Wanders never cease: The nomadic life of Mongolia's Kazakh eagle-hunters

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Amid the harsh splendour of Mongolia's arid plains, nomadic eagle hunters still follow a traditional way of life that has defied history, geography and political change. The photographer Christo Geoghegan offers an insight into their lives...

The Kazakh nomad's hand rocks forwards in a gentle stroking motion and the eagle needs no keener reminder of the business of the day, springing from her master's wrist like a fluid extension of his will, gaining the thin, freezing-cold upper air with a few strokes of her vast wings. From there she sees the province of Bayan-Olgii spread out below, the bare, dun-brown, ice-streaked mountains culminating in Mongolia's highest, Khuiten Uul, climbing 13,000ft into the sky.

On the arid plains at the foot of the mountains, those dirty grey specks are hundreds of head of scrawny sheep and goats, tearing at the sparse vegetation – but it's not on them that the eagle's eyes are fixed but rather that fox down there, invisible to human eye, even if one could get up to that height and look where the eagle is looking, creeping from the shade of a rock.

In less time than it takes to tell, she is on to it, screaming in like a racing yacht with a fierce wind behind it, slicing diagonally across the sky, then with a sudden, stunning turn of speed just a few feet above the ground she has the scruff of the fox's fur in her talons, its feet leave the ground then crash back on it as all 15lb of the eagle's weight descends like doom on its neck.

Within minutes the fox is no more than another fine trophy hat for the berkutchi (Kazakh for eagle hunter) in the making.

Kazakhstan and Mongolia share no common border, but at the closest point, where China to the south meets Russia to the north, they are less than 40km apart. And the two countries share much else: the world's first- and second-biggest landlocked countries respectively, both are heirs to the legacy of Genghis Khan and his many and varied successors and imitators; both have tiny populations considering their vast size; both amaze the eye with their endless perspectives; both gladly discarded their Soviet overlords and sent the Red Army packing when the Bolshevik experiment bit the dust.

Long before the bug for drawing hard and fast borders reached these latitudes, this region was home, it is believed, to the first domesticated horses in the world and the first hunting eagles: falconry, we are told, was invented here, the use of these beautiful and powerful raptors to hunt where no other means would have a chance.

And through all the barbaric vicissitudes of the 20th century, the habit of nomadism, of moving from the uplands to the plains with the flocks, and back again as the seasons turn, persisted, as did the love and knowledge of falconry of which it was an intrinsic element: a source of pride and a badge of identity, as much as the extravagant fur coats and hats in which it resulted.

Yet the Kazakh nomads of the far west of Mongolia, though they were accepted – Islamic religion, Turkic language and all – as part of the traditional Mongolian mix, had a hankering for the company of their co-nationals. So when Nursultan Nazarbayev, the ruler of Kazakhstan since before the collapse of the Soviet empire, invited them to return "home" en masse, many heeded the call: the population of their Mongolian province, Bayan-Olgii, crashed from 102,000 in 1991 to 75,000 in 1993 as they streamed west along the jagged Russian-Chinese border to rejoin their country.

Twenty years on, many say the experiment has failed. Although Nazarbayev's appeal, post-Communism, was to Kazakh nationalism, the native traditions which the nomads represented, whatever their sentimental value, have no place in the country he has engineered – a place which today, thanks to its huge oil reserves and the ambition of Nazarbayev himself, has more in common with the hyper-modern monarchies of the Gulf than with Mongolia. Lured by the call of home, the Kazakhs from Mongolia found themselves trapped on their country's margins. Less than ever was there a call for the traditions by which they defined themselves.

It has dawned on many of the Kazakh nomads that the siren song of nationalism means less in the long run than the company of Mongolians who, however different in language, ethnicity and religion (most Mongolians are devout Buddhists in the Tibetan style), still find a place in their lives for yurts (the Mongolians call them gers), for flocks of animals, for fiery little horses ridden bareback and all the other customs and consolations of life on the plains.

So the exodus has been inverted: though many of the Kazakhs confronted previously unimagined obstacles of passports, visas and guarded frontiers, many have returned to Mongolia: the slump in the population of Bayan-Olgii reversed, and at the last estimate, in 2009, had increased to more than 93,000.

And if, even in Mongolia, the old ways seem increasingly anachronistic, the fascination of hunting with eagles, and the winter festivals in which the sport is celebrated, attract a growing following among visitors from Europe and the US. Challenged on all sides by modernity, there is life in the berkutchi and their fabulous birds yet.

For more: christogeoghegan.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn