Eagle Festival - Olgii, Mongolia
(Reading, England, UK)
After a day in Ulaan Baatar, we joined up with our pre-booked tour, which was to take us to an Eagle Hunting Festival (hunting with eagles, not for eagles) in the western part of Mongolia. We thought we were booking a group tour, but presumably no-one else booked the same tour as us, because when our guide turned up we found out that we were the only two people on the tour! Our tour was pretty expensive, but turned out to be a fantastic experience. The expense felt extravagant at the time, but I don't regret it at all now.
The fun really started for us when our tour headed out to Olgiy province, the westernmost province of Mongolia. We had set our alarms for 5am, because we were catching an early flight, but at 5.25am, just as we were eating breakfast, we had a call from our guide to inform us that the flight was delayed, and we would be picked up at 9am. We left a large collection of belongings at the hotel, in order to get our bags down under the weight limit for the flight, which was lower than we were allowed on international flights. (Unfortunately we'd been told by our tour company that the limit was 15kg, which was exactly what our bags weighed, but it turned out that the limit was 10kg, so we had to pay for excess baggage anyway.
Landing at Olgii was eventful, as it's just a dirt landing strip. The airport building is tiny, and in the middle of a vast expanse of nothing. The toilets are the most basic of pit toilets, inside what looks like a hastily-assembled wooden hut in the car park. The baggage carousel is two blokes in a truck, who hand your bags to you over the fence at the edge of the runway. We were met at the airport by our driver in his old army-green Russian jeep, and transferred to a ger camp nearby, where we would be sleeping for the next few days.
Our driver was accompanied by the rest of our entourage: bearing in mind that we already had a guide, and had just acquired a driver, complete with old Russian jeep, we also now acquired a cook, who in turn came with his own driver, in an old Russian van. We now had four people looking after the two of us!
The ger camp was situated by a small river and at one side of a vast flat plain surrounded by hills. It was a truly impressive location, and with barely a soul in sight. You really felt that you were away from civilization. In reality the town of Olgii was only a few miles away, but it's not a big place, and it's presence was only just evident in the distance. The place was quiet and calm, and the air clean and crisp.
The ger was pretty cold on the first night, but after that they got us a stove and it stayed nice and warm. For the first couple of days we didn't have any working showers; they were waiting for more tourists to turn up before they bothered defrosting the frozen water tank on the roof of the shower block. Once they had the showers up and working they were actually pretty good. It was cold enough that we found the need to really layer up. We hadn't really brought thick clothes with us for the trip, since we were going to be away for a year, but we had enough stuff to combine into a warm outfit. On the coldest day I ended up wearing a thermal base layer, a short-sleeved T-shirt, two long-sleeved T-shirts, a thin woolly jumper, a zip-up fleece, and my waterproof jacket, all of which combined to keep out the cold pretty effectively.
After a day in the ger camp we headed out to do some camping in a nearby valley. We headed out in the jeep, with the van following behind. We found the complete lack of roads in Mongolia a novel concept. People just tend to drive where other people have driven before, so you follow the tire tracks. In some places they fan out offering many alternative routes, which rejoin each other later on. In some places a lot of skill is needed to negotiate the rough terrain. The inside of the jeep was padded on the walls and ceiling, and we were now finding out why!
We stopped and pitched the tents near a small river, and spent the night there in the wilderness. The following day, before returning to the ger camp we stopped to visit a nomad family
in their ger. This was mentioned in the itinerary. I'd pictured a family who earned some extra money by having the tour company in once a month.
It turned out that it was just some family that we'd stumbled across, but they welcomed us in. It was just two women there, as the men were all out with the animals. Sadly, they didn't speak any Mongolian - only Kazakh - so we weren't really able to communicate with them. We didn't stay very long in the end. In the evening we went to a music festival at the theater in town. There was some impressive dhombra playing (a dhombra is a bit like a lute), as well as a fairly lengthy prize-giving ceremony, which we couldn't fathom because it was all in Kazakh. Most bizarrely as we left the theater they were playing the theme from Titanic over the loudspeakers: this would turn out to be one of the tunes we heard most often in our year traveling.
As a result of spending a day being quite frustrated because of our guide's lack of Kazakh language, we phoned up our tour company to complain. After some discussion the result was that we were supplied with a second interpreter. This one spoke Kazakh and Mongolian, which meant a game of Chinese whispers if we wanted to speak to the locals, but a much better arrangement nonetheless.
The highlight of our time in Olgii province was a trip to the Eagle Festival. It was a two day festival, and we arrived nice and early on the first day, mainly due to the fact that our guide hadn't realized that the clocks had changed by an hour overnight! This was good, though, because it meant that we got to see people arriving and setting up. Men rode in on horseback, some from very far afield, many with eagles perched on their arms. The eagles are stolen as chicks and raised by the hunters, who train them to hunt small mammals.
It's mostly done for sport, and perhaps some fur; they don't eat much of what the eagles catch. It was such a colorful scene. The hunters are dressed in their finest hunting clothes. The eagles are huge majestic birds.
The festival consisted of a number of traditional games and disciplines: calling the eagle from the top of a hill, to descend and land on the hunter's arm; calling the eagle to land on a fox skin dragged behind the hunters horse; archery; horse racing; a game involving picking up flags from the ground while riding past on horseback; a game involving a woman on horseback chasing a man on horseback and whipping him (I couldn't fathom the rules of that one); and my personal favorite, a game where a goat's carcass, with the head removed, is used for a type of tug-o-war, with each of two men on horseback taking two of the legs, and attempting to pull the goat out of the other's grasp, or to pull him off his horse - some of the games went on for ages, and occasionally the competitors would career into the crowd on their horses, requiring everyone to jump out of the way.
The festival was one of the true highlights of our entire year away. There were some fantastic souvenirs on sale: we purchased two large hand-embroidered wall hangings, which the locals use to decorate above the beds in their gers. We plan to hang one in our bedroom.
After two days at the festival there were still a couple of days left before we flew back to Ulaan Baatar. We headed out and camped a little distance away from town, by a lake called Lake Tolbo. Here we had a chance to meet some more nomads. This time we met more of the family, and were able to exchange some words with them, thanks to our two interpreters. We were also able to give some medicine to a man who was feeling rather under the weather, and it was good to go back the following day and find that he was feeling a bit better.
He gave us a demonstration of his dhombra playing, and we were able to hold his eagle, which was amazing, and slightly scary: they have large beaks and very piercing eyes.
We found Lake Tolbo to be a most beautiful location. The lake is clear and sits on one side of a shallow valley. The ground all around is open and treeless. In the mornings there would be ice on the lake from the overnight frost. In the distance you could see a little snow on some of the higher hills.