Tag Archives: Mongolia

Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia coolest eagle hunter

Mongolia Blew My Mind. And I Can’t Wait to Go Back.

One of my last trips before the pandemic hit was to Mongolia. I’d been dreaming about going there ever since I met Jalsa Urubshurow at a work event about six or seven years ago. He spun me a vision of a night sky, stretching uninterrupted from horizon to horizon and filled with stars—one of the darkest places in the world, since Mongolia is one of the least populated countries. I’d studied Genghis and Kublai Khan in college, so the country already had a draw for me, but I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a kid, and that conversation sealed the deal. When I finally made the trip this past October (planned by Jalsa, now on Wendy’s WOW List), I got my stars. I also got a lot more, including the 20th anniversary of the Golden Eagle Festival (a celebration of a centuries-old tradition), an education in Mongolian art (from ancient calligraphy to modern street art), and several delicious meals via Ulaanbaatar’s unexpected vegan restaurant scene (who knew??) and some very accommodating private chefs. Currently, Mongolia is closed to travelers, but Jalsa’s team has announced itineraries for 2021 and 2022, and while Mongolia is never exactly crowded to begin with, I can imagine that it will feel even more special and personalized to be in those first few rounds of visitors. It’s a unique place, with a culture that feels ancient and modern at the same time. I knew going in that I would love it there no matter what I encountered, but it still managed to surprise me on several occasions. These are some of my favorite moments:


Eagle Hunter smiling Mongolia CR Billie Cohen

At the 2019 Golden Eagle Festival in western Mongolia, 124 contestants entered the two-day fest of games that show off participants’ eagle-calling abilities, horsemanship, strength, and fashion sense. Ranging in age from 9 to 82, they came from both Mongolia and Kazakhstan, the only two countries where this centuries-old hunting tradition is practiced. It was the 20th anniversary of the festival when I visited. Jalsa cofounded it after realizing that the tradition was dying—there were only 20 or 30 families with eagles two decades ago. Now there are a few hundred.


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia -contestant in ring CR Billie Cohen

The field is a giant rectangle at the base of a small mountain. For the first game, every competitor rides their horse onto the field; one of their helpers has already climbed up the mountain with their eagle. The helper releases the bird and the hunter calls to the eagle, trying to entice it to land on his arm in the fastest amount of time. The birds are beautiful as they circle and then dive and swoop onto the hunter’s raised right arm (it’s always the right arm).


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia -youngest girl Aimulder

This is Aimulder. She’s 9 and was the youngest competitor; the oldest was 82. She told me that her grandfather and father are both eagle hunters so she wanted to be one too.


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia coolest eagle hunter

This is the world’s coolest eagle hunter, obviously. And this is an example of what was so special about this festival. There was no line between participants and spectators—either literal or figurative. You might be watching the latest round from the benches around the field and then look to your left and you’d see an eagle hunter and his horse just hanging out there with you—or just an eagle. We were all there together.

Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia -boy and eagle staring at each other

A friend from my group put it like this, fondly: “It was less organized than I expected, and I loved that. It felt more like someone’s agricultural fair that we got to take part in. It was very welcoming as well.” In fact, everyone in my group used words like that: welcoming, open, inviting, authentic. For a festival that’s been the subject of a major motion picture, 2016’s The Eagle Huntress, I expected it to be a little more, well, “over.” It definitely was not.


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia - teen girl eagle hunter Akhelik

I took an informal poll of English-speaking tourists and most had come to the festival after seeing or hearing about The Eagle Huntress. Even though the star of that film wasn’t there in 2019 (she’s in high school in Kazakhstan), rumors went through the crowd each day saying that she was, and confusing her with this girl, the talented 14-year-old Akhelik, who ended up coming in 4th place out of all the contestants.


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia - nomad coffee shop

A makeshift marketplace with vendors, food, and games popped up around the fairgrounds. Families from the area arranged their wares and handmade crafts on the ground: tapestries, fur hats, felt slippers, wool bags. Others ran open-air food spots—in addition to a salted-yogurt-drink stand and lots of grilled meat, I passed a pizza shop in a ger (round mobile tents used by the nomad community). Still others set up boardwalk-style games, like throw-the-ring-over-the-post and dart-the-balloons. This was the Nomadic Coffee Shop, which by all accounts makes a damn good espresso. It will likely be a Starbucks in two years. Get to this festival now!


