The Ölgii Eagle Festival (often called the ‘Golden Eagle Festival’ or ‘the Eagle Festival’) is a panoply of Kazakh eagle hunter pageantry that will capture the imagination of the entire family. Like many people, we were introduced to the Ölgii Eagle Festival by the 2016 movie The Eagle Huntress. If you haven’t yet seen that movie, we recommend it. The story and landscape are striking. We timed our travel to Mongolia to coincide with the 2018 Ölgii Eagle Festival and were glad we did!
The Eagle Festival is a 2-day tournament with various competitions. Although the focus is, obviously, crowning the top eagle hunter, there are also camel racing, horseback riding, and archery and horseback riding events.
Good to know: The Ölgii Eagle Festival takes place the first weekend of October ~8 km east of Ölgii town. The Opening Ceremony starts around 10:00am on Saturday and the trophy ceremony finishes around 5:00pm Sunday. All posted schedules should be considered aspirational only.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 Kazakh eagle hunters (and by hunters I mean both male hunters and female huntresses) live in Bayan-Ölgii province. 120 hunters participated in the 2018 festival cheered on by 1,100 festival attendees – roughly half Mongolians and half foreign tourists.
A Quick Background on Kazakh Eagle Hunters
For thousands of years, eagles have been used for hunting across the northern steppes. Marco Polo mentioned it in his Travels of Marco Polo. Under Soviet rule, the tradition declined, in large part because nomadic herders were collectivised. The Ölgii Eagle Festival was started in 1999 by the Mongolian Eagle Hunter’s Association to help preserve the pastime.
Female eagles are preferred as they are larger and stronger. The hunter captures an eagle fledgling from the nest and trains it. After 8-10 seasons the eagle is released back to the wild in order to breed. The hunters watch the released eagles to ensure a successful reintegration to the wild.
Nowadays, eagle hunting is a hobby, not a livelihood. Seasonal hunting for foxes and rabbits happens in winter. You will not see any hunting at the Eagle Festival. You will need to return in the winter and endure long, cold horseback rides for that.
Let’s also quickly dispel the Hollywood myth that Aisholpan Nurgaiv in The Eagle Huntress is the first eagle huntress. She is not (read Adrienne Mayor’s paper if you need more details). Eagle huntresses have a long, long history. Aishholpan was the first huntress to compete at (and win!) the Ölgii Eagle Festival and is a fabulous ambassador for her culture.
What happens at the Ölgii Eagle Festival on Day 1?
The festival kicks off with an Opening Ceremony. The Opening Ceremony is full blown Kazakh eagle hunter pageantry. Hunters and Mongolian horses are in full traditional regalia. Each hunter has their Golden Eagle, supported by a small crutch that rests on their saddle. This allows the hunter to hold the heavy eagle for long horseback rides.
Good to know: A rope barricade holds the crowd out of the arena. Standing room is always available, but the Opening Ceremony is extremely crowded as everyone jostles for photos. If you need a seat, bring a small folding chair or stool and setup as early as possible. People were always willing to let our kids sit on the ground in front of their chairs. We met some great people this way.
Not surprisingly, the main focus of the Eagle Festival is crowning the best eagle hunter. The hunters are judged on three competitions (and before you ask, no, I have no idea how these competitions are weighted):
- “The Presentation.” Each eagle hunter presents his horse and himself to a jury. The jury scores on the visual appearance of the whole package – hunter’s traditional clothing, horse, and equipment.
- “Eagle Calling to Hunter’s Arm” or “The Call.”
- “Eagle Calling to Lure” or “The Hunt.”
Good to know: Binoculars or a camera zoom lens are useful for watching the eagles on the hillside.
The Eagle Calling competition takes the bulk of Day 1. The event works like this – the hunter leaves his golden eagle on the high hillside near the arena. He rides back down, parades for the jury (“The Presentation”), and starts the “The Call”. The arena has three large circles scored 6, 8, and 10 points. Circle 6 is closest to the hillside, circle 10 is farthest from the hillside. More points are better. The hunter chooses a starting circle and proceeds to call for his eagle. A tempting morsel of meat is proffered as well. If all goes according to plan, the eagle swoops down and lands on his arm in an amazing display of hunting cooperation. The faster the eagle lands on the hunter’s arm, the more points are awarded.
