By Kevin Pepper
From my magical first visit five years ago, I remember driving through the rolling countryside headed towards the ancient city of Karakorum along country roads dotted with nomadic families that had come down from their winter locations. It felt surreal, as if I was stepping further back in time the more I travelled from Ulaanbaator. No roads, vehicles became scarce, and families living as they have for thousands of years… yet there I was, transporting myself back in time.
As a history buff I had read about Mongolia, often wondering what life would have been like when Ghengis Khan ruled most of the world from the city that would be my destination, Karakorum. Now, here I was, seeing and photographing life as its been since Genghis Khan founded this city in the year 1220. On that first visit, I wasn’t sure if it was the heavy weight of history that filled the air, or was it the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia , the Erdene Zuu Monastery? Regardless, the photo opportunities were special, and the memories still exist.
From Karakorum it was time to head west. My destination was Ulgii, a small town in Western Mongolia that hosts the annual Golden Eagle Festival every October. The Golden Eagle Festival is a celebration of the ancient art of Falconry on Horseback. The earliest recordings of hunting with Golden Eagles on horseback I could find come from the 12th Century. Today, approximately 250 Kazakh men live in the western Mongolia province of Bayan-Olgi and carry on a tradition known as “horse riding eagle falconry”. The skill of using a Golden Eagle to capture prey while riding through the mountains.
I have had the pleasure of witnessing and photographing the synchronicity between man and eagle. Both hunter and eagle showing off the skills needed to once tip the scales between starvation and survival, now showing off the skills to feed a family, but more to embrace the long standing heritage and show off the prowess of the art of hunting fox. As I sat there and watched the two work in tandem, I couldn’t help but wonder how close the bond had to be between a wild golden eagle that was taken after birth from a nest, and the Mongolian Eagle Hunter. Was it a skill that the two mastered together, or was it some pavlovian genetic instinct of the eagle to hunt, combined with man’s superior mind. Was the hunter using training methods of reward so the eagle would hunt?
My answer came to me after closely watching both men and bird during my time living with a Kazakh family in Western Mongolia. There, immersed in the ways of the past, watching the eagle live with the family, I spotted the first of many first tender moments of man and bird. The bond did not spawn from the birds need to hunt, nor did it come from training, it came from creating a special and unfathomable respect between a wild bird and a simple man. The man would command, the eagle would listen, instinctively hunt as it has done for centuries, then wait for the hunter to arrive with prey in its talons.
This was that moment that made the trip for me. That tender moment between an eagle and a man made this trip more than a visit to a festival, it made this trip an eye-opening experience that two beings, normally hunting to survive as competitors, can learn that working together, producing a better life.
For me, trips to Mongolia are not just about the photography. While the photo opportunities are ones that are some of the best I have ever had, it’s the people, the cultural and the jaw dropping landscapes that you drive through to get to the destinations that I love. I would love to share this with you in 2018 as I lead another workshop for Muench Workshops. I am taking a group of 8 to three amazing experiences… the Kazakh Eagle Hunters, the Naadam Festival and the Reindeer Herders.
See you in Mongolia,
– Kevin Pepper