Mongolia – The Golden Eagle Festival

Mongolia – The Golden Eagle Festival

Eagle Hunter

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Mongolia — one of the last frontier regions in the modern world!

Most people know little about Mongolia. Perhaps we have all heard of Genghis Khan and his empire. Or we may have heard about the Gobi Desert or the Mongolian Steppes. And that’s pretty much it… until a documentary entitled “The Eagle Huntress” came into our collective cultural consciousness. If you haven’t heard about this film, it chronicles the efforts of Aishopaln, a 13 year old Kazakh girl, who is the first female to compete in the vaunted Golden Eagle Festival in the far west of Mongolia.

Admittedly, I was drawn to Mongolia because of the visual appeal it held for me – a land that’s mostly wilderness, a people who lived in a challenging but beautiful environment and a culture that seemed, to our eyes, very unique and almost primeval. Riders in heavy fur coats, bearing large hunting eagles on their arms. This is the stuff of legend!

The highlight of my time in Mongolia was attending the real Golden Eagle Festival in the mountains far to the west, in altitudes so high that the air is fresh and rarefied and clear. It was two days of being immersed in exciting, wonderful chaos, trying to make sense of the happenings and of the richly textured culture that plays out in the games. The Golden Eagle Festival is not just limited to eagle hunting exploits (there is no live prey) but to sports and experiences that beggar the imagination.

Eagle Hunters arrive at the Festival
Eagle Hunters arrive at the Festival

Eagle hunter with returning eagle
Eagle hunter with returning eagle.

Eagle Aisholpan, the star of
Aisholpan, the star of “The Eagle Huntress” is now 16.

Mongolian gers in the valley
Traditional gers (yurts) in the Altai Valley.

Eagle hunting in Mongolia is a winter sport — where local families in the mountainous regions to the west train eagles to hunt foxes, wolves, wildcats and other animals. The Festival itself is only 19 years old, having been created to give local hunters the opportunity to compete (and to create a tourism drawcard to the region). The pelts of the hunted animals are fashioned into long jackets and coats by the hunters, which are worn to stave off the cold of frigid winters.

Hooded eagle
The eagles are kept hooded to stop them from responding to stimuli. responding to stimuli.

The game of Kiz Kuar is played at the Golden Eagle Festival
The game of “Kiz Kuar” is played at the Golden Eagle Festival.

In addition to the eagle hunting games, the Festival also hosts a number of other games, including “Kiz Kuar”, a comical show where a young woman chases a young man on horseback, flogging him with a horse whip for the apparent slight of having stolen a kiss. There are also camel races, “Tinge Ilu” where riders have to try and pick up a bag of coins from the ground while riding full pelt, and “Kokbar” where two men on horseback wrestle to gain possession of a filled goatskin. This is stuff that you never see back home, for sure!

Camel race
Camel racing at the Festival.
The game of Kokbar, where two riders wrestle over a goatskin
In “Kokbar”, two riders wrestle over a goatskin.

An eagle returns to its master.
An eagle returns to its master, summoned by a series of whoops and yells.

The Altai Mountains
The Festival plays out in the grand and stunning landscape of the Altai Mountains.

The bond between an eagle and a hunter
The bond between an eagle and a hunter.

The Golden Eagle Festival is certainly a photographer’s banquet. I’m in the process of working out a photography tour to Mongolia in 2020 to visit the Golden Eagle Festival and to spend time with the eagle hunter families there, in the beautiful surrounds of the Altai Mountains and their braided river valleys.

A ger camp and braided rivers in the Altai Valley
A view from on-high, overlooking the valley in the Altai Mountains.

Eagle hunters in the Altai Valley
Eagle hunters strut their stuff against the majestic backdrop of the Altai Mountains.

A visit to Mongolia for the Golden Eagle Festival is the experience of a lifetime. Its exhilarating, exciting and energising and feels as if you’re returning to an ageless time and living with a people and culture that has not been touched by the excesses of the modern world.

I’m currently seeking expressions of interest for photographers who would like to join me in 2020 for a photography tour to Mongolia and to the Golden Eagle Festival. We’ll be taking only six photographers to make sure that everyone has plenty of time to explore, absorb and photograph, and receive the photographic support from the Venture team. If you are keen to join us, please drop me a line and I’ll send information when the tour has been firmed up.

Clear skies show the Milky Way at night
Very clear skies reveal the Milky Way.

Hunter and eagle
A hunter and his eagle.

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