(CNN) – “Look over there. Do you see that man coming here?” Timur asks. “He’s so good looking.”
Galloping towards us on a strong Mongolian horse is the nomadic version of Brad Pitt, who returns home in “Legends of the Fall”. Nestled in a pint jacket over richly embroidered pants, it certainly attracts attention. A fox fur hat warms his head, and perched calmly on his right forearm is a golden eagle, which is not just a support for advertising cheese with cologne.
“Look at his eyebrows and cheekbones,” continues our local guide. “And look how big and strong he is. The girls are going crazy over him.”
“It’s true,” said Timur Bata’s wife, blushing slightly. “If I had to compare him to Timur only in appearance, of course I would choose him.”
Upon closer inspection, the weathered face of the offender betrays a life lived outdoors. But his jaw is certainly cut, and his natural squint reminds me of youthful Clint Eastwood as he looks into the distance.
Janisbek Cerik, whose name means “steel warrior”, is a semi-nomadic Kazakh.
Probably more impressive is his height, which I begin to appreciate only after standing next to four other golden eagles or eagle hunters, who gathered in front of us for a planned photo shoot and interview. He is close to a head taller, with broad, square shoulders and muscular limbs that are further exaggerated by his voluminous clothing.
His name is Janisbeck Cerrick, a name that means “steel warrior” – an appropriate description, given his achievements. A master horseman, he is also a serial winner in tug-of-war competitions in which two fighters fight a goat carcass.
Janisbeck is so skilled that he was flown to Dubai to compete in exhibition events. For a semi-nomadic Kazakh living in the remote, westernmost province of Mongolia, Bayan-Algiy, any trip abroad would be like a visit to another planet. Brilliant Dubai would be a completely different universe.
At the age of 26, Janisbeck tells us 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-Olji’s population comes from. I’m not sure if he’s serious, but from what Timur and Bata told me about him, that doesn’t exceed the possibilities.
In addition to weighing the ropes, Janisbeck is a champion shooter and has won numerous eagle-hunting awards in the Bayan-Algiers, where centuries-old fun is more widespread than anywhere else on the planet.
A proud story
At 26, Janisbeck says he is not married but has five girlfriends.
Tuul and Bruno Morandi / Image Bank RF / Getty Images
Eagle hunting can be traced back to a forgotten kingdom in Central Asia, where Genghis Khan’s descendants settled along the Aral Sea until the invading forces of the Russian Empire forced them to flee to the illegal Altai Mountains in Mongolia.
Then, when the Soviet Union and China established borders on both sides in the early 20th century, Kazakhs were cut off from their homeland and unable to return.
They continue to live as semi-nomadic shepherds in western Mongolia, where traditional entertainment such as golden eagle hunting continues from one generation to the next. As such practices were suppressed in Kazakhstan during Soviet rule, Bayan-Ölgii became the core of the sport.
“It is a pride for a Mongol to train racehorses. For Kazakhs, the pride is in training eagles to hunt,” Bata explains.
You can see it in the way they walk and how they behave. The five eagles know that they have been watched and played by inflating their chests and hardening their backs every time the camera lens points their way. The eyebrows are furrowed and the lips are pursed, as if modeling a lifetime.
This is far from how life should have been in this part of the world before tourism hampered the first Golden Eagle festival, which took place outside the provincial capital of Ölgii in 1999. But even now, foreigners are hardly crowded to get here. When I ask our local facilitator about the numbers visiting the region this season, he says there are “many.”
“How much?” I am asking.
“About 800 years.”
From October to March, eagle hunters head to the mountains in pairs, one to discard their prey and the other to free the eagle from a high ridge.
The numbers peak around the time of the festival in early October and during the smaller Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival, held here in Sagsay two weeks earlier. In each, about 100 golden eagles test their skills in events where eagles are expected to catch fox skins dragged behind horses or in competitions to pull a coin out of the ground on horseback.
A flirting contest involves beating a woman who is chasing a man who doesn’t always try too hard to run away. I imagine that Janisbeck has received a disproportionate share of relationships over the last few years.
But only after the tourists disappear does the eagle hunting season begin. From October to March, hunters head to the mountains in pairs, one to cast their prey and the other to free the eagle from high on the ridge.
The prize includes foxes and rabbits, whose lavish coats make the warmest hats, just like those crowning Janisbeck and his companions.
Hunting can last for days at a time, and training requires patience as eagles get used to their leaders and develop the necessary skills.
Do I ask Timur if couples divorce when husbands spend more time with their birds than with their wives? He shrugs.
When every unmarried woman in the valley is lined up for you, like Janisbeck, who needs a husband?
To get there: Although Mongolia is currently closed to tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of travel companies are already accepting reservations for the Golden Eagle Festival in 2021 in Bayan-Ulgiy, which takes place in early October.