One of the reasons we wanted to visit the Altai was to attend one of the traditional eagle festivals near Olgii. The Golden Eagle Festival was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the Kazakh culture.
What is the Golden Eagle Festival?
The two-day event started in 1999 as a way to promote Kazakh heritage. At the time of creation, the festival saw the participation of about 40 eagle hunters. With now around 80 to 100, the festival has become one of the largest gatherings of Kazakh. Eagle hunters put their best costumes, with both the robust Mongolian horses and the full-feathered eagles wearing decorated tacks. Beyond the expert display of the hunter’s’ skills, both humans and birds, the festival also features traditional Kazakh games such as Tiyn Teru, Kyz Kuar, and Kokpar. In the evening, traditional Kazakh music and performances are held in downtown Olgii.
The festival became famous note after a documentary in 2016 called The Eagle Huntress, featuring 13-year-old Aisholpan, the first female to break the millennia-old tradition traditionally passed from fathers to sons. Not only did she enter the competition, but also won. She has since opened the door to more young girls participating in Eagle hunting. She, as well as other girls, was present during the festival.
Strong Horsemanship and Eagle Hunting Skills
The two-day event has a daily schedule however, the timeline was flexible, and we discovered on the go where and when some activities took place. Make sure to go early if you want a specific spot specially around the central game field where most parades occur(some people or tour operators brought their portable seats and canopies). Also beware that security around fierce eagles, strong-tempered horses, and the rest of curious onlookers is more than relaxed. Overzealous selfiers beware!
Golden Eagle Festival Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony introduced all hunters individually, each of them proudly holding their eagle high on their fists. After several runs at full gallops around the arena, the hunters gathered together for visitors to take photographs.
Within seconds, hundreds of voracious photographers, professional and amateurs alike, surrounded the horses, hunters, and eagles. Each cutting in front of the other, tucking their long lenses in the faces of the participants. This lasted a while and felt like a zoo.
A few photographers even stayed in the arena as the competition started, oblivious that they had to leave. After several calls in Kazakh to no avail, an English-speaker asked of these people to vacate the premises. Still, no movement. It took someone to escort them out.
Eagle Calling Event
The first day is mostly allocated for the eagle hunters to demonstrate the different aspects of the eagle training and hunting skills. The first competition is a calling event.
Three circles marked the field, each with varying numbers of points – 6, 8, and 10. The eagle is brought to the top of the nearby hill, while its hunter awaits on his horse in a given circle.
The eagle is let go, flying towards and landing directly on the hunter’s arm. The further the ring, the higher the point. Several confident hunters went to the circle 10.
Many of their eagles flew in a straight line to their hunters, while others took a longer road, checking nearby rocks for small rodents, or even disappearing high in the sky. As the competition went on, more eagles were loose, fighting among themselves, or landing with another on a hunter’s arm. The younger hunters tended to use the lower numbers as they honed their calling skills, the same way several experienced hunters were training their young eagles.
Shyrga Tartu – Lure Grabbing
The next event was similarly calling the eagles from the top of the mountain. However, instead of landing on the hunter’s arm, the birds had to grab a piece of rabbit fur of rabbit tied on the rope and left trailing on the ground behind the horse. In previous years, the horses were pulling actual dead rabbits or foxes, but the most recent version only uses the fur. The more experienced pairs of eagle-men hunters would succeed with the horse galloping at full speed. Less able ones would still their horses and await the eagle to land on the fur.
Urianhai Archery Competition
While the main event took place in the arena, a contest of archery took place all day long. With heavy bows and long arrows, these archers put on quite a show.
The morning of the second-day started by a continuation of the calling event, where only a few selected from the day before were able to participate. Only the best display of Kazakh horsemanship and hunting from the first day of Golden Eagle Festival competed on the last day.
Tenge Ily – Coin Grabbing
During this game, a coin is thrown, which riders pick it up from the ground while still on horseback. It was really impressive to see the riders throwing themselves toward the ground, pick a tiny object, and continue to ride at full speed. I rode horses for ten years and would have by no mean try to do it!
Kyz Kuar – Girls Chasing and Whipping Boys
Also called the “girl chase,” both man and woman are racing side by side on their horses. The man tries to escape the wrath of the women who whips him tirelessly. Some men were better at avoiding the whipping than others. Some women were better, or at least more eager, at “beating” than others. This event was hilarious, and you could tell that each pair was having fun.
Kukhbar – Goat Skin Competition
The game is a tug of war over a goat carcass between two riders on horses. It used to be an actual dead goat, but the more recent events use a woolen decoy. This game is probably the most competitive of all the different contests. Each participant fully committed with their full strength to pull the “carcass.” In a few occasions, disputes arose, with participants appearing on the judging platform and angrily complaining. One or two times, another rider would join in the argument. The trio would then pull, gallop, turn, twist, sometimes even push their way through the crowd. Or set the horses again at full speed racing side by side, while the men pull the carcass.
The starting point of the race is far in the plains, so far we could at first only see the clouds of dust, but no camels. As they approached the finishing line, the enormous beasts pushed through the open terrain like nothing. Despite their size, they moved at a remarkable speed!
Best Dressed Men and Women
The costumes were all unique, a display of various customs and traditions, all high in colors. A couple of the hunters came from Kazakhstan, wearing different styles of clothes and hats in comparison to the Mongol Kazakhs.
A Kazakh Festival for Kazakhs
Aside from the many tourists, the Golden Eagle Festival remains an important event for Kazakhs around the Altai region. Many Kazakh families attended, with kids playing around, and riding horses and camels alike. Many would shop at the stalls, try their end at the archery competition too. Or simply watch the contestants.
