Eagle Hunters in Mongolia
With a roadmap out of lockdown having been announced this week (masks on, fingers & everything else crossed) at Wilki HQ we’ve all been sat here dreaming of travel.
While long haul freedom may still be a while in coming, we thought we’d find a way to transport you far far away, to Mongolia in fact, to experience the colour and culture of the traditional Eagle Hunting Festival.
Travel photographer Julian Elliott, is passionate about this vast, wild and unspoiled country, which is steeped in tradition passed down through generations. Hosting photography workshops shooting the Mongolian Altai landscape, the famous Eagle Hunting festival, as well as captivating portraiture, Julian talks us through his enchantment with this remote area of the world.
‘Mongolia is somewhere that will take you far away from your comfort zone – with limited technology and very little access to the outside world as you head into the wilderness, our noisy western world just slips away to a distant memory.
‘For those of us who travel a lot, we are fully aware that some places in the world are suffering from the footfall that is generated by the likes of Instagram. People wanting ‘that’ shot and view. The inevitable selfie in front of a beautiful temple or stunning vista draws huge numbers of people and this can mean over-crowding.
‘With Mongolia you enter into a world that is quite literally empty. It is one of the most uninhabited countries in the world. Size-wise it is 6.5 times bigger than the UK, but the population of Mongolia is only about 3.2 million people, whereas Britain has 65 million people. So you can see just how much space you can explore.
‘As soon you leave the capital of Ulaanbaatar, where 40% of the population lives, you then enter into the true wilderness. Vast empty spaces where you may come across a herder family once a day or so. Traveling between places where you maybe wild camping, or sleeping with a herder family can take several hours, with limited asphalt roads elongating those travel times.
‘Being away from the crowd and in such remote surroundings can be daunting at first, but once you get used to it, your confidence grows and the sense of adventure kicks in. You discover a new and different way of life, without clutter and with a large dose of freedom. I love seeing those endless landscapes without modern life. Being alone. Being at one with nature, where you’re not fighting for space.
‘The people of Mongolia are also extremely welcoming. The capital, UB, is pretty much like any other capital – you see both rich and poor. The suburbs are what are known as the ger district. For most people a ger is a yurt but you have to remember this is Mongolia and not Russia where the word yurt comes from. Here, ger simply means home.
‘In the capital – as in any other city – you will see people dressed to the nines and some in traditional clothing. You will also find many beautiful Buddhist temples, as there are around 300-400 monks studying the religion.
‘Photographing the people isn’t a difficult affair. The best thing that I advise people is to ask if it’s OK, through your interpreter. I also advise learning a little of the language – at least to say those four very important words: hello, goodbye, please and thank you. You’ll find it goes a long way! This advice goes for any country though.
‘I do love the faces in Mongolia and the scope for colourful, portraiture is amazing. The people are so full of character and especially so out in the wilderness when you’re staying with herders/ eagle hunters. The harsh environment sculpts faces and expression for sure. This past January they recorded a record -47°c and although the Mongolian cold is a dry cold and not the humid cold that we experience, that’s still a pretty bone chilling, harsh environment out on the steppe.’
Experiencing the Eagle Hunter Festival:
‘I first travelled to Mongolia in 2018 and then again in 2019. The company that now arranges my photography tours invited me there – the owner had seen my landscape images from other locations and liked my work – our values really aligned in terms of working with people, experiencing the real culture of a country etc.
‘On my second trip, I went to the Eagle Hunters’ Festival – I was excited and intrigued, as it’s one of the must do’s for a photographer who is interested in the ‘real’ Mongolia. There are only about 250 or so hunters left in Mongolia so the skill is very precious and passed down through the generations. In fact, it is so precious that it has been protected by UNESCO, as part of the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.
‘During this trip I stayed with three or four different families who maintain the hunting tradition, sleeping as a guest in their house on the floor. Again, their lives are out in the wilds, away from the nearest towns by at least 50 miles or more. Here, the modern world drifts away and you start to become one with the way of life, watching as they tend to the herd of animals and the daily life that goes with it.
‘There are several festivals each year, usually March and October. I went in March 2019, which was great as there were far less people at this one and so it feels more intimate and less touristy. This is also why I have chosen to run my photography workshops at this time of year, to coincide with this festival. The photographic opportunities are endless and magical.
‘During the festival you witness the hunters calling their eagles down from a high rock from quite some distance away. Next, the hunters demonstrate their equestrian skills by trying to pick up a small target on the ground from horseback.
‘The Mongol horses are one of the oldest breeds on the planet and apparently there are more horses than people in Mongolia!
‘The infamous goat wrestling is up next where they take a dead goat and wrestle it between two hunters seeing who is strongest (we won’t go into too much detail on that one!), but needless to say you do get a very ‘true’ experience of Mongolian life and culture.
‘The grand finale is a test of speed, on horseback between husband and wife. If the husband wins, he gets a kiss and if he loses he gets whipped by the wife!’
We’ll let the images tell the story – but speaking to Julian has only fuelled our love of travel, adventure and of course photography!!
To find out more…
Julian also has some great videos and tutorials on his YouTube channel, covering many worldwide locations and photography topics and adventures
Fancy joining Julian on his next Mongolian workshop?