Meeting the Eagle Huntress and friends
Emily regularly joins trips as a host in the summer and spends the rest of her time working in the Panoramic Journeys office in the UK. Here she tells us about one of the many highlights of her time in Mongolia – the Sagsai Eagle Festival in Mongolia's wild west. She even met a film star on one of her trips…
I never dreamed that I would one day find myself heading to an eagle festival in Bayan Ulgii, a province in the far west of Mongolia, but that's just what happened when I was asked to join the Gobi, Heartland & Altai group tour as a host, to act as a bridge between the Mongolian team and our guests. My colleagues talked of the west as if it were a mystical land, they said it was like being in a different country to the Mongolia that they knew, the landscapes more vast and mountainous, the Kazakh people speaking a language even they couldn't understand, their culture drenched in music and colour, and of course, their fame as eagle hunters.
I left Ulaanbaatar with the group on an early flight to Ulgii, the capital of Bayan Ulgii, and were driven by our guide Agii to our new home for the next 5 nights; our own small private ger camp located next to our Kazakh host Aldamsh and his extended family. Kazakh gers are different to Mongolian gers, they are bigger, and adorned with hand embroidered wall hangings. Our new home was simple, but we had everything we needed, food, warmth, shelter and good company, located in a wide open valley, surrounded by horses and yaks, snow-capped mountains in the distance, and a nearby river providing our water. And of course, a musician, a horseman, and an eagle hunter living in the ger next door.
We woke early on our first full day filled with excitement for the day's task; eagle training with Khizirbek and his golden eagle in anticipation of the Eagle Festival the following day. We learnt that the Kazakh eagle hunters take eagle chicks from their nests when they are very young, and preferably female chicks, as they make better hunters. The Kazakhs develop a close bond with their eagle, training it for many years, and sometimes bringing it into their home during bitterly cold winters. But as in all of Mongolia, there is balance and harmony between humans and nature, the eagles always remain semi wild, and when an eagle reaches the age of seven or eight, it is released back into the wild. A golden eagle can live up to 40 years. We also learnt that, after a warm summer, eagles can become a little lazy, Khizibek's eagle preferred a stroke behind the back of the neck to flying, we lovingly obliged.
We spent the following two days at the eagle festival, a bustle of activity, with over 40 eagle hunters on horses, a myriad of traders selling their wares of traditional crafts, felt and furs. Food, music and cacophony. It felt ancient and wild, but strangely not dissimilar to an English Summer fete. The festival followed a programme of events that included eagle calling, where each eagle hunter took their turn to the test their skill as an eagle hunter, calling down their eagles from the mountain. We cheered for Khizirbek and willed his eagle to fly when it was their turn, and fly she did.
The afternoons at the festival were given to traditional Kazakh horse games; woman chase – where a man and woman race side by side with the woman whipping the man; picking up a flower from the ground; and bushkashi – tug of war with a headless dead goat on horseback. It was impressive, the horsemanship of every man, woman and child in Mongolia cannot fail to amaze, they are true masters.
A highlight for many of us in the group was riding our sturdy Mongolian horses to the eagle festival each day, escorted by Adamsh and his son, and joined, as the morning light shone gently upon us, by eagle hunters, their horses in their finest bridles, eagles supported upon their arms by a wooden perch, each eagle hunter in their best clothes of fur or embroidered coat. Together we rode through rivers and streams and cantered across the plain. We felt like we were part of a special club, joyfully escorting our eagle hunters to their festival. We knew that this was a special moment in life, likely never to be repeated, but always to be remembered. How lucky we were to be there.
Returning to the West
In 2016, I was delighted to return to the Altai Mountains to meet up with our eagle hunter friends and celebrate their traditions at the Eagle Festival. Our small group were surprised and delighted to meet up again with Aisholpan now famous for her role in The Eagle Huntress film (film critic Mark Kermode's Christmas movie of 2016) as well as spend time living with our eagle hunter friends.
Fancy meeting them too? We can create a tailor-made journey for you or join one of our small group journeys like this Gobi, Heartland and Altai Eagle Festival Journey