The Eagle Festival Remembered
James Mahon hosts horse riding treks in Mongolia. Here he recounts the first time he visited one of the Eagle Festivals.
The Eagle Festival is an extraordinary event, you have to pinch yourself to check if you are dreaming! Then, when you know you are really living it, what a rush!
We rode from our ger where we had been based for some days to the festival. 50 kms! Mounted on impressive hardy horses with long thick manes, and armed with golden eagles. To these hunters, this was not just 50kms to travel, it was 50 kms in which to hunt – and hunt we did! As mountains passes and paths met like tributary rivers, so did the constant flow of men mounted on horses carrying eagles. Our party grew, as did the atmosphere. It was a fabulous sight, everyone – hunters, camels, horses, birds – in wonderful decorative costumes.
At the two-day festival there are number of games played. There is a hotly contested children´s horse race – a 6 km gallop at full pace round the base of the mountain setting. There is the ‘kiss a girl’ game, a display performed by couples on horseback, and the ‘pick up a coin’ game, timed from the starting post to grabbing the coin from the ground. Then there is the more adrenaline-fuelled, Buzkashi, a kind of tug of war over an animal hide, on horseback.
The main event is about the hunters. The objective is to preserve their culture, by making people aware of it and their sustainable life in the Altai wilderness. They really live there and it is really is tough – no disguises. These horseman are at the festival to put to the test what they do most days at home, but here it is under the careful and strict observation of a full judging panel. The judges sit on a big trailer and the horseman enter the wild arena in a parade. The judges take note of the quality of hunter’s horse, saddlery, clothing and hunting kit.
Then one by one, hoods are lifted and on the sounding of the hunting horn their bird is released up to the mountain behind. Up soars the eagle and so the load cries begin. Time is of the essence. The hunter is mounted on his horse in the plateau below the mountain, the eagle (with a 2.5 metre wing span) is in full flight.
The two, golden eagle and man are communicating, crying out to each other and the judges are timing them. The cries are extraordinary. Meat is held in the hunter’s glove. The best partnerships see the hunter on his horse at a gallop as the eagle comes down from the mountain towards him at full tilt, talons stretched out in front, swooping onto the arm, both eagle and hunter going at an incredible pace!!