Bonding with Mongolia’s Eagle Hunters Over an Espresso
by Breanna Wilson
It’s always a struggle to get the simplest of things when you’re out on an adventure. Those little comforts of home. Those nuggets of normality.
And in Mongolia, those simple things are even harder to find. Clean water. A solid meal. A bathroom. A shower. A good cup of coffee or espresso in the morning.
And most of those things I’m absolutely fine with going without. Most of them. Because there is absolutely no exception when it comes to my morning dose of caffeine. I make absolutely no exceptions there. It’s as much in everyone else’s interest as mine that this part of my morning routine doesn’t get passed over for convenience sake.
The challenge in Mongolian is that the nomads that I’m typically staying with don’t drink coffee. They drink milk tea. A salty and delightful drink that’s great any other time of day, but not exactly first thing in the morning. Especially when all you can think about is that kick of caffeine in your ass to motivate you to get moving for the day. (I have sort of a one-track mind when it comes to getting my morning espresso first thing after crawling out of my sleeping bag – not that I’m sure you could tell!)
Because milk is a resource that they have at hand, while coffee beans on the other hand, isn’t. And, being a nomad out in the remotest parts of the Mongolian steppe, kilometers and kilometers away from civilization (and cell phone reception and grocery stores), battling the elements (which in itself is an extremely difficult task) and just keeping their livestock alive is more of a concern than what I’m used to. Which, at 8 a.m. on a crisp fall morning, is to get my grubby little adventure-loving hands on the most delicious espresso or long black I can find – or make.
And while I usually rely on instant coffee on these adventures – it’s easy to find in Ulaanbaatar and even easier to pack – there’s just something inside of me that dies a little bit every time I have a cup of it. The lack of caffeine. The lack of little crema goodness that I so look forward to and relish in. The lack of smell. The lack of, well, everything. It fills in in an emergency, but it certainly isn’t my first choice. And there are only so many “withouts” a girl can take.
So, I set out on a mission to find a solution to this little comfort of home. This one little thing that dictates how the rest of my day is going to play out. The one part of my morning routine that brings some sort of normalcy to spending time in such a foreign place, with such a different culture. Because I was getting ready to head out to spend a week doing an apprenticeship in the remotest part of Western Mongolia with the country’s renowned Eagle Hunters. And I knew these below zero temperature mornings were going to brutal enough.
Fast forward a few weeks and I was finally setting of far from the comforts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city (and a place that would soon be resurrecting its title as the coldest capital in the world) and the place I currently call home (or the closest thing to it I’ve had in quite a long time). It was finally time to embark on our expedition out to visit the Eagle Hunters and learn this 4,000-year-old tradition.
The Eagle Hunters are a Kazakh speaking tribe in the western part of the country, living in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in soums (small communities) and gers (the Mongolian word for “home” that refers to the felt yurts that nomadic Mongols live in, which is a Russian word) that dot the outreaches of this province, Bayan-Ölgii. There are only about 75 hunters still actively using this practice (more if you count the families who keep an eagle only to participate in the Golden Eagle Festival that takes place every October), with more and more of the younger generation choosing to leave this difficult lifestyle of relying on their animals and their land for survival throughout some of the harshest winter temperatures in the world, heading towards easier to survive in places such as Ölgii and Ulaanbaatar.
But there are many hunters that remain out here with their families. Many that embrace their culture and these ancient generational traditions fully, raising, training, and relying on their Golden Eagles to capture fox, marmot, and even the occasional wolf, as their means of survival.
And we were set to spend almost a week with them. Learning these traditions directly from them. Using their eagles as our own.
And this was only thanks to my good friend (and a total Mongolia adventure expert) Erik Cooper. Because, you see, not everyone can have this type of hands-on experience. Most tourists who travel to this part of Mongolia only come for the Golden Eagle Festival, the festival that takes place every October at the beginning of the hunting season. But their interactions with the hunters and these incredible creatures is always limited and at a distance. As you can imagine, these guys don’t just let anyone handle their prized birds, especially Joe from Jersey who has no animal sense and a guy that they don’t know the first thing about.
But we would be given all access to the hunters and their birds like I’ve never seen before. Adopted into the tribe and treated as if we were a part of the family. And what a magical week that made for.
Our days were spent “training” with our assigned Eagle Hunter and eagle, birds we’d work closely with, building a stronger and stronger bond with exercise after exercise with our new 30-pound friends. We worked on skills such as releasing and catching, with fox meat in our yak glove protected hand, waiting patiently as they’d gracefully dive towards us from the mountain above. (These eagles can reach 150 – 199 miles an hour when diving towards their prey. Which, knowing that and then seeing those talons come at you at even half of that speed gives you an adrenaline rush like no other.)
And morning after morning would be the same. We’d wake, get ready for the day, then mount our horses with our hunters and eagles in tow and head for the mountains.
And while Mongolian hospitality is some of the best in the world – I’ve never met a culture of people with so little (when you’re a nomad it isn’t exactly easy to move a lot of stuff season after season) ready to give a stranger so much, but I was still stuck on this espresso thing.
And since they had treated me to so much – to so many amazing experiences, it was my turn to return the favor. To bust out my new secret weapon – my Wacaco Nanopresso and make them all espressos, something they’ve almost certainly never had before.
A party trick I pulled off not only at morning breakfast, but at lunch out at the base of the mountains as well, since all that I needed was the hot water that was packed out for our lunch.
Because this trip was also about sharing. Sharing what we each respectively had to offer. Experiences, espressos and other. Because even though we didn’t speak the same language, we could share common things from both of our lives. The hunters with their eagles and hunting attire – letting us handle their birds and wear their incredible fox and wolf fur coats and hats, giving us a rare glimpse into their everyday lives, and me with my fancy new Nanopress, offering them each an espresso I handmade (something almost equivalent to magic in their eyes), like they had offered me milk tea at every meal.
And it was in these small moments, sharing espressos with these incredible hunters, that I forgot that I didn’t have the “simple things,” but instead had something so much more.