First Parahawking in Mongolia

On a Wednesday in late February 2018, I got a call from my paragliding instructor, Bold Purevdelger, asking if I was free the coming weekend. Usually that means he wants to wake up at some ungodly hour to go flying through the mountains (entirely worth it). Now, late February in Mongolia means the possibility of hitting temperatures of -20 and flying through the air means even lower. However, this time, he tells me we are going to attempt the first parahawking flight in Mongolia and he needed my help. I immediately said yes.

*Full video and picture gallery below

A Little Background

For those that do not know, parahawking is a sport that combines paragliding and falconry. It is about as amazing as it sounds. While doing a tandem flight in the air, the person in the front harness calls the flacon (or in this case a Golden Eagle) from the ground using some meat. The person in the back steers. The falcon catches up to the two in the glider and lands on the arm of the person in the front harness…. in mid-flight. In the far west of Mongolia, in the Bayan-Olgii province near the Altai mountains, lives the Kazakh Eagle Hunters. These people have been training huge Golden Eagles for thousands of years to hunt rabbits, foxes, and even sometimes wolves. When hunting, these massive eagles can reach speeds of up to 190 Kilometers per hour (about 120 mph). When the eagles become old enough, the hunters will release them back into the wild to live freely and reproduce. The hunter that would be attempting this feat would be no hunter at all, but actually a huntRESS, Aisholpan Nurgaiv.

For a long time, hunting with an eagle was a male-centric sport. In 2014, at the age of 13, Aisholpan became not only the first woman eagle huntress to enter the Golden Eagle festival in recent history, but the first woman to WIN it too. A documentary called “The Eagle Huntress” follows her pursuit and eventual victory.

So now that you have some background, back to the story at hand. Fast forward to Saturday where the Eagle Hunters and Huntresses (more of them now, following Aisholpan’s fame) arrived just outside the big city of Ulaanbaatar to participate in the smaller Spring Golden Eagle Festival. Bold and I get up at the crack of dawn to head out to the camp where the hunters are staying and preparing their eagles for the day of the festival. We meet up with Aisholpan and her father, Nurgaiv, in their yurt (or ger in Mongolian). We sit around the toasty fire and begin to chat about how we are going to go about doing this. This is when I realize that none of us really know how to attempt this feat. Bold, being arguably the best paragliding pilot in Mongolia, can do anything in the air but has never attempted this before. No one in Mongolia has. All we had was YouTube as a teacher. That was good enough.

Practice Attempt

After driving half way, then hiking halfway up a mountain, we get to the top and prepare Aisholpan for her first tandem flight. One try without the eagle. In Mongolian, I ask Aisholpan if she is nervous. This would be her first flight in the air, everyone around me knows I was terrified for mine. She looks at me with a big grin and says “ugu shdee”. This can roughly be translated as “Heck no!”. She seemed, to me, to be excited to fly like her eagle. If you want evidence, look at the video or pics of ehr in the gallery. Nothing but a huge grin for entirety of each flight.

Attempt One

We prepare Aisholpan for her flight. We strap Aisholpan into the harness, gopro in one hand, rabbit leg in the other. Her father is halfway down the mountain holding her eagle. I grab their harness and pull, they take off…. to a very uneventful flight. As they soar down the mountain and call the eagle, nothing happens. She, the eagle, just kind of looks around and waits for them to land. Nurgaiv tells me that Aisholpan was probably holding the rabbit leg in the wrong hand so her eagle couldn’t see the rabbit leg. We prepare for attempt two.

Attempt Two

After trekking up the mountain, we try out second attempt with the rabbit meat in the other hand. It was, again…. very anticlimactic. However, once Bold and Aisholpan land, Nurgaiv looks at me while pointing at the eagle and yells “Ene medjiin! Medjiin!”. “She knows! She knows!”. It turns out that Aisholpan’s eagle was staring and understood what was happening, but just didn’t seem to care. She was too old to learn something new. Can’t teach an old eagle new tricks.

Attempt Three (Success!)

After deciding to grab a new eagle, we headed back to the camp. The Eagle hunter who won last year’s Golden Eagle festival let us use his one year old. As it was getting late, we needed to hurry while we still had light. We rushed to the hills where the other eagle hunters were practicing… and successfully got our vehicle stuck in the thick snow. We then had to have some of the hunters bring their horses so that we could ride through the snow and up the hills with all of our equipment. Once again, we set everything up, but this time we have an audience of all the other eagle hunters and some photographers in the area. I pull the harness and once again Aisholpan and Bold take off. The new eagle sits on his master’s arm and watches. Aisholpan starts her eagle call and waves around the rabbit leg. The eagle hunters and I watch as the young eagle launches and chases after the two in the glider. My heart leaps as the eagle closes in. We all burst into cheering as the eagle catches up and closes her talons on Aisholpan’s gloved arm. The eagle spreads her wings for a few seconds and soars with the two in the glider before returning back to the ground. Once they land I run up to them and Aisholpan just has a huge, triumphant grin on her face. Check out the full video below.

If you would like to see the eagle hunters at the Golden Eagle Festival, just let us set it up for you! We can also help you paraglide through Mongolia. Send us a message now!

Travel Director

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