The eagle festival

UPDATE: Looking at the stats, I’ve just realised that three years on my first post is still one of the most popular. For recent visitors, be aware that this was my experience in 2012, and that in my experience a lot could change year to year in Mongolia. Part of the beauty is that it’s not on the tourist trail – you need to go check it out for yourself.


Olgii is a city (a town, really – only about 100,000 inhabitants) in western Mongolia. Stepping off the plane from Ulaanbaatar is like stepping into a giant bowl. Standing on the tarmac of the little airport the ground is flat for kilometers around – you’re on a giant plane, with mountains curving up in the distance like the edges of an enormous fruit bowl.
For most of the year, I suspect, Olgii is quiet, with that cold, slightly bleak concrete aesthetic that pervades post-Soviet states. But in early October there is an eagle festival. I visited then, along with what had to be about a hundred other tourists or more, all pouring into Olgii to see the event.
I don’t think I knew what to expect. I’d read a little in the Lonely Planet book, a little more on the website. But if I’d tried to pin down a mental picture it would have been hazy – not far beyond powerful eagles, soaring through the sky. As I joked to a friend on the bus there, I wanted to see aerial battles, eagle warriors battling each other on a dusty desert plane.
On the day though, it was … a different experience. A lot of things, actually. One the one hand, it was more touristy than I’d expected. A lot of the pictures you’ll find online looks a lot like the one below.

There’s an eagle hunter, in full ceremonial costume. There’s an eagle (and they really are beautiful birds, both at rest and in motion). There’s a picturesque background, a dusty plain backed by rugged, jagged peaks. It looks beautiful – and it was. Very beautiful. I found myself pausing, and just being surprised by  the (admittedly dry and dusty) beauty of the place I was in.

But at the same time, there’s something else going on. Which is that there are a lot of tourists there, people swarming around with cameras. A few people had little point-‘n-clicks. Others carried the upscale versions, fixed lens beasts with 12x optical zoom printed on the side. I was at the low end of the SLR market – in most settings, it’s a big camera, an EOS 1100D. But here, I was outscaled by most people – every second person was wandering around with a massive lens; a few as long as your arm, wide and thick like a canon.

And believe me, everyone was using their cameras. So what that means is that virtually every photo you see of the eagle festival has been selectively framed, to remove those inconvenient other tourists. Because in fact, parts of the festival looked more like the photo below.

[Full disclaimer – my first shot came because I jumped in and took photos of the same person. I’m as guilty as everyone else in this regard].

The way we take photos makes me wonder about this whole thing. What is it that we’re trying to represent about our experience in our photos? My instinct is that we want to be having a unique experience, something special. But when we see the other tourists, when they’re captured in our photographs, we’re reminded of ourselves – that we’re foreigners, intruding into a different setting, unable to speak the language, to really communicate or engage. To my embarrassment, I didn’t talk to any of the eagle hunters while I was there – I tried at one point, but the closet I came to courtesy was making sure my flash was turned off, and making the (hopefully) universal gesture of asking if it’s okay to take a photograph, with a quizzically raised pair of eyebrows and a hand indicating my camera. But most of us were simply photographing the hunters and the eagles in the hunt for that perfect photo, the one we could show people back home about our exciting trip to western Mongolia.

I haven’t read Orientalism, or done much reading on the area in general. But I have a strong sense that we (tourists, outsiders, people with privilege in skin and wealth and a bundle of other things) go in looking for a particular set of ideas, things we expect to see – and we’re not that ready to see the other things there, less ready to record them. We’re selectively filtering reality, both in our own conscious experience, and through the physical lenses we’re using. I’d be curious for any constructive comments on this, as someone who hasn’t read or done much thinking on the question. Is all touring necessarily objectifying? How do you visit a culture that’s full of living people respectfully, and engage sensitively when you have no language or cultural understanding? How possible is it?

Questions of gaze and interaction aside, there were a lot of great things about the eagle festival. Seeing the eagles in action was amazing – they floated high above the crowd, and then when they were going after the target (a fox hide on a rope, tugged along by the eagle’s owner) they suddenly folded their wings, dive bombing out of the sky. There was great food (seriously, the хуушууp there were amazing), and some of the contestants really enjoyed it (some got prizes, and most were very seriously into the competition).

But the nominal highlight of the event came on the end of the second day. A life wolf was going to be released, and then hunted by eagles. The lonely planet had warned that this might not be good for animal lovers, but I hadn’t really thought about it. If I had, I think I’d dismissed the question – it might be a little bit cruel, but think how exciting it’ll be to watch!

When I saw the wolf, though, I felt differently. It was cringing, cowering, tugging desperately to get away – there was no fight left in this animal. I didn’t spot this, but one or two people I spoke to reckoned it had a leg broken. When the time came for ‘release’ it was hurled through the air, literally spinning head over heels till it landed a few metres away from the person holding it. It scrambled away; it might have made it ten metres, but it definitely didn’t make it twenty – before the birds were on it, three of them descending like attack missiles.

A second later and people were running – a crowd converging, following the first person who’d sprinted out there, iPad held in front of him as he recorded. When I walked by, ten or fifteen minutes later, most of the crowd had gone, and a boy held the terrified wolf down, waiting till someone told him what to do.

After he'd been released and re-captured by the eagles, the wolf was held down, onlookers discussing what came next

I didn’t see what happened to the wolf. One man was miming use a heavy piece of metal to kill it, and other people were saying things I couldn’t understand when I was called away – our bus was leaving. I don’t think it was going to be released back into the wild. There was a tour guide representative on the bus, handing out questionnaires. Under What did you like the most?, number five was Competitions with eagles – catching live prey. A lot. Medium. A little.

I flew out of Olgii two days later, tired and exhausted. Back at home now, in the quiet and with clean showers every day, my feelings of sheepish embarrassment and regret are starting to fade with time. But the questions are still with me though. How guilty am I, as a tourist travelling to the festival? And what can I do differently next time? I’m still thinking about them for now – but any constructive comments are welcome.

[There are more photos below from some of the other parts of the festival, including the different riding competitions].

Riders competed to pick a tiny target up off the ground, while going at a gallop

The festival also featured a race across the desert, starting and ending at the main gathering point

Riders struggle to pull an animal skin away from their competitor