Katie Aun Photography
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Mongolia

In October of 2015, I had the unique privilege of spending two wonderful weeks in one of the world’s last true wildernesses.

The harsh terrain of the Bayan Olgii region of Western Mongolia is home to the Kazakh golden eagle hunters. As with the similar art of falconry, the Kazakh train golden eagles to hunt valuable prey.

The region is traversed by the Altai mountains, which have retained an exceptionally stable climate since the last ice age. The rugged range makes the vast Bayan Olgii unique in that it is one of the last places where ice age fauna still flourishes.

Imagine 16,000 square kilometers of mountainous terrain studded with gigantic glacial lakes and dotted with 4,500m high permanently snow covered peaks. That is Bayan Olgii.

   
  
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    Horses play a huge role in Mongolian culture. Kids experience horseback riding before they are old enough to even fully master walking.

Horses play a huge role in Mongolian culture. Kids experience horseback riding before they are old enough to even fully master walking.

   
  
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    The local Mongolian word for yurt is “Ger” which literally translates to ‘home’.  The beauty of these homes is that they have a collapsible framework. Within two hours a Ger can be dismantled and packed into the back of a truck, leaving the family with one simple question: Where shall we go to next?  This serene spot was simply breathtaking but at night the temperature dropped to well below freezing. 

The local Mongolian word for yurt is “Ger” which literally translates to ‘home’.

The beauty of these homes is that they have a collapsible framework. Within two hours a Ger can be dismantled and packed into the back of a truck, leaving the family with one simple question: Where shall we go to next?

This serene spot was simply breathtaking but at night the temperature dropped to well below freezing. 

   
  
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    Sometimes the only way to warm up is to get your blood pumping and check out the nearby hills. As luck would have it, the views on these strolls are magnificent.

Sometimes the only way to warm up is to get your blood pumping and check out the nearby hills. As luck would have it, the views on these strolls are magnificent.

   
  
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    By sunset the flock have returned home and gather around the Ger.  These Kazakh families rely on their livestock for survival, so they take extraordinarily good care of the animals. 

By sunset the flock have returned home and gather around the Ger.

These Kazakh families rely on their livestock for survival, so they take extraordinarily good care of the animals. 

   
  
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    Without a horse in this terrain, hunting would be impossible. Horses are treasured and treated like members of the family.

Without a horse in this terrain, hunting would be impossible. Horses are treasured and treated like members of the family.

   
  
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    This is a world where hunting for dinner is just a normal part of one’s daily routine.

This is a world where hunting for dinner is just a normal part of one’s daily routine.

   
  
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    This land is vast and somewhat barren. To survive here one must be able to hunt.  Hunting for small animals like foxes and rabbits provides the family not only with sustenance, but also with warm clothing for the harsh winters. 

This land is vast and somewhat barren. To survive here one must be able to hunt.

Hunting for small animals like foxes and rabbits provides the family not only with sustenance, but also with warm clothing for the harsh winters. 

   
  
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    For Kazakh people, eagle hunting is an important tradition. At this point I feel it’s important to include some other pictures I had the opportunity to take on this trip that will give you valuable insight into the fundamentals of life in predominantly nomadic Western Mongolia. 

For Kazakh people, eagle hunting is an important tradition. At this point I feel it’s important to include some other pictures I had the opportunity to take on this trip that will give you valuable insight into the fundamentals of life in predominantly nomadic Western Mongolia. 

   
  
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    The people and animals I encountered in Mongolia all appeared to share a rare happiness and humbleness that is often elusive in the first world.

The people and animals I encountered in Mongolia all appeared to share a rare happiness and humbleness that is often elusive in the first world.

   
  
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    Horses and sheep are precious, but so too are the cows. If ever you visit a Mongolian home, you will most certainly be offered an assortment of homemade milk products in addition to the customary salty yak milk tea. 

Horses and sheep are precious, but so too are the cows. If ever you visit a Mongolian home, you will most certainly be offered an assortment of homemade milk products in addition to the customary salty yak milk tea. 

   
  
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    Woman’s work: Every morning the women go out to milk the yaks.  This particular frost covered morning was so cold that I lost the feeling in my fingers and found it difficult to operate the camera. It struck me that this was only the start of October. I wondered what it must be like to spend a winter here.

Woman’s work: Every morning the women go out to milk the yaks.

This particular frost covered morning was so cold that I lost the feeling in my fingers and found it difficult to operate the camera. It struck me that this was only the start of October. I wondered what it must be like to spend a winter here.

   
  
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    Temperatures in places on high plateaus are always extreme and Mongolia is certainly no exception. Here winters are fiercely cold and summers are blistering.  In the meantime, I was absolutely freezing.

Temperatures in places on high plateaus are always extreme and Mongolia is certainly no exception. Here winters are fiercely cold and summers are blistering.

In the meantime, I was absolutely freezing.

