Two hundred years ago, the advance of the Russian empire into Kazakhstan sent many Kazakhs across the border into western Mongolia, where they settled in the region of Bayan Ulgii.
As the Russians continued to occupy Kazakhstan, traditional Kazakh culture continued to be diluted to the point where, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, new prime minister Nursultan Nazirbyaev began offering financial and domestic incentives for diaspora Kazakhs in Bayan Ulgii to relocate back to Kazakhstan.
The idea being that they would bring with them traditional practices such as eagle hunting and dombra playing and that this would inspire a revival in the dwindling Kazakh culture and population.
I stayed with two families five hours south of Olgii, who decided against moving back to Kazakhstan in favour of staying in the mountain range that has now become their home, and as much a part of Kazakhstan as their ancestral land itself.
The heads of the two families were brothers and eagle hunting partners. They would saddle up together with golden eagles on their arms and spend afternoons on horseback riding through the Altai mountains looking to hunt rabbits, foxes, marmots, wolves and other game.
Below you see Kwanduk, surveying the mountains whilst out hunting with his golden eagle. The eagles are found when they are young and trained up to be used for hunting.
Kwanduk surveys the mountains whilst out hunting with his golden eagle.
Kwanduk's brother with his eagle.
Found when they are young, the eagles are trained up to be used for hunting.
Eagle hunting only really takes place in winter when animals have the thick winter and Kazakhs turn into their infamous fur hats.
The eagles wear special caps to blind them whilst they are not hunting.
Kwanduk out on a morning hunt in Bayan Olgii, Mongolia.
One of the brother’s grandsons would join us on the hunting trips. He had reached twelve and was now ready to learn the art of eagle hunting. He followed the hunt on foot with seemingly endless energy, ready to rush in at the first sight of a kill.
An eagle hunter can travel many miles in a day, mostly on horseback.
The hunting provides very little in the way of food for human consumption, but it is a tradition dating back 6,000 years and the fur hats and the eagles themselves are a matter of great pride amongst Kazakhs.
The family I stayed with had devised a system of passing the smoke from their fire through the walls of the house in order to stay warm in the winter. In the summer the family are nomadic but during winter the temperatures get down to -30°C and warmth becomes a priority.
In order to get drinking water during the long winter months the families living out in the mountains must melt ice into a bucket. Bayan Olgii, Mongolia.
In the evenings we’d sit around the fire, huddled for warmth, melting ice to drink. Kwanduk, the elder of the two brothers, told me about how the Kazakhs came to this part of Mongolia two hundred years ago, fleeing the Russian invasions in their home country.
A young girl in the town of Olgii, Bayan Olgii, Mongolia.
A special treat for an eagle hunting family is boortsog, which is eaten in huge quantities. Boortsog is made by deep frying dough and flavouring it with mutton fat. Bayan Olgii, Mongolia.
When I asked him what home meant to him and why he hadn’t wanted to move back he made a wide arc with his arms, pointing down the valley below, blue in the moonlight and etched in the earth.
This was home now and had been for almost two centuries, he said. The foundation of a home is memories more than bricks and mortar.