The descending plane casts its shadow over western Mongolia’s parched desert mountains dusted with the first snow of winter. Below us, the sporadic sight of white yurts – the circular tents known locally as gers – of the region’s nomadic community offset the prevailing view of desolate brown chasms of cracked earth.
Wedged in the Altai Mountains just 100 kilometres from the Kazakhstan border, the Bayan-Olgii province logs one of the lowest density populations on the planet, but for one weekend a year it enjoys a statistical upwards jolt. Today my ATR 72 flight is at capacity, with 70 international tourists journeying to this unforgiving district for the annual Golden Eagle Festival. For many, the roots of their pilgrimage to this landlocked nation can be traced to the actions of a single local: a teenaged girl named Aisholpan.
Two years ago, English director Otto Bell introduced the world to Olgii schoolgirl Aisholpan in his award-winning documentary, The Eagle Huntress. Premiering at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the film traced the quietly determined 13-year-old Kazakh as she pursued the region’s centuries-old tradition of training eagles to hunt foxes, wolves and other quarry for their fur. No mere bloodsport, the local nomad culture has historically relied on the furs for clothing, a trading resource and for fortifying their gers against the Mongolian winter’s abrasive sub-zero temperatures.
While The Eagle Huntress showed Aisholpan’s father Nurgaiv passing on his hunting skills to his daughter with a calm wisdom, not all locals were depicted as being so supportive. Although Kazakh eagle hunting can be traced back more than a millennium, some elders were ruffled by the fact a young girl was taking on a historically male-dominated tradition. Aisholpan answered the resistance with an act of subtle, dogged resolve: she beat out an exclusively male field at the 2014 Golden Eagle Festival. To accentuate the coup, Aisholpan and her bird Aq Qattanari (‘White Wings’) notched up a record time in one event.
Ultimately awarded a BAFTA for best documentary in 2017, The Eagle Huntress was expertly underpinned by three powerful film tropes: cinematography capturing the country’s inhospitable beauty; an engaging and unlikely protagonist; and perhaps most triumphantly, a subtle display of defiance against a hoary patriarchy. What began as a young girl’s fierce determination to follow in her father’s footsteps resulted in Time Out labelling Aisholpan “one of life’s trailblazers – a feminist pioneer”.
Fast forward a couple of years since The Eagle Huntress’ release and Aisholpan’s community has been buoyed by an influx in foreigner travellers. Along with around 80 eagle hunter competitors making their way to the 2018 Golden Eagle Festival on foot, horseback and by camel, approximately 1000 international tourists have travelled to a barren location on Olgii’s outskirts. A dustbowl valley resembling a Martian moon, the site was chosen almost 20 years ago for pragmatic reasons: it was close to town and offered a robust mountain slope from where competing eagles could launch. Local police valiantly attempt to maintain parking order as cavalcades of incoming four-wheel-drives spit up dust, the grime blowing onto the ad hoc bazaar of local vendors who’ve set up colourfully crude stalls of confectionery, jewellery and local furs.
In front of the flat bed truck doubling as a shaded vantage point for judges, VIPs and the MC, a roped off area marks out the exhibition zone for the festival’s two-day programme. While also offering a showcase of other Kazakh traditions (including ‘kokbar’, a tug of war on horseback where two riders tussle over a sheep carcass), it’s the eagle events drawing the largest crowds.
Olgii resident Dosjan Khaval has been to all 19 of the annual Golden Eagle festivals. A multilingual Kazakh, Khaval has spent a decade building a local travel company and, as the head of Bayan-Olgii Tourism, is now a regional heavyweight. His business has seen a favourable uplift off the back of The Eagle Huntress.
“Everyone is proud of Aisholpan because she has affected not only local Bayan-Olgii tourism, but also Mongolian tourism,” Khaval says. “Local people understand that a lot of tourists now have information about Mongolia because of her. In these days of social media more people are spreading the information about Aisholpan to the world and every year the number of tourists is increasing. Even on my summer tours now, most tourists have watched the movie.”
When the official figures are stripped of business visits and international workers, Khaval says Mongolia’s annual tourism figure sits at just 130,000 – less than the number Australia welcomed in an average week in 2017. A calendar highlight like the Golden Eagle Festival provides the rural territory of Bayan-Olgii an important financial boost.
“This year at the festival we were expecting around 1200 international tourists,” Khaval says. “When you add Mongolians, in total it’s up to 4000 people. Mongolians who live in other parts of Mongolia do not know about this culture, so a lot of people are interested in this and more are coming every year. I don’t think the Eagle Festival is going to just boom, but we have observed a slow increase.”
Inaugurated as a one-day event, the festival schedule has expanded to two days as more traditional Kazakh pastimes have been added to the roster. An alcohol ban has been introduced this year after 2017’s festival descended into drunken mayhem, with reports of intoxicated hunters falling from their horses, fights intermittently breaking out in the crowd and police resorting to tasers to deal with unruly locals.
