In the treacherous Altai Mountains in the far reaches of western Mongolia, golden eagles build their nests high up on rock faces. Every winter, nomads from the country’s Kazakh minority brave subzero temperatures and travel the mountains on horseback in search of young eaglets to take home and train as their hunting partners.
After maintaining this practice for hundreds of years, the burkitshi — as men who hunt with eagles are called in Kazakh — are slowly dying out. There are no more than 50 to 60 “true” hunters left, and each winter claims a few more. Young people are uninterested in the tradition and increasingly migrating to cities, like the polluted Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator.
Photographer Daniel Kordan recently spent time with a group of eagle keepers, where he was able to capture the beauty of their bonds.
Each September, a large berkutchi festival takes place, attracting tourists from around the region. But Kordan’s experience was decidedly more intimate, as he used local guides to connect with nomad families, who brought him in and introduced him to the area’s eagle keepers. His images demonstrate the power and skill of both the handlers and the eagles, as well as the pride both parties take in their shared mission.
Kordan, who also leads photography workshops and expeditions, came away from his time in Mongolia with a renewed respect and appreciation for the people he encountered.
In an interview for My Modern Met, Daniel said, “I’m fascinated by nomad culture. It’s an elusive culture, almost extinct nowadays. There are just around 300 eagle keepers left keeping this thousand-year-old tradition. It’s hard to keep and so easy to move toward “civilization,” but these people try to keep the tradition and pass it on through generations.”
Racing through the mountain range on horseback, the Kazakh people practice their ancient tradition of hunting with golden eagles.
The eagles soar through the air at speeds of up to 200mph as they race to reach their keeper first, during an annual festival celebrating the heritage of the Turkic group.
The Golden Eagle festival is held every October in Bayan-Olgii, a province in western Mongolia.
The Kazakhs of the Altai mountain range in western Mongolia are the only people that hunt with golden eagles, and today there are around 400 practising falconers.
The tradition of hunting with golden eagles is said to have been started by the nomadic Khitans from Manchuria in northern China around 940AD.
Other activities held during the Golden Eagle festival include horse racing, archery and Bushkashi, which is a goatskin tug of war on horseback
The festival also sees awards handed out for Best Turned Out Eagle And Owner, Best Eagle At Hunting Prey and Best Eagle At Locating Its Owner From A Distance.
“That people are actually very happy with this life, no matter how hard it is. And even kids starting from 13 years old can keep their eagle. The bond with the bird is so strong! Actually, even the eyes and the look of the eagle and its master resemble each other. They also respect their bird and release it into the wild after it turns 10 years old.” explained the artist.
Talking about the daily routine of Mongolian people, Kordan said, “They start the day early, by taking care of their horses, sheep, goats, cooking meals, and making furs. Closer to winter and in the spring they migrate from one spot to another. Sometimes nomads need to travel thousands of kilometers. So winter migration is the most fascinating thing. Every day they need to assemble their Ger tent and move to another place with all their herds. That’s lots of endurance and work.”
As you can imagine, these people have their own culture and their uniqueness is a form of isolation from the rest of the world. So reaching out to them is not as easy as one may think.
“I found local guides and drivers to bring me to nomads. It took me a while to find the right contacts during my research. Basically, all nomad families are connected, so after you find the first connection, it’s easy to communicate. I also speak Russian and it helped to communicate with them, as some of older people know Russian from Soviet times.”