So I just got back from a seriously crazy weekend spent surrounded by Kazakh eagle hunters and their big-ass birds, and now I’m going to tell you all about it because blogs are a dictatorship, has anyone else noticed that?
The Annual Golden Eagle Festival is held every October in Bayan-Ölgii aimag, the westernmost Mongolian province and the only one in which the ethnic Kazakh minority is actually a majority. Cradled in this bastion of Kazakh-ness are some seriously kickass Kazakh traditions, one of which is hunting with eagles because eagles. And every October, a metric crapton of eagle hunters show up in Ölgii City from Mohammed-knows-where to show off their mad eagle-handling skillz. And since we live a mere 7-10-hour bus-ride from Ölgii City, it was never a question that we were going.
On Friday morning, we (Other English Teacher, British Couchsurfer, and I) met up with several Peace Corps volunteers and headed down to the market to catch a ride in a bus/van going our direction, because this is how you travel in Mongolia. We quickly found a van going to Ölgii, complete with really drunk dude who kissed me, grabbed my nose, and may or may not have intentionally attempted to slapped my ass.
After several hours of waiting for people to show up, driving to other places to pick people up, and eventually negotiating 16 people and their luggage into a van meant for 11, we were off!
The road ended right outside of Khovd and didn’t come back for another six and a half hours, but it’s cool because Mongolia.
There were brief stops for food and peeing…
…but a very tiring seven hours later, we arrived in Ölgii City and headed over to the home of a Kazakh family–friends of friends who fed us soup and graciously allowed us to take over their extra apartment.
Also, random sidenote, it’s amazing how quickly pit-style toilets cease to bother you.
The next day we woke up bright, early, and super excited for the first day of Eagle Fest. Our host’s brother drove us out of town to the site, and the crowd’s phenotypic trends lead Other English Teacher to wryly remark that we had accidentally come to White People Fest.
BUT THEN EAGLES.
Okay, fine, whatever. So Mickey and Minnie are at Eagle Fest, big deal. They’re only number two on my list of People I Did Not Expect to See at Eagle Fest. I mean, if Michelle Rodriguez from Avatar were here, then we might have to have a conversation.
…Wait, what? Standing in the pick-up truck and telling some dude to stop being a dick to his horse?
I CAN’T HANDLE THIS, JUST SHOW ME EAGLES.
Also, before anyone asks, yes, the 13-year-old first female Kazakh eagle hunter was there. That’s her on the left.
British Couchsurfer got to hold her eagle, and I was not jealous in the least. Ah well, I guess I’ll just have to make do with getting whipped in the face by THIS OTHER EAGLE.
Eagle Fest also included hiking up mountains…
…being respectful of personal space…
…meat pies in a ger…
…and a dude carrying a wolf. A wolf that was both real and alive.
Q: Where do the eagles go when their owners get tired of holding them?.
So a part of me thought that Eagle Fest was just Kazakh hunters getting together and talking about how cool they are, but it turns out most of it is actually contests. Like this one from Day 1, in which the eagle is let go from the top of the mountain and has to swoop down to its owner, who is on the back of a horse holding raw meat and screaming.
Or this one, from Day 2, where the eagles are now swooping after a lure being dragged by their owner on a horse.
Or this one, where they see who has the fastest camel.
Never mind, that one doesn’t involve eagles.
At some point on Day 2, Other English Teacher and I decided to hike up the mountain and watch the eagles being released. If I had to rank my Eagle Fest experiences, sitting with the eagle hunters as they let their eagles go might have been on top, above Michelle Rodriguez (sorry, Michelle).
Other highlights included that classic game from our youth, tug-of-war with a sheep.
On Sunday afternoon, we hitched a ride back to Khovd with a friend. I still haven’t recovered, but 10/10 would highly recommend. Eagle Fest was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, and frankly, I’m still blown away that I got to see it. This is my life in Western Mongolia, and it is good.