Where Eagle’s Dare – 2013 Wild Treks Research Trip

Auspicious Symbols of Mongolia – Tuesday’s Snapshot
February 19, 2014
From Sunrise to Sunset in Mongolia – Tuesday’s Snapshot
February 26, 2014
We’re lucky enough that here at EL we get returning clients. In 2013 we had the pleasure of John’s company on our Wild Treks research. Having visited in 2009 and 2012 (I enjoyed the remoteness, the feeling of immense space, the secluded camping and the great balance between programmed experiences and the freedom to explore independently’), John decided that maybe he had time to make a final visit to Mongolia on our trip to the Altai  (‘the prospect of the ‘unknown’ certainly excites me’). John wrote wonderful updates whilst on the road, and having been kind enough to share them, this is the second in a series written by him.

Currently we are in Bayan Olgii Aimag. All the images were taken by John.

We spend the night in the small settlement of Erdenekhairkhan (Jewel Mountain) which doesn’t quite live up to its name, in a small hotel which is quite comfortable from our experiences, but quite a culture shock for our Italian friends who are experiencing a Mongolian hotel for the first time. After a drink or two, however, they settled in for a warm and comfortable night. There are only six beds in the hotel – the rest have been taken off to the hospital for some elderly folk to have a week or two of respite – so Jess and Turuu sleep on the floor.

The next 180 kilometres of our journey takes us across a vast expanse of high, remote plains which become more and more arid the further we go. We see only one other vehicle on the road, no more than a dozen gers and very few livestock. Probably as numerous as the gers are small pump houses with concrete troughs for stock as there appears to be no evidence of surface water. Great excitement is aroused at one point when I think I see a pack of wolves in the distance. I am only a little disappointed to discover that they are in fact black tailed gazelle. While widely distributed, their numbers are small and they are a rare sighting.

Crossing the landscapes of Bayan Olgii

 We are constantly fascinated by the immense range of colours in the distant bordering hills, from black through various shades of grey, brown, orange and beige to almost pure white, often mingled together in the one range. Occasionally, away to the east, are glimpses of the Khangiy River still bordered by yellow sand dunes.

We eventually cross the river on another ‘interesting’ bridge at the small town of Urgamal. The river is now quite broad and although mostly quite shallow is flowing strongly and we follow its northerly course into the Great Lake Depression to camp the night on the stony shore of Lake Hyargas, the second largest of the areas salty lakes.

Our view from the camp fire at Khayargas

 Next morning sees us crossing a huge expanse of Gobi-like gravel with the spectacular permanently snow-capped peaks within the Tsambagarav Uul National Park as a backdrop. At up to 4200 metres, they give rise to a number of glaciers which can be clearly seen as we get closer. Our route eventually picks up the large river Khovd and we also pick up a couple of hitch-hikers whose motorbike has broken down. The river leads us through a steep sided gorge before opening out onto broad river flats densely clothed in trees resplendent in late autumn colours. We again cross the Khovd where it emerges from the RAMSAR listed freshwater Lake Achit which still has many birds even this late into autumn, and head southwest towards the town of Olgiy, home of the now quite famous Eagle Festival. The people from this region, while Mongolian, are Kazaks, and we notice subtle differences in the shape of the gers –more pointed roofs – and the character of the town with many flat roofed dwellings so typical of central Asia.


Achit Nuur

 Our accommodation is in a very large, very ornately decorated gur in traditional Kazak style which until recently was the family home.

Our Welcome Table

 Next morning, having purchased out entry tickets, we are among the first to arrive at the festival site, a stony plain in the shadow of a rocky crag and surrounded on all sides by tall mountains. Under a gentle sprinkle of snow it is a busy scene with gers being erected for food stalls, locals laying out their wares for sale, mounted eagle hunters resplendent in their fox fur coats and brightly coloured hats beginning to arrive and officials attending to last minute arrangements. A continual stream of vehicles begin to arrive many carrying tourists, some of whom have just flown in from UB for the occasion and will possibly return there tomorrow. By midday there are, in all, around 1000 people present and a large semicircle of vehicles encompassing the competition field. 

The festival begins

The event is eventually under way with a grand parade of the fifty-seven eagle hunters who have registered to compete, probably along with some who haven’t, and three camels bearing a Kazak family, the two youngsters bouncing along in ornately decorated boxes, one each side of the humps. Each competitor is then individually announced and presented to the judges in a formal ceremony before competition can commence after lunch. A horse race featuring a dozen young jockeys rounds out the mornings activities.

For the eagle hunters, the afternoon competition involves having their bird released from half way up the rocky slope then calling it in to land on their outstretched arm as they gallop towards the judges. The performance of the birds and handlers, like the setting, is spectacular. Time is obviously important, but credit is also given for how well handlers are able to retrieve distracted birds. 

 While the eagles are in action, an archery competition is also under way with each archer using the uniquely shaped Uriankhai bow and soft tipped arrows ninety centimetres in length. Each competitor also has a woven reed ball about twelve centimetres in diameter. These are placed in a row on a cleared patch of ground and the objective is to strike one or more of the balls from a distance of about forty metres. Encouragement for each archer is provided by way of a chant and fellow competitors relaying instructions in much the same way as in lawn bowls before leaping quickly aside to avoid the flying arrow. While not quite as spectacular as the eagles, it is certainly fascinating and attracts a sizable crowd of spectators.

This uniquely entertaining day is rounded out with a meal at a Kazak restaurant and for Jess and Ross, a Kazak concert performed specially for festival guests.

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