In the far west of Mongolia, ethnic Kazakh nomads still follow a tradition of hunting with trained golden eagles. Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit that part of the country, one of my two trips to Mongolia as expedition manager for National Geographic Expeditions did give me the chance to see one of these magnificent birds up close. En route to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park near the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, we stopped by a roadside cairn decorated with prayer flags, where we met this man and his eagle.
The eagle was massive, with an impressive wingspan and a beak and talons just made for ripping into prey. The man let everyone in our group take a turn wearing the security glove and holding the eagle. Despite its size, I was still surprised to discover just how heavy the bird was.
Someday I hope to have the opportunity to visit the homeland of the Kazakh eagle hunters in western Mongolia and learn more about their traditional way of life, but for now, it was exciting enough to encounter one of their birds at close range – and further proof that the unplanned experiences are often the most memorable parts of a trip.