In a brief moment I will get to the topic at hand – the truly amazing Golden Eagle Festival in Mongolia! But first, let me apologise. Since starting this blog I have been a bit, well… slack. But there’s a reason for this – I have been having way too much fun! Each and every day brings with it a new place, a new adventure, and constant amazement about the world around me.
I know how privileged I am to be able to go on this journey so I don’t want to take anything away from that, but travelling isn’t always easy. Along with the wonders comes constant trip planning, meticulously budgeting, limited access to often patchy wifi, and the added problem of never having any alone time for writing. While the experiences I have had have all been very rewarding, constant travel sure makes blog writing challenging sometimes. Nonetheless, from now on I will be making more of an effort to put pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard) and write about my experiences and what I have learned. Promise.
And what better post to start with than one about one of the most amazing experiences I have had so far: the 2015 Golden Eagle Festival, which was held in the Mongolian city of Olgii on 3-4 October. To describe what exactly this festival is I am going to blatantly plagiarise from Wikipedia, which describes it as a traditional festival whereby “…Kazakh eagle hunters (Burkitshi) celebrate their heritage and compete to catch small animals such as foxes and hares with specially trained golden eagles, showing off the skills both of the birds and their trainers. Prizes are awarded for speed, agility and accuracy, as well as for the best traditional Kazakh dress, and more.” Intrigued yet? I sure was.
The cost / getting there
Before getting into the nitty gritty on the festival itself I will first write a few quick words on how to get there. Olgii is a beautiful city, but it’s also in the far west of Mongolia, so far west that the province it is located in, Bayan-Olgii, is ethnically Kazakh. For this reason, most people who travel to the festival go through a tour company, with the most popular of these being Blue Wolf. However, these tours can be rather pricey (USD$1000+), or at least far too pricey for Tom and I, who were on a bare bones budget. In addition to contacting the bigger tour companies, a number of small tour operators can also be found throughout Mongolia, typically in Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital. For a cheaper, more flexible tour, consider go with one of these as you will probably get a more authentic experience and may even get to stay with a nomadic Mongolian family along the way!
To keep costs down, Tom and I decided to go it alone. Flights were about USD$180 each way to get to Khovd, still too pricey, so we found a driver who was already taking someone else to the festival and split the costs as a group. We settled on USD$30 each per day, not including petrol, food and accommodation. Over the 8 day period we did this trip, a breakdown of our costs (per person) is as follows:
|Cost per day (USD)||Total cost (USD)|
* Petrol in Mongolia is expensive. Very expensive! Especially when driving cross-country (and back) off road in a heavy duty 4WD. Do not underestimate the cost. If you can, try to bring the cost down by having a larger group.
** Our accommodation was particularly cheap because most nights we camped – something I would not recommend doing in October when it can reach about -6 degrees Celsius overnight. If you actually like to sleep then opt for a guesthouse or a ger camp instead. Beds in these go for about USD$5-10 per night.
*** Food consisted mostly of basic groceries that we could eat from the car or cook on the portable stove (aka stew-like substances). Do not underestimate the glory of a bit of bread, cheese and salami.
On the whole, we loved road-tripping across Mongolia and back to get to the festival. We saw amazing landscapes and the ride never got boring, even though it took us a solid 3 days of driving each way. That said, I wouldn’t recommend this option for anyone looking to get there in a hurry, who gets car sick, or simply can’t handle slumming it a bit. You will get cold and, if you camp like we did, you will get (very) stinky!
The Golden Eagle Festival
Now that I’ve got all the logistical stuff out of the way, let me share a bit of information about the festival itself. On the first morning we drive from our ger camp to the festival at about 9am (the supposed starting time) in a convoy comprised of mostly old Russian vans. Although this was quite a sight in itself, along the way we also passed a number of the hunters on horseback, each adorned in beautiful traditional Kazakh costume and, naturally, with eagle in hand.
Eventually we reached a checkpoint where each person entering the festival paid a man MNK $40,000 (USD$20) for admission, though I understand that later in the day no such check point exists.
As we drove past the checkpoint we caught a glimpse of the magnificent scenery we would be spending the next couple of days in. It was unlike any place I had ever seen! Dry, arid, mountainous, desert. Although this doesn’t sound like much it was truly spectacular – kind of like how I imagine it would be in the (wicky wicky) wild wild west.
The venue for the festival was a large open space that had been cordoned off from spectators as a kind of stage. Simple but effective. There were also a number of vendors around, selling souvenirs such as fur hats and coats made from fox, hand-crafted leather goods, and dry food items. Cooked food consisted of a few ger restaurants serving a kind of flat bread and tea, and vendors grilling up deliciously addictive beef(?) skewers.
The festival opening ceremony kicked off about 2 hours late (after all, we were on Mongolian time) with the eagle hunters riding around the designated area on horseback with their eagles in tow.
After registering for the event the eagle hunters spent the next two hours practicing for the first event, which involved calling their eagles to come to them. During this time the 1000 or so tourists in attendance at the festival were also engaged in a battle of their own, fighting it out to get the the best possible photos of the festival. Don’t get me wrong, I took a lot of pictures at the festival myself. The experience was amazing, the landscapes beautiful and the subjects so interesting. However, so many of the tourists were just down right rude, getting right up close to the eagle hunters and local children with their giant zoom lenses and also routinely also cut off other tourists/photographers who were trying to take photos from a more respectable distance. I was very amused when one woman cut in front of a number of others to get a photo of some local children on a camel when an Australian informed her that she was crouching right behind a horse and would probably get kicked in the head. Amusingly, the Australian women then turned to me and said “and I hope she does!”. Gotta love them Aussies. 🙂
Anyway, I digress. Throughout the first day the eagle hunters competed in a number of challenges, many of which didn’t involve eagles. These included: best costume; horse racing; testing how eagles have adapted to their hunters by calling them to come them; a traditional game whereby riders try to grab a coin from the ground while on horseback; and best couples costumes. Each of these events were fascinating to watch, showcasing the beautiful local culture of the Kazakhs living in the region.
On Day 2 of the festival people wised up to the loose schedule of the festival and all showed up a couple of hours ‘late’. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon the eagle hunters all took part in the festival’s main challenge, which involved getting their eagles to hunt a lure made of either rabbit or fox skin. The eagles were each judged on how fast and smoothly they caught their prey. When it worked, watching these majestic beasts swoop down and catch their food was mighty impressive. WARNING: Some people may find the next photos a bit graphic.
Other challenges included camel racing, archery, and my personal favourite: the ‘Kyz Khuar’ game, described as a ‘traditional horseback riding game for youth in which boys are whipped by girls if they are reached by them’ (yay feminism!).
Unfortunately, the second day of the festival also featured some major sandstorms, meaning that it was practically impossible to take any photos or even to just look up! Although this was hard for spectators, I really felt for the eagle hunters that had to compete in such difficult conditions. Also spare a thought for the children (won’t somebody please think of the children!!!) who had amateur photographers asking them to pose for photos facing into the sandstorms so that they could “get the correct lighting”. *Facepalm*
Despite the small complaints I had regarding the behaviour of the tourists in attendance, all in all the Golden Festival was a truly amazing, enlightening, and once in a lifetime experience. If you are considering attending this festival don’t think twice, book your tickets now!
Got any questions or comments? Let me know in the comments section below!