Golden Eagle Festival

The Golden Eagle Festival

Ulgii, Western Mongolia

Oct 6th/7th, 2019

The main reason I came to Mongolia at this time of the year, was to visit the Golden Eagle Festival, something I had wanted to do for years. I had booked a guided tour through a local company called Kazakh Tour. (It had very good reviews on Tripadvisor, and it was a fraction of the cost of what western tour operators charge for similar trips.)

The festival takes place every year on a weekend in early October and is located about 7 kilometers outside Ulgii in a wide valley next to the Khovd River. The competition area was a large fenced-in field in front of a 200 meter high hill, from which they would launch the eagles. Here is the view from the top of the hill.

This was the 20th anniversary of the Golden Eagle Festival. What started as a small gathering in 1999 has grown ever since, attracting more and more visitors from abroad every year. This year counted over 1,000 tourists, and I was incredibly excited to be one of them. But the festival is certainly not something they just put on for the tourists. Many locals came out to watch and enthusiastically cheer on the competitors. I even ran into the nomad couple we had lunch with two days earlier, who had at least a 3 hour drive to get here.

Hunting with eagles is an ancient tradition, and it is only practiced by Kazakh nomads. (Ethnic Mongolians do not hunt with eagles.) There were 126 hunters with their eagles participating, including a handful of girls, one as young as 14. You could see the great pride with which they wore their beautiful fox fur coats and hats and showed off their giant birds. Apparently, the hats are made only of the fur on the shin of the front legs of the fox, and it takes 26 foxes to make one hat.

The festival gained enormous international attention following the movie "The Eagle Huntress", which followed 13-year-old Aisholpan in her quest to become an eagle hunter. That movie still is one of the visually most beautiful films I have ever seen. Although it was a documentary, it did allow itself a few minor artistic freedoms, such as the claim that Aisholpan was the first female eagle hunter in 1000 years. In fact, there have always been girls among the hunters. Fathers who had no sons often taught the art of eagle hunting to their daughters. Despite the minor inaccuracies people here were very happy with the movie, since they recognize how many more tourists it has brought to their region.

After the opening parade and a few lengthy speeches, the first day's main event kicked of. Each hunter had to ride into the arena, hollering loudly in order to call his eagle down from the top of the mountain, and trying to get it to fly straight down and land on his arm. They received points based on the time it took for the eagle to come down, and extra points if they caught the eagle in one of the circles marked out on the field. However, most eagles did not comply. I would say less than a third of them caught their eagle at all. Some of the birds couldn't be bothered to even take off, others decided to fly behind the other side of the mountain and some circled around for a bit and then just sat down on the ground somewhere far away from their hunters. But whenever a hunter caught his eagle, there was much applause and cheers from the knowledgeable local spectators.

Near the end of the first day there was a camel race, which was a lot of fun to watch. Camels are probably not something most people would associate with Mongolia, but they are indeed indigenous to Mongolia and Central Asia. These so-called Bactrian camels, were first domesticated in the region almost 5,000 years ago.

In the evening, all foreign visitors were invited to see a show of local Kazakh music in the large town theater in Ulgii. It was a cheerful event, with lots of different singing, dancing and music performances mostly played on traditional instruments.

Day two started with the second part of the tamed eagle competition. This time the eagles had to fly down from the hill and catch a piece of fox fur that was being pulled behind a horse. Those eagle hunters that had failed to call their eagles down the previous day, had been eliminated. This meant that out of the initial 126 starters only 41 got to participate on day two. And these clearly had the better-trained eagles, since almost all of them came straight down and landed on the fox furs. It was a spectacular sight seeing these giant birds shoot down with incredible speed and then open their huge wings just before they hit the fox with pinpoint accuracy.

The atmosphere around the whole festival was really fantastic. All the hunters were here with their families and already preparing the next generation. You could see how much fun they had themselves and how proud they were to show off their tradition to the visitors.

After the eagle event had finished, the festival continued with several other fun events. The so called 'coin grabbing' involved riders displaying their riding skills and agility by picking up a series of small parcels from the ground, while going at full gallop.

The 'grab the girl' event is a traditional Kazakh dating game, which unsurprisingly is also performed on horseback. As far as I understood, the 'game' entails a man and woman riding away together for a mile or so. Once out of sight, the man sneaks in a kiss and quickly rides away from her. The girl then chases him and tries to hit him with her horse whip. The participating couples were judged based on riding speed, on how hard and stylishly the woman whipped her man (and some of the ladies really went for it), and for their beautiful and elaborate traditional costumes.

The last event of the day was a tug of war on horseback, where two riders hold on to a heavy piece of stuffed sheep's skin and try to pull each other off their horses until one of them lets go. We witnessed some very impressive athletic feats in that event.

The festival ended with a parade and the announcement of the winners, which took quite a while, since they seemed to call up and give certificates to almost all of the participants. The overall winner of the eagle contest received a cheque for 1.5m MNT (which is about USD 600).

It was an incredible privilege to witness this festival, just one of the greatest events I have ever been to. We had a lovely dinner in the hotel that evening and left Ulgii the next morning for our drive to Khovd.

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