Eagle Festival Olgii Mongolia

A Gathering of Eaglehunters.

by
Alan Gates.
October 6, 7, 8 th. 2001
Bayaan Olgii, Western Mongolia.

First Published in the Austringer 2002. Journal of The Welsh Hawking Club.

The moment I heard about such a gathering I felt drawn to return to Mongolia to experience this event if ever repeated. The first Festival had been held in 2000, just four weeks before I first set foot in Olgii, Mongolian Gers
I promised myself there and then to find out as much as I possible could with the intention of one day returning and attending such an event. Extracting information from Mongolia can be a long slow laborious process, but as the months past a picture, although somewhat vague started to emerge.
An event was to be held and to be known as the Second Annual Golden Eagle Festival, and to be run by the Burkut Association which incorporates the Community Association for the Preservation of Kazakh Traditions and Conservation of Golden Eagles. Official Sponsors were Nomadic Expeditions and Altai-Tour Ulgii and all participants were members of the Mongolian Eaglehunters Association.
This event was to take place in early October, it was now July and John Green and myself decided to make the trip. It would mean my second trip to Mongolia within twelve months and as usual a lot of planning was required before we were both ready to leave.
John, as an employee of United Airlines was able to obtain concessionary airline tickets which is an excellent occupational bonus. The only slight snag was United's flight routes meant he would have to fly the long way around the planet to get to Mongolia. In other words, across the Atlantic, across America, across the Pacific to Seoul in Korea where I planned to met him. I took a shorter route across Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China and the Yellow Sea to Seoul, then together we flew across the Yellow Sea, over China and landed in Ulaan Baatar Mongolia.

Alan Gates Mongolian eaglehunterWe had three days in Ulaan Baatar before our flight across Mongolia to Olgii where the Festival was to be held. Sight seeing and shopping in UB was the order of the first two days with the Gobi Kashmir Factory shop a big must to purchase gifts for the ladies back home. UB’s black market is an amazing sight with many Western pirated goods mingled with Mongolian traditional items. It was a place both John and I could have spent a lot more time perusing but for the fact that we were chivvied along by our guides for fear of being targeted by pick-pockets.
I had arranged a visit to the Hustai National Park and so on day three we travelled about 95 kilometres west to the Park. It was a fine bright sunny day and we were thrilled to see a good number of wild Golden Eagles close to the road along our route, we also spotted a few pole perched very light coloured saker falcons, big ones.
Hustai National Park is most famous for the wild horse, the Takhi, which was discovered at the end of the 19th century, and is being reintroduced to Mongolia in Hustai. Also known as the Przewalski's horse 84 takhi have been introduced over the last ten years and the number has now grown through breeding to 120 takhi.
Finally it was time to fly across Mongolia to the western province of Bayaan Olgii, four hours of cramped low level flying in a small propeller powered aircraft and I was well pleased to set foot on terra ferma. It is a tough place to get to, it had taken us the best part of a week of travelling and overnight stops to arrive.
John and I were the only outside falconers to attend the Festival, and we were given honoured guest status by Medeukhan, head of the Eaglehunters Association. Along with a German Film Crew, a Canadian freelance camera team, two freelance Hungarian cameramen and a few Americans who lived and worked on long term projects in Mongolia, we were the only Western faces present at the Festival.

The first day of the Festival was held in the towns stadium, starting at ten o'clock in the morning, with the first hour or so taken with getting participants organised and registered. John and I happily paid ten dollars a day fee for the three days of the Festival but some of the Film Crews were reluctant to contribute, which was ironic as they were only there in a commercial capacity.

Winner eagle festivalAll of the Eaglehunters had journeyed from the countryside, some riding for two or three days to get to Olgii, by just after eleven o'clock there were over forty five mounted eaglehunters in the Stadium. What a sight these wild looking Kazakhs made, traditionally dressed in their finery their horses bridles and saddles were heavily decorated in silver, so too were the eagles jesses and hoods. Many of the hunters had foxes tied to the back of their saddles which they had caught along their journey to Olgii.
I met Aralbai with his son Armanbek, they had also caught a fox but managed to get it off their eagle relatively unharmed. Armanbek held it in his arms, it had a small stick fitted behind the front canine teeth and tied across the top of the jaw. All the eaglehunters had been asked if they caught a fox alive to bring it to the Festival for the finale
Today’s event was for presentation, of the Eaglehunters dress, his horse for colour, style of movement and tack, and for the eagle, size, plumage and furniture which was heavily decorated in silver.
A panel of judges held aloft score cards and the points were additional for each event. Day two and three were both held about twenty kilometres outside town into the mountains. Here on day two each eagle was flown from the mountain side, she had to fly after her galloping master and land on his arm. The judges, were using a stop watch for response time and also awarding points for style of flight.
On day three the eagles were flown from the very top of the mountain to a dragged fox lure. As the Eagles and horseseaglehunter galloped across the steppe the dragged lure kicked up a cloud of dust,
some of the eagles were reluctant to commit maybe because of the dust or the on-looking crowd. Others showed none of this shyness and ploughed straight in, all these eagles were harden fox killers none were kept as pets or for display purposes.
The weather throughout the three days had kept fine, the first day in the Stadium dark clouds had rolled in and a small flurry of snow had blown in on the cold wind. Day two and three in the mountains had been bright and sunny although a little cool.
The forth day was for presentations, Mana, easily recognisably by his chestnut horse coat was the overall outright winner of the Festival by winning double the points of the eaglehunter who came second.
John and I did not wait to watch the presentations as we needed to make tracks. Aralbai who had been placed forth in the Festival had invited us to his home and to accompany him on a hunt.
We were to ride into the mountains of Bayaan Nuur for three or four days hunting, and would sleep on the hill or with herders along the way, this was the culmination of our trip. The Festival had been illuminating the hunt would be exhilarating.

All words and images are ©Alan Gates 2002