Here at Wild Frontiers HQ, we were lucky to receive a visit from our friend and local guide in Mongolia, Tulga, who happened to be in London ahead of the Travel and Destinations Show and stopped by for a chat.
Tulga has been working with us for over 10 years and his passion for his country and introducing tourists to the nomadic ways and traditions of its people is infectious.
With a bright smile, Tulga gave us a thoughtful presentation on one of our tours which involves the spectacular Golden Eagle Festival, set within the majestic backdrop of the Altai Mountains.
The festival, which Tulga tells us has been running for nineteen years now, has changed over time. What was once a male-dominated event, after some cynicism, now allows women to compete too. Two years ago, only two women participated, but that number has gone up to five.
This could be attributed to one of the most famous Eagle Huntresses to have competed in the last few years, a Kazakh nomad girl by the name of Aisholpan Nurgaiv. She started training when she was just ten years old and went on to win the games at the age of thirteen.
This truly impressive feat can only really be admired by understanding the games themselves. Fortunately, Tulga was happy to explain.
‘The Golden Eagle Festival is one of the biggest in the country. There are two events and the smaller of which happens in the second week of September when the weather is slightly warmer. This is when the hunting season starts, the first snowfall settles in the region and local hunters will gather to hunt foxes, whose tracks are visible in the crisp white snow.’
Their weapon of choice? A trained golden eagle, of course. Hunting is ceremoniously followed by a celebration. This old tradition is where the idea of the festival originated.
‘The main festival occurs on the first weekend of October and between these two occasions, the temperature drops about ten degrees. Considering the unpredictable nature of the weather during this time, storms can blight the festival. But nothing has ever caused a festival to be cancelled, it’s simply gets postponed. This is Mongolia after all.’
Every year, between 70 and 100 eagle hunters travel to just outside of Ulgii town from across Mongolia by land, to compete in the two-day festival. But there can only be one winner.
The concept of the games seems rather simple, but as Tulga explains, it doesn’t by any means sound easy.
‘In the first of the main games, the master must climb to the top of the mountain with his, or her, eagle. Upon releasing the eagle, it soars down from the mountain to land on the arm of a man mounted on a horse.
The second game has an extra challenge. The horse rider, at full gallop, must drag a bait, likely a dead animal, which the eagle must attack.’
It may seem like most of the work here falls to the eagle, which is why they require such rigorous training. But keep in mind that the eagles can weigh up to 7kg, which is the equivalent of catching an overweight cat on your forearm after it’s flown down a mountainside using its wingspan of over 7ft in freezing cold temperatures. Rather an intimidating thought. Add to the mix the full pelt galloping on horseback and you really start getting to grips with how challenging this must be.
Naturally, the eagles can get distracted. Their impeccable eyesight can spot prey from quite a distance and Tulga warns against wearing anything red to the festival. ‘The eagles can mistake this for blood and you might find yourself on the unpleasant end of some talons.’
With up to sixty eagle hunters taking their turn going up the mountain and releasing one eagle at a time, this can take hours. But luckily, the festival has plenty else to offer.
With a parade to kick the festivities off, there are horse races, archery and a goat skin competition; a sort of rugby/tug of war game on horseback.
There’s also a competition in which horse riders must precisely snatch a coin from the ground at full gallop, and one where a man steals a kiss from a girl and rides away on a slow horse. In turn, the girl takes chase and whips him in response.
I steal a moment to speak to Tulga about what he particularly loves to show people on his tours. Alongside the Golden Eagle Festival in the West, which Tulga has visited over ten times, his favourite expedition is to take tourists to the North to visit the reindeer tribe.
‘There are only 200 indigenous people left, they’re very special. They live in teepees and the scenery there is stunning.’
The Dukha, or Tsaatan in Mongolian, are indeed very special. Their nomadic lifestyle sees them moving frequently with their herd of reindeer for hunting opportunities or to escape the warmer weather.
The activity which gets the best reaction, Tulga tells us, is the welcome dinner at the festival, when visitors get the opportunity to sit down with the hunters to chat and sing songs.
‘The hunters leave their eagles outside the ger like you might park your car’, he says, ‘and even though people tend to enjoy the whole festival experience, this personal interaction really seems to make an impression.’
Speaking of making an impression, Tulga leaves behind a room full of people eager to visit or return to ongolia, along with some delicious Mongolian treats. I guess that's why he's such a good tour guide, he has a knack for leaving people longing for the next adventure.
Check out our Mongolia Altai Moutain Eagle-Hunting Festival Tour dates HERE.