In autumn 2022, Koryo Tours ran its first ever Eagle Festival tour, visiting the incredible Golden Eagle Festival in western Mongolia.
In October, Koryo Tours ran their very first Eagle Festival Tour!
The eagle festival is a traditional festival held out in the far west of Mongolia. The festival sees eagle hunters gather from all over the region to compete and show off their majestic birds and the incredible skill that goes into training and hunting with Golden Eagles.
If you’ve heard of the eagle festival before, that may be because there’s more than one. During March, there is an eagle festival in central Mongolia, although this is much more aimed at tourists, and another in early autumn which is sponsored by large companies. The celebration we partake in may be a long way from civilization, but it’s the true, original, local festival.
This year, as tourism begins to open up once again, we set off into the wilderness to join in the festivities alongside Mongolia’s eagle hunters. Whilst we only had a small number of adventurers join us on this trip, the experience was well worth running.
This was our first tour to the Eagle Festival and saw our intrepid tour leader Rich spend a week out in the wilds of Bayan Olgii, Mongolia’s rugged, beautiful westernmost province. You may have read about his other Mongolian adventures in the past on the Koryo blog!
As with all of our Mongolia tours, the adventure began in Ulaanbaatar with a grand total of three passengers! Armed with his sister-in-law’s car and a tourism permit, Rich led the tour throughout this breathtaking capital city.
The first highlight of the adventure was the Gandan Monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery in Ulaanbaatar, home to an enormous statue of a Buddha made of sandalwood and a beautifully appointed temple. Having enjoyed the relaxing surroundings, neatly kept gardens, and traditionally styled buildings, the adventure continued in a starkly different direction – a huge concrete Soviet monument built to honour the Soviet Union, an imposing reminder of Mongolia’s communist past.
The Zaisan Hill Monument holds a socialist-realist mural on the inside depicting everything from soldiers, Mongolian herders, cosmonauts, and a lot more.
As the day drew to a close and the group enjoyed a delicious lunch at a local restaurant, a chance to ease into Mongolian cuisine before the true adventure began, the day’s activities culminated in a walk to the hotel across the central square, Sukhbaatar Square, in the heart of Ulaanbaatar, named for the revolutionary hero Damdin Sukhbaatar whose statue graces the centre of the square.
The next day the adventure continued, with a classically inconvenient Mongolian twist. Things often happen here at short notice, and we found out early in the morning that it was ‘No Car Day’ in Ulaanbaatar. This inconvenience meant our visit to the National Museum was followed by a walk through the quiet streets of Ulaanbaatar to reach a local restaurant and enjoy one final taste of civilization before leaving the city.
That afternoon, the group drove to Chinggis Khan International Airport and boarded the flight out to the far west. The plane flew over a slowly freezing Mongolia, with the endless wilderness of the Mongolian steppe punctuated by patches of cleared ground where local nomads had harvested feed for their animals readying for the oncoming sub-zero months.
Arriving in Bayan Olgii city, the group we're whisked off to their beautifully appointed Ger camp – a series of traditional Mongolian gers (yurts) which would serve as a base later in our adventures in and around Olgii City.
We woke up to a hearty breakfast and enjoyed the hot showers available at the ger camp before meeting up with our excellent transport for this adventure, a pair of Uaz 452s – one for us, and another for our dedicated kitchen team. The Uaz 452 is a strange vehicle, it always seems to travel faster off-road than it does on the tarmac. So, with our vehicles prepared and well-stocked, we set off for the glacier rattling along the uneven terrain we bid farewell to tarmac and civilisation for almost a week!
Just as all seemed well, we received a warning of bad weather, a common hazard in this part of the world, but one which risked upending our entire expedition! We were told if we wanted to see the glacier, a true highlight of the region, we would need to head off straight away and climb to see this incredible sheet of ice that very day before the bad weather set it. With the risk of missing out on this incredible sight, we had a quick itinerary change and headed off for an adventure to our destination the Potanin Glacier.
On the way to the glacier, we made a stop at a small corner shop where we overindulged in a bit of retail therapy, so, with enough beer to stock a small off-license, gifts for local families, and snacks for us, we set off.
Having worked with our partners in the region for years, we trust their expertise; their recommendation turned out to be perfect. Despite the clear air and warm sun, we could see the unmistakable sign of heavy snow clouds bubbling up over the horizon. The glacier itself was stunningly beautiful, certainly an opportunity for some amazing photography, but we could feel the wind picking up – during the summer, at one of the major viewpoints there are religious stacks of stones called Ovo's these are normally wrapped in prayer flags which flutter in the breeze but as winter was drawing near, many had been blown over, a clear sign that summer was fast disappearing.