While there’s a lingering element of Wild West temperaments in play, the 2018 Golden Eagle Festival brushes away last year’s blemishes in favour of civic pride. Over the crackling tannoy, the weekend festivities kick off with a nod to the teen who has increased focus on this region: “Aisholpan, renowned throughout the world, has brought glory to our province”.
In the wake of Aisholpan’s success, more local females are training eagles and competing in the Golden Eagle Festival. Based around 50 kilometres out of Olgii, 15-year-old Zamanbol trains eagles with her father, Talap. While she fails to make it beyond the first round of competition this year, Zamanbol proves popular photographic fodder for the intrusive black lenses of global travellers. Far more at home calling her eagle down from cliff crags than experiencing her horse being surrounded by photographers, there are moments when Zamanbol appears to be physically retreating behind her eagle for sanctuary from the SLRs. Dosjan Khaval suggests young blood such as Zamanbol and Aisholpan has revitalised a Kazakh skill that risked dying out before the Golden Eagle Festival was introduced at the turn of the century.
“Until Aisholpan, no other girls had entered the Eagle Festival as a huntress,” Khaval says. “After Aisholpan won, right from the second year, there were more young girls who tried to become an eagle huntress. Now there are maybe eight or nine girls that are trying to be like Aisholpan.”
The acclaim, spectacle and splendour of the Golden Eagle Festival has also seen an increase in young local boys following in the footsteps of their forefathers.
“The younger generation didn’t want to hunt with these eagles as it takes so much work,” Khaval explains. “You need to train the eagles, go up the mountain when it’s minus 35 degrees… With the eagle festivals, there’s been an increase in eagle hunters and there are many young teenagers also participating now. It continues our culture, plus of course it’s good for income because of tourists.”
The Eagle Huntress hasn’t just resulted in financial reward and cultural renewal. An Asian Review story in June this year even suggested the film had played an important role in the acceptance of Kazakhs within the Mongolian community. The minority group accounts for 100,000 citizens in a national population of three million, with alleged racism blamed for traditionally keeping the Bayan-Olgii border province (where 90 per cent of the population are Kazakhs) out of political decision-making in the country’s capital Ulaanbaatar. It’s a weighty assertion to be placed on the shoulders of a high school student who simply showed a unique connection to her eagle.
As the finals to identify 2018’s champion eagle hunter progress in the arena, I spot Bayan-Olgii’s most famous resident beyond the fragrant smoke of the kebab vendors. Astride her stocky bay mare, Aisholpan is beautifully presented in a traditional outfit of white fox fur, embroidered pants and bejewelled leather belt. The heavy outfit is at odds with the 25-degree conditions, but Aisholpan smiles serenely as her international fans mill around for photographs. Despite Aisholpan attending the Golden Eagle Festival this year as a special guest rather than a competitor, there are no officials keeping watch over their local dignitary. If the crowd becomes as unruly as 2017’s mob, the most famous Mongolian since Genghis Khan only has her eagle White Wings to offer protection.
For almost an hour Aisholpan poses for tourist photographs, apparently aware of the power her film has had in showing the world the beauty and wonder of her homeland. She’s a one-woman international export in a region with so few commodities they import from their Russian neighbours everything from eggs to electricity.
Although her English is limited, a translator relays some of Aisholpan’s comments to her impromptu audience. The 17-year-old’s eagle regimen depicted in The Eagle Huntress remains unchanged as she completes her final year of high school in Olgii. “I have school on Monday to Friday and during the weekend I practise with my eagle,” she says. “When I finish study I want to be a doctor.”
The success of The Eagle Huntress saw international education institutions scuttling to offer the gutsy Kazakh girl scholarships to attend respected universities in England, the United States and neighbouring Kazakhstan, however Aisholpan is yet to announce where she’ll study in 2019. In the meantime, she’s making the most of being in her arid homeland with her eagle and her friends.
“The film had a big influence on my life,” Aisholpan says. ”My friends are proud of me and they are glad that I let the world know about our culture.”
A day after the festival, Dosjan Khaval reflects on Aisholpan’s success. Four years after her Eagle Festival win there’s still some local dissent over the ‘eagle huntress’ term as she’s never taken White Wings hunting by herself, but her importance to the community is undeniable.
“People still treat her the same here and most of the people like her,” Khaval says. “Whatever they did with this movie, it was good for Mongolia as an advertisement.”
Khaval suggests Mongolia’s deficient infrastructure, dearth of human resources and fractious political stonewalling restrict the developing nation from making the most of its tourist potential, but “every year more people get information about Mongolia and our services are getting better and better. In the future, I see there’s going to be more tourism.”
Hollywood isn’t finished with Aisholpan’s story, either. Khaval says Sony Pictures are currently adapting the story of Mongolia’s famed eagle huntress into a multi-million dollar cartoon.
“In Kazakh, ‘Ai’ means moon, ‘Sholpan’ means the first star which comes out in the evening,” Khaval says. “That is what ‘Aisholpan’ means.”
A remarkable light in dark times, Aisholpan’s star continues to shine.
Lead photo is of Aisholpan. All photographs taken by Scott McLennan.
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