It was 23°F outside under a blazing blue sky as the second day of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival began. Different from the previous day’s event where eagles had to attack a dead rabbit or fox being drug behind their trainer’s horse, today they had to zero in on their owner who held a chunk of meat in his gloved hand while riding at full speed across the field. Sharp talons extended, as soon the eagle had landed on the glove it was breakfast time. This too was all timed by officials and the Kazakh hunter would race by the judging stand with his eagle enjoying the ride with wings open in an impressive display of the close relationship of man, horse and bird.
While the next competition was being organized, we wandered around the gers where beautiful “tus kis” (hand-embroidered tapestries) used to decorate the ger walls and other souvenirs were for sale. Several locals had set up grills to cook “shashlik”, skewers of mutton and fat sprinkled with their own special spices, served with raw sliced onions and bread.
Among the local Mongols, there were several archery contests. In one competition, instead of pointed arrows, they used blunt tips and the goal was to hit small leather balls that had been lined up about 30 yards away. It looked like bocce ball with a Mongolian twist. Their accuracy was impressive.
Meanwhile, the camel race was being staged. It was not as action-packed as we might have imagined, since the ungainly bactrians are not really into galloping across the stony desert.
Back in the main arena, the final competition for the eagle hunters was getting under way. A sheep carcass was tossed on the ground and the riders, two at a time, would pick it up and get a firm grip for an exciting tug-a-war that could last several minutes until one of the riders succeeded in wrestling the bloody carcass away from the other. The horses played a critical roll in the battle and the skill of the riders was amazing as they kept their grip on the carcass and used the power of their stocky Mongolian horses to the best advantage. Competition was fierce and we spotted quite a few who were nursing their bleeding knuckles.
In past years, the winner of the eagle contest was allowed to send his eagle after a live fox or a small wolf pup as a final demonstration of the eagle’s skill for the crowd. The fox this year died or was killed, so a wolf pup was to be used. However, there were so many sympathetic spectators that someone purchased the poor wolf to spare its life. How it will manage in the wild of the coming winter in the mountains full of other hungry eagles is a good question. As cruel as some may think it is to hunt cute little foxes or wolfs or rabbits and other small animals with an eagle for “sport”, we meat-eaters regularly kill deer, moose, elk and even a cow or a lamb to eat. Eagle hunting has been a tradition in this part of the world for over 2,000 years. Nothing goes to waste. Gathering winter pelts is part of the hunter/herder’s livelihood and still provides the warm clothing for the severe winters.
As a side note, when the trained eagle has reached the age of about 10 years, she is taken to a mountaintop, presented with a dead sheep as a going-away present and released to the wild to once again live a life of freedom and to breed.
All in all, a very exciting two days of a spectacle we could probably not see anywhere else in the world. Now it was time to make a new plan. As much as we would have liked to drive back to Ulaanbaatar, taking our time to visit some of the remote families herding their sheep, yaks, cows, horses, camels and goats along the way and then heading for the Central Gobi desert to celebrate Monika’s birthday, The Turtle V needed some repairs on the rear suspension and a full check-up after its grueling 900-mile crossing of the Altai Gobi. The first step was to wash off the mud and dust. Clean trucks run better.
Note: Click a photo for a bigger picture and then scroll quickly through the first few frames to get a feeling for what transpires in just a few seconds!