Uninviting steppes, sepsis, trained eagles, anonymous riverbanks, true love, frozen yaks, trench-shovel toilets, tides of men, endless ochre landscapes & Genghis Khan.
TThe first time Genghis Khan died, an arrow struck him during a routine battle a thousand miles from where he was born. Sepsis set in to his wounds, and several days later he died of infection, without complaint.
He was buried, by request, in the shoals of an anonymous riverbank, purposefully discarded to the ages, while his sons and theirs, and theirs again, stretched his empire tautly over an expanse from Poland to Korea, the largest the world has ever known, making him a folk hero to his people—George Washington in animal-pelt robes—and a byword for cruelty, genocide and despotism in almost every other language.
The second time Genghis Khan died came more than eight centuries later, when, during the Great Cultural Revolution, communist authorities declared him anathema to the state, a “reactionary,” and had his name wiped from the land.
Mongolia the independent nation is only thirty years old, having been founded as a democratic state in 1991. Mongolia the concept feels eternal—a bleak but not unpretty endless ochre landscape, untouched by time. The dinosaurs who roamed this land, died on it, were buried in it, became fossilized in it, would have been relieved—if in their rising they had come back to life and not into museums—to find that sixty-five million years had not aged the place one wrinkle.
Today, landing in Ulanbaatar, the nation’s bland but polite capital—if raucous Asia has a Minneapolis, this is it—one sets down at Genghis Khan Airport before driving up Genghis Khan Boulevard all the way to Genghis Khan Square, the city’s massive but usually empty heart. It is flanked by the national dinosaur museum and the national parliament, which boasts quite the statue of Genghis himself, looking almost Buddha-like, serious but sage, at the top of its steps.
The capital city has 1.3 million residents; the rest of the nation’s population, roughly the same number again, is dispersed over a 1,500-mile range of uninviting steppes rounded by soft, old hills and the Gobi Desert that lingers over the border into China. Most of the nomads live on a meat-and milk-diet from the cows, sheep, yaks, horses and double-humped camels they keep on meager farms, making their clothing from wool and the pelts of the rabbits, foxes and small wolves they earn using eagles they capture in infancy and train into labor. Trees are almost nonexistent; no crops grow here, and the cold snaps of Siberian weather in the winter, called zod, rouse the nation’s mostly nomadic tribes to find that their cattle, sheep and horses have frozen solid into lifeless ice in the night. This is routine.
One can drive for hours without seeing another human—just scrub brush, bristle, tumbleweed, little regiments of lambs, the occasional skull of some large creature that died of being Mongolian. The ubiquitous old cell-phone ads in America would be unnecessary here, their answer obvious, as the last man was two hours ago and the last cell-phone tower six hours before that: No, sir, we can’t hear you now.
“Don’t bother with a big, fancy wedding,” the comedian Bill Murray once quipped. “Buy a plane ticket for the two of you to travel all over the world, to places that are hard to reach and hard to get out of. And if you land at JFK and you’re still in love with that person, get married.”
By that estimation, true love in Mongolia is as easy as falling down stairs. Daily flights out of Genghis Khan Airport go from where you are to wherever you don’t want to be, restrooms are of the sort made with a trench shovel on some yurt’s north forty, vegetables are unheard of and most roads are unpaved trails largely marked by gravel and hoofprints. The good news is that most faucets dispense both kinds of running water: red and yellow.
Genghis Khan traveled these same steppes a thousand years ago in a giant, comfortable yurt drawn by teams of dozens of oxen; born to nomads himself, he felt no need for a fixed address. The first time he ever set foot in an actual building, he berated the leaders inside, informing them that he had come not with a plough, but a sword, an angry gift from an angry God, in His wrath, and that the pillaging, plundering and genocide he had come to deliver was well deserved.
Genghis Khan made it a point of pride to despoil the most beautiful women of every tribe and city he set foot in and laid waste to, leaving a trail of burnt cities full of dead men and crying women. There is, today, compelling evidence that nearly a billion people on the planet are his descendants, and his face is on the front of almost every denomination of Mongolian currency.
Life in Mongolia today is quite a bit calmer.
