To experience eagle hunter culture, we travel to what feels like the ends of the earth—to the small town of Ulgii, deep in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia’s wild West. We’re here to attend the Golden Eagle Festival, which began in 1999. After Mongolia emerged from Soviet influence, its citizens began restoring and celebrating their culture.
It’s the first weekend in October, but in Mongolia winter has already arrived. It’s cold, it’s windy, and the snow is flying.
We stay in a wonderful ger camp a few kilometers from the festival site. Perfect for nomadic lifestyle, gers can be erected in less than an hour. Layers of thick felt and heavy canvas protect against the elements. Doors elaborately painted in bright colors stand out against the winter landscape. Inside, beautiful hand-made tapestries line the walls and a coal-burning stove keeps us warm.
Many Kazakh hunters and their families travel hundreds of miles to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival. This hunter joins us in camp and shows us his eagle. Female eagles are preferred because they are larger, generally three pounds heavier than their male counterparts, and better hunters.
Early on the first morning of the festival, more hunters stop by our camp en route to the festival site.
Among them, a female hunter shows off her close relationship with her eagle. She wears the traditional warm fur coat and hat.
At the festival grounds, 114 hunters wearing traditional clothing parade on horseback. Hunters rest their forearms on baldaks (forked wooden sticks fitted into their saddles) to support their weighty eagles. All competitors line up in front of the judges.
The first rounds of competition are fierce. While a hunter rides across the steppe often at break-neck speed, calling to his or her eagle, an assistant atop a nearby mountain unhoods and releases the eagle. The eagle swoops down and lands on the hunter’s raised arm, lured by a bloody lamb bone. Later, the eagles swoop again, this time for a freshly killed rabbit the hunter drags behind the horse. Judges award points for how quickly the eagle reaches its hunter and how far away the hunter is from the mountain.
Based on Kazakh culture, the contest of wife chasing and playfully beating her husband is great fun for competitors and spectators alike.
In between competitions, a hunter shows off the prowess of his hooded eagle, her powerful claws on his gauntlet, her wings spread wide.
Although most competitors are men, a growing number of young women are joining in. Unfortunately, these two women do not fare well this weekend. Once released from the mountain top, their eagles fly off to other mountains. Neither advances to the next day’s finals.
Many former, now elderly, eagle hunters attend the festival as spectators.
After two days, the festival comes to an end. To the winners: medals, cash, airplane tickets, and the title Eagle Hunter!
The next day, we visit a local Kazakh family still at their summer ger. The husband is one of the hunters who competed in the festival and was a winner several years prior. He meets us at the road, his eagle swaddled in a blanket—an unexpected display of the intimacy that exists between hunter and eagle.
His wife treats us to a breakfast that includes milk tea and a bottle of vodka while he serenades us with traditional folk songs. When we ask them how they met, she smiles coyly and says, “in high school. All the girls were after him because he was so handsome.” To which he replies with a laugh, “I still am!”
Later, he takes us outside where we each have a chance to try on his hunting regalia and let his eagle perch on our arm. She may weigh only eleven pounds, but she’s solid.
Our experience of Mongolia and the Golden Eagle Festival was absolutely thrilling—one that we will cherish for the rest of our lives.