Visiting the Sagsai Eagle Festival
In September 2017, Karolina, PJ Country Director in Mongolia, enjoyed the Sagsai Golden Eagle Festival with our guests on the Gobi, Heartland and Altai group trip. Here are her memories of the event…
The annual Sagsai Eagle Festival started on a warm September day, about 15km west of Sagsai town. The weather was great for photos and having fun in the sun, but difficult for the eagles, who I was told can overheat easily and prefer cold, windy days for hunting.
The arrival of the hunters was spectacular – riding in on horseback from all directions wrapped in heavy fur coats traditionally worn during hunting, and each with a giant golden eagle sitting on his forearm!
One by one they stopped at a small table, where the festival judges were registering them for the completion; slightly out-of-place formality for such a wild event. The registration process seemed to be have no end, and later it turned out that instead of about 40 hunters the organisers were expecting, over 80 participants decided to give it a try at the festival's most popular competition. Once registered all of the hunters sat on a nearby hill, posing for photos and waiting for the competition to start. Just try to imagine that view!
With our eyes wide open in awe, we moved slowly across the festival site, when our guide, Nurka, tapped me on my shoulder and quietly said “Look to the right!” I turned my head and caught a glimpse of white. What a surprise! Behind a small truck I saw Aisholpan, the Eagle Huntress star on the acclaimed film of the same name. The young eagle huntress had just started to get ready for the tournament, and was about to put on her famous white coat. Her presence was truly unexpected. She was supposed to be travelling to South Korea and skip this year's September festival. Yet, her flight had been cancelled at the last minute, and here she was! Nurka, quickly approached her and asked if she wouldn’t mind spending a couple of minutes with us. She was happy to, and soon we were given a chance to chat with the young heroine and learn more about her life and plans for future. It is worth noting that Aisholpan wasn’t the only huntress participating in the festival this year. The event had been attended by two others – a small 9-10 year old girl clearly just starting her eagle hunting career, and a woman in her mid -20s. It is quite clear that Aisholpan's success must had encouraged them a lot.
The rules of the eagle hunting competition are simple. The owner, either on from a horseback or on foot, waves a lure (fresh meat or an animal skin) and calls to his eagle to come and grasp it. The eagle is held by the hunter's partner, who sits on a nearby hill and is expected to remove a leather cap that covers the eagle's head and eyes, and release the animal at its master’s call. The eagle should then promptly to react to the hunter’s call, and as soon as she sees the lure, fly straight to him. The fastest bird wins the tournament… but female eagles (males are not considered to be predatory or big enough for hunting) are independent, strong minded and sometimes whimsical creatures. A hunter may have spent weeks training his bird for this event, and still be deserted by it in the most vital moment. The eagle can ignore his call, fly in a different direction, suddenly land on the ground, or even decide to sit down on another hunter’s arm. All is then lost, no matter how much effort he has put into the eagle’s training, the hunter is disqualified. Even hunting stars such as Aishoplan can suffer the loss. Her eagle simply turned around and flew away in the direction of the mountains. As I said earlier a bright sunny day may be lovely for the spectators but the eagles think otherwise.
The struggle of the eagle hunters against the benign elements continued on both days of the festival, but on the second day another competition raised the excitement levels – Buzkashi. The game being basically a goatskin tug-of-war on horseback, is clearly the locals' favourite. They shout, clap hands, and run around, while cheering for young, strong men, who try to rip from each other's hands a heavy, headless goat carcass. The game consists of a series of spectacular duels, during which the participants drag the goat’s body all over the place – across the car roofs, over the audience, up to the hill and towards the steppe. All of that while their horses are in full gallop.
Every time one of the participants managed to get a hold on the goat’s body, he rode back to the centre of the tournament square, making a circle with it over his head and throw it as hard as he could on the ground. And every time he did that the valley was resonating with the cheers of the overjoyed audience, local and foreign equally. It is exhausing to watch and I can only imaging how tiring the adreneline fueled duel must be.
After a spectacular weekend of eagle hunting and amazing horsemanship the crowds, hunters, sellers and officials melt away into the vast Altai evening leaving silence and maybe some goat hair!