During my last voyage to Mongolia, I flew over to Ulgii (or ölgii), the capital of the far west. I went there in order to document the Kazakh eagle hunters' lives in west Mongolia. These eagle hunters, who preserve an old tradition that’s passed from generation to generation, tame eagles and use them for hunting smaller animals, such as foxes and marmots. The eagle hunter’s families live on this side of Mongolia after having migrated between Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia until the fall of communism and closing of all borders. The tradition’s preservation was what drew me to them. They preserve it without any touristic nature, unlike in Kazakhstan. These Kazakh eagle hunters, who live in Mongolia today, are the last ones on earth who still deserve the title “Eagle Hunter”. It is not merely a title to them, but a way of life.
At first, I was doing everything according to my plan. I hired a chauffeur and a local translator who would guide me and take me to the eagle hunter’s families in the mountains. I made sure I would spend at least a day with every family for the sake of personally getting to know them. I had played with the children and I had taken photos that document their way of life’s atmosphere. Afterwards, I had gone to the mountains with the family’s father, and documented him over the course of a hunt. I also photographed him during sunset, on horseback, proudly holding on to his golden eagle.
On the way back from the mountains, however, it felt like something was missing. I felt like all the photos I’d taken over the last few days were a mere reflection of previous photos and stories, distinguished only by slight light and place differences. It wasn't enough for me. I knew I had to find another way and tell a new story that was not yet told in the snowy Mongolian mountains. I tried coming up with new ways of photographing the eagle hunters. Should I use different lenses? Ask them to perform tasks other than hunting? How could I tell a more interesting story than “Even today, there are eagle hunters in Mongolia”? From previous acquaintances with the land of the open steppes, I had known about the difficulty of trying and defining it. Modern Mongolia is a young country that was created after the fall of communism in 1990. In addition, we all have a vague image of 13th century Mongolia, during Chinggis Khaan’s reign, the Manchurian reign or even the communist reign, but today’s Mongolia is going through somewhat of a transition – it’s no longer communist but not yet fully modern.
I've decided to focus myself, stop looking for a portrait of centuries old image of a Kazakh eagle hunter, and search for a portrait representing the future of this ancient Mongolian tradition. I wanted to document the “Future Generation” – Kids who take their first steps in learning the hunting skills, Kids who hold the tradition’s future in their bare hands.
And that is my story.
I traveled north of Ulgii to the Chaulting area, a ridge nearby the Russian frontier. It is, by far, one of the most beautiful places I've seen in all my travels to Mongolia. After having searched for quite some time and having visited a lot of different families, I had found 13 year old Irka Bolen. He was the first boy I photographed for the project.
Tradition-wise, when a boy turns 13, and he’s strong enough to carry the weight of a grown eagle, his father starts training him in the ancient hunting technique. They say, that in the Kazakh tradition, there’s over a thousand ways of training and hunting using the eagle, and each family masters their own special technique. Irka Bolen was the perfect beginning to my project, since I wasn't dealing with an eagle hunter - but rather with a small boy embarking on the quest of learning the ways of his tradition. In my work with Irka Bolen I found it to be important that I show his training alongside his father on the mountain tops.
After having spent a few days with Irka Bolen’s family, I've decided it was time to move on with my journey. I wanted to add another side to the story. I've learned that according to Kazakh tradition, it takes the hunters about five years to finish his training. After that, the boy must have a successful hunt, after which he would receive the “Eagle Hunter” title. I wanted to find the youngest eagle hunter living in Mongolia - the first of his generation. In order to achieve this new goal, we had to take south, to a place called Hen Gohadok. There I met Bahak Birgen. Bahak Birgen is an unusual boy. When he turned 8 his father decided that he was strong enough for training, and began working with him before the common time. That’s how 14 year old Bahak Birgen became the well known “Youngest Eagle Hunter in Mongolia”.
It was a spectacular vision, seeing the connection between Bahak Birgen and his eagle. Usually, Kazakhs capture their eagle in his early years and raise him themselves. They feed the eagle, give him a warm place to rest in the cold Mongolian nights and they teach him how to hunt. Eight years later, in spring time, the hunter will take his eagle to the mountains, will lay a butchered sheep on one of the cliffs as a farewell present, and he will send his eagle away for the last time. That’s how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations. That is the Kazakh tradition’s way of living in harmony with nature.
After having photographed Irka Bolen and Bahak Birgen I was left with enough time and money on my budget to photograph one last eagle hunter for the project. I didn't want to add an additional version of the previous shots, but rather look for something more than “another boy”. I knew I was dealing with the question of the Mongolia’s eagle hunter’s future – so I thought to myself what is keeping me from looking for my own answer to this question? What will I like to see in the coming years?