   
  
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    A little girl with the milk pails chilled by the morning frost.

A little girl with the milk pails chilled by the morning frost.

      
  
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  This little boy was very eager to have his photo taken but the moment the camera was focused on him he would freeze like a tin soldier with his tiny arms glued to his sides. To soften his stiff pose, I spontaneously placed a lamb in his arms. In the end, even the lamb was happy with the result.  

 

This little boy was very eager to have his photo taken but the moment the camera was focused on him he would freeze like a tin soldier with his tiny arms glued to his sides. To soften his stiff pose, I spontaneously placed a lamb in his arms. In the end, even the lamb was happy with the result.  

   
  
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  While strolling down an imaginary road I came upon a neighbouring Ger. From inside, a young woman beckoned me to enter and join her family for yak milk tea and cheese.  The warmth of her home enveloped me and filled me with a strong sense of happiness.  Despite the language barrier, we shared a simple conversation about ourselves.  Her name is Mendigul and I later came to learn that it means flower in Kazakh. Mendigul was 28 years old and had a degree in law from Ulaan Baatar University. Her intention was to live near her family practicing law but she was unable to find work in the legal profession and was forced to return to her family’s nomadic lifestyle.

While strolling down an imaginary road I came upon a neighbouring Ger. From inside, a young woman beckoned me to enter and join her family for yak milk tea and cheese.

The warmth of her home enveloped me and filled me with a strong sense of happiness.

Despite the language barrier, we shared a simple conversation about ourselves.

Her name is Mendigul and I later came to learn that it means flower in Kazakh. Mendigul was 28 years old and had a degree in law from Ulaan Baatar University. Her intention was to live near her family practicing law but she was unable to find work in the legal profession and was forced to return to her family’s nomadic lifestyle.

   
  
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  Mendigul rests with her head in her palms as she waits for the milk to boil. She has begun to make cottage cheese.    
  
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     In a Ger, the stove is located in the centre of the home and all the cooking happens right there. 

Mendigul rests with her head in her palms as she waits for the milk to boil. She has begun to make cottage cheese. 

In a Ger, the stove is located in the centre of the home and all the cooking happens right there. 

   
  
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  We offered our hosts a solar lamp by way of thanks. It totally captured this little girl’s attention. To her, the technology must be mind-boggling; a miracle of captured light.

We offered our hosts a solar lamp by way of thanks. It totally captured this little girl’s attention. To her, the technology must be mind-boggling; a miracle of captured light.

   
  
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  A motorbike is a modern status symbol. Understandably this family were enthusiastic to have their small son’s photo taken on the family vehicle.  Children are sent away to boarding school from a young age and consequently parents lavish attention on their toddlers to compensate for the affection they will miss when they are studying away from home for most of the year. 

A motorbike is a modern status symbol. Understandably this family were enthusiastic to have their small son’s photo taken on the family vehicle.

Children are sent away to boarding school from a young age and consequently parents lavish attention on their toddlers to compensate for the affection they will miss when they are studying away from home for most of the year. 

   
  
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  We experienced a major temperature drop during our stay and witnessed many families moving from their Gers to structures that offered more warmth and shelter.  Winter houses are not uncommon amongst the more modern Kazakhs. These winter dwellings are solid yet simple constructions, similar to the one I captured in this picture. 

We experienced a major temperature drop during our stay and witnessed many families moving from their Gers to structures that offered more warmth and shelter.

Winter houses are not uncommon amongst the more modern Kazakhs. These winter dwellings are solid yet simple constructions, similar to the one I captured in this picture. 

   
  
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  I accepted an invitation to photograph this family in their winter home. The experience humbled me and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the appropriate action would be to remove my shoes as one does when walking on holy ground.  Strange as it may sound, I felt the hand of God in this modest home. Thousands of kilometers away, I still cherish the memory of this experience. 

I accepted an invitation to photograph this family in their winter home. The experience humbled me and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the appropriate action would be to remove my shoes as one does when walking on holy ground.

Strange as it may sound, I felt the hand of God in this modest home. Thousands of kilometers away, I still cherish the memory of this experience. 

   
  
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  Nearby, we met a much larger family who invited us into their home. These are the neighbours of our original host family. 

Nearby, we met a much larger family who invited us into their home. These are the neighbours of our original host family. 

   
  
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  There is a strong sense of pride associated with the eagle hunting community. Once a year, to celebrate their discipline and to encourage future generations to follow in their footsteps, a gathering of eagle hunters is held in Bayan Ulgii. It is an opportunity for the birds and hunters to show off their skills and to compete with each other. 

There is a strong sense of pride associated with the eagle hunting community. Once a year, to celebrate their discipline and to encourage future generations to follow in their footsteps, a gathering of eagle hunters is held in Bayan Ulgii. It is an opportunity for the birds and hunters to show off their skills and to compete with each other. 

