For centuries, the nomadic people of Mongolia’s Altai Mountains have hunted with the aid of the magnificent golden eagle – one of the world’s most powerful raptors and a symbol of military might – to capture small mammals for pelts and food. To honor and preserve this ancient tradition, the Golden Eagle Festival has been held each October since 2000 in Mongolia’s Bayan-Olgii Province, home to the Kazakhs, a Turkish minority group who number about 80,000 in this region (many have emigrated to nearby Kazakhstan since the fall of communism in Russia). Eagle hunters and festivalgoers arrive from miles around on horseback for a competition held in an open valley surrounded by the snow-capped Altai Mountains. Wearing traditional clothing, competitors partake in events that measure the speed, agility, and accuracy of their magnificent hunting eagles. Eagles are released from peaks, and then race to land on the galloping rider’s arms. Those with the fastest speeds and best techniques get the highest scores – and so the competition unfolds.
The best-known bird of prey in the Northern Hemisphere, the golden eagle enjoys an almost mystical reverence in Central Asia. With its powerful legs, talons, and a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet, it can snatch up animals as large as young deer. For centuries they’ve been trained in western Mongolia to attack foxes and wolves. The festival promotes both the conservation of the golden eagle and the traditional culture of the Kazakh people. Visitors can ride on horseback with the hunters or visit an eagle hunter’s family to see how the birds are trained.
These magnificent “gold mountains” stand on the edge of Siberia where Mongolia, China, Russia, and Kazakhstan meet and are an important habitat for endangered animals, including the snow leopard. It’s an increasingly popular destination even outside the time of the festival. When small groups come to hike through untracked terrain, their gear carried ahead by horses and camels. Such a trek offers the unbeatable chance to meet nomadic Kazakh families, camp along alpine lakes at 9,800 feet (in the shadow of 14,350-foot TavanBogdUul, Mongolia’s highest mountain peak), and encounter sites rich with centuries-old Neolithic petroglyphs.
WHERE : 780 miles/1,250 km west of Ulaanbaatar.
BEST TIME : Jun – Sep for hiking in the Altai Mountains; early Oct for the Golden Eagle Festival.