The Eastern Steppe of Mongolia is nearly ten times the size of the Serengeti, and the rest of the country consists mostly of rolling hills and big-sky plains.

All of that wide-open space makes Mongolia a paradise for birds of prey.

I recently spent ten days exploring the landlocked nation with conservationist and author Peter Matthiessen, bird expert Victor Emanuel, and a small group of adventure travelers on a special trip to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nomadic Expeditions — Mongolia’s pioneering ecotourism company — with the company’s founder, Jalsa Urubshurow.

The country’s diverse habitats, ranging from the Gobi Desert in the south to the Altai Mountains on the cusp of Russia in the far west, were as unexpected as they were beautiful (turns out the Gobi is not a stark dunescape but blanketed in a wild onion called taana, an important food source for traditional pastoralists’ herds).

A saker falcon with its chick. (Photograph courtesy Gombobaatar Sundev)

We attended the annual Golden Eagle Festival in the remote Bayan-Ölgii province, which honors the ancient tradition of hunting with birds of prey with competition and camaraderie. Some of the hunters rode on horseback for more than 100 miles to participate. Horseback remains the primary means of getting around for pastoralists and, when traversing the country’s network of rutted roads (as I just did), you encounter more horses than cars.

While we were there, preparations were underway for another important celebration: the 850th Birthday of Genghis Khan — or, to be more accurate, Chinggis Khaan as Mongolians officially spell and pronounce their legendary ancestor’s name — on November 14.

Although the Mongolia of today is much smaller than the empire Chinggis and his sons presided over, Mongolians accept and revere him as the founder of their nation. And, like many modern-day Mongolians, Chinggis is said to have been fond of the country’s majestic birds of prey — especially the saker falcon.

Legend has it that he owed his marital happiness to the bird (a young Chinggis was introduced to his future wife after a saker falcon appeared in the dream of a wise man, who arranged a meeting). Later in life, the famed leader frequently called upon his soldiers to emulate the saker falcon — to be sharp-eyed and fast — in battle. And it was not uncommon for his son, Kublai Khan, to conduct important meetings with a saker falcon perched on each stakeholder’s shoulder — a practice modern hunters continue today.

So what better way to celebrate the 850th birthday of Chinggis Khaan than to proclaim the saker falcon Mongolia’s very first national bird, as the country has done? The move not only provides a fitting tribute to Mongolia’s founding father; it will also help raise awareness about the importance of protecting the endangered species and launch Mongolia into the world of great bird-watching destinations.

I’m already planning my next trip to Mongolia — to the Flaming Cliffs where, in 1923, American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews discovered the first nest of dinosaur eggs and a treasure trove of dinosaur bones. Among the finds? A flightless, feathery carnivorous ancestor of modern birds of prey: the Velociraptor.

So, happy birthday, Genghis. May the nation you founded — and the birds of prey you came to love — flourish in the days to come.

Costas Christ is Editor at Large at National Geographic Traveler, where his column, “Tales From The Frontier” appears regularly. 

Comments

  1. Islander
    Hungary
    April 21, 2013, 5:55 pm

    This is interesting, this bird is also the national symbol of Hungary (known as Turul in my language)

  2. Gantuya Ganbold
    Kaohsiung, Taiwan
    November 20, 2012, 8:47 am

    Wonderful Article, Mr. Costas Christ. I hope to read your next article. Good luck for your next visit to Mongolia and i believe there are many readers looking forward to it .

  3. christian
    November 19, 2012, 2:39 am

    wow 850 years!

  4. Pam Eglinski
    Lawrence, KS USA
    November 15, 2012, 5:13 pm

    Perfect timing! I’ve just finished a novel [to be published in April] called “She Rides with Genghis Khan”, and SHE does! Watch for my novel on Amazon in the spring!

  5. DN
    Mongolia
    November 14, 2012, 9:57 pm

    Like it.

    A message to my great ancestor: Happy birthday Chinggis Khaan. Inevitably, all the people will be united in the future. Your dream about “One World” will finally come true. Because this is also what all the people dreaming of and trying to make it real.

  6. Tuyatsetseg Metz
    Seattle, WA
    November 14, 2012, 6:06 pm

    I just want to correct name of the province that host the Golden Eagle Festival is ”Bayan Ulgii”. And I believe we spell ”Khublai Khaan” like this. Otherwise great article. Good luck on your next visit to Mongolia.