Mongolia may be the last refuge for travellers seeking a truly intrepid experience. In October, I had the great pleasure of joining Daniel Kordan on a guided photography expedition of Mongolia. My first visit to this country could only be described as a magical journey and an experience that will stay with me forever.
Our tour kicked off in the wilds of Western Mongolia where we travelled with a small population of eagle hunters. The Altai Mountains are home to around 250 eagle hunters who practice the art of ‘Berkutchi’ – a tradition that has been in existence across the Central Asian steppe for over 6,000 years and passed down from father to son for generations.
As part of the photography tour, one of our local guides Erlan Shakhabai organised a private eagle hunter festival for our group with 20 participating eagle hunters. Kazakhs on horseback dressed in their traditional coats and scarlet hats, with golden eagles hovering on their arms. We all thoroughly enjoyed this event, as we watched the eagle hunters ride fast across the steppe.
The Incredible Traditions of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters
‘Berkutchi’ need only three things in life: a fast horse, a faithful dog to guard the house, and a golden eagle. The eagles are usually taken from their nests as chicks to be trained. Animal rights activists might protest, but try arguing the point with a proud Kazakh whose ancestors have been doing it for centuries. A golden eagle lives in ‘captivity’ for approximately 40 years and grows old with its hunter.
The lineage of eagle hunters goes back many generations and is an immense source of pride for their family. At first I thought they practice ‘Berkutchi’ just to make money from tourism. While this is completely okay, I noticed their expressions in my pictures: full of pride and honour. They love to show visitors their ancient traditions. It was such an amazing experience to see these eagle hunters in action.
Unfortunately, it’s feared the tradition could die out within the next few generations because the young people from far-flung villages are heading to the cities for jobs and the chance for a better life.
Meeting a Nomadic Family in Western Mongolia
The highlight of the photography expedition for myself, and probably for our entire group, was the opportunity we were given to meet a nomadic family in Western Mongolia. We ventured deep into the Altai mountains to a remote location near the Chinese border where no foreign photographer had ever walked.
Most nomadic families had already left this remote land for their new winter location, but one family waited for us before leaving. We quickly found ourselves in a completely different environment than what you would expect in a Western country. This nomadic family of 5 adults and 3 children all lived in the same room. While they didn’t have much in terms of material possessions, they looked like a happy family.
With the help of a local guide, I was given permission to photograph the family inside of their own home. Forming a small connection with this family was by far the most impactful moment for me in Mongolia.
Venturing into the Spectacular Landscapes of the Gobi Desert
The second part of our photography tour took us to Southern Mongolia and the incredible Gobi Desert. From the top of the sand dunes the views were awesome – shapes with perfectly contoured shadows of ripples and undulating crests, mountains in the background, and every now and then you could make out a camel in the distance.
We spent 3 days in the Gobi Desert with our nomad family and their herd of camels hunting for perfect lines and soft sunset light. Even though life in the desert can be tough, this family was content to live here and couldn’t imagine moving to the city. When I spoke to them and listened to their stories you could see their happiness pour through, they loved to live in the desert.
Our group was blessed with 3 beautiful clear nights in the Gobi Desert. Perfect conditions not only for some astrophotography but also to enjoy the beauty of a clear night’s sky without any light pollution. I have never seen the milky way in so much detail before. It was a truly magical experience to see millions of stars sparkling in the sky.
On our final day in the desert we were lucky to be greeted with a pink sunrise with beautiful cloud formations. That morning we went out into the freezing cold armed with thick puffer jackets and took some of the best photography of the tour. It was amazing to see just how fast the colour of the sand changed with the change of ambient light created by the cloud covering.
Why Mongolia is the Ultimate Adventure Destination in 2019
Mongolia is home to a great variety of untouched nature and breathtaking landscapes. Not only that, but the way the nomadic culture lives in harmony within the elements is truly inspiring. I think of the high mountains in Western Mongolia. The rivers and deltas, and, of course, the Gobi Desert in the south with its own charm of stunning sand dunes, cliffs and mountains.
If you’re looking for a travel destination with adventure and a touch of the unknown, then look no further than Mongolia in 2019. The people here, from the city-dwellers in Ulaanbaatar to the Kazakh Eagle Hunter nomads, are genuine and warm-hearted.