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia - Chaimurat champion eagle hunter

The hunters are judged on a few criteria: how well their eagle responds to their calls, their horsemanship, the beauty/strength of the horse, and the impressiveness of their traditional costume (which Kazakhs still wear in their daily lives). They are also judged on the speed with which their eagle completes the task. The man on the right here is Chaimurat. He won the festival twice, and if he’d won in 2019 he would have had the most wins of anyone. But he didn’t. Instead, the winner was a man named Arman, thanks to his fast time when calling his eagle to his arm (less than a minute). I later found out that he and Chaimurat had earned the same number of points from the judges, but Arman’s time was better, so he took first place while Chaimurat came in second. They both got medals—and so did the eagles.


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia - woman holding eagle

Jalsa’s work as a co-creator of the festival means that he has developed professional and personal friendships with various interesting people in the area. As a result, we got to meet Chaimurat and other eagle hunters before the competition even began. As they rode their horses over the mountains on their way to the fairground, we waited for them on the “road” one morning. When they arrived, they let us hold their birds (eagles are heavy!) and ask questions about their lives and work. The personal interaction provided context for what we’d see at the festival over the next two days, and made me feel like I had a personal connection to the people out there on the field. Plus, I felt super cool that I knew the champion. He’s a celebrity, after all. (Bonus connection: The young man who drove my 4×4 to the festival was the same guy who announced the Mongolian-to-English translations during the judges’ presentations, so I got to talk to him about the points system, how eagle hunters are evaluated, and how Arman edged out Chaimurat!)


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia - bonfire

This is what happens the night after the Golden Eagle Festival, if you know the right people. You get a bonfire cocktail party by the river with Mongolian beer, a performance by a three-generation family of dombra players, impromptu folk songs around the fire with a fun-loving bunch of locals (including the former champion eagle hunter and his beribboned eagle), and dancing!


Golden Eagle Festival Mongolia - throat singer

Jalsa also arranged (and joined us for) a private concert by a Mongolian throat singer. Yes, you can go to public concerts of this kind of thing in Ulaanbaatar, but our singer sang just for the 12 of us, in our cozy dinner ger, and then spent as much time as we wanted answering our questions. “Jalsa’s appearance on our trip and his role in the country—and what that has brought [to our experience]—is special,” said one of my fellow tour group members. Her husband added, “We’ve never been with someone where the head of the travel company is so integrated into the culture.”


Mongolia ger traditional snacks-table

I was amazed at how a family welcomes unexpected guests in Mongolia: with warmth, smiles, tea and snacks. Our guide, Bugina, just knocked on the door of their ger out of the blue one afternoon and asked if 12 American strangers could come in—and they said yes! They asked us if people would welcome unexpected guests the same way in America…

Once inside, the gracious multigenerational family (a grandma, a married couple, and three young children) were quick to offer us hot tea and snacks. The rectangles here are fried bread, a staple for nomadic herding families. The family had a giant flour bag full of them and just dumped them out on the table. They were delicious, like donuts but not oily or sweet. At the 3 o’clock position is a bowl of fresh butter from their own cows, who were milling around outside. You smear butter on the bread and top it with a sugar cube. The other four bowls are varieties of dried milk curd; it’s chewy and bland and leaves a fatty film on your tongue. At the top is a kettle of salted milk tea, which we drank out of bowls, toasting with our hosts.


Mongolia street art Genghis Khan

I am no expert, but I love art, design, and architecture. So no matter where I travel, I find a few tours or experiences on those topics. In UB (what locals call Ulaanbaatar), I signed up for a street-art tour through AirBnB Experiences, and spent a wonderful sunny morning walking through the city with a university student who had a personal love for murals and painting. Not only did he show me street art I never would have found or understood on my own (such as a portrait of Mongolian poet Choinom who was persecuted by the Communists, and a timeline of UB that depicts today’s skyline and goes all the way back to Genghis Khan and the country’s early clans and herders; see more photos in my Instagram post), but I got to hear about his own life as a teenager, find out the coolest coffee shops to hang out in, and learn about his volunteer efforts and his family filled with artists. After that adventure in the punk/DIY art scene, I got to dip my toe into the city’s art-gallery world as well, when Jalsa arranged for a painter to lead a personal tour of his current exhibition, and topped it off with an interactive presentation by a calligraphy artist.


