The eagle. A magnificent and beautiful bird, and often depicted throughout history as a symbol of power and strength, and at the Golden Eagle Festival you can witness this with your own eyes. In Mongolia (and other areas of Central Asia) it has been used for hunting in a traditional form of falconry for thousands of years, with petroglyphs from the Bronze age depicting this ancient sport. There are Kazakh families in the province of Bayan-Olgii in Western Mongolia that use Golden Eagles (Bürkit) to hunt for small game, predominantly in the winter as this is when the fur animals (foxes, rabbits etc) that they hunt for have the best coats.
The eagles (usually the female ones) are captured either as chicks from the nest or as a young bird and the bird is then trained by their owner. They are later released back into the wild at the age of 7-8 and can live for up to a total of 30 years!
Each year the Golden Eagle Festival is held near Olgii on the first weekend of October. There are also several other smaller eagle festivals held in the region around this time of year. The festival is a chance for the eagle hunters/huntresses to compete with their eagles and also includes a number of other traditional events. The festival was a great opportunity to see the incredible relationship between human, bird and horse and the strength, power and agility of all three parties. And the traditional clothing they wear is just so beautiful (and warm!).
The ‘qualifying event’ on day one involves the eagle being released from halfway up a hill to it’s owner who is riding his/her horse on the rocky field below waving a piece of meat in their hand and calling for their eagle. On the ground there are three circles, with the numbers 6/8/10 inside of them moving away from the hill. There are points allocated based on how quickly the bird comes to their owner and which circle they are in. I was told approximately 120 hunters competed in the qualifier and 40 went through to the finals. Some of the eagles were very responsive, some circled for a while before landing, and some completely ignored what was going on, landing somewhere else or went to the wrong rider.
For the final round on the second day the eagle was released from the top of the hill and the rider was down on the field again, but this time dragging a lour of a dead rabbit (or similar) behind him/her. Some of the eagles were so sharp, that within a second of being released they had locked onto their target and headed straight for it. As the eagle landed a loud wave of camera shutters went off.
The other events were archery (both on horseback and on the ground – they are incredible shots!), a camel race (one camel sat down just before the finish line!), a coin pick-up competition (the Tiyn Teru – where riders would pick up ‘coins’ from the ground while riding along) a traditional dress competition and some sort of competition that was a race between a man and a woman (Kyz Kuar). I didn’t really understand what the rules were, but then man seemed to be trying to steal the woman’s horse, and the woman galloped along beating the man with a stick. Some were doing it very convincingly and it was hilarious!
Besides the eagle events, the other highlight is the Bushkashi. Where a goat skin (an eviscerated and headless goat that has been sewn back together) is used in a tug of war competition. The goat skin is placed on the ground, and two at a time the riders would ride up to it, pick it up and fight over it until someone ended up with the goat skin and won that round. The riders were at times hanging off the side of the horse clamped on only by using their legs. Sometimes the horses would just stand there while the riders struggled and sometimes they would be racing around the ring with their riders just hanging on, but still not letting go of the goat. It was very entertaining to watch and appeared to be a favourite event among the local spectators too.
Unfortunately, during this event there was an incident among the competitors. I am not sure of the details as it all happened quite quickly and every report I heard afterwards differed. Either way there was drunk people, a dispute in the refereeing of the Bushkashi competition, a horse that fell, a policeman with a taser, people punching each other and a man was dragged from the brawl unconscious with blood all over his face and someone started to perform CPR on him. Other than the odd one on one punch-up between teenage boys at school I had never witnessed something like this and it wasn’t very nice. It escalated to the point where stones were being thrown and that was my cue to leave and sit and wait on the bus. I did hear from many sources that the unconscious man was ok and they eventually finished the competition. However, it was a real shame that this had to happen at the end of what was a really great event.
The nitty gritty:
- The Golden Eagle Festival is the largest of the eagle festivals. It was a great event to go to, but I would not go to this one again. I would go to one of the smaller ones as there are less tourists there and you are able to be closer to the action instead of behind roped off areas.
- 2018 eagle festival dates:
- Spring Eagle Festival – 21-22 March (sponsored by Blue Wolf Travel)
- Altai Eagle Festival – 15-16 September (sponsored by Blue Wolf Travel) – held in Sagsai (About 30km west of Olgii)
- Golden Eagle Festival – 6-7 October – held near Olgii
- Alma Kuk Golden Eagle Festival – 15/16 September – Ulaankhus, Western Mongolia – NOTE: live prey (e.g. rabbits) will be used at this festival
- There are also other smaller regional ones that I heard people have come across, but they are not widely advertised.
- 2018 eagle festival dates:
- See my next post on Olgii for the options on getting to and from there.
- I estimated that there was maybe 700 spectators, many tourists but also quite a few locals, especially on the second day. For me it was a little intense as I had not been around that many people for a long time and the ferocity that some people were displaying to get the ‘perfect photo’ was a little too much at times.
- The festival is held about 8km south east of Olgii in a dry flat area with a hill for the release of the eagles. There are many tours that include a visit to the festival and they include all transport, food and accommodation. For us budget travellers however, there is another option: i stayed at the Travellers Guesthouse in Olgii (a small ger camp near the centre of town – 20,000T/night) and the owner there organised a bus to and from the festival for 20,000T for both days.
- It was cold! It was a little windy and it snowed a bit, and with all that standing around you feel pretty frosty by the end of the day. Bring warm clothes!
- There were really beautiful handicraft stalls set up by them women in the province. It is a great place to buy some beautiful handmade souvenirs from the actual person who made it.
- For food, there was a bunch of small stalls selling snacks and a few places to retreat from the cold for some hot tea, and a few small kebab stalls. I even had cheese and meat-filled hooshur. Yum!!
- Entry to festival $30USD for both days – either paid in tugrik or USD, it is paid at the entry to the festival.