The Kazakhs of western Mongolia are one of the world’s last surviving nomadic cultures. From wrestlers as wedding entertainment to bona fide eagle hunters, photographer Susan Portnoy captures a world steeped in tradition and virtually untouched by modern times.
It’s dawn on my first full day in western Mongolia and I am too excited to sleep. I crawl out of my tent, bracing against the morning chill. It’s a gorgeous day. Overhead, ribbons of clouds float against a bright blue sky and all is quiet except for the deep, low roar of a river.
We’re camped in a valley three hours’ drive from the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park where we’ll spend the next two weeks. I’m with Timothy Allen, a renowned British travel photographer and eight other guests. Tim has been here many times before and cultivated lasting friendships with the Kazakh nomads who are going to let us to camp near their summer gers, a type of yurt, meet their families, and photograph their lives.
Hours later, we’re guests at a double-wedding in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Two brothers and their new wives hold court at the end of a huge circle of over 200 attendees. Aside from a few gers where food is served, the entire affair is held outdoors. I’m told that a traditional Kazakh wedding includes wrestling and horse-racing, two highly revered skills in Kazakh culture, and I can’t wait for the competitions to begin. I giggle to myself wondering what an American wedding planner would say to such a thing…
Wrestlers wearing traditional garb—a turquoise bikini bottom (shuudag), a shrug-like top (shodog) and high boots with curled toes (gutal)—are about to battle it out for a brand-new motorbike, the competition’s grand prize. Second prize is a yak. They introduce themselves to the crowd with a series of choreographed stretches and squats that draw cheers. Two opponents crouch and grab each other by the shoulders, and when the referee gives the signal, they collide. Some matches last a few seconds, others for a few minutes. They all end with one on the ground, defeated.
I watch as several boys go at it on the sidelines, emulating their heroes in the ring. When the champion is named, there’s a lot of handshakes and back-slapping. He’s a big guy who looks the part. He’s the type who has a dark, brooding resting face, but when he smiles he looks like a different person. His friends and family, and I suspect a few groupies, huddle around him to take pictures and immortalize the moment.
It’s raining now. We’re far from the heart of the wedding, on a mountaintop waiting for the children. The horserace started an hour ago nearly 18 kilometers away. Kids as young as five are somewhere beyond the horizon, riding towards us at a flat-out run. Some bareback. Though everyone is soggy, spirits are high; the wedding is a huge success.
Suddenly, a line of ant-like dots appear in the distance. Parents cheering for their kids run downhill for a closer look. The big moment is at hand and I find the excitement contagious. One rider is far ahead of the others, kicking his horse feverishly with both legs. He crosses the finish line and is soon followed by the others. Later we’ll learn that the winner cheated, starting the race at a halfway point prompted by his parents. The family is publicly humiliated and, like any gathering with a scandal, it’s all anyone can talk about.
Every few days, we visit different families in our Russian van; it’s straight out of a Cold War drama. It’s more comfortable than I expected, with its springy, well-stuffed seats. There are no roads to speak of, only tracks carved into the dirt by other vehicles. We are constantly being jostled in one direction or another. It was annoying at first, but soon became the new normal and I stopped caring unless we were at some acute angle. Driving any real distance here takes hours. We make our way through fields of boulders the size of small cars, steep inclines, across rivers, and along ground that’s been so torn up by winter, it looks as if giant groundhogs live there.
It’s been a long morning, and we’re stopping for lunch at the top of a plateau that overlooks a beautiful lake. The mountains ahead of us are streaked with snow and the views are exquisite. I look long and hard, wanting to etch every detail into my memory. No matter how good my photos turn out, they’ll never quite capture the grandeur of this place.
After eating, some of the group takes a dip in the icy water. I’m not that brave. I hunt for a rock, one large enough to double as a ladies’ room. There’s nothing nearby that’s adequate so I walk a good 15 minutes to some boulders a quarter-mile away. The stroll does me good after sitting so long. On the way back, I see a Kazakh boy on horseback herding goats and sheep and I decide to photograph them before we go on our way.