Returning from the glacier, we joined our team in setting up the campsite and, to our surprise, the kitchen team were already hard at work preparing us a delicious dinner. We headed to bed, slightly aggrieved at having to change the itinerary and miss out on part of our mountain hike in case of some as-yet-unseen bad weather. However, the group was thrilled at having seen one of Mongolia’s most truly amazing highlights.
That night, the magic of the day was somewhat undermined by my own midnight experience – waking up for a trip to the toilet I found our toilet tent had blown over, not wanting to wake anybody up I decided to head around the corner instead, however, there was no moon so I was suddenly cast into an atmosphere of pitch darkness – not ideal given the circumstances! Despite this own little personal adventure, the day was a complete triumph!
The next morning I hoped I’d open my tent to a winter wonderland, justifying the change in schedule. However, as the group gathered, it was clear that the “Beast from the… Northwest” had failed to appear. The bubbling stream that ran parallel to our campsite was still running as smoothly as ever and the Tavan Bogd national park maintained its ubiquitous autumnal dark green/brown colour as far as the eye could see.
Continuing the adventure, we drove deeper into the Altai Tavan Bogd region in search of the next night’s hosts – a local Tuvan family near the White River, who would teach us about life in the region, and even give us tips on archery! Along the way we stopped, like the good Samaritans we are, to help a local family take down their guest yurts. As winter was drawing near, and with the threat of this imminent weather, they asked if we would like to help disassemble their family yurt. What was slightly embarrassing was the incredible speed and skill with which they took the whole thing down – quicker than we were able to pack up a few two-man tents in the morning!
Continuing on we stopped to visit a local nomadic school in a local village – a great chance to interact with locals, and the children of nomads.
Trundling on further upriver, we stopped in the shadow of Shiveet Khairkan. Our host, a rather portly Tuvan gentleman, who informed us he’d spent the day moving from his summer yurt to his winter homestead. Typically he said he’d move later, but once again the rumour of this impending storm had encouraged him to move sooner rather than later.
After an enjoyable evening together in camp, and perhaps a glass or two of delicious homemade vodka and copious amounts of toasting, I quickly popped out for some fresh air and to my surprise, it was a complete white-out. Finally, the storm had arrived, and what a storm it was. The snow hammering down completely obscured any attempt to see more than a few feet ahead. Although I did feel, to some extent, vindicated – if we’d been up at the glacier in this, rather than drinking with a large Tuvan, things may have not ended so well!
The next morning, we awoke early with the sunrise to watch the sun peek above the horizon, reflected in the icy water of the White River. Our host took the opportunity to give us an impromptu lesson in Mongolian archery, a traditional sport, and skill in this part of the world.
By now, the snow had melted around our tents, but the peaks of the mountains which surrounded us were still tipped with glistening white, a reminder of the incredible display of mother nature we’d witnessed the evening before.
Bidding our hosts farewell, we set off. Our destination today was Khoton lake, another spectacular highlight of the Altai Tavan Bogd region. When we arrived, we faced an unexpected issue – the herders we planned to stay with had disappeared. The weather forecast over the previous few days meant many of the families in this scenic area had moved to more reliable ground a little earlier than planned.
Eventually, we were invited to stay at the ranger’s station, not quite what we’d planned, however we learned from the local ranger that a family still remained in the surrounding forest; so we set off to find them. Eventually, having driven deep into the wilds of this Mongolian pine forest we met the local family, pitched our tents and enjoyed our evening, glad that the worst of the weather was over… or so we thought.
Waking up the next morning I experienced the most incredible silence, not a sound could be heard, almost as if I was underground. Despite the freezing evening, I’d just experienced, the morning suddenly felt warmer, and cosier than I had expected. After a few minutes of enjoying my newfound relaxation, I came to the conclusion that it was suspiciously too quiet.
Opening up the inner lining of the tent, the usual patchy rays of sunshine shining through the outer layer of the tent didn’t appear – which was odd. Was it still nighttime? Opening the outer layer I discovered the surprising truth; the snow had continued falling all night and I was essentially buried! After digging myself out of my snowy slumber, my mind turned to a more important issue – the tour group. After some frantic digging and a few choice exclamations, I started pulling snow away from their tents, eventually revealing the door I imagined myself freeing our intrepid travellers from their icy confines; although as it turned out they had neglected to stay in the tents and had instead opted to sleep in the heated Ger behind us!
We had planned to continue on to visit a nearby waterfall, but the extreme snowfall made the onward journey treacherous at the least, and deadly at the most, especially since we couldn’t even see where the winding path lead – so, instead we spent the day with our hosts. We lit a fire, creating a cosy indoor atmosphere in their little wooden house and enjoyed the view outside as the snow continued to gently fall, settling on the branches of the trees surrounding us. After a day of relaxing, with a brief interlude to help herd some Yak, we headed back to bed, hoping the next day would bring some clearer driving weather to help us get away and continue the adventure.
