Go West!

Remember back in March when we spent a bitter cold day outside of UB welcoming the Mongolian/Kazakh eagle hunters to the big city? Well, I said it back then and again over the summer, “wouldn’t it be great to go to the Altai Mountains in the far, far West of Mongolia to see the REAL thing?” I mean, after seeing  videos of the real event, how could I not want to go?

img_2470And so we did. Well, I did. Along with a super fun team of travel friends – nothing beats a girls only weekend in Bayan-Ulgii ….especially if eagles are involved, right?!

May I introduce? My awesome and fearless travel mates: Anne (whom you might recall already traveled to Gobi and back with us) and new Mongolia import, Kari. This picture was taken in the countryside on the way to the festival and is the only picture of the 3 of us together as I was the designated photographer for the trip and spent much time behind the camera (which I actually prefer!). Fortunately, I negotiated a good working rate for all that hard work but more on that later…

Our adventure started at the UB airport during check-in when we realised that

  1. we were not going to be the only tourists heading West (a record 400 foreigners were expected at this year’s Golden Eagle Festival and there was a rather big and loud tour group checking in before us) and
  2. we weren’t exactly sure just where we were going.

You see, we booked this trip a bit late in the game so we couldn’t get a direct flight to Bayan-Ulgii. Understanding that we did not want to take the 60-hour (or is it 45?) bus, our excellent travel organiser routed us to another province (Uvs) in the West with a quick stop-over in Khovd on the way (yes, both cities/provinces sound very similar) before we were to drive to Ulgii.

Once we sorted out where we needed to go, we managed to check in and 4 hours later (albeit missing the convenience of an airport food court), we were in Western Mongolia (yes, it’s seriously a long way to go – traveling within Mongolia always puts the country’s vastness into perspective).

Just for reference: we started in UB (green icon), flew to Khovd (blue) and landed in Uvs (purple) where we spent a night before driving to Bayan Ulgii (orange) the following day.

Oh, the drive. What an experience – yes, it was 99% off-road, crossing a few mountains here and there. We could not use the mountain pass we originally planned since it had snowed and the wind was strong but we drove by amazing blue lakes, and stopped a few times to take in the scenery and wildlife (check out the slideshow below):

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So what if we left at 8:30am and didn’t make it to Ulgii until after 5pm? We had fun chats along the way (girls weekend and all!) and an amazing rest stop with a Kazakh herder family where we learned about the unique cradling and sleeping habits of infants.

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Once in Ulgii, we explored the small city and had an early bed-time to make sure we were ready for the Eagle Festival the next morning! We got up in excitement, loving the few sprinkles of a warm/ish shower and met up with the remaining tourists and all of their camera gear and equipment (seriously, wow!) in the breakfast room.

Our guide then drove us to the festival site – located in a stunning valley outside of the city surrounded by mountains and a small river in the distance.

img_5324We passed eagle hunters (some on horseback) along the way and we could not believe it when one such hunter flagged us down and asked for a ride while holding HIS EAGLE ON HIS ARM. Sadly, very sadly, our guide said no and wished him well leaving us all to wonder what had happened to his horse that forced him to hitch a ride. Oh well … it would have made a great story to give a ride to a hunter and his eagle but then again, I am not entirely sure how pleasant eagles are as car passengers so perhaps it was better to say “see you there.”

So what happens at this festival, I am sure you wonder. Well, a lot of events – not all include eagles but all focus on the hunters. The excitement begins when the hunters and their animals arrive at the festival and the official opening ceremony consists of a parade of the hunters. This is an exciting time where every one reaches for their camera (and all the other equipment people have schlepped around the world with them) and you hear a beautiful song of horses trotting, eagles chirping, hunters speaking in Mongolian and Kazakh, and cameras clicking.

On that note, a quick PSA: just because you’re there to take pictures for your pleasure or for work does not give you the right to be obnoxious and tell people to sit down or shove them out of the way. Yes, I am looking at you, you unpleasant German photographer who thought I couldn’t understand him.

