The town of Ulgii lies in the far Northwest of Mongolia. A Kazakh calls to his horse, ‘Chu’. He speeds across the mountainous countryside, a fox skin lure bouncing behind tethered to the saddle by a length of rope. A golden eagle spreads its wings and swoops down from the Cliffside high above; its eyes are locked on the fox skin lure. The eagle dives, sinking its talons into the skin of the lure and tearing it free. Nearby, a panel of Mongolians and Simon Cowell, watch the spectacle and award points based on speed and agility. This annual gathering of Kazakhs is known as Mongolia’s Golden Eagle festival and has become increasingly popular with tourists.
Today, the festival is held to promote preservation of the Golden Eagles and maintain the customs of the Kazakhs of the Altai Mountains. The birds are trained to hunt for rabbits and foxes for their Kazakh masters. Golden eagles are impressive animals, with a wingspan of 7 to 8 feet they weigh in at an impressive 6.5 kg and can fly at speeds of 20 mph. With eyesight, eight times as powerful as a human, the eagles can spot a rabbit at a distance of a mile and a half. Females of the species are the preferred hunters, weighing a third more than their male counterparts; they are much more aggressive than the males.
Day one of the festival starts with a parade of Kazakhs in their full traditional regalia. They are mounted on horses with one arm outstretched, a Golden Eagle perched in situ. They are judged according to the splendour of their dress costumes and hunting accessories.
In the afternoon a competition for the fastest eagle is held about 20km outside the town. The eagle is perched on the mountainside and the Kazakhs take turns galloping away across the landscape, a call is made to the bird and it must fly to its master landing on an outstretched arm. This is a timed event with points awarded for the speed and agility of the bird in flight.
On Day two the eagles submit to a test of their hunting ability. The Eagle perched high on the mountain must swoop down, capturing a lure trailing behind its galloping master. Some of the eagles are put off by the watching crowd and stream of dust, whilst others go straight for the ‘kill’.
In addition to the eagle hunting contests, the Kazakh participants play a game known locally as kekbar. Two teams vie against each other, attempting to pass a goat skin across to their side of the field. The winner of this event is allowed to throw the skin into a gher of his choice. The ‘fortunate’ recipient, blessed with an unexpected goat skin lobbed through their front door, is expected to host a party for the participants in the evening.
During the afternoon of day two the points are tallied and the winners are declared at an award ceremony. Ulgii town is located in Bayan-Olgii province of north-west Mongolia.
The Golden Eagle Festival is officially accredited by the Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism.