Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mini Golden Eagle Festival

On March 5th, a smaller version of the Golden Eagle Festival usually held in Western Mongolia took place at a large ger camp about 20km south of Ulaanbaatar.  The regular Golden Eagle Festival occurs every year during the fall in Bayan-Ulgii (Баян-Өлгий), the westernmost province or aimag of Mongolia.  Bayan-Ulgii is notable because its population is predominately ethnic Kazakh rather than Khalkh Mongol, which is the ethnic majority throughout the rest of Mongolia.  Kazakh culture and language are markedly different than Khalkh Mongol language and culture.  One particularly show-stopping display of Kazakh culture in Mongolia are the burgedchid (plural: бүргэдчид, singular: бүргэдчин/burgedchin), hunters who raise and train golden eagles to hunt with them.  This is where the Golden Eagle Festival comes in, as burged (бүргэд) is "golden eagle" in Mongolian.

Chinggis Khuree ger camp, approximately 20km south of Ulaanbaatar.
The March festival brought the top golden eagle hunters from the far west to just outside of Ulaanbaatar for presentation of honors, photo ops, demonstrations, and a competition.
The procession of golden eagle hunters lead by riders bearing the Mongolian national flag and the Bayan-Ulgii provincial flag approaches the main stage

Golden eagle hunters and an assistant in traditional Kazakh attire.  The bright colors and intricate designs are typical of Kazakh textiles and differ markedly from the materials and styles favored in Mongolian textile.

The golden eagle hunters line up for the awards ceremony.  Officials and dignitaries line up at the entrance of the main ger for the speeches and presentation of awards. 
On the right-hand side of the master of ceremonies, officials, and dignitaries were primarily younger golden eagle hunters, whereas the older, more senior hunters lined up on the left-hand side.  Some of the younger golden eagle hunters had trouble keeping their steeds calm, so individual horses often bolted and broke rank during the ceremony, making most of my pictures from this side into action shots.  The more experienced hunters, like the gentleman below, had a better handle on things, which we would see again during the competition.  While some of the golden eagle hunters were dressed in the traditional, dazzling Kazakh fabrics, others wore huge, heavy fur coats.

Look at the size of the golden eagle in comparison to its handler.  Look at the size of its talons.  Look at the vicious curve of its beak.  I admire the golden eagle hunters: how many people would be so comfortable with that many natural weapons that close to their face/eyes/throat?  The ease with which they interact with their birds is the result of a close, life-long relationship between eagle and handler.

It's difficult to see all of the gear and tack for golden eagle handling and hunting in these pictures.  The eagle hoods are obvious but the hunters use some kind of tie or lead when their eagle is resting on their arm.  If you're not sure whether or not you're afraid of birds, getting up close and personal with the golden eagles will settle the matter.  All of the birds were well behaved, to the point that one man took a juvenile around for spectators to hold and touch.

It's like something straight out of my nightmares...
 I have to admit that this was a particularly good-natured raptor; despite its terrifying size and numerous sharp, pointy bits, it didn't gouge out anyone's eyeballs or carry off any small children.  The handler pictured above in Kazakh garb even got down in the snow with it and played with it like a puppy.  Despite my wariness around the birds themselves, I deeply respect and appreciate the close, complex relationships between the golden eagles and their handlers.  From what I understand, a handler selects a golden eagle chick and raises it, training it over the years, and culminating in the kinds of displays of trust and cooperation (or defiance, see below) that make the Golden Eagle Festival possible.
These guys were either seasoned stars or naturals when it came to posing for the cameras.  Too bad lots of other random photographers kept scurrying in and out of the frame!

Guess which one of us is wearing faux fur?
The Kazakh golden eagle hunters weren't the only ones displaying their skills that day.  Four or five young Mongolian falconers dressed in cavalry armor modeled on the Mongol imperial style, complete with swords, bows, and arrows.
Mongolian falconers and archers in imperial armor line up with the Kazakh golden eagle hunters.

Closeup of a Mongolian falconer and his falcon.

 Falcons (shonkhor/шонхор in Mongolian) along with golden eagles appear to be the two kinds of raptors favored by hunters and the elite classes throughout the prehistory and history of Mongolia and Inner Asia.  If you want to know more, I suggest reading Professor Ulambayar Erdenebat's new book, "Mongolian Falconery" (Монгол Шувуулахуй):

After the awards and presentation ceremony, it was time for the competition to begin!  The golden eagle hunters made their way across the snowy slopes to a point midway up a tall hill.  The judges lined up at a table about 400m downhill at the bottom of the slope, and spectators watched from all along the slope.
Carrying massive, scary eagles around with one arm, sitting in the snow - these guys are tough!

The golden eagle hunting competition was not at all what I expected.  Rather than doing any actual hunting, the competitors showed off a much more fundamental skill: getting their eagle to come when called.  A hunter would leave his golden eagle with another handler, ride 250-400m downhill (depending on the stage of the competition and the hunter's skill level), and call for the bird.  I wish I'd had a device to record their calls, as each hunter had a slightly different one, and they're very difficult to describe.  There were variations on "Hooo!" and "Hai!", but the tone and timber are lost in written description.

