Did you know that Genghis Khan and his Mongols were the dominant force that shaped Eurasia and, consequently, the modern world? Their legacy was not only destruction, though they destroyed much across the continent. They made a significant impact with what they built.
They came close to uniting Eurasia into a world empire, spreading technologies like paper, gunpowder, paper money, or the compass – and pants. They revolutionized warfare. More lastingly, in the words of Jack Weatherford in his book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World:
‘…they also created the nucleus of a universal culture and world system. (…) With the emphasis on free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and diplomatic immunity.
Today, the culture that once dominated Eurasia and contributed to modern society is in jeopardy of losing part of its ancient heritage and cultural identity.
Mongolia has always been known for its nomadic traditions, but for many citizens, life has become more urbanized in this sparsely populated country. As generations come to maturity, capitalism has replaced communism, showing the younger generation that education and an urban environment could be a means to a better life.
Almost 50% of the population lives in or near an urban center. The other 50% live a declining semi-nomadic lifestyle in the countryside. Despite this lifestyle change, the rich nomadic heritage remains vital for the time being, and traditional Mongol songs, dances, stories, and clothing are still celebrated, especially during festivals and national holidays.
I had the pleasure of witnessing this rich nomadic lifestyle for the first time in 2012. It was my first interaction with eagle hunters and their golden eagles. The bond between the two interested me. How do these two work together to hunt for meat and fur?
As I lived with a Kazakh family in Western Mongolia, I sat and watched the two work in tandem. I couldn’t help but wonder how close the bond had to be between a wild golden eagle, captured after birth, and a hunter. Was it a skill the two mastered together or was it some pavlovian instinct of the eagle to hunt, combined with man’s superior mind? Was the hunter using training methods of reward so the eagle would hunt?
The bond between eagle and man was not formed from the bird’s need to hunt, nor did it come from training. It came from unique and unfathomable respect between a wild bird and a simple man. The man would command, and the eagle would listen, instinctively hunting as it has done for centuries. Then it would wait for the hunter to arrive with prey in its talons.
Since that first trip over ten years ago, I have gotten to know more of the eagle hunters in Mongolia. I’ve met their families and watched the children grow into eagle hunters. Many have become friends I talk to when not on a workshop and look forward to seeing each year I return.
It’s been ten years, 16 workshops, and one scouting trip since I first stepped foot in Mongolia. It’s become like a second home. I’ve explored more of the country and met people from all corners of Mongolia. The entire experience has become a passion for me.
In 2018 the Federal Government of Mongolia awarded me with a citation for my commitment to embracing the culture, writing articles about the country, and sharing my Mongolian photos with the world to increase awareness and tourism in Mongolia.
My deep appreciation for the Mongolian culture means that the photo workshops we lead there are different. Sure, there are epic photo opportunities with eagle hunters in the mountains or camel herders running down the dunes of the Gobi Desert. But we strive to provide cultural immersion on our trips.
Cultural immersion means meeting the families and children. It’s about connecting with people halfway around the world and sharing stories with one another. And it is about capturing photos that tell the story of their culture to share with people back home.
Some of my most memorable moments in Mongolia are sitting around the campfire and talking before a photo shoot. When I share a photo or make a print for my wall, it isn’t just about the picture. It reminds me of those precious moments around the campfire with my friends from a far-off land.
Join us in Mongolia. You may not have thought about it, but it’s a bucket-list destination that you shouldn’t miss.