Far from apartment-dwelling Ulanbaatar, a thousand miles to the west lies the largely Muslim province of Bayan-Ulgii, populated by ethnic Kazakhs brought in under Russian influence over many centuries. The Kazakhs largely keep to the old ways, tending small yurts and single-level poured concrete winter houses in low valleys of green grass washed dull by the sun, with untillable soil dressed throughout by slate razor-rock and asbestos. Here, most families keep an eagle for feast and a horse for famine.
Every autumn—just as families throughout the empty province transition overland from their summer tent homes to their concrete winter shelters—the province holds the world-renowned Golden Eagle Festival, now in its twentieth year, in which hundreds of Kazakh Mongolians make their way in several-day journeys to just outside of Ulgii, the provincial capital, to test their skills and impress the crowd.
None of the hunters are professional, in any real sense of the word; they are all just regular men and women showing off what they’d be doing anyway.
For days before the festival, a tide of men on horseback, faces worn and scarred, and wearing their weight again in skinned pelts—insurance against the fickle, bitter winter—canters into Ulgii, a sight to see as they make their way up the town’s barren streets, little old Soviet relic cars swerving around them, honking in defiant awe. They keep the eagles perched on their raised, rigid arms, looking straight ahead, like kings in old paintings. They sleep with friends, with relatives, in mosques, in roadside lean-tos. They are cordial and quiet, formal with each other, all knowing that their lifelong acquaintances are also their temporary competitors: in a place with only one thing to do, there is but one thing to do.
The competition is organized into categories, spread over two days, not all of it aviary. There’s a camel race, during which one wonders if a camel—nature’s most ill-designed natural transportation—can look elegant at any speed. That said, the crowd mostly arrives to see the golden eagles, their wingspan as wide as any man here is tall, and whose contests are basically grouped into several categories, playing out the same way: one man, bearing the eagle, climbs the nearby mountain, waits until his ground-bound associate gives the signal and then releases the bird, who turns wider, her attention sought after by the caller on the ground a thousand feet below as he suggests to his eagle that she dive in for the pelt he’s dragging on the ground, or his arm. Points are given for distance, and for grace.
A few thousand people come out to stand in the sun, for hours, watching as one person after another stands in the middle of a crowd of everyone from his province, visiting dignitaries from the capital and foreigners standing shoulder to shoulder, the prime minister nudging in front of Italian tourists hoping to gain a glimpse of animals, on the ground and in the sky, keeping their eye on one another.
At the top of Mount Sayat, the crowd is thinner—a few men patiently waiting to launch their eagles, who wear small black hoods until the decisive moment. For the eagle, her every moment is either hunt or darkness. The handlers clamber around on the rocks without any hint of worry, emotion or even word, as they watch one person after another come down the field far below, waving arms and pelts, almost invisible to the human eye at this distance, until the mountaintop handler releases her into a gasping drop.
It’s a beautiful sight, an eagle taking flight from above, the ease of it, the simple beauty, the way she takes the wind under her wings with one hard flap and then glides forever. Unmasked into daylight, after setting off from the handler she failed to sink against the updrafts and we all fixed on her, watching her turn and turn in the widening gyre, like an apple peel coming off in one long motion. An eagle, in case you’re curious, has a brain roughly the size of a green pea, but we could all see what was going through that tiny machine of hers: freedom. A thousand feet below, the hunter, squinting into the sun, swung his horse around again and again, shouting louder and louder in the hopes that the raptor might take notice, swoop down to her master and make him a hero.
First he shouted her name, then once more and louder, once more and once more, almost crying in his voice as thousands of spectators stared at him in his public failure, the eagle spinning in the cold wind, with nothing but thin air between her and heaven. Finally, through the wind, we could all hear him screaming something hopeless, and while I don’t speak his language—if it was a language at all—the fur-dressed sons of Genghis Khan and I, all of us on top of that broken rock, knew just what he was saying in his last, loudest plaintive plea:
Please, oh please. Can you hear me now?
B. A. Van Sise is an internationally known photographer and the author of the interdisciplinary photo book Children of Grass, proclaimed “the year’s most startlingly original, remarkable book” by Joyce Carol Oates in the Times’ Books of the Year 2019. His visual work has previously appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and BuzzFeed, as well as in major museum exhibitions throughout the United States, including Ansel Adams’ Center for Creative Photography, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. His written work has appeared this year in Poets & Writers, the Southampton Review, Eclectica and the North American Review. (All photos © B. A. Van Sise)