In a land where you feel time has forgotten, live the Kazakh people that embrace traditions as old as the nomadic Khitans from Manchuria. A people who conquered part of northern China around 940AD.
Now, some 1200 years after the first findings of hunting with an eagle, approximately 250 Kazakh men live in the western Mongolia province of Bayan-Olgi and carry on this 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.
As I return from my latest trip to see the Eagle Hunters, I am going through my images and seeing children that I started photographing five years ago, turn into young men that are talented Eagle hunters… but I am also seeing young girls that once sat on the sidelines watching me photograph their brothers and fathers, pick up the skill and become young and talented eagle hunters.
But one special girl will always stand out, Aisophan. The Eagle Huntress… I looked back at images I first took of her when she was 13. That was the year she was filmed winning the Eagle Festival for the movie, the Eagle Huntress…
Now, a young woman, she is entering her last year of high school and looking at studying abroad, leaving this part of her life behind.
It’s now been 11 workshops and five years since my first trip. These families that I once was inspired to go see on that first trip many years ago, I now consider friends that I get to go visit a few times a year. Formal handshakes and a hello have turned into, “Salem, Kalaisyn?” and a familiar embrace.
Uncomfortable conversations between strangers have become sitting around the stove in the ger, drinking airag and milk tea while introducing my latest group to my Kazakh friends and having engaging conversations about where they are from and what brought them to this desolate part of the world they never thought existed.
Every year I visit this area I have the pleasure of witnessing the synchronicity between man (and a girl) 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 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 sit and watch the two work in tandem, I cant 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 always comes to me in the form of a tender moment. One fleeting example of unification of two minds.
I’m always reminded that the bond does 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 the photos I took this year. One shows the eagle hunter kissing his golden eagle on his beak, and the other, a symbolic look of the eagle and eagle hunter appearing as if they share the same mind…
It is almost sad to think that this relationship only lasts 6 to 10 years, sometimes up to 12 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.
I don’t know how long this ancient tradition will continue… but I am glad that I am able to visit my friends in Mongolia to witness Eagle Falconry on horseback in my lifetime.
If you think that this is something you want to experience, contact me by clicking here. I can tell you when I will be headed back to Mongolia.