September 1, 2003 -- Normally I wouldn't recommend a "new" festival, much less one dreamed up by a tour operator just three years ago, but the Golden Eagle Festival in Mongolia should prove to be a good exception. Established in 2000 by Jalso Urubshurow, founder and CEO of Nomadic Expeditions (and a Mongolian-American), it's an apparently successful attempt to revive the ancient birds of prey hunting technique that involves the eagles chasing dragged fox skins across the plain. Charging horses, costumed Kazakh hunters, swooping eagles -- all this, and more, will cost you just $737 in an eight-day (six-night) visit. (Of course, that doesn't include getting to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital.)
The Kazakhs, a minority group in Mongolia, hunt small prey using golden eagles. Their new festival takes place this year in early October, your trip from October 1-8. Your first three days are spent in Ulaanbaatar and vicinity, where you take in the capital's museums and cultural highlights. Days 4 through 6 are at the festival, after a flight to Ulgii.
More than 60 Kazakhs in traditional hunting regalia parade on horseback with their birds of prey on their arms, with prizes given for best outfit and accessories. Then there follow three days of competition, the eagles being evaluated for speed and agility as they plunge from cliffs to the arms of their trainers or chase the fox skins. You will have a chance to have an eagle perch on your arm, the sponsors say. There will also be at least one game of kukbar, a game a bit like polo, testing the equestrian skills of the riders. The festival itself is planned by the Berkut Association, a local ethnic minority grouping of Kazakhs, and proceeds go to them.
You'll spend four nights in hotels, three in a ger (like a yurt) camp. You'll have a chance to go horseback riding, too. The trip is recommended for adventurers who are comfortable with "very basic amenities," Nomadic says.
A post-festival extension trip of seven days takes you deeper into the remote wilderness of western Mongolia to witness actual eagle hunting in the wild, or you can take a pre-festival five-day journey through the Gobi Desert.
Other good times of the year to visit Mongolia with Nomadic Expeditions include their Lunar New Year (late February), when the firm has a two-week trip, cost not yet determined; or the Thousand Camel Festival (January 26 to February 2, 2004), an eight-day tour into the Gobi Desert, with camel races and more. Cost of the latter is from $1,020, land-only.
For information and to book, contact Nomadic Expeditions at 800/998-6634 or visit www.nomadicexpeditions.com.