Golden Eagle Festival 2015

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.

Me and Tom in traditional Mongolian dress. Behind us is a traditional Mongolian 'ger' tent. Nomads in Mongolia can pack these up and move them in less than a day!

Me and Tom in traditional Mongolian dress. Behind us is a traditional Mongolian ‘ger’ tent. Nomads in Mongolia can pack these up and move them in less than a day!

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!

Road trip! / Car commercial

Road trip! / Car commercial #1

Mongolian road conditions...

Mongolian road conditions…

Flat tyres are a right of passage when doing a Mongolian road trip. If you don't get one then you're not doing it right.
Flat tyres are a right of passage when doing a Mongolian road trip. If you don’t get one then you’re not doing it right!

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)
Driver $30.00 $240
Petrol* $19.88 $159
Accommodation** $4.25 $34
Food*** $7.38 $59
Activities $7.50 $60
Souvenirs $3.88 $31
Total $72.89 $583
* 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.

 

The weather in Mongolia is crazy and changes all the time. Sun, rain, snow, dust storms, you name it. The Mongolian countryside gets it all! It even gets...

The weather in Mongolia is crazy and changes all the time. Sun, rain, snow, dust storms, you name it. The Mongolian countryside gets it all! It even gets…

... Snow storms! Like this one which we drove straight into. Eek!

… Snow storms! Like this one which we drove straight into. Eek!

But the sunsets are always beautiful. :)

But the sunsets are always beautiful.

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!

I basically wore these clothes and ate packet noodles for 8 days straight.

I basically wore these clothes and ate packet noodles for 8 days straight.

But it was worth it for the chance to see animals like camels up close.

But it was worth it for the chance to see animals like these camels up close…

... To see landscapes like this...

To see landscapes like this…

... For the infinite opportunities to do jumping shots on straight and empty Mongolian roads...

For the infinite opportunities I had to do jumping shots on straight and empty Mongolian roads…

... And most of all, to meet the beautiful Mongolian locals, such as this generous nomadic family that hosted us in their ger for a night.

And most of all, to meet the beautiful Mongolian locals, such as this generous nomadic family that hosted us in their ger for a night.

The Golden Eagle Festival

Day 1

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.

Russian vans everywhere!

Russian vans everywhere!

The Kazakh eagle hunters riding horseback to the festival.

The eagle hunters riding horseback to the festival

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.

The stunning, arid desert backdrop.

The stunning, arid desert backdrop / car commercial #2

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.

Vendors selling souvenirs

Vendors selling souvenirs

Furry hats! Mostly made from fox.

Furry hats! Mostly made from fox

Cat in the hat. :)

Cat in the hat. 🙂

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.

The Fesitvals opening ceremony

The Fesitval’s opening ceremony

A group of eagle hunters waiting for the festival to kick off

A group of eagle hunters waiting for the festival to kick off

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. 🙂

One of the hunters with his eagle. This was one of my favourite shots from the festival.

One of the hunters with his eagle. This was one of my favourite shots from the festival.

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.

This young girl was one of the competitors. She was totally bad ass. Even better? Last years winner was a 14-year old girl! Girl power!

This young girl was one of the competitors. She was totally bad ass. Even better? Last years winner was a 14-year old girl! Girl power!

An eagle hunter successfully calls for his eagle

An eagle hunter successfully calls for his eagle

One of the kids competing in the horseback race

One of the kids competing in the horseback race

A beautiful local

One of the many beautiful locals spotted at the festival

Day 2

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.

A hunter and his eagle in action

A hunter and his eagle in action

An eagle catches its prey

An eagle catches its prey

A successful eagle eats its prey

One of the successful eagle hunters

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!).

Girls whipping boys = awesome

Girls whipping boys = awesome

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*

Me holding an eagle

Me holding an eagle!! They are as heavy as they look.

Summary

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!

Horse butts

Horse butts

Got any questions or comments? Let me know in the comments section below!

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21 Comments

  • Reply
    Svenja
    December 13, 2015 at 8:21 am

    Awesome photos, must have been an amazing experience actually being there!

    Slacking with a blog, well, that happens. At least to me. A lot. When internet connections are less than reliable on the road, I just write a rough outline in some word processor, so when I’m back home after a trip, I usually have a long waiting list for blog posts. That system works for me (more or less) when the trip itself isn’t longer than maybe two or three weeks, haven’t tested it on longer stretches with sketchy internet so far.

