Mongolia, a unique place
Mongolia sits isolated between two enormous countries (Russia and China). It has the lowest population density in the world and feels like two places; a bustling capital (Ulaanbaatar) and the wide-open landscapes everywhere else. It was those wide open landscapes that initially drew me here. Mongolia provides landscape, people, and action in a way that no other country could.
I started off in the far West, where you can find the iconic Eagle Hunters. This group of people had fled to Mongolia during the communist period in Kazakhstan. They brought the nomadic tradition of hunting with eagles to this region. This fascinating falconry involves hunting with a well trained golden eagle, on horseback. They primarily hunt foxes during the winter months when they’re easier to spot. The eagle hunters are traditionally men, but their ranks have grown more diverse as seen in the independent film, The Eagle Huntress.
Staying with an eagle hunter’s family
My travel partner and I worked with a local tour company that allowed us to stay with an eagle hunter and his family on the open steppe of Western Mongolia. We joined this husband and wife, Chaimurat Ashaval and Kulzira Jahia and three kids in their two ger tents. Their home for this season is in the shadow of Tsast Ula Mountain. They live on an open valley with small rivers that meander past. The eagle hunter’s heard of goats wander free. The family lives off the land, the children work morning to night, mostly working with the animals. I’ve met people who have wished to live off the land, a fantasy where they would not have to work for “the man”. Now that I’ve met this family and seen the way they lead their lives, the hard work it requires is not for the faint of heart.
The larger ger is the main living quarters where the family eats, sleeps and gathers. The smaller of the two tents is the cooking tent where the women keep the stove hot and running for most of the day. Day to day life for them might be what it was like living in the wild west.
Portraits of an eagle hunter
Our main point of going out there was to photograph the eagle hunter and his golden eagle. We wanted to show the valley and the beautiful surroundings so we chose a high, rocky outcrop for our vantage point. We were in Mongolia out of season so we were not able to capture a hunt or the eagle festival that takes place in February, but we did want to get portraits.
The family, and particularly Kulzira, was very hospitable. Chaimurat was an ideal subject with his patience and well-trained eagle. He was very accommodating to our continual request to follow up on one more idea. We appreciate that they opened their lives to us to capture these images.