Mongolia is a land of blue sky, vast landscapes, and a vibrant traditional culture. On our autumn journey with WT, Wild Mongolia, we had the pleasure of witnessing the Golden Eagle Festival (made famous by the film “The Eagle Huntress”), and exploring the Gobi Desert, with hikes to ancient sites, camel rides, and experiencing the dramatic contrasts of such unique landscapes.

The tradition of eagle hunting thrives in the heart of Mongolia’s wild west. Historically, nomadic Kazakhs have depended on golden eagles for hunting, catching the eaglets when they are young and training them to capture small prey. In 1999, the Golden Eagle Festival was founded to preserve this proud tradition. We enjoyed two days watching this amazing spectacle alongside Kazakh locals.

golden eagle festival mongolia
This annual Mongolian festival, which celebrates the Golden Eagle as well as the hunters’ traditional culture, is arranged by the local Kazakh community and members of the Berkut Association, a community-based conservation organization.

The main attraction of this festival are the golden eagles, known as berkut. The hunters, dressed in full regalia and mounted on horseback with their eagles, compete in catching decoys that resemble foxes and hares. Prizes are awarded for accuracy, agility, and speed. The main prizes are: Best Turned Out Eagle and Owner, Best Eagle at Hunting Prey, and Best Eagle at Locating its Owner from a Distance.

golden eagle festval men with eagle

golden eagle festival man with eagle
A proud contestant and his female eagle. Female eagles are captured and trained by the hunters. They are heavier and more aggressive than males and better suited for taking larger prey.

Aisholpan, star of “The Eagle Huntress” movie, became the first female eagle hunter in 12 generations of her Kazakh family. At 15 years old, she competed against 70 grown men and placed first in this year’s festival.

eagle huntress aisholpan with her golden eagle
Aisholpan, the 15-year-old girl who took the title of Golden Eagle Festival in 2016, holding her golden eagle.

It’s remarkable the amount of time and level of commitment each eagle hunter pours into their prized eagles. On our way to the festival one day, our driver stopped to chat with a contestant, and let me pose with his golden eagle—a definite highlight for me!
man holding golden eagleOur ger camp, set along the Khovd River, was 30-40 minutes from the grounds of the Golden Eagle Festival. The diversity of landscapes across Mongolia astounded us, from the steppes and plains to the rivers, and later into the Gobi Desert.

sunset on the khovd river
Sunset along the Khovd River, near our Wilderness Travel Ger Camp

During our time in the Gobi, we enjoyed a lovely hike to the Khavtsgait petroglyphs, with its rock art on the hilltops.

hiking in the gobi desertOur overnights were at The Three Camel Lodge, which is located in the southernmost province in Mongolia bordering northern China. It is a great home base for exploring the surrounding area by 4WD vehicle and on foot. And it was especially nice to see the camp painted in early morning light.

three camel lodge gobi desert
Sunrise at Three Camel Lodge, Gobi Desert. This is a wonderful place for exploring by 4WD vehicle or hiking and relaxing near the camp.

We also got to explore one of the few regions of the Gobi with sand dunes by camel. This was at Moltsog Els.
camel gobi desertOne of our day hikes brought us to the Yol Valley. The valley is named after the lammergeier, an Old World vulture, and is often called “Valley of the Vultures” or “Valley of the Eagles”.

We hiked past an ovoo, a type of shrine, usually made from rocks or wood. When traveling, it is custom to stop and circle an ovoo three times in clockwise direction, in order to have a safer journey.
-Photos and text by 15-time WT adventurers Dan & Sandy Ciske, Wild Mongolia

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