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Debbie McIntosh: Mongolia Winter Migration
June 10-30, 2021
Twenty-three photographs document McIntosh’s recent photography expedition to Mongolia, a landlocked country in Central Asia and East Asia, located between China and Russia. The terrain is one of mountains and rolling plateaus, marked by high elevation, and a cold, dry climate. The country averages 257 cloudless days a year. But it was the people who inspired McIntosh to brave the harsh terrain.
The Kazakh nomadic herders and hunters of Mongolia travel to feed their livestock, mainly yaks, camels, goats, sheep, and horses, and occasionally they allow groups of photographers and writers, with a small support team, to accompany them. Many families travel together, moving every six weeks, following vegetation that is sparce because of the harsh conditions. Finding fresh pastures for their livestock is getting more and more difficult, as climate disrupts the traditional routes and timelines. The temperature on McIntosh’s trip was almost always below zero. She never had less than four layers of clothing on, and camera batteries were kept close to the body to keep them protected.
The journey was an amazing thing to document, but the Kazakh people’s hunting technique provided a next level of photographic inspiration. They hunt with the help of Golden Eagles, in a falconry tradition that dates back to the Bronze age.
Late February 2019, southwestern corner of Mongolia, a family of nomadic herders prepares to move their livestock higher into the Altai Mountains where they will spend the spring. They carry on a centuries-old lifestyle and tradition that originated in what is now present-day Kazakhstan. They were very welcoming and eager to share a glimpse of their life with a handful of photographers and I now share it with you.
While I am primarily a nature and wildlife photographer, I have learned that I am above all, a “moments” photographer. I found myself going back to this foundation when sorting through thousands of images to select those that would ultimately be included. Although it was very tempting to tell it as one, the story in this exhibit is not a travelogue, but rather a convergence of culture and art.
Mongolia is a beautiful but harsh environment in which to raise livestock and it is necessary for Kazakh herders to move their herds of sheep, goats, yaks, and camels approximately every six weeks to provide life-sustaining pastures. The current migration was approximately 95 miles. There was little if no vegetation on which to graze along the way. Several sheep and goats, already weakened from the winter and the extremely cold temperatures, died along the way. The last night we were migrating the temperature was 10 below and three baby sheep were born. Two died before they were discovered but one was found and warmed in time. We named him “Lucky.” He got to ride to spring grazing grounds but his mother had to walk.
When we arrived at a wide open snow-covered valley, there was an immediate change in the “mood” of both the livestock and the herders that I immediately felt but didn’t understand. The sheep and goats had a “lightness” in their step and picked up the pace. The herders were noticeably happy. Looking at the ground I noticed that dry grasses were sticking up through the snow for the first time since the journey began. We had arrived. Soon the rivers we had crossed would thaw and the green grass would cover the Mongolian steppe.
The practice of hunting with golden eagles also comes from Kazakh tradition and continues to be practiced by nomadic herders today. An eagle hunter captures a female eagle when it is young and keeps it for approximately ten years before returning it to the wild. During that time a strong bond is formed and the eagle learns to hunt in partnership with the hunter.
Ongoing training and hunting occurs according to traditional practices. Eagle hunters always work in pairs. During training, one hunter goes up a ridge and releases the eagle when its hunter calls to it from the valley floor. Depending on the call, it flies to the hunter’s arm or it flies to a fur pelt that is being pulled on a rope either by the hunter on foot or on horseback. At times, eagles exert their independence and comply but on their own terms. We saw one eagle land part-way down the ridge but not all the way to its hunter and refused to move. While the hunter went to retrieve his eagle, another eagle was released. While that eagle appropriately flew to its hunter, all of a sudden the recalcitrant eagle decided to also flew to that hunter, who had the surprise and challenge of accepting eagle talons with a bare hand and arm!
Eagle hunters gather once a year in the fall to compete with their eagles and horses. We were treated to a small private festival which featured a day of events with eagles and horses. I definitely got a case of deja vu as I observed contestants waiting for their turn and watching their friends compete.
Even with the addition of some modern conveniences, the life of a nomadic herder is very challenging. It is a life that Soltanmurat and Fatiha and their entire extended family love but know is uncertain. Climate change, most visibly lack of snow, is impacting Mongolia and threatens their livelihood. Even more than the sheer adventure, it was a highlight of my life to be able to spend time with these amazing people and I am eternally grateful that they welcomed me into their life. Thank you for the opportunity to share a glimpse with you.
~ Debbie McIntosh