One eagle hunter is impressive. Put 50 together and you have one of the greatest aerial and equestrian shows on Earth.
The first hunter of the competition is a respected veteran (age takes precedence in western Mongolia). He kicks his stallion lightly and trots to the end of the arid plain. There, at the base of a jagged mountain, he wheels and surveys the area coolly with a face as brown and leathery as a withered potato. His ear-flapped hat is lined with marmot fur and his robes are made entirely of fox pelts - a sign of successful hunts.
The stallion snorts and paws the dusty ground. Its bridle is studded with medals from past competitions and its wooden saddle is filigreed with silver.
These two are good and everyone knows it. There are 600 people lining this field and even the judges - three elders seated at a table on a flatbed, smoking cigarettes impassively behind battered aviator sunglasses - lean forward in anticipation.
The hunter's son has climbed the mountain with his father's prized possession, a mature female golden eagle (the females are the bigger and better hunters). She is hooded with a fitted leather cap topped with garishly dyed falcon feathers. A colourfully embroidered cape is draped over her back.
At a signal from the father, the cape and hood are removed and the eagle pertly scans the field with eyes eight times stronger than a human's.
I'm standing next to the flatbed and can see her yellow irises from here.
The hunter screams "haaaaaayooor!" and the stallion breaks into a sudden gallop, away from the mountain and straight toward the judges' table. The son hefts the eagle. She flares her wings and glides off his arm, circling the mountain once on a thermal draft before she locks onto the rider. He is looking back over his shoulder calling her with that "haaayoor!" shout as the stallion pounds toward the flatbed.
He has already covered half the plain when the eagle gives a cry that echoes his and swoops towards him. Forty metres before the flatbed, her trajectory grows shallower on final approach toward the rider's outstretched arm. The horse looks like it fully intends to run straight through those old judges. Fifteen metres out, the eagle catches the hunter's arm, wrapped in a thick sheepskin mitt to protect it from talons sharp and strong enough to decapitate a mountain goat. Horse, eagle and rider pull up just in front of the flatbed in a cloud of dust, whinnies and flaring wings. The crowd roars and the judges hold up scorecards, smiling now. The hunter soaks it all in for a second, mouth curved upward slightly, then kicks the stallion again and trots off the field as the next hunter rides out to try to duplicate the performance.
One eagle hunter down. Forty-nine more to go.
We're just outside Olgi, the small capital of Bayan-Olgi province in western Mongolia, to witness the annual Eagle Festival. This region is Mongolia's most remote, stretching toward Kazakhstan in the west, with China to the south and Siberian Russia to the north.
Modernity's hold is tenuous here. Paved roads end shortly outside Olgi and the population is mostly composed of semi-nomadic, ethnic Kazakh herders. They follow their goats (prized for their fine cashmere wool) between seasonal grazing grounds, living in round, wood-framed woollen tents called gers (also known as yurts). Horses outnumber cars and you're as likely to see a shaggy, Bactrian camel carting a family's goods as a truck.
Hunting for fur-bearing creatures may only be recreational these days, but owning a trained golden eagle is still a point of pride. Eaglets are captured from nests before they fledge. They are then painstakingly taught to land and perch on their master's arm, to soar above him while he rides across a hunting ground flushing out marmots, foxes and small wolves, and then to hold and kill a target without destroying the pelt. The training of hunter, horse and eagle takes years.
I watch several more eagle performances like the first before wandering off to take in some of the festival's other sights. A crowd gathers around two riders engaged in a game of kokpar. Each rider grabs one leg of a goat carcass and tries to pull the body out of his opponent's grasp. They circle with the carcass held between them, contorting in their saddles for leverage, the horses snarling, until one rider suddenly loses his balance and nearly falls. His opponent's horse senses the opportunity and bolts through the crowd for open ground. The losing rider hangs on to the goat for a few seconds more, his head centimetres from the ground and eight pounding hoofs, before admitting defeat and letting go.
No festival of any kind in Mongolia is complete without a horse race. The jockeys, mostly boys under 10, assemble in a rough line near the flatbed. A shout from one of the elders sends them off on a bareback circuit of the mountain and the plain. The horses run for 20 minutes at a full gallop. As they approach the finish line, a crowd rushes to greet the winner. The rider is shirtless, grinning, coated in sweat and dust. His mottled grey mount is foaming at the mouth but still tossing its head, ready to run. The boy is carried away by his father and beaming relatives like a victorious quarterback.
At the edge of the plain, local merchants sell eagle paraphernalia, embroidered carpets, colourful wall hangings, candy and toys, all spread out on the hoods of their jeeps. A few hunters have set up their gers. Another group is seated in a large circle on the ground, passing around a vodka bottle and making toasts to a good year's hunting. Young men are competing in a contest where rags are laid out in a weaving line across the field for riders to pick up at a full gallop while leaning from the stirrups. The roars of approval for a perfect run are exceeded only by those given for spectacular and/or drunken falls (the vodka has been flowing freely since sunrise).
The eagles share the spotlight with these other events for a little while, before reclaiming it in spectacular fashion. The hunters are in the middle of a new demonstration where they drag a piece of fox fur on a long string behind their horse while at full gallop. When it all goes well, the eagle is sprung from the mountain, spots the target and dives down on top of it in a flurry of dirt, fur and feathers. But one eagle has refused to play along and circles the plain lazily until it spots a little Kazakh boy, wearing a tattered, rust-coloured Washington Redskins jacket, running among the jeeps.
It's one of those dream-like moments where you know what's coming and can't do anything about it. The eagle glides toward the jeeps, locks her gaze, tucks her wings and drops 60 metres like a guided missile onto the shoulders of the running boy.
The festival explodes in shouts and screams. Every hunter, mother and tourist in range runs to the boy, who is flat on his face beneath a large, proud bird that has already started to make lunch out of the Redskins jacket. The boy is shaken but okay, and the bird is hustled away, no doubt confused over what it did wrong. Someone gets on a loudspeaker to remind everyone that the eagles are trained with strips of bloody meat, so running around wearing red clothing is not a good idea.
It's a chaotic, unscripted and very Mongolian moment. It's also a hell of an ending to day one of a three-day party.
IF YOU GO
The Olgi Eagle Festival takes place annually on the first weekend of October.
First, fly into the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator (Air China has daily flights from Beijing and Russia's Aeroflot flies there out of Moscow). From there, it's a two-hour flight on Aero Mongolia ( www.aeromongolia.mn) to Olgi.
Don't expect luxury. The Tavan Bogd Hotel (976-01422-23046) has some rooms with attached bathrooms for about $30 per night. It gets more basic from there. The Blue Wolf Café rents out yurts that can accommodate four people for about $8 per person a night (bring your own sleeping bag). With advance notice, the restaurant can provide both Western and Mongolian food.
Mongolia Expeditions ( www.mongolia-expeditions.com), based in Ulan Bator, is staffed with excellent English speakers. Nomadic Expeditions ( www.nomadicexpeditions.com) is another Mongolia specialist with offices in both Ulan Bator and the United States.
Special to The Globe and Mail