Mongolia holds a special place in my heart.
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 in the ger tents that had come down from their winter locations.
It felt surreal, as if I was stepping further back in time the further I travelled from Ulaanbaator. No roads, vehicles became sparce, and families living as they have for thousands of years… yet there I was, transporting myself back in time without riding in the time travelling DeLorian from Back to the future
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.
Yet, here I was, seeing, and photographing life as its been for hundreds of generations before me.
Despite its relatively small size, Karakorum was one of the most important cities in the history of the Silk Road. Although founded by Genghis Khan in 1220, Karakorum's development as capital of the Mongol Empire occurred in the 1230s under his son Ögedei. The Mongols had a profound impact on the history of trade across Central Asia, as their vast empire connected east and west, and trade and exchange were facilitated by the Pax Mongolica, enforcing, as far as possible, peace and a degree of stability across the vast territories under Mongol rule.
Karakorum is strategically located on the most important east-west route across Mongolia, not far from the Orkhon River. This river valley was considered a sacred homeland by steppe peoples who traditionally placed their capitals there, and Turkish, Chinese, Uighur and Sogdian inscriptions from the region, dating from the 8th and 9th centuries AD, suggest that the area had become a flourishing centre not only of local agriculture but also of the cultures of the peoples who lived around the steppe lands.
The Mongol choice of the location for Karakorum was no accident: ecology, political considerations, steppe tradition and local beliefs all came together there. It is undoubtable that the Mongols were aware of the earlier history of the region and built on its legacy.
The population of the city may be interesting to most of you. Karakorum contained a microcosm of the religious diversity of the Mongol empire. Shamanism, the Mongolian indigenous religion, was practiced, as well as Islam brought by Muslim traders in earlier centuries. Buddhism was very popular in the city at this time too, as was Nestorian Christianity. You see Ghengis Khan, although a brutal leader that would kill as he expanded his empire, embraced all, and their religions that chose to join him.
By the time Marco Polo reached China in the early 1270s, the Qubilai Khan had made Beijing the Empire's capital, replacing Karakorum. Yet throughout much of the 14th century it retained a symbolic importance as the city 'founded' by the charismatic founder of the Empire, Genghis Khan.
Today, Karakorum is the location of one of the important annual Naadam festivals, celebrating Mongolian traditional sports and culture. If the heavy weight of history that filled the air, or the The Erdene Zuu Monastery. A monastery that is probably the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia and is adjacent to the ancient city of Karakorum, it was the Naadam festival that I witnessed that was my favorite thing that I witnessed while there.
From Karakorum it was time to head west. You would know this area as Outer Mongolia. My destination was Ulgii. A small town in Western Mongolia that hosts the annual Golden Eagle Festival.
The Golden Eagle Festival is a celebration of the ancient art of Falconry on Horseback. The earlies recordings of hunting with Golden Eagles on horseback I could find was in the 12th Century.
Today, approximately 250 Kazakh men live in the western Mongolia province of Bayan-Olgi and carry on a tradition first depicted by the Khitan archives. This tradition is “horse riding eagle falconry”. The skill of using a Golden Eagle to capture prey while riding through the mountains.
Now, every October, a festival to celebrate the traditions and the craft of eagle hunting on horseback occurs. During this festival up to 70 eagle hunters gather for the annual Kazakh Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia. And in 2014 participants as young as a 13yr old girl to an 85yr old man showed the intimate crowd the art of golden eagle hunting.
I had the pleasure of witnessing the synchronicity between man (and a girl) and eagle over the course of two entertaining days. Both hunter and eagle showing off the skills needed to once tip the scales between starvation and survival; now showing off the skills to still 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 a 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.
As seen in this photo. The hunter speaks to the Golden Eagle and places his hand on the eagles chest to pet her… and in response, the Golden Eagle nuzzles against the face of her partner and makes a guttural sound as if to respond to the man’s words.
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.
It almost made me sad to think that this relationship only lasts 6 to 10 years. After that, the female eagle is released back into the wild so she can breed and live out her life as a wild eagle should. Both hunter and eagle having lived a richer life for the friendship forged.
Before I left Mongolia though, I wanted to see the Przewalski Horse. A horse brought back form the brink of disappearance on earth.
This stocky, 1.2 m-tall (4 ft.) animal is the only surviving subspecies of horse that has never been domesticated. The horses became known to science in 1879 when a Polish naturalist named Przewalski (pronounced zeh-val-skee) "discovered" a wild herd.
They once inhabited the vast grasslands of central Asia, but beginning in the early 1900s, hunting pressure, competition for grazing land and water, and interbreeding with domestic Mongol ponies contributed to their increasing scarcity.
Despite strict legal protection in Mongolia since 1926, the species became extinct in the wild in the 1960s. Then, in 1992, a successful breeding program that relied on captive animals from zoos around the world was started, and the species has been reintroduced into several Mongolian national parks.
In 2005, the wild populations were estimated at about 300 animals. On my recent trip to Mongolia we talked to a biologist at Hustai National Park and learned the horses are now in the Gobi and in Hustai in self sustaining herds.
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. Please have a look at some of the trips I am running in the next couple years with some of my friends. I will be going to Mongolia with Jennifer King, Debra Garside, Jeff Wendorff and Andy Williams from Muench Workshops.
All my Mongolia trips can be seen here on this page. http://www.kevinpepperphotography.com/mongolia-photography-workshops-1
If you have any questions, please reach out and we can answer any questions that you may have.