I've learned that Mongolia’s rough surface and difficult climate were the reason that the eagle hunting art was meant for men alone. I thought to myself that in a country where seventy percent of its educated population are women, and most of its education institutes are run by females – is it possible to think that the future of the art of eagle hunting tradition could also lean on feminine shoulders?
I had gone looking for my eagle huntress.
I found her in the form of Ashol Pan, the daughter of an experienced eagle hunter around Han Gohadok, which is south of Ulgii. She was perfect. I was amazed by her comfort and ease as she began handling the grand eagle for the first time in her life. She was fearlessly carrying it on her hand and caressing it somewhat joyfully.
At the end of the photographing session, I sat down with her father and the translator to say my goodbyes, and I asked him this:
“How did it feel watching your daughter dressed in Kazakh uniform, on a mountain top, sending the eagle off and calling it back again?”
“And honestly... would you have considered truly training her? Would she become Mongolia’s first ever female eagle huntress?”
I expected a straightforward “No” or a joking “Maybe”, but after a short pause he replied:
“Up until two years ago my eldest son was the successor of the eagle hunting tradition in our family. Alas, two years ago he was drafted to the army, and he’s now an officer, so he probably won’t be back with the tradition. It’s been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn't dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place.”
From the father’s answer I realized that the idea of women’s participation in keeping the tradition is a possible future, but just like many other aspect of Mongolian life, it's an option which women will need to take on by themselves.
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tony v.Comment Link Saturday, 09 July 2016 18:34
WOW! Loved the story and the photos! What a magnificent job! Thank you for sharing with us.
Pina Crupi SpezialeComment Link Monday, 19 May 2014 07:24
Oh my gosh! What beauty, what majesty, You have done a beautiful job with these fantastic pictures! Thank you for showing us the wonders of these beautiful mountains, these wonderful and gentle people ( and the courageous girl) ! Don't we else owe a humble Thank you to the Creator of All of this ? Jehovah God thank you for giving us your glorious Earth to enjoy !!!
Rob StoneComment Link Sunday, 18 May 2014 06:24
Beautiful imagery and a life-affirming story of humans using, and living in harmony with nature. Also of giving children the freedom to take risks and discover their true potential
Gloria MatosComment Link Saturday, 17 May 2014 05:24
Thank you for your inspiring lecture in "Erlich" yesterday. Good luck with your next project in India, curious to see the results.
Elizabeth WalshComment Link Friday, 16 May 2014 04:24
Having hiked out of Olgii and visited many families in their summer gurs, and seen one eagle hunting family, your stories, feelings and photographs brought back memories which are hard to portray. You have remarkable talent and feeling of a true wanderer.
Derek HandComment Link Thursday, 15 May 2014 03:24
The fact that her father was basically willing to let the tradition die if she didn't want to do it, that he was not going to force her into doing it, speaks a lot of him. I'm glad to see she made a choice and is becoming a first in a place where firsts are probably few and far between, but good on him for giving her the choice.
Tuija Annika JarvinenComment Link Wednesday, 14 May 2014 02:24
Stunning photos!! And what a pro this little girl with her stunning birds are! Thank you so much for sharing these photos and story with all of us. Greetings from Finland, TJ.
Cynthia MedinaComment Link Tuesday, 13 May 2014 01:24
What a delightful blog!! Thank goodness for social media. You just took me away to another world, a museum of timeless energy and wonder. Thank you, thank you!!
Ibrakhim IskendirComment Link Monday, 12 May 2014 00:24
Hello, I'm kazakh from Kazakhstan and after reading this wonderful story I just wanted to thank you, because you truly revealed true kazakh spirit. Old traditions, such as hunting with eagles are left in their true untouched form only in that part of the world, even in Kazakhstan, people didn't save many of them. I believe that the true Kazakhs are the ones who live in Mongolia. Pictures are great!
Richard McLendonComment Link Saturday, 10 May 2014 23:24
Your photographs caught my attention as soon as I saw them! Bravo on capturing the subjects in such beautiful lighting! The clarity is outstanding. I was in south central Siberia back in 2001 and was at the northern edge of the Altai Mountains. Based in Novokuznetsk, I met many minority people/tribes (Shors and Siberian Tatars) as well as native Russians. I wish I could have ventured onward into Mongolia, but my work kept me busy. Congratulations, and thank you for your efforts to bring the Kazakh culture and the Eagle Hunters to the world's attention.
