Famed for it’s apparent emptiness and rugged beauty, I travelled to the western reaches of Mongolia during the spring thaw.
My aim was to illustrate the characters and convey a sense of the context in which the remaining Eagle Hunters live as they balance tradition with modernity.
The first chapter of this project saw me travel overland to join a herding and hunting family led by a relatively young Eagle Hunter, Aibolat.
With an elder brother visiting only on occasion, it is up to Aibolat to lead his family.
Along with his younger brother, they hunt, gather and herd, and support their mother in providing for their family and managing the land.
With temperatures plummeting as as low as -35C in the winter, the challenges of rearing are obvious. However within their modest home is a wonderful sense of calm, kinship and love for another. Without the intrusion of pervasive technology they listen, converse and joke with one another over tea.
As they clear the table glances are exchanged, and a sense of excitement glows within the eyes of the brothers, coupled with a knowing smile from Mum.
From nowhere come traditional clothes and before I know it I’m ushered outside to an unfolding show of handling, horsemanship and hunting from Aibolat.
Not to be outdone, his younger brother ushers me over to show me his pride and joy. Not to his motorbike, but to his Falcon.
Having arrived in the thick of lambing season the boys work around the clock.
As proud as they are of their hunting heritage they also perpetuate a sense of care, fondness and respect for their herd.
Inevitably it is soon time to say goodbye and as I head back across the valley we exchange smiles, handshakes and heartfelt hugs.
While their life is at times tough, they are content, unified by a bond, borne not just out of necessity, but out of true family love.
With as warm a welcome felt, Bashakhan’s home houses not two, but three generations.
A long respected hunter, the air whistles with a sense of tradition.
Along with his wife, son and daughter, I witness how they manage the myriad of activities to provide, feed, parent and teach the next generation.
Along with hunting and gathering, the practice of traditional Kazakh crafts are treasured.
Whether to fashion their children clothes, or construct the hunters wear, the thread continues to run through the very fabric of their culture.
It’s not long into my stay before Bashakhan suggests we head out to his favourite hunting ground to bear witness to his horseback hunting eagle mastery.
At 3500 metres above sea level, Bashakhan and I gaze across the plain.
There is a sense of emptiness punctuated only by an occasional element, little vegetation and infused by the frozen rivers running silently within it. And as I examine this segment of frozen earth I can see how hunting represents more than just a sentimental practice of the past, but a key to sustaining their future.
The Final Chapter
Leaving the warmth of Bashakhan’s family's home we join him and his fellow hunters, at the annual celebration of Kazakh culture, the Naurez Eagle Festival.
Long celebrated, the nation’s hunters and huntresses come together as young and old jostle and jockey, to be crowned the champion of the Festival.
And within the midst of this, waiting patiently is the next generation. The Hunters and Huntresses of the future.
The end of the Festival also marks the end of my journey and as I reflect I’ve come to realise that Mongolia is special. Easy to say but it is. In many ways.
Overused words such as empty and untouched come to mind. And in many ways ring true. And while the legacy of it’s turbulent political history can be felt, so can a sense of warmth and generosity, whether that’s within the the bustling streets of Ulaanbaatar or within the sand and dust of it’s deserts and mountains.
It’s a country rich in history, influence, fused by culture and long standing tradition.
And by the looks of it, that rich and colourful tapestry will continue to run through the fabric of future generations.