Western Mongolia: Warm People in a Cold Climate.

As readers of this blog know, I particularly enjoy photographing people. So one might reasonably ask why I would want to go to Mongolia, the least densely populated country in the world, and in particular Western Mongolia, the most remote region of the country. Well I like photographing people who have interesting lives and strong ties to their culture. Western Mongolia is home to the Kazakhs, a semi-nomadic people who has maintained a strong connection to the tradition of migration and eagle hunting they have practiced for generations. So last summer, off I was to remote Western Mongolia.

Though the  Kazakhs are the second largest ethnic group in Mongolia, there are about 100,000 of them representing less than 5% of the population.   And getting to these Kazakhs is a challenge on its own. After flying to Ulgii, the largest town in Western Mongolia, one basically drives forever on non-existent roads in an old Russian vehicle which seems to be able to go anywhere over any terrain. Describing the rides as bumpy does not begin to capture the experience. The landscape is magnificent in an eerie way; miles and miles of arid plains surrounded by the Altai mountain range broken up by tiny bits of greenery when we approach a beautiful glacial river.

Kazakhs migrate with their flocks to look for pasturage as the seasons change. We visited with three extended families that were already settled in their summer homes, all very isolated with at least a day of driving between them. As I am experiencing the bone-shaking rides in our vehicle, I can only imagine the hardship of walking 100-150 km (depending on the detours the animals take) thru these terrains every season.

In the summer, the nomads live in collapsible round yurts, circular oversized tents supported by wooden sticks that are called “gers” locally, and so did we. A stove is located in the middle of the ger to keep its occupants warm during the cold nights and to warm the milk for the traditional butter tea that one is offered as soon as one walks in. The Kazakhs are warm and welcoming people and every family insisted that we share a meal with them, even slaughtering one of their precious lambs for the occasion.

Once there, it does not take long to realize how much work is involved in this lifestyle. From sunrise to sunset, there is something to do and everyone gets involved. Kazakh families are typically large and children happily take part in the chores starting at a very young age. Attending the animals, chopping wood, making cheese are a few of the tasks that need to be done everyday, though of course there is still time to play. And one could swear that the children learn to ride a horse before they learn to walk, so strong is the bond with this animal for the Kazakhs.

And then of course, there is eagle hunting. Kazakhs use eagles to hunt for rabbits, marmots and foxes and if very lucky wild wolves. Winter is the hunting season as the white snow makes it harder for the prey to hide from the eagle with its notoriously good vision. When an eagle-hunting Kazakh carries his bird, the head is often coiffed with a hood to keep the eagle quiet until it’s time to hunt. Trying to put the hood back on an eagle’s head (which obviously the bird is not thrilled about) is a feat to watch and it highlights the special relationship between the bird and its owner.   Since we weren’t there in the hunting season, our hosts kindly agree to show us their eagles and to don their hunting coat. The coats are made from fox skins collected from successful hunts. The more extravagant the coat, the more respected the hunter. Judging by his coat, I am guessing that one of our hosts, the magnificent Shokhan featured in the last few images, must be a very skilled hunter.

 

To my Kazakh friends,

Saubol,

France

P.S. You can follow me on Instagram at franceleclerc

This entry was posted in Mongolia, Photography, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , .

16 Comments

  1. michele zousmer December 3, 2017 at 15:12 #

    We are so lucky to have had this experiemnce. When I look at the photos I realize how special a place it it. So many people are so curious about that part of the world. Beautiful!! Thanks for sharing!

    • franceleclerc December 4, 2017 at 13:51 #

      Thank you Michele. A special place indeed! So glad you got to experience it as well.

  2. Sally Bucko December 3, 2017 at 17:05 #

    Beautiful photographs and a fascinating blog of such a remote area. It reminds me I’ve barely tapped the surface of the world’s many countries and cultures. I’m glad you’re doing it and doing it so well!

    • franceleclerc December 4, 2017 at 13:53 #

      Thank you Sally. I feel as you do that I’ve barely tapped the surface of the world. There is so much to see, we all do what we can.

  3. Herb December 3, 2017 at 19:05 #

    The images definitely transport the viewer to a remote place that you captured so well. I could feel the place and life they live. Lucky you to have been there- lucky me to see see this wonderful portfolio. Shine bright!

    • franceleclerc December 4, 2017 at 13:58 #

      Thank you Herb. As you know, I feel extremely privileged to have the opportunity to meet these incredible people. The least I can do is to try to share what I see at best I can. France

  4. Peter Sheppard December 3, 2017 at 20:07 #

    Thanks again France!
    I like the excellent images and text from the same mind!
    🙂

    • franceleclerc December 4, 2017 at 13:59 #

      Thank you Peter. Glad you like the post. Best, France

  5. Anne-Marie December 3, 2017 at 21:04 #

    Superbe France! Tu as tellement bien capter les gens et leur attachement à leur terre, leur culture, leur famille et leurs animaux. Quelle belle aventure, félicitations!

    • franceleclerc December 4, 2017 at 14:05 #

      Merci Anne-Marie. C’est toujours un défi d’essayer de representer les nuance d’une culture avec quelques images. Mais je fais de mon mieux. Amitiés, France

  6. Frank Suffert December 4, 2017 at 03:03 #

    Wow. These are fantastic pictures. The composition, lighting, tonality… just wonderful. But most of all, you have captured the heart and soul of the place and it’s people. These images definitely make me want to visit Mongolia! Thank you, France!

    • franceleclerc December 4, 2017 at 14:11 #

      Frank, Thank you for your kind words. I am guessing you would enjoy Mongolia. It is a challenging place to visit but the potential rewards, (meeting kind and caring people) are significant. Warmly, France

  7. harrie December 4, 2017 at 03:41 #

    Yes, Thanks again 🙂

  8. Emilie December 4, 2017 at 13:16 #

    Very serene , beautiful looking people ..masters of their universe but for how much longer as the world encroaches on the four corners of the world.. What is there not to love about every stunning photo , the striking tent door , the elaborate internal decoration of their semi – nomadic home , the closeness of family , even the herd looked content. Wondering what technology if any they had ? What of regular schooling in the region ? What an adventure !

    • franceleclerc December 4, 2017 at 14:20 #

      Thank you Emilie. As it is the case everywhere in the world, the Kazakhs have to somewhat adapt to the modern world, though they are strongly committed to their traditional lifestyle. Cell phones charged with solar panels are the only technology that I could see in their summer homes. As for schooling, the winter homes are typically somewhat closer to a town. Most of the children will go to a boarding school in town and come back home on week-ends. There is a charming “pseudo-documentary” called “The eagle huntress” that gives a good sense of daily life in this part of the world. Nice hearing from you, Emilie. All the best, France

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