Rise MitchellComment Link Friday, 09 May 2014 22:24
Your eye for light, dark and humanity is quite remarkable. I enjoyed the article and images immensely. It made me feel better connected to the beauty of our sometimes struggling planet earth and closer to the the Eagle hunters I will never know. I say as an artist, you hit a home run.
Paul WongComment Link Thursday, 08 May 2014 21:24
Breathtaking and inspiring. You are truly one of today's great photographers. Would it be asking too much for you to give some info on your gear and parameters....or is that asking to much. Regardless fantastic and memorable.
Jacqueline VanDen DriestComment Link Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:24
Asher, I have been mesmerized by both your photographs and your stories. They are stunning! Do you do talks or lectures? I live in Israel and would love to hear you speak about your experiences.
Miriam GreenComment Link Tuesday, 06 May 2014 19:24
Have returned again and again to these photographs, to watch in suspended wonder at the beauty of the landscape, the faces of the people, and the bond of these birds with their handlers. Your vision through your lens is so intense, arresting, which is why I keep returning. There will be a documentary on Ashol Pan though 'lifetime rights' sounded a sour note. The training of the eagles is of great interest. Have just completed Medieval English Kings and their Falcons, very detailed as to training, especially awake all night with the birds. To think about a golden eagle on a glove soaring away to the hunt, and returning to hand is pure magic. Thank you. We are all in your debt for your efforts.
Rochelle SapersteinComment Link Monday, 05 May 2014 18:24
THIS IS A MOST AMAZING STORY WRITTEN WITH GREAT THOUGHT, LOVE, AND AN AMAZING INSIGHT. SO THEREFORE, I DECIDED TO POST TO FACEBOOK FOR ALL MY LOVED ONES TO READ. I LOVED READING IT AND FIND THE WHOLE TOPIC AWESOME.:))
Pat HeleneComment Link Sunday, 04 May 2014 17:24
Beauty in every shot. I see my daughter's face in your breath taking eagle hunter. My child was adopted from Kazahkstan when she was 15 months old. She is now going to be 15. Your story and your photos are stunning. I am so glad that you decided to search for a new story.
Karen KellogComment Link Saturday, 03 May 2014 16:24
Absolutely beautiful story and photos. I, too, have two young granddaughters, 9 and 11, and would love a copy of a photo to give to them. What an amazing potrayal of a stunning connection between man and nature, child and eagle, of mutual respect, and trust. So appreciative of your bringing this to us.
Christina A. SearsComment Link Friday, 02 May 2014 15:24
This should be a movie or children's book!!
EaglehearteComment Link Thursday, 01 May 2014 14:24
the last two photos of the young woman and her eagle brought tears to my eyes and love to my heart...what a perfect portrayal of the "divine feminine" leading us all into our new world and New Earth in the Year of the Horse...thank you for your sharing your beauty...EagleHearte...
Jacob FisherComment Link Wednesday, 30 April 2014 13:24
Asher, thank you so much for sharing your amazing photographs and your travels to places that we don't think of often. It was another reminder of the beauty in our world of people and places, as well as how dramatically the world is changing, for all of us to enjoy and appreciate.
Lisa Harries SkyhorseComment Link Tuesday, 29 April 2014 12:24
Dear Asher, My husband and I visited Olgii and the Darhat Valley also. We are so moved by your photos and that the Kazaks welcome a girl eagle hunter. We did leather projects twice in Mongolia - you can see them at
Steven GarringtonComment Link Monday, 28 April 2014 11:24
As a keen amateur photographer I had to drop a line to say how much I enjoyed your work in general and to single out an image which catapulted itself into my all-time top ten. The photo of the subject with arms outstretched and a look of pure ecstasy on her face, the eagle having just left in full flight, and an achingly beautiful backdrop - perfection! If I ever took something half as good I could die happy. My most heartfelt congratulations and deepest gratitude for increasing the beauty that exists in our sometimes ugly world - thank you!
Norma SmithComment Link Sunday, 27 April 2014 10:24
Asher--this was a fantastic read--I think if it was added into a Documentary it would awaken peoples minds--I know it did me--also now it makes me want to go to this place to see for myself--about 6 years ago we were in Austria and came upon a young man training a falcon--this brings back good memories--not only for the younger person but to realize that birds play so many aspects in the progression of life
CM RanchComment Link Saturday, 26 April 2014 09:24
The photograph of Ashol Pan, embracing this magnificent eagle - as it opens its wings to embrace her, is so moving. It is beyond my words, to describe how this makes my heart soar. It is with profound gratitude, we thank you for sharing your journey. We hold out hope, that you might create a film, where we can hear the the sound of wings and Ashol's voice.
