At the top of a craggy mountain in the Altai range, a man raises his fist to reveal a golden eagle with a six-foot wingspan. The eagle spies its mark in the valley below and bolts into the air. Within seconds, the bird slams into its target, dust billowing.
In a modern twist to this saga, a crowd of hundreds gathered in the valley erupts into cheers. Today, the “prey” is an old piece of fox fur pulled behind a horse; the “hunt” is a competition at the annual Eagle Festival in Mongolia’s Bayan Ulgii Province.
The Berkut (Eagle Hunters) Association organized the first eagle hunting festival 11 years ago, with support from a US-based tourism company, Nomadic Expeditions, in Bogat District, just outside Bayan Ulgii’s center. Soon afterwards, a rival annual festival organized by a local tour company started in Bayan Ulgii’s Sagsai District. A local history teacher plans to start a third festival this September. Collectively, they form the cornerstone of the largely Kazakh-populated province’s tourism sector, the most developed in western Mongolia.
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Andrew Cullen is a freelance journalist based in Hovd, Mongolia.