Traditional Kazakh Food
Several yurts offered traditional Mongol staple of basically mutton, either rice or noodle. Hot tea was of course provided in all of them. Pasta and dumplings are made fresh right in the ger. You might have to wait a bit during the lunch rush hour but it’s warm inside, and you can sip your hot tea while waiting.
Local Kazakh Crafts
The display was for both the visitors as well as local people. Stalls displayed new saddles and horse bridles, warm gloves made of sheep wool and skin, colorful blankets. You can even find the occasional eagle skulls and feathers. The prized items are the hand-embroidered tapestries and rugs, which they hang inside the gers.
Eagle Hunter Ger
Many hunters open their houses during the festival, where you can stay for a night or two, and learn about their nomadic lifestyle. We had an incredible opportunity to visit with such a Kazakh family for a week around Sagsai, hunting with the hunter and his eagle, riding our Mongolian horses surrounded by the Altai mountains, and even helped migrated livestock over a 14-hour horse ride that ended at night. September and October are usually the last months the nomadic Kazakh live in their ger. In winter, many move to live in their fixed winter houses, where they can shelter the livestock, and protect themselves better from the harsh winter temperatures.
Traditional Singing and Folk Music
The performances are held in the theater in downtown Olgii and present a variety of singers, musicians, and dancers.
Golden Eagle Festival: Independent Travel or Organized Tour
You can easily organize this yourself, by booking your flights from and to Ulaan Baatar. Once in Olgii, your accommodation can help you buy the Golden Eagle Festival entrance tickets and organize the transportation. Granted, not many people speak English, but if you use Google Translate, you can get by. We even arranged a weeklong stay in a Kazakh hunter ger by meeting local people and translating as we went. See below costs for the Festival done independently.
The advantage of an organized tour is obviously you don’t have to worry about transportation and Google Translate. An English-speaking guide will also give you more background information, introduce and be a liaison for discussion with the local hunters, and even organize a stay with a family. Average costs we saw for an organized tour is about
Costs for attending the Golden Eagle Festival Independently
- Entrance tickets, valid for two days: 30 USD per person
- Shuttle to Festival Ground (about 8 kms / 5 miles from Olgii): about 10,000 MNT per person
- Lunch / Dinner: around 8,000-10,000 MNT for 2 per meal for local food
- Ger Camp per bed in a dorm-ger: 10,000 MNT per person per night
Golden Eagle Festival Travel Tips:
- The Golden Eagle Festival is usually the first week of October, and the weather tends to grow colder during that time. When we were there, days were warm enough to stand with just a fleece, but mornings, evenings, and nights were definitely on the cold side.
- The festival itself is an open plain that is very windy. Make sure to bring a solid windproof jacket and several layers, as well as woolen cap and gloves. Standing there all day long is sure to make you feel cold. Similarly, wear good sturdy shoes. The terrain is uneven, and because of the wind and the presence of animals, you want to make sure your feet are well protected.
- Sunglasses, not only for the sun but because of the dust again
Photography Tips for the Golden Eagle Festival:
- Binoculars would be an excellent addition to keep an eye on the eagles while they are waiting on the top of the hills, or spotting a lost eagle in the sky
- Tripod and filters for photo enthusiasts. Note that given the crowd you might not be able to put the tripod wherever you want. If you find a nice spot, it will help you make better photos. Watch for the constant wind and sand though.
- Be ready also to move around if you want to have different angles
- If so, make sure to climb the hills to get a bird’s view – literally!
Golden Eagle Hunting: A Tradition Milenna-Old in Harsh Nomadic Life
The tradition of hunting with eagles is said to be around 2,000 years. It came from Kazakhstan as families moved into nearby Mongolia. The skills were traditionally passed from fathers to sons. Then Aisholpan rose to fame as the first widely recognized daughter to hunt with her eagle. Since then, several girls have been taking an active part in the tradition.
Hunters train their Eagles over many years, from the time eaglets are taken from their nest. The hunters continuously talk and touch the eagle to create a bond. Golden Eagles are large predators: up to 10 kgs (20 pounds), massive wingspan, and sharp talons and beak and any lack of respect for the eagle can trigger a dangerous response from the raptor. Moreover, eagles who receive bad treatment tend to fly away, not returning after a hunt.
As wildlife preservation advocates, seeing the proud animals chained to their post and most of the time wearing hood was far from being a positive image for us. However, we also spent a week with an Eagle hunter and saw how he treated his bird. He prepared meals, cutting small bits of fresh meat into a dedicated bowl. He talked to the animal, brushing the feathers on many occasions. The care and attention of the hunter with his eagle were evident and profound. And we saw the same dedication among other Eagle hunters we came to meet during our stay there.
As with any sport or activity involving animals, the question is whether the activity should exist to start with. We do not support animal abuse in any way, on the contrary. But the harsh conditions in which the Kazakh nomads have historically been living and the use of their natural elements, cannot be discarded. Hunting with Eagles is one of the ways the nomads traditionally found food and survived in their challenging environment.
The modernization of the country and nearby cities bring a few modern necessities in term of accessing food. However, nomads might live far in the mountains. It might take a day or two by car or motorbike to reach the cities with any store. And when they do, money is still scarce in these regions. It is not because the food is available that one can afford it. One of the families barely we met barely had enough money to buy their young daughter new glasses as she prepared to go back to school and could barely read her books.
While far from condoning how the Eagles are found and kept chained, taking into account the living environment add to understanding the nomadic culture and their way of life. We can only hope that tourism is not going to motivate people non-traditional nomadic culture or non-hunting families to obtain eagles for business opportunities.
Where to Stay in Olgii
Being the main city in that part of Mongolia, Olgii offers several lodging options. However, don’t expect a wide range or luxury hotels. Most of the accommodation in Olgii are hostels where you can stay in gers or a couple of medium-range hotels.
Mongolia Travel Resources
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