Image by Stefan Cruysberghs Five Hundred Pixels
Hunting with eagles is a Kazakh winter hobby, not a profession, and it's estimated that there are about 400 practitioners living in Bayan-Ölgii. Every October, around a hundred of them converge at Sayat Tube (Hunter’s Hill), 8km east of Ölgii, for this festival. With eagle antics and traditional horse games and camel races, it’s the hottest ticket in the West.
Ölgii's Eagle Festival (often called the 'Golden Eagle Festival' or simply 'the Eagle Festival') has soared in popularity since the heroics of Aisholpan, a plucky 13-year-old Kazakh girl, were portrayed in the 2016 film The Eagle Huntress. That year, 800 foreign tourists descended on Ölgii for the festival, far outstripping the number of available beds. Since then, the town has been scrambling to catch up; four new hotels and several ger camps were being built at the time of research.
A photographer's dream, the programme kicks off around 10am on the Saturday with a fashion parade of sorts, as the mounted eagle hunters – resplendent in embroidered winter furs and brandishing their birds – are judged on their attire. The festival's various competitions and displays – including one called shakhyru, during which the eagle must catch a piece of fox fur pulled behind a galloping horse – are staggered over the weekend.
The festival culminates on Sunday, when a live fox (or sometimes a wolf pup) is released as bait for the top three eagles to hunt; note that some may find this somewhat distressing, as the fox or pup is killed.
The festival also includes traditional horse games and camel races. The most exciting are kokpar (a tug-of-war with an animal skin between two riders) and tenge ilu (a competition in which riders must swoop down to pick up a scrap of material from the ground at full gallop).
Although the tradition dates back about 2000 years (Marco Polo mentions it in his Travels), the practice of eagle hunting withered under Soviet rule, and the festival was held for the first time in 1999. Since then, its growing success has helped preserve the pastime, though it has also distorted the focus from seasonal hunting to camera-friendly display falconry. For the real thing, you need to go out on a winter hunt; the season starts after the festival.
Be sure to hang onto your festival admission ticket as it will get you into the Saturday night traditional music concert held in the Kazakh National Theatre.
The easiest way to get to the festival grounds is on the bus (T5000 per person return) operated by Kazakh Tour, or by taxi (T10,000 one way).
Other eagle festivals in western Mongolia include the Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival, held in Sagsai on the third weekend of September, and the new Spring Eagle Hunting Festival, which was in its infancy at the time of research.