Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival

Hunting with eagles has been a tradition with Central Asian nomads for thousands of years. I spent two days living with a Kazakh eagle hunting family in Mongolia, then two days watching them compete in their annual Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival.

It was undoubtedly, beyond fascinating, to say the least! One of my favorite trips ever.

Me Holding One of the Eagles Entered Into the Eagle Festival

Being able to spend a few days with the hunters and their family before the festival provided a much better insight into their lives, than just attending the festival alone. Not only was it amazing to experience this festival firsthand, being able to spend a few days with the nomads, to really experience their culture, was one of those transformational travel experiences for me.

On top of all this, the older brother of the family we stayed with (above right) won the competition! I was beaming with pride for people I did not even know three days prior, and was not able to even talk to, as they only spoke Kazakh.

Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival Location

The Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival is held in Bayan-Olgii (or Bayan-Ulgii), Mongolia. This is near where most Kazakh nomad life is. The ancient tradition of eagle hunting is kept alive today, mostly because of the Kazakh nomads. And because it is still a part of their life here, it continues for hunting purposes, rather than just for sport, or tourism, as in other places. I love the authenticity Thai adds to the event.

To learn more about Kazakh nomads, why they moved here, and why they stay, see my post on the Kazakh Nomads of Mongolia.

The two Kazakh Nomad brothers we staying with prior to the eagle festival
Kazakh Nomads Posing with Their Prized Eagles

Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival

The festival is an important way to showcase, and help preserve, the ancient tradition of eagle hunting. There are not many real eagle hunters left. I’ve read it’s just somewhere between 250 – 400. And as more young people are drawn to city lights, that number will just become smaller. Therefore, the festival is key in helping to foster its growth.

Kazakh Nomad At The Eagle Festival

This annual festival is usually held in September or October. Over 200 Kazakh nomad eagle hunters participated in the festival I attended. They came from hundreds of miles away. Most arriving on horseback with their prized eagle on their arm. In fact, our host rode on his horse with his eagle, even though it was a several hour drive to get there. A true sign of their expert riding skills. In addition, only Nomads can enter into the competition, helping to keep the competition authentic.

Kazakh Nomads Talking in a Field Prior to the Eagle Festival Competition
Kazakh Nomads At The Eagle Festival

Eagle Festival Movie, The Eagle Huntress

If you’ve heard of the 2016 documentary, The Eagle Huntress. it features this festival, and Aisholpan, who was the first female entrant and winner.

Although the documentary makes an eagle huntress sound like a modern novelty, actually, both women and men have practiced this tradition for thousands of years. In fact, images of men and women hunting with eagles have been found in art, tapestries, and even jewelry, dating back over 2,000 years. Not only did both men and women participate in this sport in ancient history, they have done so in recent history as well.

As there were several female contestants this year, I wasn’t sure which entrant was Aisholpan. I was told, however, that this was her sister (below in white).

Eagle Huntress Aisholpan's sister at the eagle Festival
The Eagle Huntress’s Sister And Family

Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival Contestants

The event starts with a parade of all the eagle hunters on horseback. They’re all dressed in traditional clothes, carrying their eagle, riding as a group. We arrived during this parade, so I wasn’t able to capture a photo, but it was an impressive sight!

Eagle Hunting Contestants Posing atop their horses Prior to the Eagle Festival Competition
Contestants Posing Before The Competition

Traditional Kazakh Dancing

The parade is followed by local dancing and music, before starting the eagle competition. It was cool to see some traditional Kazakh dancing.

Traditional Kazakh Dancing at the Eagle Festival
Traditional Kazakh Dancing at the Eagle Festival

Eagle Hunting Competition

Although the entire festival is interesting, the eagle hunting competition is the main event. Not only is the competition itself amazing, you would be left speechless as each nomad thunders by on their horse to take his, or her, turn.

Their eagle, previously been taken to the top of the large hill near the field, is waiting with a helmet covering their eagle eyes, until it is their turn to compete. Finally, when it’s time, the helmet is removed as the nomad rides into the field. They hold, or drag, animal bait, while calling out for their eagle (the bait requirement varies from day 1 to day 2). The call is a special series of sounds that the hunter has developed for the eagle in training.

Click here to learn more about training and actual eagle hunting.

A Kazakh and his eagle waiting to complete at the eagle festival
An Eagle Waiting To Complete with Helmut

The goal is to get the eagle to fly from the hilltop to the hunter and snatch the ‘bait’ as quickly as possible. Depending on the distance the eagle flies to connect with its hunter, points are awarded. Obviously, more points are awarded for more distance. Whereas most of the points are awarded for speed and distance, points are also awarded for agility and the traditional dress of the eagle hunter.