Anne WaymanComment Link Friday, 25 April 2014 08:24
Absolutely blown away by your photos of this girl and her eagle... and I like some of the rest of your work too... thank you so much... send you email about purchasing a couple for my walls... considerably older than some of the girls here
Ali Boland Alisha MckayeComment Link Thursday, 24 April 2014 07:24
Iv just seen your work on the BBC news website and had to come and look at your work. You have an amazing talent the connection with the pictures you take is outstanding. Good luck and i look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.
Martha Joh ReederComment Link Wednesday, 23 April 2014 06:24
Magnificent photos and a touching story. I am headed to Mongolia this summer with a group of students and professors to work with the people on economic development specifically eco-tourism. I am torn, although the rural communities are looking for ways to become more sustainable, it is hard to work in this area realizing the impact of development. Their culture is rich and in many ways pure. To find a balance shall be difficult.
Paul BridgesComment Link Tuesday, 22 April 2014 05:24
I was pleased when a friend of mine found your page. I wanted to tell you how impressed I was with the images you produced in your encounter with Ashol-Pan. She is an amazing young person, and the connection she has with her eagle is... astonishing. I hope to hear more about her progress as a huntress in the future, and would love for you to bring us more photographs. Thank you for this glimpse into Ashol-Pan's life (and the lives of her male counterparts). Keep up the good work.
Missie Theisen GrahamComment Link Monday, 21 April 2014 04:24
Wow!!!! What an awesome story and photos!! Thank you for looking for more. This is a wonderful article and i am glad i followed the links to find it. I love photography and would love to taake photos like these. This story is inspiring.
Fiona RattrayComment Link Sunday, 20 April 2014 03:24
This is breathtaking work! The photo capturing AkSholpan and the Eagle shows the bond between them so strongly. Asher, thank you for the story and the photos, and for expanding my view of this amazing world.
Sara Mitchell BanksComment Link Saturday, 19 April 2014 02:24
Beautiful breathtaking photographs, there is a definite symbiotic relationship between the eagle and girl. I have posted the link for the BBC these on the Facebook pages of the two First Nations communities I work on the pacific northwest coast. Thank you Sara Mitchell-Banks, Nurse Practitioner (F)
Tom MostsingerComment Link Friday, 18 April 2014 01:24
Absolutely wonderful photographs and a beautiful angle to the ancient story of these astounding people. I've traveled there three times and had the joy of living with an eagle hunter family for a few short days. The boy and my 15-year-old daughter struck a bond, as did the father with my girl. During one snowy day of hunting with them, success! The father was so kind that even with winter bearing down on his family he bestowed on my daughter the gift of the unimaginably valuable pelt. She's off to college now, but the soft, red fox from that day still hangs on her bedpost.
Wendi Christensen TahmazianComment Link Thursday, 17 April 2014 00:24
Outstanding photos of the girl and her hunting eagle. My daughters, age 8 and 11, (and myself), were quite taken with your photographs and story of the amazing Ashol-Pan. They were wondering if they could purchase one of your photographs to hang on their wall as an inspiration and a joy to look at. Could you please provide me with any information regarding purchasing of a photograph? Thank you, and again, beautiful story and pictures, because of you Ashol-Pan is now an inspiration to my girls.
Margaret K ShurdomComment Link Tuesday, 15 April 2014 23:24
Lovely blog. First saw some pictures on BBC so looked you up on internet. I'm your neighbour in Jordan.
Jackie MorrisComment Link Monday, 14 April 2014 22:24
These photographs are just so beautiful. I have had a story in my mind for a few years now, about the eagle hunters. I wanted to use a girl child instead of a boy, but thought it would never happen. So beautiful. Your pictures are just wonderful. Thank you. Love the birds, the land, the people
Claudia Kline MasseyComment Link Monday, 31 March 2014 21:24
This is one of the most incredible stories I have ever read...thank you for sharing it with the world!
Odonchimeg IdersaikhanComment Link Monday, 31 March 2014 20:24
This is amazing what you have done. Are you around Mongolia often or you've gone to another country? I am a journalist from the national radio, which broadcast abroad in 64 countries. It would be wonderful if i could interview you. Please, let me know if you are around.
Page LambertComment Link Thursday, 06 March 2014 18:24
I raised my son and daughter on a ranch in Wyoming, USA, and I remember once when a Mongolian diplomat came to their "sister country" Wyoming to visit. I took my 9 year old daughter and he talked to her through a translator about horse races and archery. She was enthralled, since she'd been riding horses nearly since she was old enough to walk. Your story of the eagle hunters, and the young girl and her father, is very powerful. And the photos are overwhelmingly extraordinary. I write this with tears in my eyes.