Eagle Festival

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Bayan-Ölgii, the small, Western aimag (district) of Mongolia bordering Kazakhstan, is home to the famous eagle hunters. Over centuries, this tradition has been passed down from father to son and every October, the famous Eagle Festival takes place where today’s remaining eagle hunters compete and show their skills. Eagle hunting is a means of survival – eagles are trained to catch prey (foxes, for example) and every part of the animal is used by the hunters. Nothing goes to waste.

The journey to Bayan-Ölgii can be long and difficult; for those not able to fly, a bus ride can take several days and it’s not unheard of busses getting stuck because of poor road conditions (some stretches have no real roads at all). For the first time, the eagle hunters made the trek to UB to show their skills in last week’s UB Eagle Festival. So of course, we had to go see that.

Welcome to UB's first Eagle Festival
Welcome to UB’s first Eagle Festival

It was truly amazing, if also, terribly cold. Don’t let the blue skies deceive you – the mercury rang in around -20/30C for most of the day – we spent a few hours outside before warming up in a ger tent for lunch and then headed back out to meet the hunters and their birds and see their eagles capture animals.

Opening ceremony - the hunters and their birds and the traditional bird dance
Opening ceremony – the hunters and their birds and the traditional bird dance
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The hunters in full gear – don’t mess with them…
Parade of the hunters
Parade of the hunters

I was also able to capture parts of the parade on video – it was truly amazing. Keep in mind that those birds are pretty heavy…

After the parade, it was time for archery: seeing this in real life quickly explains why Genghis Khan was so successful – if you can shoot your bow and arrow while galloping across the steppe and hit the target, well more respect to you ….

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Notice the complete absence of any fences or markers to signify where the horses, hunters, and bows are coming from …. this led me to park Juliana on top of my feet so if I needed to make a quick run out of the way, I would know where she was. At that point, I had lost John and Luca … you see, nothing is completely organised here so there were things happening all around and you just had to pick where you wanted to go explore. I think we chose wisely.

And then we trekked up the mountain to see the hunters and their birds. The eagles fetched prey on command although a few got lost in the crowd a bit – I guess in real life there aren’t 200 expats standing around them cheering them on. Stage fright also affects birds, who knew?

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And then just before my camera’s battery froze – yes that happens, electronic devices cannot stand the cold for long so our phones and cameras regularly (and literally) freeze; you have to bring them inside or put them in your pockets to warm up – I took a last picture of the very famous Ashol-Pan, Mongolia’s only female eagle hunter who is just 14 years old!

IMG_0093See the crowd around here? She’s a local celebrity – a documentary about her is just coming out.

Overall, a super exciting and fun, if not very cold, day …. let’s see if we can make the trek to the real Eagle Festival….

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