Eagle Festival Competition Field
Eagle Festival Competition Field

Admittedly, the first day was a bit slow. Not all the eagles were interested in the bait, which was a little surprising. On the second day, however, the group narrowed to just the best participants, was much more interesting. These were the best eagles, and they flew directly to their hunter.

Watching The Competition

The hilltop where the eagle were released, is also where most of the eagle hunter contested sat and watched the competition. I hiked up and stayed to watch for a while.

It was just as interesting to watch them watching the competition as it was the competition itself. Many were sitting with their eagles, engaging with other eagle hunters, and clapping for the other contestants. At least if you’re a culture geek like me this is fascinating.

And although this was a serious competition, everyone was in good humor and very congenial.

Kazakh Nomads watching the eagle festival competition from the hilltop
Kazakh Nomads Watching From the Hilltop

Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival Winner

Not only was the entire festival amazing, I was super excited when Armon, the older brother of the family we stayed with before the festival, won the Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival competition!

Eagle Festival winning Nomad and Eagle
Eagle Festival Winner

He won 1,500,000 Mongolian Tugrik. At the time of our visit, the conversion rate for this was about $560 US. Although this does not seem like a lot, it’s more than the average monthly salary in the contemporary capital of Ulaanbaatar, over 1,000 miles away. For a nomad, nonetheless, I suspect this is a large sum.

The photo below is his younger brother and nephew, holding the prize check. Look at the pride on their faces!

1500000 Mongolian Tugrik, the prize for winning at the eagle festival
Eagle Festival Prize

Other Events At The Festival

The Festival also features other events, such as camel races, sheep pulling, coin pick up (while riding a horse), as well as boy and girl horse races. All designed to show off their superior riding skills.

Other Competitions at the Eagle Festival, like Sheep Pulling
Sheep Pulling

The sheep pulling event is in the photo above. Each rider tries to wrestle the sheep carcass away from the other and remain on their horse. A little grisly, but again, this is all about showing off outstanding horsemanship.

Local Crafts and Products

Not far from the field, locals sell a variety of products. You can buy fur hats, traditional felt rugs, hand-embroidered wall hangings, games made with animal bones, yak wool socks, gloves, bags, and more.

I’m not one to buy a lot of things in my travels, but I did buy some cowhide sole inserts to keep my feet warm in my boots. I now wear them every winter (LOL).

Kazakh Nomads at the eagle Festival
Kazakh Nomads Dressed In Traditional Clothes

There is also food available for sale at the event. Our guide had a special tent set up for our lunches, so we had an amazing lunch on our own.

Vendors At the eagle festival
Vendors At The Eagle Festival

Photos

There were some serious photographers there, set up with massive cameras on tripods. I travel light, so just use my iPhone. If your really into photography, I suggest getting there early to get a good spot.

The eagle hunters, clearly used to the attention, will pose for you. Others will ask for money for a photo.

An Eagle huntress at the eagle festival
Kazakh Eagle Huntress

In most cases, there is a lot of movement and a lot of visual background noise. Therefore, you have to trust me that the real event is much more spectacular than what I’ve captured here.

Me with one of the contestants at the eagle festival
Me Posing With One Of The Eagle Hunters
A Young Eagle Hunter with his father at the eagle festival
A Young Eagle Hunter With His Father

Final Thoughts

It probably comes as no surprise that I recommend the tour company that I booked this with very highly. In addition to the Eagle Festival, Altai Expeditions, has a variety of small group tours in Mongolia to choose from.

Although I usually travel solo and rarely book tours, this is one of those trips that would be very difficult to experience on your own. Firstly, it is not easy to contact and arrange a home-stay with a nomad by yourself. Secondly, the people we stayed with spoke very little English. And finally, the long distances required to get here from Ulaanbataar, which is remote itself, make it challenging. Dauren, the tour company owner, and his family, who helped with the tour, resolved all these difficulties seamlessly.

On top of that, there were only two other people in my group, so it didn’t feel like a tour. It felt like having a local guide.

Not only is the trip itself amazing, the experience was transformational for me. This is the type of travel I search for. I love the cross-cultural exchanges, the simple living, the opportunity to connect with nature, and the fact that it’s a learning opportunity. I feel that it challenged me to analyse traditional western consumerism and how we view success, confirming what I have come to learn by traveling, that it’s not the only way to live a great life.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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