Today was the day many of us had been waiting for; the first of two days of the famous Eagle Festival which shows off Mongolian/Kazakh prowess at eagle handling and horsemanship.
The day dawned cold and windy but not frosty. Instead of the beautiful blue sky we had become so used to, the sky carried a heavy load of cloud. This was the view looking down the road leading to our overnight ger camp.
We shared our location with a family who had a couple of gers, animals and two cars. Their site was sheltered by some old trees. It was amazing to see how they had managed to get their roots through the rocky river bed to a subterranean water source.
When in town, the cooks had taken the opportunity to buy some fresh bread, so that was good. Both black and white bread were on offer at breakfast.
And after breakfast, it was time for us to enjoy the Golden Eagle festival, an event of great significance in Mongolia which has been held in Olgii on the first weekend in October since 1999. This event, the largest gathering of eagle hunters and their eagles in the world, is now recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Event. The eagles are the stars of the show; prizes are awarded for their speed, agility and accuracy. Their trainers are inspected to find the best traditionally dressed individual. The festival also showcases other Mongolian pursuits such as horse-riding, archery and the goat carcass tug-of-war (Kukhbar) on horseback.
The schedule of events looked very interesting and so it was with great anticipation that we headed off to the festival grounds for the opening ceremony.
The ‘Welcome’ sign with rows of white rocks demarcating the event ground where all of the activity for the next two days would take place.
The grand march of horses, handlers and eagles began.
This area was backed by a rocky hill (to the left) from which the eagles would be launched.
The official line-up… an impressive backdrop for the day’s events.
Some of the eagle handlers/trainers were quite young.
I loved his hat…fur and feathers! It would look good in my hat collection.
Contestants wore their finest clothes and head gear.
Note the hare hanging from the saddle… it would be eagle prey later in the contest.
An old timer’s hat made from multi-coloured skins.
Although eagle handling has traditionally been a male only ‘sport’, there were two young female trainers at this festival. Imagine having a mighty bird like that so close to your face! It’s all about trust… and, of course, the bird was hooded!
The eagles hoods, or burqas, are preferably made from soft but strong kangaroo hide.
An unhooded bird looks intently at something in the distance. Eagles have 10 times better seeing power than humans. This eagle’s handler is very trusting… over time, bird and handler become as friends. Note the tethering bands and the thick leather gloves that protect the handler’s arm from those very sharp talons.
Horses also sported special tackle for the occasion.
A beautiful old engraved and coral studded silver saddle
An old saddle cloth, and saddle. Some saddles can be 100+ years old.
The spiral “Y” shaped stick is an extra support to help hold the weight of an eagle.
A rider, and his bird, contending with the wind show how the arm support is used.
One of the festival competitions is for the best dressed handler. This young man must surely have been in the running for that with his beautifully embroidered coat and fur hat.
Detail of the intricate Kazakh embroidery on the back of one of the coats.
More fine embroidery… the full ensemble on a horse.
Traditional Kazakh style of embroidery is all done in chain stitch.
Some of the ladies were also dressed in their best.
Many hours of work must have gone into this coat… now a family heirloom, no doubt.
This baby’s chubby cheeks caught my attention… no need for any fine embroidery!
I only saw two raptors that were not Golden Eagles.
What a beautiful bird!
While waiting for events to begin, all visitors had the chance to inspect and photograph the contestants; humans, birds and horses. There were some really big cameras in use. Although this guy wasn’t being ‘pushy’, many of his colleagues were absolutely awful, in your face awful. Some of them obviously thought that, if your camera wasn’t BIG, you had no right to be taking photos. How wrong can you be. All of my photos and videos were taken on my small hand held Sony HX90V and I’m very pleased with the results… and I hope that you are too.
More of the main events anon.
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