally choose him.”
Upon closer inspection, the intruder’s weathered face betrays a life that lives outdoors. But his jaw is certainly chiseled and his natural trick reminds me of a youthful Clint Eastwood as he stares into the distance.
Jenisbek Tserik, whose name means “steel warrior”, is a semi-nomadic Kazakh.
Probably more impressive, however, is his position, which I only begin to appreciate when he stands next to four other berkutchies, or eagle hunters, who have gathered in front of us for a planned photo and interview. He is close to a head longer, with broad, square shoulders and muscular legs that are further exaggerated by his bulky attire.
His name is Jenisbek Tserik, a term meaning “steel warrior” – an appropriate description given his achievements. A champion of the rider, he is also a serial winner of tug-of-war competitions where two fighters wrestle with a goat carcass.
Jenisbek is so skilled that he has been flown to Dubai to compete in exhibition events. For a semi-nomadic Kazakh living in Mongolia’s remote, westernmost province of Bayan-Ölgii, a trip abroad would be like visiting another planet. Glitzy Dubai would be a completely different universe.
Jenisbek is 26 years old and says that he is not married and then jokes that he has five girlfriends, including one in Dubai and another in Kazakhstan, where 90% of Bayan-Ölgii’s resident population comes. I’m not sure if he’s serious, but based on what Timur and Bata have said about him, it’s not beyond the possibilities.
In addition to the tug-of-war, Jenisbek is a master shooter and he has won many awards for eagle hunting in Bayan-Ölgii, where the centuries-old pastime is more widespread than anywhere else on the planet.
A proud story
Jenisbek, 26, says he is not married – but has five girlfriends.
Tuul & Bruno Morandi / RF / Getty Images
Eagle hunting can be traced back to a forgotten kingdom in Central Asia, where direct descendants of Genghis Khan settled on the Aral Sea until the forces of the invading Russian Empire forced them to flee to the lawless Altai region of Mongolia.
Then, when the Soviet Union and China established borders on both sides of them in the early 20th century, the Kazakhs were cut off from their homeland and could not return.
They continued to live as semi-nomadic shepherds in western Mongolia, where traditional pastimes such as golden eagle hunting continued and passed from one generation to the next. As such methods were suppressed in Kazakhstan under Soviet rule, Bayan-Ölgii became the core of the sport.
“For a Mongol, it is pride to train competition horses. For Kazakhs, their pride is to train eagles to hunt,” explains Bata.
You can see it in how they walk and how they behave. The five berkutchers know that they are being monitored and they play up to it, pushing out the chest and stiffening the back whenever a camera lens points its way. The eyebrow fur and the lips handbag that they have modeled all their lives.
It is far from what life must have been like in this part of the world before tourism pushed for the first Golden Eagle Festival, which was held outside Ölgii’s provincial capital in 1999. But even now, it is hardly foreigners who trample to get here. When I ask our local facilitator about the number who visit the region this season, he replies that there are “many”.
“How many?” I am asking.
From October to March, eagle hunters go in pairs into the mountains – one to flush out their prey, the other to release the eagle from high along a ridgeline.
The figures reach their peak around the time of the festival in early October and below the smaller scale Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival, which was held here in Sagsai two weeks earlier. In each, as many as 100 berkutchi test their skills in events where eagles are expected to catch fox skins pulled behind horses or in competitions to pick up a coin from the ground on horseback.
A flirtatious competition involves a whipping woman chasing a man who does not always try too hard to escape. I could imagine that Jenisbek received a disproportionate share of lashings in recent years.
But it is only when the tourists have left that the eagle hunting season begins. From October to March, hunters go in pairs into the mountains – one to flush out their prey, the other to drop the eagle high up along a ridgeline.
Predatory catches include foxes and hares, whose lush coats make the warmest hats, just like those that crown Jenisbek and his companions.
Hunting can last for several days at a time, and training requires patience when the eagles become accustomed to their handlers and develop the required skills.
Has it made couples divorce, I ask Timur, when men spend more time with their birds than they do with their wives? He shrugs.
When every unmarried woman in the valley stands up for you, as they are for Jenisbek, who needs a wife?
Coming there: Although Mongolia is currently closed to tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of travel companies are now accepting bookings for the 2021 Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii, which takes place in early October.