Mongolia: In search of Eagles and Dragons
The magnet for my recent journey to Mongolia was the Golden Eagle Festival which is held each October in remote western Mongolia. I had no idea of the richness of the cultural and natural wonders waiting to be discovered at every turn in this vast country.
Despite 68 years of Communist government (Mongolia had a peaceful, democratic revolution in 1990, resulting in a new constitution in 1992), the deep ties to the traditions of both the Kazakh people in the west and the Mongolians in the rest of the country have remained very strong. In my 2 weeks, I saw people living nomadic lives as herders little changed over centuries, while the other half of the population lives in the modern capital, Ulaanbaatar, bustling with restaurants and international hotels (and not forgetting the wonderful shopping for cashmere!). The many museums of UB provided a fantastic starting point, there are a wealth of treasures drawn from fine arts, musical, intellectual and natural histories and Buddhism. For me, the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, the only one remaining of 4 palaces of the last Emperor of Mongolia, was exceptional. Remarkably, many of its buildings and the vast collection of artefacts survived the destruction of temples and monasteries by the communists in the late 1930s.
Leaving UB for the Eagle Festival, I flew to Bayan-Ulgii, the westernmost province, where 90% of the population is Kazakh. My ger (yurt) in a temporary ger camp was wonderfully decorated with local textiles, was kept warm with it’s own wood heater and even supplied with warm water in the mornings!
The Eagle Festival is thriving as an annual showcase for the skills central to the nomadic horse-based life. This year it drew 120 Eagle Masters from as far as 200 miles, in addition to many other people competing in archery and traditional horse-mounted competitions like tug-of war (with a goat carcass) and races to pick up coin purses off the ground.
You can feel the excitement as the competitors meet friends and then rally behind their local team. Over 2 days of competitions, the winning eagles are eventually chosen from those who fly to their Master at the furthest target in the fastest time, with the greatest dive style and accuracy. I loved that the victorious eagles got to wear the medallions!
The landscape in Western Mongolia is stunning, with vast lakes, snow-covered mountains and autumn leaves blowing from poplars and birches along the river banks of our camp. We were treated to some exceptional musical experiences at a concert in town one night and again privately in our camp.
I flew back to UB and then on to the Gobi desert and experienced the most luxurious of ger camps, Three Camel Lodge. Here in just a few days, it is possible to walk through ancient landscapes in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, deep canyons in the Yol Valley National Park and visit petroglyphs in place since the Bronze Age. Not far from the Lodge, the Flaming Cliffs are the famous site of the first discovery of a nest of dinosaur eggs in 1923. The Cliffs are a spectacular site for a glass of wine at sunset.
It turned out that Mongolia had so much more to offer than I was hoping for. A country with a breathtaking landscape and generous, humorous and egalitarian people that can’t help but get under your skin.
Words by Janet Ruby. Images by Stephen Jones.