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      December 24, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      Thanks! I’m actually pretty stoked with the photos – it certainly helps when you are at aqn event like the Golden Eagle Festial, which is completely different from anything I have ever experience before, both culturally and in terms of scenery.

      Patchy internet is certainly challenging. I think the hardest thing for me though has been Couchsurfing / staying with contacts, etc. Although I love it, I never really have any time to myself to just get things done, especially because I feel rude “playing” on my phone or working when someone has been kind enough to host me. On the other hand, I’m way too much of a scrooge to pay for hostels and hotels half the time ha ha. I guess the best thing to do is just travel a bit slower, but even then I want to see EVERYTHING.

  • Reply
    Kate
    January 21, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Heya,

    Firstly, I have to say your photos are National Geographic amazing. Your adventure looked like so much fun and the Golden Festival has been added to my list of things to do/places to go. Also don’t worry about blog slacking, I know it’s annoying for you but I go through phases with mine (although I always have good intentions!)

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 21, 2016 at 4:03 pm

      Thank you so much!! You know what – I’m pretty sure Nat Geo were there as well but I haven’t seen any photos from them. If you ever do make it to the festival I’m happy to give you advice on how to do it / where to stay etc.

      Also thanks for cutting me some slack with the lazy post writing. It definitely gets difficult when you’re constantly on the road. I also don’t want to spend all my time in countries writing and none of it actually experiencing the place.

  • Reply
    Sarah
    January 21, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Girls whipping boys = awesome– hahaha! Gorgeous photos. What a unique festival to travel to.

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 21, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      Tell me about it! I loved it as well how the young girls were participating in the games just the same as the men – and winning!

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 27, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      Ha ha Sarah! That’s definitely my kind of event. 😝

  • Reply
    jen
    January 21, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    Really amazing photos. What an experience!

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 21, 2016 at 3:59 pm

      Thank you so much Jen! There were so many great photo opportunities!

  • Reply
    T
    January 21, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Amazing account of the festival. I hope I make it to Mongolia soon!

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 21, 2016 at 3:56 pm

      Thanks so much! It’s so beautiful. I do hope you make it.

  • Reply
    Tania Mukherjee
    January 21, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Amazing festival. Amazing post! I hope I make it to Mongolia soon!

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 21, 2016 at 3:56 pm

      Thanks Tania! It’s so different to anywhere else I’ve been. I really hope you get there one day!

  • Reply
    Simona
    January 21, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    I think you had an amazing time! I have Mongolia on my list! (I wanted to take part in the Mongol Rally stuff, but abandoned the idea of the rally, but not of visiting the country).
    This blog post will go in my weekly recommendations for interesting stuff to read around the world!

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 21, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      Simons I really did! It was an experience I will always remember. The people, the culture, the landscapes – they were absolutely unreal.

  • Reply
    Laura
    January 21, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Amazing photos!!

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 21, 2016 at 3:55 pm

      Thanks Laura! I think it was impossible not to take great photos there. I’m was so wild and unlike anywhere I had ever been before.

  • Reply
    Eva Bosh
    January 21, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    Mongolia to me is such an unknown country and this like this should really help put it on the map. My bucket list just got longer, again 🙂

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 21, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks Eva! It’s such a beautiful place – the landscapes and the people – I highly recommend it!

  • Reply
    Orli
    January 21, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    I love it. I am at a point in my life I’m looking for once-in-a-lifetime experiences and the Golden Eagle Festival seems to be exactly that. It looks like so much fun 🙂 (though if I’m honest, I would have skipped the driver part). Just had to add that your photos are so amazing, I enjoyed the post very very much!

    • Reply
      The Intrepidista
      January 22, 2016 at 12:59 am

      Thanks so much! It was definitely a once-in-a lifetime experience! In all honesty if I did it all over again I would probably just try to find some kind of all inclusive tour deal – I don’t think doing it the way we did it saved enough money to make it worthwhile. There are local guides that do this for a much better price than the western tour companies and these get cheaper the more people you can get to come join the tour. Before going to this festival I actually posted a thread on TripAdvisor to see if anyone else was interested in joining us. We got about 30 responses(!) but unfortunately our timeframe was too short to accommodate the others who were interested. I guarantee though that this will be an amazing, epic experience that you would never forget!

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