Unknown Mongolia : A Record of Travel and Exploration in North-West Mongolia and Dzungaria

Unknown Mongolia is Douglas Carruthers’ master work, two huge volumes of ethnographic and geographic accounts from a field trip in 1910. Carruthers was accompanied by the hunter Jack Humphrey Miller, who helped finance the mission and contributed two chapters of his own to the book.

Visiting the upper valleys of the Khovd River in modern-day Bayan-Ölgii, Mongolia, Carruthers became captivated by the Kirei. Here, in the “farthest outpost of Islam in Asia”, was a tribe that Carruthers claimed was descended from Prestorian Christians. Even before finding their settlements, he knew he had found them when he stumbled upon their hunting eagles, tied to trees:

The encampments were pitched in snug quarters amongst the reeds and the poplars, so well protected as to be almost hidden from view; their existence was quickly discovered, however, by the presence of many golden- eagles tethered to the higher branches of the poplar trees. Inner Asia is the home of falconry, and the natives not only use hawks and falcons, but even train the great golden-eagles for the purpose of hunting such large quarry as gazelle, foxes, and even wolves. p. 358


Several pages later, the Kirei are glowingly admired for the sophistication of their lifestyle, falconry as its noble core:

These well-made yurts, covered with white felt, were in direct contrast to the black, torn, and ragged tents of the Mongols. The interior spoke of prosperity, and showed a distinct appreciation of comfort. Clean carpets of felt covered the floor, and many household belongings stood around the sides — gaudily-coloured boxes, a bed, quilts and cushions, saddlery and a falcon; while the right-hand side of the tent displayed a profusion of cooking-pots, kettles, kummis-bags, and other signs of a commissariat, such as would arouse the envy of any Mongol housewife…There was almost an appearance of opulence in these Kirghiz encampments; in comparison with the Mongols and Uriankhai, these Kirei tribesmen might be described as “gentlemen-rovers,” rich in flocks and herds, well-housed, owning a fine country, and with sufficient leisure at their disposal to indulge in horse-racing and in falconry. p.362-363

Moving south into what is now Xinjiang, Carruthers found hawkers in an altogether different corner of Central Asia. The geographer and his companions were priveleged travellers, visiting the highest of officials along the way, and thisthis included, magnificently, the so-called “King of the Gobi,” Maqsud Shah. Lording over the city-state of Kumul, the Uyghur shah was, like most royalty-types in the region, quite keen on falconry:

He possessed stables for his horses, mews for his falcons, and a three-storied harem for his womenfolk, while surrounding the palace was spread a garden of extraordinary luxuriance. p. 489

Maqsud Shah kept a team of falconers at his court, and upon Carruthers’ request, they showed off his wares:

We chanced to ask if he had any falcons, and the falconers appeared as if by magic. one with a peregrine, another a goshawk, and a third bearing a magnificent golden-eagle. p. 491

The next mention of falconry in the work comes from Mr. Miller, who contributed Chapter 20, “Game of the Plains.” Miller never got to see a hunt, but he quotes liberally from his predecessor Charles Sperling Cumberland:

The Kirghiz, and occasionally the Chantos, have a much more sporting way of hunting gazelle, by means of trained golden eagles, called in Turki ” bouragut.” This method is only attempted in winter, when the game is easy to approach, and the sportsmen have plenty of time on their hands. Often we saw a man riding along with a hooded eagle on his well-gauntlet ed right hand. The great weight of the bird is supported by means of a forked stick for the wrist, which fits into a socket in the front of the saddle. We were never fortunate enough to see a flight ; but Major Cumberland, in Sport on the Pamirs and Turkestan Steppes, gives such a good account of a kill he witnessed on the Tarim east of Aksu, that I cannot do better than quote his description.

“I was anxious to see the eagle work, and, as I could see nothing of a stag, went off with the Yuzbeggie in the afternoon to try for another jeran. I was mooning along thinking of something else, when all of a sudden the Yuzbeggie started off as hard as he could gallop across the maidan (plain). I followed suit, and soon made out a doe- jeran in the distance. It stood and looked at us in amazement, and then cantered off, not very fast, while we still continued our headlong career, every now and then floundering on to our noses over a tussock of grass or into a hole hidden by the snow, until we got to about a hundred yards from our game, which only then realized the situation, and extended its stride. The shikari now hurled the eagle, which he had unhooded and held clasped to his breast during the run, at the jeran. The eagle, instead of rising like a falcon and sweeping on its prey, flapped along with its great wings quite close to the ground ; and, although it seemed to fly very slowly, gradually caught up the jeran, which was impeded in its course by the high grass, and at last grabbed it by the rump with its strong talons. It regularly dragged the deer down, and held on for some time, the little gazelle kicking out like mad. We still galloped on, and I wondered what the finish would be. The shikari, when he got up to them, without drawing rein threw himself off his pony, and grabbed the deer by the hind- leg, just as it had kicked itself free, and, pulling out his knife, cut its throat.”

In addition to gazelle, hares, foxes, and even wolves are killed by means of the golden eagle ; but, in the case of wolves, dogs are generally used to assist the bird. p. 586-587

Reading the text, I was initially confused by the mention of eagle-hunting “Chantos” – who were this mysterious tribe? In a footnote on p. 397, Carruthers’ clears things up:

The name of Chanto will constantly recur throughout the following chapters, and needs some explanation. It is the Chinese generic name for all Mohammedan-Turki sedentary people, meaning literally “wound round their heads,” or turban-wearers. It corresponds to the Russian term “Sart,” as applied to the sedentary population of Russian Central Asia. All the inhabitants of Chinese Turkestan are Chantos, but they have no such broad title for themselves, – as a people, they have no name, – describing themselves only according to the towns to which they belong, viz. Kashgarlik, Turfanlik, Kumulik.

Carruthers’ text can be read in its entirety on the Internet Archive.

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