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September 25, 2019
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October 18, 2019

Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals

Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals are community-developed cultural festivals that were developed to promote Kazakh culture, preserve the tradition of hunting with eagles, and bring much-needed financial support and revenue into one of Mongolia’s most remote and developmentally challenged provinces. Although the most well-known festivals take place in the autumn in Bayan Ulgii Province in Western Mongolia, there are other smaller eagle festival events taking place throughout the year in Mongolia such as during Nauryz – the ancient celebration of spring that takes place in March throughout Central Asia.

Why a celebration of Kazakh culture in Western Mongolia? The Kazakhs are Mongolia’s largest ethnic group representing 3-4% of Mongolia’s population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3.4 million people) with a majority residing in Bayan Ulgii Aimag in Western Mongolia. The Kazakhs are known for their tradition of hunting with eagles. Eagle hunters are known as ‘berkutchi’ and in 2021, UNESCO 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 started in 1999) but run in partnership with the Mongolian Eagle Hunter’s Association (or a similar organisation). For the participants, the festivals are a social occasion and a competition with the bigger festivals offering prize money.  The main focus of the festivals is the working relationship of the hunter with their eagle and the main competition focuses on the speed, agility, and accuracy of the ‘berkut’ (the female Golden Eagle) to come to the lure which is held by the hunter. As an observer, the festivals will help to show you the diversity of the local community and provide you with a wealth of cultural experience as you mix in the company of small-town folk, herders, as well as Mongolia’s Kazakh hunters.  

Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals Quick Calendar

  • The third weekend in September – a two-day festival typically held  in Sagsai soum (district) but can change location
  • The first weekend of October – a two-day festival held in Ulgii
  • Around March 4th or 5th – takes place at the Chinggisiin Khuree complex in Ulaanbaatar. Approximately 20 eagle hunters travel from western Mongolia and the aim is to help publicise the eagle hunting tradition to local Mongolian families as well as international visitors.
  • Days on either side of Nauryz (March 21 and 22) although location and dates can change on a yearly basis

There are three domestic airlines that operate in Mongolia (MIAT, AeroMongolia, and Hunnu Air) offering approximately 4 – 5 flights per week to Khovd and Ulgii in western Mongolia. But, seats for the flights on either side of the eagle festivals are booked quickly and prices are high. We recommend either extending your stay in western Mongolia so you are not flying immediately before or after the festival (it also helps to spread your support) Or, even better, combining a festival with a road trip. Yes, it is 1700km from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii but regardless of what route you choose (Gobi, central heartland or north), you’ll pass through some of Mongolia’s most diverse scenery. There is also a great bus service connecting UB to Ulgii. True, it takes approximately 24 hours but the asphalt road surfaces do make for a relatively easy journey sharing the journey with a wide variety of Mongolian people from students to families. There is very much a community feel to taking the bus and it will definitely add an element of adventure and authenticity to your journey. 

Also, the autumn festivals have become very popular. These are no longer small events and have been very much discovered and are widely promoted by tour and photography companies so be prepared for large groups of international visitors. But, as we suggest for all festivals in Mongolia, don’t get caught up in notions of authenticity. The local festivals always feature a lot of local involvement drawing local Mongolian spectators as well as Westerners and the locals are always more enthusiastic. They often 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.

For those concerned about the welfare of the eagles, the Kazakh eagle hunters have a respectful yet practical approach to their eagles. The eagles are released back into the wild after about ten seasons so that they can breed. Once released, the birds are observed to make sure they successfully reintegrate back into the wild. Each hunter has a very close relationship with their eagles. 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.’

The Kazakh eagle hunters that we work in long-term community partnership have all learnt the skill through their fathers or other male relatives. However, with the increase in international visitors to the area, there is concern that the festivals are starting to encourage profit-seeking participants – called ‘showman’ hunters by a local festival organiser – threatening both the conservation of the wild eagle population and the commodification of cultural traditions. That’s why the largest festival organiser is working with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre of Mongolia on a programme looking at how to manage the increase in visitors responsibly and how to put in a community-managed system of accountability at the same time as protecting the conservation and sustainability of the wild eagle population and protecting the cultural identity of Mongolia’s Kazak 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 focus on the power, dexterity, and courage of the rider and their horse and the relationship between them. Games include:

  • Kumis Alu (pick up the coin) – the essence of the game is that while galloping at full speed the horse rider should pick up a coin off the ground.
  • Buzkashi (literally “goat grabbing” in Persian). Also known as kolpar, the version of the game played in western Mongolia is when horse-mounted players attempt tug-of-war with a goat carcass.
  • Kyz-Kuumay (“Catch the girl”) is a race contest between men and a woman – on horseback, in traditional dress, with a whip! – where the man has to try to catch up the woman. It was traditionally a race between those soon to be betrothed. If the man catches the woman, then 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, look at our Mongolia Festivals page. We look forward to welcoming you to our Mongolia.

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I’m Jess Brooks. I am the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia - a registered Mongolian business and social travel enterprise that focuses on providing travellers with a real 21st Century insight into Mongolia. I have been based in Mongolia since 2006 and together with my beloved Mongolian team, we focus on tourism that makes a positive difference. I'm also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - awarded for my work in Mongolia and a published guidebook author - having worked together with World Adventure Guides to produce a digital interactive guide to Mongolia.
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