2 women on the mountainop at Tuvhken Monastery overlooking forest in Mongolia

Before I arrived, I’d seen pictures of eagle hunters galloping through Mongolia’s steppe, and of camels trekking through the Gobi Desert. But I didn’t realize there’d be sprawling forests too. So when Bugina led me to a mountaintop temple near Karakorum (the 13th-century capital of the Mongolian Empire), I was in awe of the country’s diverse landscapes. The most memorable part of the hike, though, was the time she and I spent becoming friends.  Bugina made sure I understood the cultural and spiritual significance of the site, but as we walked, we also started to understand each other: our lives, our loves, our work, our play, our successes, our challenges, our favorite music and karaoke songs, what it was like to live in Ulaanbaatar, what it was like to live in New York. We ended up so engrossed in conversation that we veered off the trail at some point and ended up having to blaze our own path down through the trees. I’m still laughing about it, and I’m still regularly in touch with Bugina. In fact, we have a video call this week.


Photo: Three Camel Lodge/Steinberg

As I said, the stars are one of the reasons that Mongolia had taken over my imagination. And when we got to his Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi Desert, I was not disappointed. Jalsa likes to joke that it’s a “5-billion star hotel,” and despite that groan-worthy pun, he’s so right. The lodge is a collection of gers, Mongolia’s ingenious mobile homes built out of a lattice fence formed in a circle, topped off by peaked rods, and entirely covered with wool and canvas. A support pole in the center doubles as a chimney for a wood stove that heats the tent so thoroughly that I occasionally had to crack my door open at night and let in some of the 30-degree air. These gers are luxurious, with private stone bathrooms and comfy big beds, and the grounds offer a few common areas to hang out in, including a small movie theater and a living room/bar with fluffy couches and a telescope. The whole lodge is eco-friendly (solar-powered, equipped with compost and recycling, and nearly plastic-free), and has won awards for its sustainability. The lodge’s mission also includes community integration, so there’s a well on the property where herders come to water their animals (and we guests get to observe the natural rhythms of life out in the desert). There’s also a program to support a local school and artists (so we were treated to a few special concerts and performances), and everyone who works at Three Camel is Mongolian (so we had a chance to overcome that tourist-local barrier in yet another way). The best part is that the lodge feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere—just clean air and clear skies as far as the eye can see. And at night…sigh. This is the only photo that I didn’t take myself, because my phone could not capture it. I got this one from Jalsa’s team, and it’s close to what I experienced, but it still doesn’t really convey the full beauty of all those stars. You’ll just have to go to Mongolia for yourself.


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Full Disclosure: Nomadic Expeditions provided this reporter with a discounted group trip. WendyPerrin.com did not promise any editorial coverage, and there was no quid pro quo. Our policy when accepting discounted or complimentary trips is to use the opportunity to test out experiences; if they meet our standards and we feel there is value for our readers, we will cover them. For further input about Mongolia trips arranged by WOW List Trusted Travel Expert Jalsa Urubshruow, read these reviews of Jalsa’s trips written by WOW List travelers.

Mongolia sand dunes. Photo: I. Mogilner

What You Need to Know About Visiting Mongolia: All Your Questions Answered

The allure of Mongolia is evident as soon as you start looking at pictures of it: snow-capped mountains, wide-open plains, wild horses, fairytale reindeer, modern nomads. But it also has a certain mystery to it. What do you need to know about planning a trip of a lifetime to this sprawling but sparsely populated country? We talked to Jalsa Urubshurow, Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Mongolia, to answer your FAQs. Jalsa—who splits his time between Mongolia and the U.S.—has been a recognized champion of sustainable, eco-friendly travel in a country fast becoming a tourist hot spot and has served as an advisor to all seven of Mongolia’s prime ministers and two of its presidents.