I can’t stop staring at our host. Her smile is radiant and my shutter finger is itching to take a picture. She hands me a warm tea with milk in a pale blue china bowl. She points towards a plate of hard cheese made from a mix of mares, goat and sheep milk. Next to it, there’s freshly churned butter, sour cream and bauirsak, small pillow-like morsels of deep-fried dough. She wants me to eat more, but I’m already so full I’m likely to burst.
We’re in her ger, kneeling beside a low table next to one of the family beds with a wolf hide hanging beside it. We have tea at the beginning of every family visit—even if we visit twice a day. For the Kazakhs, hospitality is considered a sacred right; to decline would be considered rude. I take another piece of hard cheese and plop it in my mouth.
I ask our translator about Kazakh history and learn they first immigrated to Mongolia from Kazakhstan in the 1800s. While they are the largest ethnic group in the west, they make up only five per cent of Mongolia’s total population. They are a nomadic people for whom livestock is their main source of income, food and transport. They move four to six times a year, rotating between homes to where the land will sustain grazing. In summer, they stay in gers and the rest of the year, they live in wood and stone homes held together with earth and dung—neither have electricity or running water. Their diet is predominantly meat and dairy products, with little to no vegetables to speak of.
Shohan sits in the dark, except for a shaft of light on his handsome face. He’s a genuine eagle hunter, not one of the posers who go to the festivals trying to impress gullible tourists. He’s wearing a traditional wolf skin coat and fox fur hat, and though it’s dropped as low as 30 degrees at night, it’s summer. It’s too warm for these clothes, but for photographs he graciously obliges.
On his right forearm, protected by a thick leather glove that extends to his elbow, is an enormous golden eagle. It’s much bigger than I imagined. If it were on the ground, its head would reach above my knees. Occasionally it squawks or flaps its wings. Twice it tries to fly away and is foiled by the tether attached to its leg. During Mongolia’s frigid winters, Shohan hunts foxes and wolves with this eagle to make the clothing his family needs to survive. The raptor scans the landscape and when it spots a target, the bird attacks. Shohan, seeing where the eagle landed, moves in and finishes the job.
It’s time to milk the goats and sheep and I watch as the definition of controlled chaos unfolds around me. In summer, the women and children milk their mares every two hours, the goats and sheep twice a day, and the cows once in the morning. The milk is turned into dairy products to be eaten or stockpiled for the winter.
I’m certain that herding cats would be easier than these slippery critters, yet the women persevere. They drag the animals by the horns or back legs to a rope line where they’re tied at the neck with barely an inch to spare between them. Once they’re all secured, the milking begins. Nearly 400 teets will be tugged before the day is through; I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
I’m sitting next to a boy with fat rosy cheeks, and he’s armed with scissors that look too big for his hands. It’s shearing day for the new family we met early this morning. Wool and pashmina are prime commodities in Mongolia and a major source of income for our Kazakh hosts.
The boy methodically cuts the wool with small snips close to the skin. Slowly a 200-pound animal is reduced to a mere shadow of itself. The boy angles his body so that I can watch, and we exchange smiles. Suddenly, the sheep jerks and I can see that it’s been nicked by the blades. A drop of blood pools around the wound. The unhappy animal tries to get up but in a flash the boy sits on its chest, effectively nixing the escape. He looks at me with ‘Victory!’ written all over his face. And though I kind-of feel sorry for the sheep, I cannot help but laugh.
There’s a gorgeous full moon hanging over Shohan’s family ger , and I imagine his wife and children chatting around the wood-burning stove. It’s late and I’m avoiding turning in. Tomorrow, we start the long journey home, past the valley I first woke up in, to the airports and skyscrapers beyond. For nearly 14 days, I’ve been welcomed into a world completely different from my own and it’s been one of the most satisfying travel experiences of my life. I think back to that first morning next to the river, wishing I could start it all over again.