Few months ago, one of those grey days during the winter in Lima, where the only thing you want to do is to stay home watching movies, eating chocolate and covered with at least 5 blankets, we came across (among the 465 suggestions options that Netflix suggests) with the documentary film “The Eagle Huntress”.
– Do you want to see it?
– What is it about?
– It looks like a documentary about a girl who raises an eagle
– Mmm… maybe.
– It could be nice, it’s in Mongolia
– Sounds good. Let’s watch it!
Aisholpan, a Kazakh girl from the Altai region in Mongolia, has a dream: to become an eagle huntress. For generations, the men in her family have follow this tradition been eagle she wants to follow their steps. But wait, eagle hunter? it’s only for men! Holly mother of god!!!
Would Aisholpan, with the help of her father, achieve her dream to become a female eagle hunter and participate in annual Golden Eagles Festival? To be continued…
A little dramatic but despite the polemics that surrounded its release, the film does provide a good overview of this ancestral tradition and especially shows the beauty of Mongolia’s landscapes. Mongolia was a “must” in our trip, so curiously, we checked the dates of this year’s festival and…. voilà! Here we are, in the 19TH edition of the Golden Eagle Festival.
Let me explain you what’s about. The festival is a kind of 2-day championship (outside Olgii city) where local Kazakhs encounter to compete in their traditional games. It started in 1999 to promote and preserve Kazakh traditions in the region and the highlight is, of course, the competition of eagle hunters, when Kazakh hunters (or locally called as Burkitshi) have to demonstrate the skills.
This year’s program:
Presentation of all the participants
Calling the eagle
The hunter chooses a “landing zone” that the eagle, located on top of a nearby hill, must arrive after the hunter’s call. The number of points scored depends on the distance and velocity used by the eagle to arrive to his owner.
It’s a race but …with camels! It’s a bit of a mess (the camels are not super disciplined) but it’s pretty funny to see.
Kyz Kuar (“Woman hunting”)
A woman and a man are horse racing. The man wants to chase the woman but whenever he approaches the woman moves him away hitting him with a whip. Romantic, no?
No targets but a kind of wicker balls placed on the ground that archers must reach from different distances.
Horse riders have to catch as quickly as possible several objects (traditionally coins) that are placed on the floor.
Hunting a fox
The hunter (on his horse) drags a fox skin that the eagle, who is on the top of a hill, must catch when the hunter calls him. The precision, velocity and the time-reaction of the eagle are evaluated.
Competition of Kokpar (or Bouzkachi)
Traditional game of Central Asia, a sort of polo but instead of a ball they use a sheep carcass hat must be brought into a specific area of the field to score a “goal”. In the case of the festival, it is a simplified version with only two riders, so the one who manages to tear the carcass, wins the game. So just imagine how the sheep ends…
So, at the end, what did we think about this festival?
Between tradition and modernity
Obviously, it does give a good overview of the Kazakh customs of this part of Mongolia, as it is evidenced that traditional games are still practiced and valued by the local population. It also attracts eagle hunters who come from all over the region to showcase their experience and to, maybe, have the chance to return back home with a precious trophy (and some money, of course).
But we had the impression that the festival itself has turned a little into a touristic show. Some locals confessed that it has lost its original spirit which was an opportunity to reencounter and share with other eagle hunters, and where the winner was rather appointed by mutual agreement according to the group consensus. Unfortunately, nowadays, the competition has become much fiercer and the event more commercial, loosing its essence.
Also, the very photogenic aspect of the event (the venue, the animals, the colours, the costumes…), undoubtedly attracts a lot of photographers or tourists who are desperate to have the best shot, but many of them behave in a very invasive and disrespectful manner stalking the competitors.
Regarding animal condition
Another important aspect is respect for the animals: hunters raise the eagles since they are only a few weeks born until they are 5 years old to release them back to nature (eagles could live between 20 and 35 years in the wild). But unfortunately, several sources have told us that few hunters respect this period of time mostly because of the time-effort invested in breeding them but also because of the complicity between the hunter and the eagle, which may encourage them to keep it much longer. Fortunately, the hunters we met showed a real respect and took a lot of care of their eagles, considering them as their hunting partners.
In conclusion, we had a mixed emotions regarding the festival. Of course it’s a very good opportunity to have an overview of Kazakh traditions, but some tourists could make you feel uncomfortable. Ok… we’re all tourist but we think it’s important not to turn into an obsessed-stalker-disrespectful one.
Bonus track… behind the scene!!
- Have a glimpse of local traditions in just two days and also see the diversity of Kazakh crafts (a kind of improvised market with many sellers is present throughout the festival).
- The possibility of approaching hunters and their eagles
We did not really like:
- The behavior of some tourists / photographer
- The lack of organization of the event despite the importance it has taken in recent years
- The lack of accommodation in Ölgii (hotels do not hesitate to group tourists to 5 or 6 in a room, no matter whether they travel together or not)
- A young man presents on the festival with a wolf, visibly abused, at the end of a chain … horrible!
How to get there:
- To get to Ölgii, you can take a local flight from UB with Aero Mongolia and Hunus. AeroMongolia seemed very good and with modern planes. They are a little expensive in high season, so it is better to buy your flight in advance. Attention, their planes are small and on both lines, you can only carry 30 kg, including hand luggage (and no negotiation possible).
- You can also take the bus, much cheaper but obviously much longer (about 2 days)
- It is also possible to take a driver with a van in a UB agency.
- Last option, the horse or the camel, but as we told you, it’s a different story.
- Possibility to take a guide but you can also go to the festival by taxi
- If you prefer to go through a local agency, we highly recommend Western Altai, the agency of our friend Taskhyn who will undoubtedly transmit the passion of his region and his country.
What to bring:
- The festival being held at the beginning of October, the temperatures can begin to be cool and especially the place of the festival (with two cables of Olgii) can be very windy. At the end of the day spent standing without much movement, it starts to get cold.
- We recommend to go early to get good places and to bring a little seat.
- A good camera equipment with a good zoom because it’s true that the event is particularly suitable for good image and hunters willingly willing to let you take picture of them (even if some will ask you money to take your shots) .