I came to Mongolia to photograph the Kazakhs with their mighty hunting eagles. I headed to the Altai mountain eagle festival in the western region where they show them off once a year, every October.
On the way, my translator, Urnaa, and I, stopped to stay with a nomadic family. The ger was covered in felt and blankets, and surprisingly warm against the icy night winds. The milky way completed an arch against the rich black sky.
Tserendulam, the mother, rose at dawn to light a dung fire in the stove in the middle of the ger, and I followed her outside to milk the cows. With a quick flick of milk from her finger tips she turned in all directions with her offering. Her husband, Dushuluun, soon joined us as it takes two to milk the mares. He pulled the suckling baby from the mother as his wife began the milking. I noticed that Dushuluun has a penchant for dipping into the airag tipple, the mares milk which turns slightly alcoholic as it ferments, and Tserendulam chewed him out for being intoxicated by 11 am. In a surreal moment I found myself watching an episode of “Friends” in Mongolian, on a small black and white TV powered by a solar panel and satellite dish. Do Mongolians now spend time pondering Chandlers romantic escapades while they are out herding their sheep, I wondered?
Out of necessity Tserendulam and Dushuluun made amends by the time they had to return to milking the mares, a chore that has to be completed every two hours. I guess you can’t stay mad at your spouse for too long, when you only have each other. For lunch we carved up a freshly hunted marmot and washed it down with mares milk and freshly made chunks of cheese.
Afterwards, their son saddled up a couple of horses and we rode through the golden grasslands, stopping to surprise neighbors who told me that the last foreigner they had seen was a Japanese who passed through this valley two years ago. I photographed the herdsmen returning to their gers with their herds of goats and sheep. We arrived in time for dinner, and Tserendulam fried up some mutton, cabbage, and potatoes with noodles. Soon she readied for bed, preparing to begin her endless cycle of work again tomorrow.
The far west is a change from middle Mongolia. Arid and brown, the area is surrounded by barren mountains and rich dark lakes. We passed a family who had loaded up their ger onto the backs of their Bactrian camels and were moving across the plains to their winter home. We stopped to lunch with a Kazakh family, whose ger is adorned with typical brightly colored felt and carpets. They served homemade fried bread accompanied by a giant plate of mutton carved up with an impressive silver dagger. Within ten minutes the bones were picked clean, everyone’s hands and faces dripping in sheep fat. We visited another family whose wife was outside milking the camels.
Dozens of eagle hunters gathered in the mountains outside of Ulgii for the festival. There were other traditional games: archery, horse and camel racing and Khukh-bar, a tug of war played on horseback with a sheepskin. But the real event that these impressive men came for was to show off the skills of their eagles. Trained as hunters, the birds are freed from the mountain top and lead through a contest of chasing live foxes and wolves. There is only one winner, but at the end of the day, every man looks regal as he heads back to his village, often hundreds of miles on horseback, while proudly balancing the weight of the huge eagle on a crutch under his arm.