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. I like photographing people with interesting lives and strong ties to their culture. Western Mongolia is home to the Kazakhs, a semi-nomadic people who have 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 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 are 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 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 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 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 participate in the chores very young. Attending to the animals, chopping wood, and making cheese are a few of the tasks that need to be done every day, though 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, 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 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 during the hunting season, our hosts kindly agreed to show us their eagles and don their hunting coats. 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,





16 Responses

  1. 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!

  2. 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!

    1. 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. 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!

    1. 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. 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!

  5. 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!

    1. 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

  6. 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 !

    1. 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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