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Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived where snowy peaks scraped the sky. Her name was Aisholpan. For generations, Kazakh nomads in Mongolia raised golden eagles to hunt. Aisholpan’s father was one of the best eagle hunters, so she asked him to teach her everything he knew. Despite the danger, she caught and trained her own eagle in the icy Altai mountains. She became the first woman to enter the Golden Eagle competition—and win!—inspiring female eagle hunters for years to come.
Lowri Morgan is an accomplished broadcaster, ultra-athlete and motivational speaker. She has competed in some of the toughest endurance races in the World, lived with indigenous tribes and become one of just 100 people to dive to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to visit the wreck of Titanic. As a result she has won numerous awards including: Best Presenter and Producer (BAFTA Cymru), the Spirit of the Festival Award (Celtic Media Festival), and winner of the Media Category (National Adventure Awards).
Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived where snowy peaks scraped the sky. Her name was Aisholpan.
Aisholpan grew up on the Mongolian steppes and her house could be carried from place to place on the bed of a pickup truck. Her family were Kazakh nomads, and traveled with nature’s rhythms so their livestock could find the richest food in the warmer months and the best shelter in the colder months.
For centuries, the Kazakh men had been training eagles to help them hunt. They rode horses with an eagle balanced on their arms and brought foxes and hares home to the women, who cooked the hares and used the fox fur to make hats and other clothing to stay warm during the freezing winters.
For as long as she could remember, Aisholpan had watched her father and brother leave for the mountains to hunt. Every time they returned, she could barely contain her excitement when their silhouettes appeared on the horizon. The horses, hats, and eagles made them look like gods, visiting from another time.
Aisholpan stroked the eagle’s soft feathers, placed a hand on its chest, and felt its small heart beating alongside her own. Something in the eagle’s dark eyes called to her.
I’m Lowri Morgan. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Aisholpan Nurgaiv.
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IN HER BLOOD
When Aisholpan was 13 years old, she told her father she wanted to be an eagle hunter. Only two years earlier, her brother had joined the army, possibly leaving eagle hunting behind forever. Could she be his next apprentice?
Her father saw how much she loved eagles and wanted to teach her, but he was worried. Eagles are potentially deadly, wild animals, eagle hunting was dangerous.
Still, he loved his daughter and knew that she was as brave as any man. Besides, he had always said that being an eagle hunter isn’t a choice—it’s a calling, something that has to be in your blood.
So, after giving it some thought, he agreed.
Her father took her into the mountains to practice the skills of eagle hunting. He taught her how to care for the eagle, how to teach the bird to hunt on command, and how to ride a horse with the weight of an eagle balanced on her arm.
Her father’s eagle was large with dark brown feathers, and when it spread its wings, it was almost twice as wide as it was tall. Its beak curved to a sharp point, and its black eyes shone with intelligence.
Aisholpan was in awe after she saw the eagle dart down from the sky to grab its prey.
One day, Aisholpan’s father said it was her turn call to the eagle. He gave her a tough leather glove that she put on her right hand. The glove was almost too big for her, but she clenched her fist anyway, holding up a piece of meat. Her father carried the bird away to a hillside nearby.
Aisholpan called across the field in a loud voice—“Huukaa! Huukaa!”—and the eagle flew from her father and landed on her arm, its sharp talons digging into the glove.
As the eagle tore at the meat in her hand, Aisholpan smiled.
DREAMING OF EAGLES
During the week, Aisholpan attended boarding school at a nearby town and stayed in a dormitory with her younger brother and sister.
She studied hard, dreaming of one day becoming a doctor who could heal her mother’s illness. But sitting in class she sometimes missed the thrill of calling the eagle and the feel of its talons digging into her glove. She had enjoyed training with her father’s bird, but she wanted her own. She wanted to become a real eagle hunter.
One day when her father came to pick up his children from school, he told her it was time.
“Time for what?” Aisholpan wondered.
He smiled mysteriously and said, “Time to find an eaglet of your own.”
AN EAGLET OF HER OWN
Although eagles could be bought at a high price, traditional Kazakh eagle hunters caught young eagles in the wild and trained them to hunt. These eagles became part of the family.
Aisholpan and her father rode into the mountains on horseback. He spotted the eagles’ nest resting on a ledge that jutted out from a steep ridge and held out his binoculars to her. She gazed up at the squawking birds nestled among a jumble of sticks and grasses.
“Legendary eagle hunters have captured their eagles in these mountains for generations,” her father said. He pointed to a steep slope that led to the top of the craggy outcropping. “We will climb up one side. And then I will lower you down to the eagle’s nest.”
They scrambled up the slope. From the top, Aisholpan could see so far—she imagined she could even see to her family’s round tent-like home. The wind blew strands of hair back from her face, and she heard the eaglets crying below.
Her father tied a rope around her waist, finishing it with a thick knot. When she looked over the edge of the ridge, it made her dizzy.
“Don’t let go of the rope,” she said nervously as he held it tightly.
“Don’t worry, my child. I won’t,” he said.
She lowered herself into the first crevice, her hands gripping the edges of the rocks. Suddenly, she slipped. Her hands grabbed the rock wall, and the rope pulled tight. She steadied herself. Just below her was the eagle’s nest, but below that was rock, rock, and more rock. And then the hard ground. Her heart beat quickly in her ribcage.
“Are you alright?” her father called.
Aisholpan breathed deeply and listened to the eaglets calling from the nest.
“I slipped,” she said. “But I’m almost there.”
