Originally a source of food and fur for the harsh winters among Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia, eagle hunting is now celebrated with a festival of unique sights and eye-popping moments. Against an unrepeatably picturesque mountainous backdrop, visitors are treated to a get-together that features the best of the region’s heritage and culture, including music and dancing, handicrafts and traditional games like kokpar, where horsemen fight for a goatskin. Bloodthirsty polo on steroids, kokpar is a Mongolian must. A small army line up on each side of a field, goals at each end and the carcass of a goat their quarry. A sport that combines speed, agility and sheer chutzpah among the competitors, traditionally games can go on for several days. Don’t worry, the Eagle Festival’s condensed version doesn’t last that long, but still exhausts spectators with its intensity and daring. The crowd cheers as, at full gallop, a horseman bends down, arms outstretched, avoids the barges of other riders to grab the carcass, hauling the 30kg up his horse’s flank. The rider makes for goal, and following him, a stampede follows, riders roaring and screeching, their whips flailing as sweat pours from the horses, their outstretched arms ready to snatch the goat back. And so it goes on, an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy, astounding for its stamina and physicality, and a sight you simply can’t tear your eyes from.
But it’s the eagles that are the stars of the show, and understandably so when you see them in action. Noble at rest they may be, but it’s their speed, agility, and accuracy that needs to be seen to be believed, each bird wheeling overhead effortlessly then swooping for prey with incredible precision and palpable power. Competition is fierce, with hunters from all over the region vying for glory – mingle with them, pick a favourite bird then cheer as it takes flight.