Rough, beautiful, and rich in history, the Mongolian countryside is no joke. With freakishly low winter temperatures (up to -49 Fahrenheit) only the heartiest souls thrive in Western Mongolia’s rugged Altai Mountains. It’s here that nomadic Kazakh people practice the 6,000-year-old art of hunting with golden eagles. Traditionally, the hunt was to secure meat and fur to survive the long, harsh winters. Today, keeping the tradition itself alive is the priority.
Each fall, when the weather is a tad better, adventurous travelers have the opportunity to see the tradition in action at Bayan-Ölgii Province’s Golden Eagle Festival. Spectators get a rare peek into the unique relationship between man and majestic bird of prey.
A unique bond forms between hunter, known as a burkitshi, and eagle. During training, the eagle is hand fed, teaching her to trust and to keep her content while in captivity. Though they become part of the hunter’s family, eagles are eventually released back into the wild to live out their lives without further human contact.
A burkitshi and his eagle pose inside a traditional ger home. Brightly colored Kazakh textiles serve as both décor and insulation inside the round, tent-like structure that nomadic families quickly set up and take down as they move across the landscape.
Horsemanship is an important part of traditional culture for both Mongolian and Kazakh people. Nomads not only used horses for transportation of people and goods, but also for hunting and in battle. Here, a champion Kazakh eagle hunter shows his prowess aboard his trusty steed. Successful hunting means commanding both eagle and horse.
During the hunt, the burkitshi rides to the top of a mountain and scans the landscape, releasing his eagle after spotting a target fox, hare, or other small animal. The eagle swoops down and captures the prey while the hunter rides down to retrieve both eagle and bounty.
Each September, Western Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii province hosts a Golden Eagle Festival in the Altai Mountains. Some hunters ride many kilometers over mountains, streams, and steppes to participate in the festival.
Competitive events allow hunters to demonstrate the skills they have instilled in their eagles. Festival-goers look on as a competitor tosses a rabbit carcass attached to a rope while his eagle is released from atop the mountain. The eagle must fly to the hunter and secure the rabbit lure within a set time limit. In 2019, approximately 100 hunters competed, with about one-third of the eagles completing the task successfully.
A hunter grimaces from the force of his eagle successfully returning during the festival competition. Golden eagles can have a wingspan over seven feet and weigh up to 15 pounds. Female eagles are nearly always used for hunting as they are larger and more powerful than males.
While eagle festival competitors have been traditionally male, some women and girls have begun competing in recent years. The young woman pictured was one of the most successful during the 2019 competition. A 10-year-old girl was the youngest competitor.
A hunter allows his eagle to rest on his saddle between rounds of competition at the Golden Eagle Festival in Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii Province.
Hunters Isken, Anarbek, and Urken pose with their eagles at Tolbo Lake in Western Mongolia. The hunters have a long trek ahead of them to return home after the competition. Wooden sticks help support the eagles during the ride.
Hunters and eagles head home after competing at the Golden Eagle Festival. The event includes an opening ceremony, cultural displays, and vendors selling handmade crafts. Because the Mongolian countryside features few roads and no road signs, the best way to get there is to make arrangements through a local tour company like Nomadic Tours Asia. While creature comforts are few and far between in the Mongolian countryside, the experience is highly rewarding for travelers with a thirst for authentic adventure.