For more on him and his unique approach to Mongolian travel, check out his Insider’s Guide to Mongolia or contact him through our site to be marked as a WendyPerrin.com VIP.

When to go?

I like spring, fall and middle of summer,” says Jalsa, a Mongolian-American who was among the first to offer highly customized trips here. “It’s not oppressively hot. You’ll get into the high 80s or maybe 90 in the Gobi desert.” Jalsa also recommends visiting during the Naadam, a festival of horseracing, archery, and wrestling held early every summer (noted by UNESCO as a tradition of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity), and the Golden Eagle Festival in October, when the Kazakhs, Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, show off their centuries-old tradition of hunting with trained eagles.

Camels in Mongolia. Photo: R. Stavers.

Camels in Mongolia. Photo: R. Stavers.

Who can go?

Anyone. Jalsa can tailor trips to all levels of activity. Altitude isn’t an issue either.

How long do I need for a trip?

If you’ve got 11 to 12 days, you can see three ecosystems.

Three Camel Lodge. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Three Camel Lodge. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

What to pack?

Layers. Even though summers are mild, temperatures can drop below freezing at night in some areas, so bring a warm coat and several layers you can put on and peel off as necessary.

Trekking shoes. The terrain varies greatly, but no matter where you are, comfortable shoes are a must. If you’re horse trekking, long boots will protect your legs from chafing.

Flip-flops or shower shoes. You’ll need them at most ger camps.

For more packing tips, see Jalsa’s list.

Horse riders in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Horse riders in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

What will I do and see?

Mongolia offers a wide range of landscapes, activities, and cultural experiences (see “Why Is Everyone Talking About Mongolia and What Do You Do There?”). You can hike in the Altai Mountains; horse trek through the northern region’s forests and meadows; visit a paleontology lab to learn more about Mongolia’s famous dinosaur finds; receive a private blessing from a lama at Ulaanbaatar’s Gandan Monastery; taste huushuur, traditional fried dumplings usually filled with meat, at dinner with a Mongolian family; and much more. Read Jalsa’s Insider’s Guide to Mongolia or our “Why Is Everyone Talking About Mongolia and What Do You Do There?” for more ideas.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Musicians in Mongolia. Photo: J. Doyle

Why Is Everyone Talking About Mongolia and What Do You Do There?

One of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia, Mongolia has an exotic, wild mystery to it. There are more horses than people, wide-open landscapes, desert, mountains, crystal clear skies, nomadic tribes, and even a modern sprawling city.

In the few short years since it was named the fastest growing economy in the world in 2013, Mongolia has attracted more and more attention, popping up on travel websites and blogs with stunning photos of reindeer, colorfully garbed tribesmen, and rustic yurts. In 2016, the National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year won that prestigious contest with an image of one of Mongolia’s horsemen galloping through the snow.

It’s a country of dichotomies, says Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Mongolia, Jalsa Urubshurow, a Mongolian-American who was among the first to offer highly customized trips there and who also created one of the country’s original guide-training programs. “There’s a modern city, and then an hour outside of the capital, you see the nomadic lifestyle, where people are still living this pastoral existence,” he says.

As the country is attracting more and more sophisticated travelers—and the infrastructure to cater to them, with Shangri-La recently opening Ulaanbaatar’s first five-star luxury hotel—we asked Jalsa to explain what travelers can expect from a well-planned trip.

Discover one of the world’s oldest cultures.

Mongolia nomads. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Mongolia nomads. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

“Mongolia is home to the last horse-based nomadic culture—30 percent of the population. It’s a trip back in time,” Jalsa says. By visiting them in their gers (traditional yurts or tents), you can immerse yourself in the culture of one of history’s largest empires. “People are still living and utilizing the same tools they did during Genghis Khan’s time.”

Dig up paleontological treasures.

Travelers can go back even farther in time on a paleontology dig. Mongolia has seen some of the most famous dinosaur fossil finds. In the late 1970s, the “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil was discovered in Tugrugiin Shiree, and the first dinosaur eggs were unearthed at the Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert.