Anyways, let’s see some of the hunters and the birds:

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After the parade, there are various competitions starting with “eagle needs to find the correct hunter” as well as “eagle needs to attack fake prey (fox tail) that is being dragged on an open field.”

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In addition to eagle events, there are horse events such as a strange tug of war (stuffed sheep skin) and horse and camel races as well as an eagle dance to give the big birds a rest. And there are always tons of photo opportunities as you can get so close to eagle hunters and birds.

While eagle hunting is traditionally a men’s sport that has been passed down many generations, this year’s festival included two female hunters including Aishopolan who is the focus of the documentary “The Eagle Huntress” (click here for the trailer; yes, it’s gotten controversial reviews but I am still eager to watch it). We were able to chat with Aishopolan for a bit (who is the sweetest person) and were able to get some pictures with her (you know, to cross of that item on Anne’s bucket list!).

aishI even got a good video of her doing her thing and making this look way too easy. Trust me, after seeing 80 hunters compete in these events, plenty does not go to plan (I am blaming it on eagle performance anxiety) – she makes it look graceful and effortless:

So all in all, a fantastic and beautiful weekend with fun friends. Let’s see what next year’s festival brings … I have a feeling I might be going back!

And last but not least, a few tips for travellers coming to this side of the globe embarking on similar Mongolian travels:

  • No, there is no food court at the (or any) airport no matter how much you want one. The same goes for Bed, Bath, and Beyond – nope, still not in Mongolia…yet (seriously, Kari!).
  • Mongolian hotels vary great in quality so always, always bring: flashlights, flip flops, a pillow, a clean towel and an open mind to enjoy cold showers and lacking decor (the charms are sometimes a little hard to find).
  • If traveling to Bayan-Ulgii aimag (province), be aware that there is no tonic water available (gasp) anywhere -this makes longing for a much deserved vodka/tonic a bit harder…. just remember to be flexible and settle for a beer unless, of course, it’s Friday because that’s the dry day in which no alcohol is served anywhere (well not for all, I did manage to convince our hotel otherwise).
  • Be prepared to get dusty – wind plus rocky terrain and sand will leave lasting impressions on you, your clothing, and your camera.
  • Along similar lines, never underestimate the Mongolian sun and altitude even if it’s not hot or sunny. I forgot to apply sunscreen on the first day and my face was burned from both the sun and wind by night-time.
  • Do not wear red to the festival unless you prefer a very close encounter with big birds of prey. Also, it would have helped tremendously if festival organisers had shared that bit of information with attendees perhaps before the festival. But really, it’s ok. I love my new yak wool hat I conveniently purchased from a vendor to replace my bright red (and itchy) old one.
  • Be prepared for early bed-times: off-road traveling and eagle hunting are a serious and tiresome business. As Anne put it “ladies, it’s past 8pm …. we better go to bed now.”
  • Never leave for a girls’ weekend without facial supplies – if there’s no spa in Ulgii, then you bring the spa with you. Facial masks and lavender oil, please. Oh yes, we had it all – I did mention it was a girls weekend, right? And yes, we even stayed up past 8pm for that one!
  • And last, when traveling alone without kids – go all out and shop, shop, shop…you know, to support local business:

Finally, a big shout-out to John who (in theory) watched the kids while I was away on what turned out to be one of his busiest week at the Embassy. Very fortunately the kids found shelter with friends who were more than ready to house them in case my flight back was canceled (a real possibility since the snow and wind causes regular delays and cancelation). It seriously takes a village to raise kids abroad – especially when Mom is off exploring remote regions and wildlife.

Now excuse me while I enjoy a hard-earned vodka/tonic. I did mention that this was my payment (plus a beautiful tapestry) for all that time spent behind the camera? Good thing we’re back now  in UB for that pleasure where tonic water is readily available. Cheers!

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4 thoughts on “Go West!

  1. What a phenomenal experience! Thanks for sharing. I hope you do go again next year – it’d be a shame not to when you’re so ‘close’ :-).

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