We were surprised how few eagles actually flew to their hunters. Out of 120 hunters, only 18 eagles landed successfully! Most seemed distinctly uninterested. Theories abound as to why this is. Some suggested that the weather was too warm (apparently, Golden Eagles don’t like to fly when it’s hot). Others suggested that because eagle hunting is more hobby than lifestyle, the eagles aren’t well trained enough. In 2017, the eagles were similarly fussy. The word on the street then was that it was too cold. Personally, I though the crowd of 1,110 spectators and 8 drones might have had something to do with it.
The good news about the recalcitrant eagles, is that you don’t feel guilty leaving the arena when your kids want a break. Steps away from the arena is a eclectic market. You can find food and drinks, but also handicrafts, warm socks, furs of all variety, camel stuffies, horse whips, and more. We took several tours of the market over the two days and enjoyed the people watching as much as the wares. Make sure to bargain!
Following Eagle Calling, there is one Camel Race. Not to be outdone by their eagle hunting compatriots, the camels and their riders are in full regalia.
Tiyn Teru “Coin Pick-Up” Horseback Competition
The final event on Saturday is a traditional Kazakh horseback riding game called Tiyn Teru. Two flags (“coins”) are placed on the ground. The rider attempts to pick up both flags at a full gallop.
We were particularly excited for this event as our homestay host was participating and had won before. Unfortunately, he missed both flags. Because not everyone had ridden to the festival, the participants shared horses. It was great fun to watch a rider have a go, ride back, and immediately someone else would hop on.
Ölgii Eagle Festival Kazakh Cultural Performance
Your ticket to the Eagle Festival, will also get you into the Kazakh cultural show at the Kazakh National Theatre in Ölgii town. In 2018 there were three Saturday evening performances: 6:00pm, 7:00pm, and 8:00pm. With children, we chose the 6:00pm. Try to arrive as early as possible to get a proper seat. Many people were seated in the aisles and stairways.
The show includes traditional singers, dancers, and musicians. Personally, I would have liked more dancing and less musical ensembles. Although I did enjoy the orchestra that played European classical music on traditional Kazakh instruments.
What happens at the Ölgii Eagle Festival on Day 2?
Eagle Calling to Lure or “The Hunt”
Remember the 18 competitors that successfully called their eagles on Day 1? They moved onto Day 2 eagle calling. On Day 2, the eagle calling is to a lure (animal skin) dragged behind a horse.
The arena is setup with the same circles. The hunter chooses a starting circle and calls for his eagle whil dragging the lure behind the horse. The eagle should swoop down from his perch on the hillside and land on the lure.
Unlike “The Call”, the eagles were very good at “The Hunt.” 17 of the eagles landed successfully. We don’t know if this was because these were the better trained eagles, the eagles prefer chasing a lure, or the weather was more favorable.
Kyz Kuu “Catch the Girl” Horseback Competition
Kyz Kuu gives Kazakh women a chance to show off their equestrian skills. A man and woman in full traditional costume compete together. The man starts in front of the woman. She then tries to catch him and when she does beats him with her whip (how hard is her choice). If she doesn’t catch him, then the man steals a kiss at the finish line. We were baffled how this event was scored, but winners were declared.
Next up was archery. I admit that our family missed almost all of the archery compeition, but we did catch the final round. We could get extremely close to the action as the arena was small and the target was only 30-40 meters away.
Bushkashi “Goat Tug of War” Competition
Bushkashi was the capstone event. Two men on horseback tug-of-war with a stuffed, decapitated goat skin. Each rider grabs two goat skin legs. The goal is to tear the goat skin away from the opponent in a show of horsemanship and strength.
The winner was by far the most dynamic competitior. He knew how to work the crowd. He wore a pink silk shirt and put on celebratory antics with each win.
The final event of Day 2 and the entire festival is the awards ceremony. This took place entirely in Kazakh and we skipped most of it. We did catch the end when Chai Murat won for the third time. The locals and participants enjoyed the ceremony. There was lots of cheering and jumping on each others horses. Our homestay host was thrilled that some of his friends won awards.