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At one of Mongolia's Eagle Festivals

Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals

Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals are community-developed cultural events designed to promote Kazakh culture, preserve the tradition of hunting with eagles, and provide vital financial support to one of Mongolia’s most remote and developmentally challenged provinces. While the most well-known festivals occur in the autumn in Bayan Ulgii Province in Western Mongolia, smaller eagle festival events also take place throughout the year, such as during Nauryz—the ancient celebration of spring held in March across Central Asia.

Reasons to visit Mongolia - Kazakh eagle hunter with golden eagle

Why celebrate Kazakh culture in Western Mongolia? Kazakhs are Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, representing 3-4% of the country’s population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3.4 million). The majority of Kazakhs reside in Bayan Ulgii Aimag in Western Mongolia and are renowned for their tradition of hunting with eagles.. Eagle hunters, known as ‘berkutchi,’ were recognised in 2021 by UNESCO, which added Kazakh eagle hunting to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as an example of living human heritage.

Typically, Mongolia’s eagle festivals are sponsored by local tour companies (the first began in 1999) in partnership with the Mongolian Eagle Hunter’s Association or a similar organization. For participants, the festivals are both social occasions and competitions, with the larger festivals offering prize money. The primary focus is the working relationship between the hunter and their eagle, with main competitions highlighting the speed, agility, and accuracy of the ‘berkut’ (female Golden Eagle) as she responds to the hunter’s lure.

As an observer, the festivals provide a glimpse into the the diversity of the local community and offer a rich cultural experience. You will have the opportunity to mingle with small-town folk, herders, and Mongolia’s Kazakh hunters, gaining a deeper understanding of this unique tradition and the people who keep it alive.

Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals – A Quick Calendar

A range of festivals take place throughout the year, although there are no eagle festivals during the summer months when the eagles are rested and moulting. However, you can still experience the traditional Mongolian festival of Naadam (The Three Manly Sports) throughout the region during this time. Here is a quick overview of some of the eagle festivals that take place in Mongolia:

  • The most famous festivals occur in Bayan Ulgii Province in Western Mongolia, typically held in September and the first weekend of October. These festivals are major events that attract many international visitors as well as local participants, showcasing the skills of the eagle hunters and the agility of the eagles.
  • Held around March 21 and 22, this festival coincides with Nauryz, the ancient celebration of spring observed throughout Central Asia. It’s a smaller event compared to the autumn festivals but still offers a rich cultural experience.
  • Around the first week of March, an eagle festival takes place at the Chinggisiin Khuree complex in Ulaanbaatar. Approximately 20 eagle hunters travel from western Mongolia to participate in this event. The aim is to promote the tradition of eagle hunting to local Mongolian families from Ulaanbaatar who cannot afford to travel to Western Mongolia, as well as to international visitors. This festival serves as a significant cultural showcase, highlighting the skills of the eagle hunters and the beauty of the eagles, while also raising awareness about this unique aspect of Kazakh heritage within Mongolia.

There are three domestic airlines in Mongolia—MIAT, AeroMongolia, and Hunnu Air—that offer approximately 4-5 flights per week to Khovd and Ulgii in western Mongolia. However, seats for these flights around the eagle festivals book quickly and prices are high. To avoid these issues, we recommend either extending your stay in western Mongolia so you are not flying immediately before or after the festival, which also helps to spread your support, or combining a festival visit with a road trip.

Yes, it is 1700 km from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii, but regardless of the route you choose—whether through the Gobi, the central heartland, or the north—you’ll pass through some of Mongolia’s most diverse scenery. There is also a great bus service connecting Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii. While the bus ride takes approximately 24 hours, the asphalt road surfaces make for a relatively easy journey, and you’ll share the experience with a wide variety of Mongolian people, from students to families. This communal feel adds an element of adventure and authenticity to your journey.

Additionally, the autumn eagle festivals have become very popular. These events are no longer small and have been widely promoted by tour and photography companies, so be prepared for large groups of international visitors. However, as we suggest for all festivals in Mongolia, don’t get caught up in notions of authenticity. The local festivals always feature significant local involvement, drawing in many Mongolian spectators as well as Westerners. The locals are always more enthusiastic, often making the festivals feel like a party for locals, thrown by locals.

A Kazakh eagle hunter competitor and his eagle at one of the eagle festivals in Mongolia

Meet Baibolat – Kazakh eagle hunter and also a skilled competitor of Buzkashi – tug-of-war with a goat carcass on horseback. This is our Mongolia through the lens of our guest Tammy McCorkle.

The Ethics

For those concerned about the welfare of the eagles, the Kazakh eagle hunters have a respectful yet practical approach to their birds. After about ten seasons, the eagles are released back into the wild to breed. Once released, the birds are observed to ensure they successfully reintegrate into their natural habitat. Each hunter maintains a close relationship with their eagles, having often learned the skill through their fathers or other male relatives. In the words of our guest Shobha Gopinath:

‘With the festival just days away, he (Bashakhan) had a few practice runs with White Necklace. It was quite a beautiful sight to behold. Bashakhan handled White Necklace with such tenderness and love. That he is a kind and gentle man, was apparent from the way he was with his little grandkids. But the way he communicated with his eagle was nothing short of extraordinary. Bird and man were bound by an inexplicable link.’

However, with the increase in international visitors to the area, there is growing concern that the festivals are starting to attract profit-seeking participants—referred to as ‘showman’ hunters by a local festival organizer. This trend threatens both the conservation of the wild eagle population and the commodification of cultural traditions. To address these issues, the largest festival organizer is collaborating with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre of Mongolia on a program aimed at managing the influx of visitors responsibly. The program focuses on establishing a community-managed system of accountability, ensuring the conservation and sustainability of the wild eagle population, and protecting the cultural identity of Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters.

You can learn more in our blog post discussing the ethics of hunting using eagles:

A Kazakh horseman during the Kumis Alu (pick up the coin) competition at one of the eagle festivals in Mongolia

Horse games are also central to all the festivals and showcase the power, dexterity, and courage of the rider and their horse, as well as the relationship between them. The games include:

  • Kumis Alu (pick up the coin): The essence of this game is that while galloping at full speed, the horse rider must pick up a coin off the ground.
  • Buzkashi (literally “goat grabbing” in Persian): Also known as kolpar, the version of this game played in western Mongolia involves horse-mounted players engaging in a tug-of-war with a goat carcass.
  • Kyz-Kuumay (“Catch the girl”): This is a race contest between a man and a woman—on horseback, in traditional dress, with a whip! The man has to try to catch up to the woman. Traditionally, this race was between those soon to be betrothed. If the man catches the woman, he will get a kiss as a reward. Otherwise, the woman will hit him with a whip.

For more information on experiencing Mongolia’s eagle festivals, visit our Mongolia Festivals page. We look forward to welcoming you to our Mongolia.

For more information on experiencing Mongolia’s eagle festivals, look at our Mongolia Festivals page or explore the range of trips we offer, some of which include one of Mongolia’s eagle festivals. We look forward to welcoming you to our Mongolia.

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I'm Jess Brooks, the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia and the voice behind EL's blog posts. For more than a decade, since 2006, I've been based in Mongolia, working closely with my beloved Mongolian team to advocate for a tourism approach that brings about positive change.. What sets our blog apart is our deep understanding of Mongolia—our home. Unlike content from influencers or creators, our posts prioritise authenticity and firsthand knowledge as guiding principles.
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