On Horseback Amid the Eagle Hunters and Herders of the Mongolian Altai


9-yr-previous Dastan, the son of a Kazakh eagle hunter, rode his pony alongside mine, cantering effortlessly with out a saddle and giggling at my attempts to display my fluffy pony some affection — a gesture that the animal wasn’t accustomed to.

Surrounding us was the huge, desolate landscape of the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. From the grassy valley in which horses grazed along the river, the rocky, gold-tinted terrain stretched endlessly towards the jagged ridges in the distance, with a dusting of snow heralding the arrival of winter.

On horseback with Dastan, I was reminded in some techniques of my childhood in Wales, in which I invested my days riding my pony by way of the countryside, enjoying the quiet all-natural attractiveness of my surroundings, normally with a scorching cup of tea waiting for me at the finish of a extended day.

In October 2019, following just about 3 many years residing and doing work in northern Iraq, in which I covered the country’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State, I started doing work on a personalized photography venture that drew on my background and affinity with horses. My purpose was to check out the relationships in between animals — horses, in specific — and the people today whose livelihoods rely on them.

To begin, I flew to western Mongolia to meet and photograph the iconic Kazakh hunters, horsemen and animal herders.

With the enable of a neighborhood manual and translator, I traveled from the town of Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii province, to go to some of the seminomadic herding households who carry on to dwell off the land in an really harsh surroundings.

Encompassing the westernmost region of Mongolia, Bayan-Olgii is the country’s only Muslim and Kazakh-bulk province, or aimag.

Deep in the Altai Mountains, in which Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia meet, Kazakh people today have for centuries produced and nurtured a unique bond with golden eagles, education the birds to hunt foxes and other tiny animals.

Alankush, an eagle hunter, animal herder and father of two, mentioned that he seems following his eagle “as if she had been a infant.”

The ancient customized of hunting with eagles on horseback is typically passed down from father to son at a youthful age and is deemed a wonderful supply of pride.

“All Kazakhs appreciate to train eagles,” mentioned Alankush. “Now we preserve eagles generally due to the fact it is a common sport.”

Serik Gingsbek, who was 26 when I met him, is a effectively-acknowledged and achieved eagle hunter, sportsman and horse trainer. He talked at length with me about his unique romantic relationship with his eagle.

“If my eagle feels undesirable, I really feel undesirable,” he mentioned. “If she’s content, I’m content. When we go to the mountains, we share every thing with each other.”

In current generations, lots of Kazakh households have migrated from the countryside to urban places, partly due to the fact of the complications in accessing well being care, schooling, social providers and employment possibilities. Amid these who have stayed, the ancient practice of eagle hunting has presented an more supply of earnings from the site visitors who spend to see the famed birds in action.

Education and caring for golden eagles is just 1 element of an animal herder’s lifestyle some others include things like education youthful horses, tending sheep, milking yaks and butchering meat.

The each day demands of a common herding family’s lifestyle can depart small time for more schooling or the pursuit of personalized ambitions away from residence.

In response to their physically demanding lifestyles, dad and mom who get the job done as herders normally send their small children to boarding college in towns and cities, in some cases far from residence, in the hope that their small children will safe a a lot more comfy potential.

In spite of getting lived his complete lifestyle in the mountains, Alankush mentioned he hopes for a distinctive path for his small children. “I really do not have an schooling, and I’m not youthful,” he advised me. “If I had been youthful, perhaps I’d go to Olgii to get the job done — but for me it is improved to remain in the countryside.”

“Countryside lifestyle is pretty tough, specifically for small children,” he mentioned. “That’s why I send my small children to college. If they finish university, I hope they’ll locate jobs in the city.”

Paradoxically, this kind of parental ambitions could end result in the eventual disappearance of a culture and way of lifestyle that has survived for generations.

Outwardly, documenting the common techniques of lifestyle in western Mongolia stands in stark contrast to my time invested photographing scenes of conflict and struggling in Iraq. But the two topics share a typical theme: the human struggle not just to survive, but to develop a improved potential for oneself and one’s loved ones.

That universal struggle can be identified in cases of conflict, occupation and forced emigration, just as it can be identified in the situations of a nomadic people today subsisting on what lots of would take into account meager assets.

And regardless of the variations in the surroundings and the scope of the difficulties faced by the people today I met, I felt a connection — and shared a typical language — with the Kazakh horsemen, by way of our mutual affinity with horses.

Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who focuses on conflict, humanitarian and environmental crises and social challenges. You can comply with her get the job done on Instagram and Twitter.


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