On her way to school, Aigerim Asker looks like the Kazakh girl next door. Dressed in jeans and a matching blue jacket, with her hair in two neat braids fashioned by her mother, she rides 12km through the mountains on horseback or motorbike to reach Altai, a town in western Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii province.
At 13, she often replies to questions with a shy smile. When she speaks, she does so in an almost inaudible whisper, frequently looking for an approving nod from her father. But Aigerim is no timid, mollycoddled child. She is one of the few remaining Kazakh eagle hunters, who are known locally as burkitshi.
“Both my father and my uncle have carried on the tradition of eagle hunting, so I’ve always been around golden eagles. But it wasn’t until four years ago that I started to develop a special relationship with one of the eagles and acquired an interest in falconry,” she says.
Home for Aigerim are the two gers (circular tents used by nomadic Mongolians) she shares with her extended family. Like most nomadic people here, the family uproots three or four times a year in search of better pastures for their 700-strong herd of sheep and goats.
“I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy and enjoy working in the field or accompanying my father with the animals,” Aigerim says.
As she arrives for classes, her schoolmates greet her warmly, knowing she will soon be facing a stern test. Aigerim’s teacher, a short, stocky woman, also recognises her pupil’s unusual talent, granting her permission to leave early and miss classes in the coming days. It is, after all, the day before the world’s most important competition for eagle hunters, held annually on the first weekend of October, in the outskirts of Ölgii city, and Aigerim needs to prepare both her bird and provisions.
The youngster will be one of just three females among the almost 100 falconers competing for this year’s Golden Eagle Festival trophy. “I am nervous,” she admits.
And though her school grades are far from impressive, she is a source of inspiration for other girls.
“She’s very strong,” says her teacher, asking to be photographed with the girl in front of the blackboard.
Although she has never heard of feminism, and knows nothing of the #MeToo movement, the fact Aigerim has chosen to take on older generations in a competition that was once the exclusive preserve of men sets her apart. And her words carry an increasingly familiar message. “Girls can do the same things boys do,” the teenager says, confidently.
Back in the family ger, Aigerim undergoes a dramatic transformation. Helped by her siblings (she is the third of six brothers and sisters), the teenager dons black trousers, decorated with colourful traditional patterns, over her jeans, and a heavy wolf-and-fox-fur coat. A matching Kazakh hat and a single leather glove, which protects her hand and forearm, turn her into a fully fledged eagle huntress. She hops onto her horse for a final training session before the competition.
The year’s first snow has hit Altai hard and a 5cm-thick white carpet covers the rocky terrain. The temperature has dropped to minus 12 degrees Celsius and strong winds make walking an uncomfortable chore.Aigerim, however, believes the most important quality for an eagle hunter has nothing to do with endurance or physical strength.
“The relationship forged between the eagle and the hunter is what makes the difference. And that’s why gender and age don’t matter,” she says, explaining that only female birds are used for hunting because they are larger and have a stronger predatory instinct. “If anything, maybe girls can create a tighter bond with the bird.”
Aigerim’s father, Asker Ulikhpan, agrees.
“We have raised four eagles,” he says. “We bought three of them and we took the last one from a nest in the mountain, four years ago. That one is the strongest of all and the one [Aigerim] is closest to.”
It took the teenager two months to gain the bird’s trust. Now, they are inseparable.
“Each of us has a special call for the eagle,” Aigerim says. “They recognise our voice and follow our command.”
In the competition, the eagle will be set on a 200-metre-high crag and Aigerim, having taken up position far below, at least 60 metres from the cliff, will need to make it perform two manoeuvres: first, she has to summon the bird onto her arm; second, the eagle must snatch a dead rabbit tied to her horse.
“We will train often, but the performance depends 50 per cent on luck,” Aigerim’s father says – partly due to the crowd (this year, some 4,000 are expected to attend the festival). “There are just too many people watching and the eagle can easily get scared. Also, the noise distracts the bird and makes it harder to recognise the call.”
There is no suitable mountain close to where Aigerim’s family has set up camp, so we ride a few kilometres to reach one, where father and daughter will take turns calling their golden eagles. First, Ulikhpan will hold his daughter’s bird and she will call it from a distance.
“We use a piece of meat to attract the eagle,” says Ulikhpan. “If the bird is full, she won’t come.”
