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Mogolian eagle hunter and golden eagle

Mongolia holds a special place in my heart

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From my magical first visit over a decade 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 back in time the more I traveled from Ulaanbaatar. 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 it has been since Genghis Khan founded this city in the year 1220. On that first visit, the heavy weight of history filled the air at the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, the Erdene Zuu Monastery. 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 celebrates 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 Mongolian 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.

Mongolian eagle hunter on horseback holding his golden eagle
Mongolian eagle hunter on horseback holding his golden eagle

I have enjoyed witnessing and photographing the synchronicity between man and eagle. Both hunter and eagle show off the skills that used to be needed to 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 the two mastered or 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 watching both men and birds closely while 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 tender moments of man and bird. The bond did not spawn from the bird’s need to hunt or training. It came from creating a unique 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, and then wait for the hunter to arrive with prey in its talons.

Mongolian eage hunter and his golden eagle
Jenisbek and his golden eagle

This was the 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, usually hunting to survive as competitors, can learn that working together produces a better life.

For me, trips to Mongolia are not just about photography. While the photo opportunities are some of the best I have ever had, it’s the people, the culture, and the jaw-dropping landscapes that you drive through to get to the destinations that I love. I run trips regularly in Mongolia and would love to have you join me on a Mongolia photo workshop.

See you in Mongolia.

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