Photos of the Altai Eagle Festival, Mongolia

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The Altai Eagle Festival

The Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ölgii aimag, far western Mongolia, celebrates the heritage of the Kazakh eagle hunters who catch small animals like foxes and hares with specially trained golden eagles. There are two of those festivals, with essentially the same program. The largest is the Eagle Festival, held in early 8 October kilometres east of the town of Ölgii and the Altai Eagle Festival in Sagsai, 27 kilometres to the west of Ölgii, in mid-September.

Kazakh eagle hunter
Festival grounds
Horses and camels
Hunter and “bürkit”
Eagle hunters arrive
Displaying his eagle
Registering for festival
Camel rider
Hunter with his “burkit”
Camel riders
Eagle hunter parade
Eagle hunter parade
Riding camels
Calling the eagle
Kazakh singer
Qyz quar game
Kazakh horse game
Kökpar game
Kazakh tug-of-war
Kazakh Kökpar game
Eagle swooping down
Hunter and “burkit”
Start camel race
The camel race
Camel race finish
Grabbing the goat
Struggle for the goat
Kökpar contestants
Whipping the man
Qyz quar horse game
Tenge Ilu game
“Snatch the money”
The winner
Qyz quar winners
Eagle with medal
Going home

There are probably still about 360 Kazakh eagle hunters in the province. A good number of them come to the festival, on horseback and resplendent in traditional dress, the “bürkit”, hunting eagle, perched on their glove. The eagle wears a “tomaga”, a hood that prevents it from getting nervous from all the strange sights: the birds have excellent eyesight. The birds are all female, apparently more aggressive as hunters than males. They register as participants, and there is a parade with the hunters and their eagles, followed by a procession of camels, a wonderful sight. The participants are judged on appearance in traditional dress. And the games begin.

The eagles are on a hilltop about 100 metres away from their master on horseback, who calls them, waving a piece of meat. If all goes well, his “bürkit” comes swooping down, grabbing the meat. In another competition, the hunter drags a bit of fox or rabbit fur behind his horse, and the eagle, released from the hill, must come down and catch it. Sometimes the hunter dismounts and runs with the fur if the bird doesn’t cooperate.

There is a camel race and various horse games: in “Qyz quar” (kiss the girl), a boy tries to kiss a girl at full gallop, while she, more successfully, tries to beat him with a whip. There is “Kökpar”, a Kazakh tug-of-war on horseback with the headless carcass of a goat, related to games like buzkashi and others in Central Asia. There is “Tenge Ilu”, where a rider at full gallop must swoop down to pick up coins from the ground. In Mongolia, coins are no longer used, so scraps of material are used instead.