WHERE EAGLES SOAR
For more than a thousand years, the nomadic people of western Mongolia have practiced this ancient falconry tradition of training and hunting with golden eagles. Trekking on horseback over unforgiving terrain in frigid temperatures, these hunters work in teams to flush quarry—fox and rabbit—then release their eagles to swoop in from above.
This incredible cultural tradition was at risk of becoming a forgotten art by the 1990s. Fewer than fifty families still practiced the tradition when Nomadic Expeditions founder and CEO Jalsa Urubshurow co-founded the Golden Eagle Festival in 1999 as a meaningful way to preserve falconry tradition in Mongolia.
Now there are more than 400 eagle hunters in the Altai region, the best of whom arrive each to year on the first weekend of October to compete in the competition near Ulgii, the province center. As of last year, 120 eagle hunters participated. The once-in-a-lifetime two-day festival celebrates age-old tradition yet without the harming of any animals.
On the first day, the festival starts with a parade of all the participating eagle hunters, who are judged on their horse tackle, and on their outfits of hand-worked leather and colorful fox fur and wool.
The first sporting competition sees the hunters judged on how well their eagles are trained. This is done by timing how fast the eagles can land on the arm of the hunter after the eagles has been released from high above a cliff as the hunter in the valley below rides on horseback at a canter. As a hunter rides farther from the mountain, per lines drawn on the ground, the number of their score decreases.
In the afternoon is the joroo horse race—a race of up to 30 horses with a very smooth canter—taking place near the event site. This is followed by a camel race that circles hill where the festival is held. On the north west side of the arena, an Uriankhai Archery contest will take place, in which archers shoot at a target ball the size of a fist hanging from a rope at a distance of 30 meters.
In the evening, a traditional Kazakh concert will be held at the nearby Ulgii City Concert Hall. The concert will go on for about an hour—spanning Kazakh songs, customary dances, and performed by ensembles and soloists.
On the second day, the eagles return to competition in an event that calls for them to land on a Shirga—an animal skin of either fox or rabbit. The eagle that seizes upon a Shirga in the area rated a high number will thereby earn a high score.
Meanwhile the Kazakh game of Kizguar will start. This is a game where a girl on a horse is chased by a boy on a horse; once the boy catches up, he will kiss the girl’s cheek. In return, the girl will chase the boy with a whip, whipping the boy.
Another Kazak traditional game that is thrilling to watch is the Tenge ilu (which translates to snatching coin), in which a horseman will snatch small items from the ground while riding a horse. The items will decrease in sizes as the game goes on—starting from horse whips down to a coin that is wrapped in a red cloth. Everyone has a single chance to grab these items. The person who successfully snatches them without failing will keep on progressing until by elimination there is a winner.
Finally, the game that is most eagerly watched is Kokbar—a game that combines elements of tug-of-war and capture-the-flag. Played on horseback using an animal skin, the object is to seize the skin and successfully pull it into the ring of the opposing team. Teams consisting of five members compete against each other.
Throughout the festival there is no shortage of food sold at the festival at an array of stalls—including skewered lamb and khuushuur (local flat fried dumplings). Coffee and other western snacks have become commonly offered of late.
The festival received international attention upon release of the 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress, the riveting story of Aishol-pan, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl from Mongolia training to become a master eagle hunter, carrying on the traditions of her ancestors. She is part of a new generation of nomadic youth naturally drawn to the centuries-old customs of her people and embracing the connection with their roots and the wild.
The competition has grown year by year, and a decade after its founding UNESCO designated Mongolia’s falconry tradition with eagles an example of living human heritage on its “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list.
Visitors to this spectacular event have the chance to and support traditional artisans who sell their distinct handicrafts—including embroidered hats and jackets, decorative felt bags, and striking handwoven rugs.
Welcome to the land of the nomad.
Join us on a tour of Mongolia centered around journeying to witness the annual competition among the top Kazakh eagle hunters as they test their birds’ speed, agility, and accuracy.