She climbed down and across the face of the rock wall. Finally, her feet landed in the eagles’ nest. The birds squawked, flapping their wings as they shuffled away from her.
“Send down the blanket,” she yelled to her father, and he sent down a thick, red blanket tied to a rope.
Her hands were trembling. She wanted the eaglets to know she would love and take care for them. She spoke gently to the eaglets, getting closer and closer. Then, she threw the blanket around one eaglet, leaving the other behind, and tied the bundle closed with another rope.
“I’ve got one!” she yelled.
She watched as he pulled the bundle up the rock face.
Now she had her very own eagle which she named Akkanat, meaning “White Wings.”
THE EAGLE-HUNTING COMPETITION
Every spare moment, Aisholpan bonded with her eagle, stroking its soft feathers. Aisholpan knew that Akkanat needed to feel safe in order to trust her so she sang to it. Her voice tumbled over the pitches and valleys of the folk songs that her own parents had sung to her as a child. Soon enough, the eaglet would learn to recognize the sound of Aisholpan’s voice and fly to her whenever she called.
Though she and her bird were both young, when Aisholpan heard about the upcoming eagle hunting contest—the same one her father had won a few years before—she knew she had to enter.
It was a difficult competition. And no woman had ever competed in it.
She and her father trained rigorously, and then on the day of the competition, they rode on horseback for a full day to get to the festival, their heavy, 15-pound eagles perched on their right arms. They crossed streams and fields and hills, the dust rising up from under their horses’ hooves, until finally, they reached their province’s capital town, Ulgii.
More than 70 eagle hunters entered the competition, and all of them were men except for Aisholpan. Most of them were older, too, some as old as 80!
Aisholpan was nervous, but she wasn’t afraid. She knew what her eagle could do, and her father was there to coach her.
The hunters were first scored based on their outfit, horse, and equipment. Aisholpan rode with confidence, her fur-lined hat firmly on her head, and her dark, braided pigtails tied with bright white bows.
Later on, the hunters called their eagles down from the far away mountainside, and each eagle had to land on the hunter’s arm. Whoever’s eagle was fastest would win.
Aisholpan rode her horse into the ring and held up a piece of meat in her right hand. She called loudly to Akkanat, “Huukaa! Huukaa!” From the side of the hill, her father released her eagle, which seemed to shoot down from the sky.
The bird landed on Aisholpan’s outstretched arm, and the audience cheered. Akkanat had flown to Aisholpan in only five seconds. It was a new record!
Aisholpan grinned. She was happier than she had ever been and was so proud of her eagle. Together, they had won first place, and she knew then that she had proved to everyone how strong girls are.
INTO THE WILD
Winning the competition wasn’t enough to make Aisholpan a true eagle hunter. So, a few months after the festival, in the heart of winter, she and her father took her young eagle to go fox hunting in the mountains for the first time.
The snow swirled around them as they rode their horses. Aisholpan felt the cold in her fingers and face, but her fur-lined clothes kept her body warm. She held Akkanat up on her arm, and gazed out into the blindingly white world before her.
It could take weeks to find her first fox. Aisholpan and her father would sleep in a nearby town and return to the mountains each day until she and her eagle caught one.
They rode on, scanning the land for movement or fresh pawprints. Suddenly, they spotted the trail and soon after a streak of reddish-brown scurrying by. A fox!
She and her father split up, just as he’d trained her to do. He would cut off the fox’s path, pushing it toward Aisholpan, whose horse stood up on a ridge to give Akkanat the best view.
After her father chased the fox into the open, Aisholpan released her eagle into the sky. The eagle soared high above them and then sliced diagonally across the sky like an arrow down to the fox. Akkanat and fox wrestled and wrestled, but the fox got away.
Aisholpan came down the mountainside and called the eagle back to her. She didn’t understand what had gone wrong.
But her father smiled. “The fox is a clever animal, not in a hurry to give up his life.”
Still, Aisholpan worried. She and Akkanat could win a contest, but what if they never caught a fox?
They rode on through deep snow. Finally, she and her father spotted another fox so they split up again. Aisholpan rode up to the top of a hill. The fox darted across the snow, running from the beating hooves of her father’s galloping horse.
Then she shouted to Akkanat, “Huukaa! Huukaa!” And the bird launched into the sky, its wings spread wide. And then it shot down toward the fox.
The eagle caught the fox in its talons, and they rolled on the ground until the fox moved no more.
“Akkanat caught it!” Aisholpan called as she rode down the mountain. “We caught our first fox!”
Aisholpan’s father smiled at her, and Aisholpan smiled back. Then, she got off her horse, gave the eagle some meat, and stroked its soft feathers. She was happy to have won the competition, but even happier to have caught her first fox—the feat of a true eagle hunter.
EAGLE HUNTING LEGACY
In the years that followed, Aisholpan continued to train her eagle, hunt with her father, and compete at the eagle hunting competition. Inspired by Aisholpan, other girls and women started to train eagles and compete in Ulgii, too. At the most recent festival in 2018, there were about 100 competitors, and although most of them were men, there were three young women competing—including Aisholpan herself.
As graduation approaches, Aisholpan feels time with her family slipping away. She is uncomfortably aware that one day, she’ll have to say goodbye to Akkanat. They will head back into the mountains to release her favorite hunting companion. And then, the wild bird will be free to take a mate and have chicks of her own.
But right now, time is on her side.
Aisholpan can still teach her sister what it takes to be an eagle hunter. And she wouldn’t want any other eagle than Akkanat by her side.
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Elettra, any chance the other child says this section a little louder?