One of the most spectacular customs of the Kazakh people in Western Mongolia is hunting with eagles. They celebrate this with an annual festival held in Bayan Olgii province at the heart of the majestic Altai Mountains. Prizes are awarded for speed, agility and accuracy, as well as for the best traditional Kazakh dress, and more. Festival lasts for two days. Unfortunately due to my flight schedule I was only able to attend the first day only.
With Kazakh family
Eagle Hunting Festival was not the main objective of my trip to Mongolia but it seemed to be a nice addition. I believe this tradition is so unique that it deserves an extra trip but now I am getting too much ahead of myself. Coming down from higher elevations of Altai Mountains we drove closer to Olgii, the capital city of Bayan-Olgii province. We were about to be hosted by Kazakh Eagle Hunter's family for tonight. Sun was already setting low on horizon when we reached the place. This time, we did not stay in the the ger. Family was staying in small house, their traditional winter residence. Main block was surrounded by stalls and fenced enclosures for live stock. As everywhere else, we enjoyed the same kind of hospitality with this family as everywhere else. Tea, snack and very delicious dinner were served and then we talked just about anything. At the end of the day it came to singing. The host pulled out "Dombra", a traditional Kazakh instrument and he sang few songs for us. And then we sang a song too, each of us. This is not very comfortable position for me as my singing sucks but I guess nobody cared. We had a good time. Not even vodka helped to tune my voice to better performance. Long tiring day eventually took better of us and we all fell asleep.
I woke up bright and early. So did the host. When I got out of the house he was already attending to animals. I climbed up to nearby hill to have a good look at surroundings. I came down just in time to watch how eagle is fed. Kazakhs use Golden Eagle for hunting. Sometimes they use smaller predatory birds but eagles are the most common. I saw tamed owls and vultures but I guess those are only held in captivity for tourism purposes. Vulture is not a predator anyway. After he fed the eagle, which happens once in 3 days he started his preparation for departure to Olgii where festival will take place. He saddled the horse with traditional Kazakh saddle and he got dressed in Kazakh costume. One of the disciplines judges this traditional outfit. Then he followed with little demonstration of some eagle hunting skills but it was quite short as he had to take his leave for Olgii. By the time sun came fully up he graciously departed on his horse holding the eagle on his right hand using special hand support. These birds are quite heavy and this support is used for more comfort while riding horse with eagles for prolonged time. Unfortunately I had quite a short time to do any private hunting let alone photoshoot. He seemed to be busy with preparation so I did not bother him with posing. This is up to everybody to judge the situation and determine wether it is good time to ask for a photograph or just let it go. I certainly don't want to belong to a group of tourists that push the lens in front of the peoples face no matter what. Anyway, my only hope for any photos was first day of festival. Soon after breakfast we left for Olgii as well passing the hunter on his horse just few kilometres from his home.
I asked specifically how many eagle hunters pursue this tradition as real hunting and how many do it as show of for tourists. I was told it is roughly 50%-50% with most of the hunters living in more remote areas doing it for real as normal part of their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Displaying this tradition to tourists renders additional income to families. It is good to see that for once tourism can have positive impact on local population and their way of life. It certainly helps preserving this wonderful tradition for further generations. And Eagle Hunting Festival is the direct consequence of that. It helps to attract masses from around the world.
The Eagle Hunting Festival
Next morning we drove about 5km out of the city to the location where festival will take place. By number of tourists I saw previous day I knew it is going to be crowded event but nothing could prepare me for what followed. The number of long telephoto zooms was just staggering. By all means this is probably one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mongolia. It was interesting to observe as all these people moved like school of fist to a direction where eagle hunters appeared. Good luck to anybody who has only wide or standard telephoto lens. Getting a clean shot will be almost impossible. Good tactics may be staying away from the crowd and hope for some hunter to show up close by.
I have to give it to eagle hunters. They were all, without an exception, extremely patient and calm with all that camera crazy crowd around. Is this is how paparazzi work looks like? I was wandering around trying to get some good angles without all that disturbing background of tourist and cars but it was hard. Only chance I could have for usable shot was a tight portrait unless I got lucky and got close to some hunter by some kind of miracle. Actually I got lucky at one point. I managed to snap a good photo of Ashol-Pan with Fuji X100s which has 35mm equivalent lens. Ashol-Pan is youngest ever winner of Eagle Hunting Festival. She won it at the age of 13 which is the age when most boys only start training with eagles. And on top of that she is a lady which is not common among eagle hunters although this year there was another female youngster competing. Ashol-Pan showed true professionalism. She was calm and composed while answering questions to local TV personnel, she handled all that attention with smile and grace. Remarkable.
Weather was quite crappy. There was a hint on sunshine in the morning but it disappeared quickly. Gloomy, cold and windy day was our companion. All colors turned pretty dull. Yes there were no hard shadows anywhere but scene lacked depth and shape. I tried to focus on close ups more that on wider shots although I didn't completely abandon them. Festival began with presentation of all competitors. There are several disciplines that are designed to show off the skills both of the birds and their trainers. Prizes are awarded for speed, agility and accuracy, as well as for the best traditional Kazakh dress, and more. There are also additional horse racing and archery competitions. Pretty colourful event. There is lot to see and experience.
Weather unfortunately deteriorated with time. Wind was cold and strong, blowing lots of dust around. Luckily there were gers set up where organisers served hot tea and delicious Mongolian food. Towards the end of the competition day my fingers were quite frozen and eyes full of dust. I called it a day. Not very happy with pictures I got. I figured there is very little chance to get more and better opportunities. The last disciplines were finishing anyway. I felt little sad that I cannot participate on the day two but I am very clear with idea to come back here again, perhaps during winter and spend 4-5 days with family doing real hunting. And yes winter is the season to be here for that. Prey is easier for hunters and eagles to spot on bright white snow.
After the day one of the festival ended, there was time to do some packing and have last dinner in Olgii. I was bit worried about flight since it was very windy day before (probably quite dangerous for a mid sized aircraft to land) but it turned out to be quite nice weather in the morning. I guess guys who are staying for day two of the festival will have little better light for taking photographs. And there will be less people as well as some of them leave with the same flight as myself. I boarded the aircraft and after take off I looked down at this beautiful landscape. What an experience this has been. I am leaving full of emotions and memories and I am also leaving behind bunch of people who made this trip so amazing to me. They are not only mere crew for me, they have become friends. Janbolat, Baska, Buyanaa, Tugarijk, Jagaa and Bulga, Tuvan and Kazakh nomad families thank you for awesome unforgettable trip. I shall be back.
If you ever plan to visit the region, please take look at Explore the Great Altai tour agency. I highly recommend them for the great service they provided on this trip. Brothers Jagaa and Bulga organise your trip according to your needs. Communication and service was great and should I ever visit this region again, they will be the ones I will contact.