   
  
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  The opening ceremony of the 2015 Eagle Festival.

The opening ceremony of the 2015 Eagle Festival.

   
  
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  This is an important social event bringing spectators and competitors from all over the country.

This is an important social event bringing spectators and competitors from all over the country.

Just like the people of Bayan Ulgii, the winds are exceedingly strong.

Just like the people of Bayan Ulgii, the winds are exceedingly strong.

   
  
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  Hunters arrive on horseback with their eagles on their arms. Some of them have travelled for days. 

Hunters arrive on horseback with their eagles on their arms. Some of them have travelled for days. 

   
  
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  The lifespan of the Altai golden eagles is approximately 30 years. Hunters take young female eagles from the nest and integrate them into their household. Female birds are preferred because they have a longer wingspan and are notorious for being fierce in battle.  The hunter and the bird form a close bond. They live and hunt together; relying on each other for their daily bread.  After roughly 8-9 years the birds are released back into the wild. The local people believe that releasing the eagles allows them to breed the next generation of hunting eagles and continue the tradition. 

The lifespan of the Altai golden eagles is approximately 30 years. Hunters take young female eagles from the nest and integrate them into their household. Female birds are preferred because they have a longer wingspan and are notorious for being fierce in battle.

The hunter and the bird form a close bond. They live and hunt together; relying on each other for their daily bread.

After roughly 8-9 years the birds are released back into the wild. The local people believe that releasing the eagles allows them to breed the next generation of hunting eagles and continue the tradition. 

   
  
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  As the competition starts, the hunters ride to the top of a designated hill with their eagles. The eagles wear headgear to cover their eyes. Once at the top of the hill, the headgear is removed and the eagle is released into the air.  The hunter must then gallop away on his horse calling the eagle to him. Each hunter has a bird call that is unique to him and his bird.  A well trained eagle hears the call and returns quickly to the arm of its hunter. A strong bond really pays off at this stage.  Others soar up into the air and drift with the wind. 

As the competition starts, the hunters ride to the top of a designated hill with their eagles. The eagles wear headgear to cover their eyes. Once at the top of the hill, the headgear is removed and the eagle is released into the air.

The hunter must then gallop away on his horse calling the eagle to him. Each hunter has a bird call that is unique to him and his bird.

A well trained eagle hears the call and returns quickly to the arm of its hunter. A strong bond really pays off at this stage.

Others soar up into the air and drift with the wind. 

A hunter calling his eagle.

A hunter calling his eagle.

   
  
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  A beaming smile shows this hunter’s joy at his eagle’s return. Most of the hunters are fortunate and their birds return to them.

A beaming smile shows this hunter’s joy at his eagle’s return. Most of the hunters are fortunate and their birds return to them.

   
  
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  The pensive face of a man whose bird has yet to come back. It the eagles didn’t return immediately their hunters were visibly upset. 

The pensive face of a man whose bird has yet to come back. It the eagles didn’t return immediately their hunters were visibly upset. 

   
  
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  The festival featured a variety of events. In this event, riders must pick two coins up from the ground on horseback. The rider and horse with the fastest time win. I was in awe of their horsemanship. 

The festival featured a variety of events. In this event, riders must pick two coins up from the ground on horseback. The rider and horse with the fastest time win. I was in awe of their horsemanship. 

   
  
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  In this event a carcass of a rabbit is tossed into a field. This is a test of the eagles’ sharp eyesight. 

In this event a carcass of a rabbit is tossed into a field. This is a test of the eagles’ sharp eyesight. 

   
  
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  Some showed off their horsemanship, others their birds. For this man his forte is music so he played his dombra to showcase his skill.  

Some showed off their horsemanship, others their birds. For this man his forte is music so he played his dombra to showcase his skill.  

Mongolian fast food booth

Mongolian fast food booth

   
  
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  While eagle hunting is generally reserved for men, this young woman has managed to break into this competitive discipline. She is only 13 years old and already accepted as a serious contender by her male counterparts. 

While eagle hunting is generally reserved for men, this young woman has managed to break into this competitive discipline. She is only 13 years old and already accepted as a serious contender by her male counterparts. 

   
  
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  I was fortunate to stay with this man and his family for a few nights during my trip. He is considered one of the best eagle hunters in the world today.  At the time I left he was leading the competition and most likely was the winner of this year’s title. Unfortunately, I had to leave before the winner was announced. 

I was fortunate to stay with this man and his family for a few nights during my trip. He is considered one of the best eagle hunters in the world today.

At the time I left he was leading the competition and most likely was the winner of this year’s title. Unfortunately, I had to leave before the winner was announced. 

   
  
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  Bound to their animals and this tough terrain, the people here are strong and noble. The rough, robust beauty of Mongolia will live forever in my heart. 

Bound to their animals and this tough terrain, the people here are strong and noble. The rough, robust beauty of Mongolia will live forever in my heart.