Mongolia is a land of mysteries, a land of sweeping natural wonders, vast steppes, and whistling sand dunes. Mongolia attracts those wanting to discover something new, something wild, something fascinating. It is also home to many colourful festivals held throughout the year, each one brimming with heritage, each one a celebration of Mongolia’s ancient and expressive culture. These unique festivals are still of great symbolic importance, Mongolia’s way of disseminating its culture through food sports song and dance. Here are some of Trouvailles favourites.
The Golden Eagle Festival (Sayat) ‘Hunting with Golden Eagles’
The ‘Golden Eagle Festival’ is one celebrated by the nomadic Kazakhs of Mongolia. Each year Kazakh hunters and their golden eagles or ‘Berkut’ gather in the bosom of the glorious Altai mountains and the festivities begin. Surrounded by a savage yet beautiful wilderness and still ice blue lakes, the Kazakh and their hunting eagles display mesmerising feats of speed and agility, all to perpetuate and preserve a hunting tradition that dates back 4000 years. Decked out in intricately embroidered ‘Chapans’ (thick overcoats) and ‘Malakhai’ (fox fur hats), sat astride groomed and ornamented horses the competition to be crowned best eagle hunter begins. Awards are given for winners of categories such as ‘Best Turned out Eagle & Owner’, ‘Best Eagle Hunting Prey’, and Best Eagle Locator’, competitions designed to test their birds’ mettle and showcase the hunter’s dexterity and skill. The festival showcases horse and camel racing, archery, and the famed Kuk Bar. The Kuk Bar, a game where teams of men on horseback try to snatch a goat skin from one another and deliver it to a designated area, all while galloping at top speed. Thousands flock to see this unique Kazakh spectacle, and all proceeds made during the 2-day festival go to Mongolia’s’ Berkut Association’, a community-based conservation organisation. The custom of eagle hunting is a precious and dying one. There are only around 350 eagle hunters left in the world, as unless your father was an eagle hunter you cannot become one.
The Gobi Camel Festival
This fun fuelled flamboyant festival is also known as the Festival of a Thousand Camels, and that is no exaggeration. Held over two days the whole festival is a love letter to the ‘Ship of the Gobi,’ better known as the Bactrian camel. The two-humped beastie has been and still is central to nomadic Mongolian life. Winter in the Gobi means snow, so the Bactrians are all the more charming as their wearing their fully fluffed woollen winter coats. You can’t help but smile when faced with the gorgeously gormless and doe eyed expression on a Bactrian as the camel herders gear them up for the ‘Yup’, the colourful and chaotic opening parade. The festival is where the Guinness world record breaking Camel race takes place, a race with over a thousand camels and participants. Races take place all day and all are welcome to place their bets. There are competitions galore, and medals for those who can load and unload their double humped friends fastest. There are beauty pageants, the coveted first prize goes to the prettiest camel in the Gobi, though the lollygagging cud chewing Bactrians seem none the wiser when they win the swimsuit round. You can see calf’s being broken in, a real skill considering the flighty and sometimes feisty temperament of the Bactrian. Spectators are encouraged to join in and ride a Bactrian, though due to their endearing rattletrap gait it may not be for those who suffer motion sickness. The festival is a boisterous cacophony of braying, betting, and shouting, but it does have its serious side. It highlights the significance of camels for Mongolia’s local and national economy and showcases the skills and traditions of the nomadic camel herders of the Gobi.
The Tsagaan Sar Festival
In a country of harsh and extreme climbs winter is arduous for both man and beast. That may be why the ‘Tsagaan Sar Festival’ (Lunar New Year) holds such significance in Mongolia. This festival is about spirit, it’s about family, and welcoming the warmth and light of spring. It’s about wiping the slate clean and bringing in the new year, it’s also about mountains of mouth-watering food. With all dressed in traditional Mongolian finery, family and guests must eat as much as possible in order to usher in a prosperous new year. You’ll find yourself surrounded by huge stacks of ‘buuz’, a yummy meat filled dumpling. Slabs of horse meat, mutton, and a variety of sweet and sour dairy products are also on offer. Mounds of cookies and sweets shaped in a pyramid known as ‘Shiniin Idee’ will tempt you, and the locals will welcome you to eat and drink until your hearts content. There are many ceremonies, rituals, and traditions during this festival. Families will pay their respects to the ancestors and their ancestral lands. Tea with milk is thrown in all directions to quench the thirst of the gods, snuffboxes full of snuff are given as gifts. Three pieces of ice and hay are laid at every front door to appease the deity Palden Lhamo, a dharma protector, and the only female among the Eight Guardians of Buddhist Law. You will repeatedly hear the phrase "amar baina uu, sar shinedee saikhan shinelej baina uu", meaning “do you live in peace, how is your new year?” Hosts will greet guest with kisses on both cheeks or by sniffing them, ritual prayers will be said, and stories a thousand years old will be told. The Tsagaan Sar festival lasts for three days, and the hospitality of the locals is legendary, making it an experience unlike any other. The date of this celebration is determined according to the Mongolian lunar calendar, it is always held on the first day of the year in which the new moon rises.
For more information or to book a tour call Trouvailles on 020 3877 0670.