The next morning, luckily, the wind had cleared much of the heavier snow out of the way which allowed us a window of opportunity to get back on the road. However, much to our dismay, the wind that had cleared the path for us had created huge snow drifts – some up to waist-deep. Unfortunately, one of the many strange jobs of a tour leader is to make sure the vehicles are able to traverse the terrain; this took the form of me regularly disembarking the Uaz and walking through the drifts ahead of the cars to check the depth.
Eventually, after a day of tension and worry, mixed with concern that we might need to return back to the family, we encountered a vehicle headed towards us in the opposite direction – a sign that the road ahead might be less treacherous than the road behind.
Later that evening we arrived back in Olgii City – on our way in we stopped for a welcome cup of tea with a local eagle hunter, a sign of things to come! Despite being one of many eagle hunters in the region, he informed us he wouldn’t be competing this year as his eagle was still too young – however he was nice enough to give us a small demonstration and let us all pose for photos.
After a last-minute change of plan due to some frozen water pipes at our intended overnight stop, we arrived at a local ger camp and finally got some well-deserved rest.
The next morning we felt embraced by Olgii City… mainly because our ger camp had incredible showers and the first chance to wash with warm water since we arrived. So, after some long showers and a quick shave, we set off for the day’s adventure; the Golden Eagle Festival.
Having stopped at the local shops to pick up some snacks, we passed the men on horseback travelling through the city of Olgii with their eagles on their arms – clearly on their way to partake in this incredible spectacle.
The festival itself is held near huge rocky outcrops with a large arena set up in the centre. Surrounding the arena were dozens of stalls selling everything from jackets and Kazakh carpets to drinks and snacks. Despite having a schedule to, in theory, keep things organised, the actual event was much more relaxed and disorganized – like a stopped clock, the official schedule was only correct about twice throughout the whole day.
The eagle hunters began to gather for the opening ceremony – after years of travelling here, I realised I knew many of the participating eagle hunters, and after a few years of Covid, it was nice to see many of these older men had survived, continuing to involve themselves in this incredible festival. It was heartwarming to see the many young, new eagle hunters – providing some hope that this celebration will continue safely into the future.
On top of the incredible sight of Golden Eagles, the hunters themselves wore some incredibly immaculate dress – from traditional fur coats to intricate Kazakh costumes, both the hunters and their birds were truly a sight to behold.
At that moment, I heard my name being called from behind me – to my delight, it was an eagle hunter I had met a few months before who was walking towards me, reminding me I still owed him money from a trip a few months earlier. Handing over around 20 dollars worth of Mongolian tugrik, he tucked it up his sleeve and climbed straight into the area to begin his presentation.
The festival began with the opening ceremony – carrying the Mongolian flag, and with some Kazakh hunters carrying the Kazakh flag, the hunters, 40 or so, rode round and round the central arena with their birds on their arms.
Amongst the male-dominated field, there were three or four female eagle hunters from the younger generation. All being watched by huge crowds, often including retired eagle hunters arriving to watch and support the current generation.
Shortly afterwards, they began to announce the events that would be taking place. A mixture of different events makes up the Golden Eagle Festival;
- One event is a competition in which each hunter is judged on their costume, the quality of their eagle, their horses, and how impressive each hunter looks with their eagle together.
- Another consists of the hunter on horseback, with their assistant taking the eagles to the top of the surrounding mountains – the preparation for this competition takes around 20 minutes as these assistants clambered up the mountain. Then, through walkie-talkies, the assistants brought each bird forward one by one as each hunter called their eagle from down in the arena – the further away the hunter from the eagle, the more points are scored.
- Hunting with a lure is another competition category. The eagle is one again taken to the mountaintop whilst the hunter rides around the arena with a lure attached to the back of the horse, often rabbit skins, with points scored based on the distance of the eagle from the lure.
As with all true-to-life events, there are always elements of comedy mixed in. Sometimes the eagles would get distracted and fly into the crowds, sometimes they would be distracted by other eagles, sometimes they would fly down, land, and just watch their hunter riding around calling them, and one time, an eagle flew straight into the commentary box and perched next to the commentator.
Overall it was a truly incredible event. After so long being closed off from each other due to the pandemic, for many, this was a rare chance for people to meet and reunite – not only the hunters who would had rarely left their villages, but tour leaders from across Mongolia, local drivers who usually know each other very well, but without tourism had not seen each other for years, and other locals and foreigners who had a chance to meet and interact for the first time in years.
Alongside the available local food, we had our own kitchen team onsite preparing our own meals which added a layer of comfort to the experience after a week of gruelling adventure!
After the two-day event came to a close, we boarded our plane from one of the most remote locations on the planet back to the hustle and bustle that is Ulaanbaatar. Bringing to a close a truly incredible adventure.