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.
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.
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.
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!
Our 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.
During our time in the Gobi, we enjoyed a lovely hike to the Khavtsgait petroglyphs, with its rock art on the hilltops.
Our 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.
We also got to explore one of the few regions of the Gobi with sand dunes by camel. This was at Moltsog Els.
One 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