Aigerim raises her leather-clad hand and shakes a piece of raw mutton in the air. She shouts to get the bird’s attention, but more than two minutes pass before the eagle takes flight from Ulikhpan’s arm, and that is far too long. In the competition, when Aigerim will be further from the bird, she will have only three minutes to get the eagle airborne before being disqualified. Many hunters will fail the task on the day.
The eagle flies fast and low, and close to the slope of the mountain. When it reaches Aigerim, it stretches its talons forward menacingly. Some 5cm long, they can easily tear flesh from bone. A fox could be killed almost instantly; even wolves are said to have been hunted down by golden eagles.
Aigerim raises her arm for the landing, but when the eagle – weighing about 7kg and with a wingspan of almost two metres – makes contact, it does so heavily, almost knocking the youngster from her horse. The bird loses its balance and lands on the ground. Fortunately, both are unscathed. Strength, it seems, is important after all.
“I have fallen before when the eagle came very fast and I couldn’t handle the hit,” admits Aigerim. “Some people argue that girls can’t be falconers because we are weaker. But it’s the same for boys. Some also fall.”
Her pride hurt, the teenager tries again, and this time is successful. With a broad smile, she stresses that she has fared well in local competitions, even having won first prize in Altai.
“I beat both my father and my uncle, and proved that women can be as good eagle falconers as men,” she says.
Not everyone agrees, however.
“Women should concentrate their efforts on other things, like family,” says Kandirgon Ulikhpan (no relation to Asker), one of Altai’s most famous eagle hunters. At 65, he no longer competes, now focusing on the difficult task of catching eagles. “Girls may be attracted to falconry when they see family members training their eagles, but it will always be a temporary activity because they will eventually have to get married.”
Aigerim’s uncle and mentor, Khuandkhan Ulikhpan, has also decided what’s best for her. “It should be just a hobby,” he says. “She can learn now, but she will have to give it up. We want her to focus on her studies so she can attend university and get married.”
Others find different reasons to frown upon eagle huntresses. “In a Muslim society like the Kazakh, men and women should play different roles,” says Burkit Idirish, 30, one of the male falconers Aigerim will compete against. “Traditionally, men have been tasked with herding and hunting in the countryside while women took care of household chores and children. I am afraid we are now veering too much from this ideal. I’m not opposed to eagle huntresses, but, honestly, I don’t like them either. And I believe that’s what most of us think.”
Nevertheless, historical evidence shows that women once practised falconry extensively. In her essay “The Eagle Huntress – Ancient Traditions and New Generations”, Stanford University historian Adrienne Mayor writes, “Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. Recent and spectacular archaeological discoveries of graves (circa 700BC to AD300) across ancient Scythia, from Ukraine to China, reveal that steppe nomad females engaged in the same riding and hunting activities as the men, and about one third of the women were active warriors in battle.”
Mayor highlights two discoveries: a mummified eagle huntress found wearing a leather falconry mitten, dating back to the third or fourth century BC and currently on display at the Xinjiang Regional Museum, in Urumqi, China; and a gold ring depicting an eagle huntress on a horse, killing a deer with a spear, exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, in the United States, and dating from 425BC. That is, according to Mayor, the earliest known image of a female eagle hunter.
“Boys and girls, men and women, young and old, all shared the vigorous outdoor life and everyone could ride fast horses, shoot arrows with deadly accuracy, hunt for fur and game, and defend the tribe,” Mayor writes. “The combination of horse riding and archery was an equaliser, levelling out physical differences: a woman on horseback is as fast and agile as a man.”
The historian adds that “egalitarian traditions persist in their descendants today”, while also pointing out that “men and women in semi-nomadic herding communities now have more differentiated tasks”.
Idirish’s family provide a good example. He is the breadwinner; his wife, Tolkhin Yerbol, takes care of the couple’s two young children. Like her husband, Yerbol, 27, does not approve of eagle huntresses.
“[Hunting] will make it difficult for them to get married off well,” she says.
Such views have hindered the ambitions of female falconers in modern times, but everything changed in 2014, when 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv became the first female to take part in the Golden Eagle Festival. And she won.
Her legend grew two years later, when documentary The Eagle Huntress, by British filmmaker Otto Bell, became a global hit, helped by its theme song, Angel by the Wings. “You can do anything,” warbles Australian songstress Sia.