See unspoiled nature.

Mongolia's landscape with a rainbow. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Mongolia’s landscape with a rainbow. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

At about 1,500 miles long (half the length of the U.S.), with only 3 million people, Mongolia is largely untouched. “I think Mongolia offers what people are seeking today: a true chance to get away from things and unplug,” says Jalsa. “It’s a place that inspires unavoidable reflection and a meditative, transformative experience for people.”

To facilitate that inspiration, Jalsa works with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund to create unique experiences that enable visitors to see Mongolia’s natural beauty at its best. For instance, the second-largest concentration of rare snow leopards in the world lives in the Gobi Desert (about 26 to 32 adults), and on Jalsa’s Snow Leopard Quest tour, travelers get to trek with WWF biologists to set up cameras and help conduct other research in the Altai Mountains. Even cooler: Jalsa’s company donates 100 percent of the proceeds from the trip back into snow leopard research.

He also has an astrophysicist on staff at his remote luxury inn, the Three Camel Lodge, to lead a 3-D presentation on the creation of the solar system. “Then you go outside with her and her telescope,” he says. “I call it our five-billion-star hotel.”


Bactrian camels in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Bactrian camels in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Explore a new city balancing ancient culture with modern growth.

“When Mongolia became a democracy in 1990,” Jalsa explains, “Ulaanbaatar went from 600,000 to 1.5 million with no urban planning.” So when you visit, you’ll see the old and the new juxtaposed: an ancient Buddhist monastery from the 1700s next to a modern 26-story skyscraper, gers all around, lots of cars, and now the city’s first five-star hotel, the Shangri-La.

Ulaanbaatar is also vibrant with culture that draws from new and old: There are museums showcasing ancient tribal costumes, next to galleries featuring young Mongolian artists; you can see modern performing arts, or attend morning services with monks at the oldest monastery in the country. (One of Jalsa’s special experiences is to arrange a private dinner and performance in the Fine Arts G. Zanabazar Museum, amid the institution’s beautiful Buddhist sculptures.)

All that and stellar shopping too: Ulaanbaatar is known for its exceptional cashmere, along with traditional felt slippers and fur hats.

Participate in unique traditions.

Horse riders in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Horse riders in Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Jalsa’s travelers get to experience some of Mongolia’s most fascinating traditions and events. One of them is a festival Jalsa created himself, October’s Golden Eagle Festival, which his guests can attend. “In 1998 I rode with the golden eagle riders,” he says of the Kazakhs, Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, who live along the western border and practice a centuries-old tradition of hunting with trained birds. “There were only 40 of them left in the world.” Jalsa explains that the riders’ activities were suppressed by Stalin during the country’s time as a Soviet satellite, but after the launch of the festival in 1999, there are now 400 families that have eagles. The festival celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2019.

Sleep under the stars without giving up creature comforts.

The inside of a luxury ger, Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

The inside of a luxury ger, Mongolia. Photo: Nomadic Expeditions

Mongolia’s remote nature and rugged landscapes don’t mean that travelers have to rough it to get the most out of the experience. Jalsa’s team has you covered. In an effort to introduce visitors to the beauty of the Gobi Desert and its nomadic culture, he opened the luxurious Three Camel Lodge in 2002. Since then, the solar-powered eco-lodge has won various awards. While staying there, you can explore the desert, watch the stars with an astronomer (Jalsa once counted 43 shooting stars in one night), meet nomadic families and local herders who share the property’s wells, enjoy a performance by local school kids, or head to the Flaming Cliffs for a sunset dinner.

Even if you’re not staying at the lodge, Jalsa’s team can set up mobile accommodations all over the country, and get you to them by small aircraft or helicopter. “From the high Altai Mountains to the Mongolia tiga, we can set up in the most remote places a sumptuous experience—with luxury gers, portable toilets and showers, field chefs and kitchens, and even a butler if you need it.”

For more on Jalsa and his unique approach to Mongolian travel, check out his Insider’s Guide to Mongolia or contact him through our site to be marked as a WendyPerrin.com VIP.



Children in Mongolia. Photo: M. Dunlap

Children in Mongolia. Photo: M. Dunlap

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.