It hadn't occurred to me until writing this post, but it's interesting how little attention is given to the role of the horses in the golden eagle-handler interactions.  It's certainly true that the handlers obviously interact with their birds on foot (or rolling around in the snow, as with the juvenile golden eagle and its handler discussed above), but the significant public 'acts' of the Golden Eagle Festival were conducted on horseback.  I wonder how much training it takes for the horses to get used to the eagles swooping at them and perching outside their field of vision but rather close to their heads?  That day I can't' recall any instances when a horse seemed spooked or afraid of an eagle; whenever a horse bolted, it seemed more from excitement or in response to another horse than out of fear.

Having been persuaded to come when called, a golden eagle comes in for a landing on its handler's arm.
A lot more eagles than I expected refused to come to their handlers.  Some simply ignored the calls, turning their backs or even hopping away from the other handlers and birds to a nearby stony outcrop.  The cheekiest golden eagle took off in response to its handler's call, only to soar over everyone's heads and eventually alight on one of the ger rooftops on the other side of the competition.  I didn't take any pictures of these defiant golden eagles, because it just seemed like adding insult to injury for the handlers.

In an interesting parallel to the 'defiance' of these eagles, some of the horses also resisted the goals and order of the day's competition.  At the top of the slope, where the eagle hunters gathered to wait their turn, a few horses slowly broke away from the group while their handler was trying to coax one of the rebellious eagles back to his arm.  The horses couldn't be caught on foot, despite how slowly they made their way through the snow, and it took a second eagle hunter on horseback several minutes to round them back up.  Another rider dismounted at the base of the slope in an attempt to compel his recalcitrant eagle, only to have his horse take off back up the slope towards the rest of its herd.  It would be easy to ascribe these unruly moments to lack of control, but I think it speaks to how successful golden eagle hunting relies upon strong relationships of mutual trust and comfort between all parties involved. 

A successful call and flight by a more experienced golden eagle hunting team: horse, human, and bird are all on the same page.
The experienced golden eagle hunters were able to call their birds from greater distances and a few needed to vocalize only once before their eagle took flight towards them.  More commonly it took at least 30 seconds of calling to convince an eagle to come.  It got too cold before the overall competition finished, but seeing how these human-animal relationships played out in a rarefied settings was more interesting than declaring a winner.

I was so caught up in the golden eagle competition that I almost completely missed the archery displays by the Mongolian falconers in cavalry armor.  Their competition was to shoot at a target as they rode past in a group, a nod to military training exercises from Mongolia's historic and prehistoric imperial legacy.  The archers and their falcons were kind enough to pose for pictures once they were done with the competition.

Like the other competitors of the day, the Mongolian falconers were in high demand for photo ops.  That means there are randos in most of my pictures.
When our group first entered the ger camp hosting the Golden Eagle Festival, I noticed a long chain-link enclosure with some small huts attached.  The eagle competition drove this out of my mind until my feet got too cold and I came down the snowy slope in search of warmer footing.  To my surprise and delight the chain-link enclosure housed a number of Mongolian mastiffs, including puppies!

Adorable, fuzzy, and not yet ferocious.
The Mongolian mastiff, or Mongol bankhar (Монгол банхар) is a breed of guard dog renown for its ferocity, hardiness, and leonine ruff.  Purebred Mongol bankhar like these are relatively rare and thus expensive, although many, many Mongolian dogs look like they have a little bankhar blood in them in terms of coloring and markings.  Some people call the Mongol bankhar the four-eyed dog because of the distinct light-colored spot above each eye.
A handsome boy with the distinctive coloring, dense coat, pouffy tail, and ruff of a purebred Mongol bankhar
Despite their well-earned reputation for ferocity, this particular dog was calm and friendly.  Most of the Mongolian spectators at today's event were wary around the dogs, and with good reason.  Mongol bankhar are bred and trained to be guard dogs, so they will lunge and bark at approaching strangers (hence the chain-link enclosure).  I noticed that a number of Mongolians who did approach the adult dogs in the chain-link enclosure riled the dogs up in order to see their aggressive, protective side.  Several of the Mongolian men who joined me in admiring the puppies commented on how the one who gnawed and guarded a bone from its littermates with growls was 'mundag', or strong and powerful.  I suppose I would want my dog to be mundag, too, if it were guarding my home and herds.  However, I still prefer friendly and cuddly to ferocious.

In the picture above, I've just approached the 'safe' Mongol bankhar and am getting ready to kneel down for a better pose.  Just after this shot was taken, the Mongolians around me began to shout about how it was dangerous and one man darted towards me, snatching off my hat and explaining that that was the problem.  He said that the Mongol bankhar will 'react wildly' to the fur on the hat.  Since the dog was otherwise quite sweet and safe, I'll have to take his word for it.  Better safe than sorry!

I was so lucky to see the golden eagle hunters, as it's unlikely I'll be able to visit Western Mongolia any time soon and the regular Golden Eagle Festival only happens in the fall.  The Mongolian falconers and Mongol bankhar were unexpected treats rounding out a day of human-animal relationships.  The various fun outings and adventures I've had in Mongolia since mid-2013 have intersected with my dissertation research in interesting and surprising ways.  I'm looking forward to more encounters with 'naturecultures' and 'companion species' as the snow melts and spring comes to Mongolia.

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