“My life has completely changed since then. It’s gone from zero to a hundred,” Aisholpan tells Post Magazine at this year’s festival. “I could never have foreseen the impact this movie has had.”
A recipient of the Asia Society’s 2017 Asia Game Changer Award, Aisholpan has become a celebrity both in her native Mongolia and neighbouring Kazakhstan. She has travelled the world promoting the documentary and rubbed shoulders with Hollywood’s finest. But now she plans to stop eagle hunting.
“I’ve taught my little sister, so she can carry on the tradition, but I have to focus on my studies,” says the 17-year-old, who has been offered scholarships overseas. “I have chosen one in Kazakhstan, but I will come back to live in Mongolia,” Aisholpan adds, dismissing reports she would accept Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s offer to relocate her family to the more developed country.
Some have praised her as a patriot, but others sneer, repeating rumours about how the documentary was staged to make Aisholpan appear braver than she is, or criticising a newly acquired arrogance and a supposed love of money.
“I keep true to myself,” she says defiantly.
When Aisholpan appears at this year’s festival, however, it is clear that she is a star and everybody wants to take a selfie with her.
Zamanbol, the third eagle huntress at the competition, defends Aisholpan.
“She may have a lot left to learn in life, but she has definitely been a huge encouragement for other women like me,” the 14-year-old says. “Her example led us to pursue our dreams.”
Says Aigerim, “There are many girls training with eagles. Some even hunt with them, but they seldom appear in public taking part in competitions. Now, Aisholpan’s story has given us strength, and her success has spread acceptance of eagle huntresses among the elders.”
Idirish, however, believes male approval has been bestowed for another reason.
“After Aisholpan’s documentary was released, the number of tourists attending the Golden Eagle Festival has shot up,” he says. (A festival judgereveals that the record number of attendees before the programme aired stood at just 1,500, less than half the number this year.) “And most want to see a female eagle hunter. They will pay handsomely for the privilege of staying with them, so many parents make their girls pretend to be falconers. Most cannot hunt at all, but they can pose with an eagle, which is enough to make a quick buck.”
Indeed, there are a few children at the festival, boys and girls, posing for photos with eagles or falcons. They do not compete, but simply hold a bird on an arm, never removing its hood, and foreigners pay to take a picture.
Aisholpan, too, charges for private photo shoots. A guide attempts to keep curious tourists at bay while the teenager poses for a group of mostly Malaysian and Singaporean amateur photographers. “They have paid for that,” the guide argues, warning off other tourists.
Idirish himself makes money from tourism.
“When my father hunted, any guest would stay in our home for free. That is the Kazakh tradition. But now tourists are a good source of income for us, and their money is an incentive to keep ancient customs alive,” says the eagle hunter, who has bought a house in nearby Ulaankhus town, and stays in a ger only when visitors want a taste of nomadic life.
“If my neighbour makes money, why not me?” Idirish reasons. He charges tourists 50,000 tugrik (HK$150) per night and 20,000 tugrik to have his photo taken with his eagle. “At least I can really hunt.”
Aigerim does not refuse cash from visitors, either.
“At most, we will have a couple of groups for a photo shoot during the Golden Eagle Festival season,” she says, but shakes her head when asked about fake eagle huntresses showing up across Bayan-Ölgii. “I’m afraid they will give us a bad name. Only those who really feel a connection with the eagle should train, and do so for the joy of it and not for business.”
Aigerim tries hard during the competition, but is unable to make her eagle fly in under three minutes. Zamanbol manages to get her bird into the air within the time limit, but it flies over her head and alights on the ground.
“I’m afraid she’s too fat,” Zamanbol explains, afterwards.
Aisholpan is the highlight of the festival for many visitors, but although she manages to get her bird to land on her arm, her timing is poor.
Aigerim remains star-struck, nevertheless: “She is awesome. I hope one day I will be as famous as her.” The younger girl is unable to mask her own disappointment, but promises to return next year.
Aisholpan says Aigerim, as well as Zamanbol, has every right to be proud.
“It’s an honour for me to see so many girls shelving their concerns and following my steps to become eagle huntresses,” she says. “I don’t feel that I’ve broken any taboo in Kazakh society. I have just given visibility to the women who traditionally have practised falconry, and maybe helped them to get the recognition they deserve.”