Christo Geoghegan’s ‘Displaced’ documents the migration of Kazakh nomads to Mongolia and China. Visiting these countries at the end of Eagle Hunting season, this stunning photo series explores traditions that have become almost extinct within Kazakhstan itself.
When Kazakhstan declared itself an independent country in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly elected prime minister, Nursultan Nazirbyaev, set out to try and reclaim the rich cultural heritage of the Kazakhs that had been lost after years of Russian rule and its resulting colonisation.
Border agreements, forced collectivisation under Stalin and the Chinese Cultural revolution were just a few of many factors which led to mass Kazakh migration across regions now known as Bayan-Ölgii (Mongolian’s westernmost state) and Xinjinag (China), where Kazakh culture tradition are still practised the same way in which they have for hundreds of years. In Bayan-Ölgii, 90% of the native population are Kazakh with Kazakh being the state language also. This mass migration has led to a cultural crisis in Kazakhstan, where Soviet rule has all but wiped out these nomadic traditions. Practices such as the art of hunting with eagles and the general nomadic way of life are now more prevalent in Mongolia and China than in the country they originate from.
In an effort to correct this, Nazirbyaev began offering financial incentives for Chinese and Mongolian Kazakhs to return to their homeland when independence was gained in 1991. Yet due to Kazakhstan’s rapidly increasing modernisation and widespread political corruption, many Kazakhs who chose to migrate in 1991 face a difficult life, vastly different to the way of living they were used to in their former displaced regions. Many choose to migrate back to Western Mongolia and China, but because of forgoing their former nationality in order to relocate to their ancestral home, regaining citizenship back in Mongolia and China is near impossible.
Due to harsh climates (that regularly reach -40°C in winter months) the Kazakh diet is made up almost entirely of meats and fat. Once a year there is a mass slaughter to collect enough meat to see them through these harsh months. Meat is then salted and left to dry, where it is then edible for months. Mutton and Horse are the main sources of protein.
Eagles are mainly used by the Kazakhs to hunt marmots and rabbits, but the strongest of Eagles can be known to take down a wolf. There are varying ways in which to capture a wild Eagle. The most popular method being snatching an Eaglet from its nest, but catching an Eagle from the wild using a trap almost always guarantees a better hunter.
Although traditions and practices are very important and respected by the Kazakh people of Mongolia, they are increasingly diluted by outside influences. The traditional headscarf pictured here is now only seen on the most elderly of women.
Berkutchi often make their coats from marmots/foxes skins collected from successful hunts. The more extravagant the coat, the more respected the hunter.
The Kazakh hat, the tubeteika, similar to those worn in other Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, is worn by a vast majority of the Mongolian Kazakh men. Traditional clothing is often mixed with contemporary dress. It is rare to see any Kazakh not adorned with some form of tribute to their cultural heritage.
Almost entirely nomadic, the Kazakhs of Mongolia spend winters in hand-built houses heated by burning dried dung, and in wooden areas, wood. In summer months they migrate closer to the water in large tents known as Gers, similar, but slightly different to Mongolian Yurts.
Once caught, Eagles are placed on a perch that continually moves for 3 days, or until an Eagle is exhausted and docile enough to accept food from humans. When trust between hunter and bird is gained, Eagles are then trained to hunt. Eagles spend most of their days in total darkness wearing hand made blinders. Blinders are worn in order to stop birds from attacking any small prey they see.
Kazakh families are large, and siblings are plentiful. In Kazakh tradition, it is the responsibility of the youngest son to house and care for their parents as soon as they have taken a wife.
Although Eagles are mainly caught through the aforementioned techniques, they are, on occasion, bought and sold by other Eagle Hunters. Aybalot is 17, and purchased his eagle for the equivalent of £150. Although Eagle Hunting is an honour, it can be a financial burden on many, and Eagles are often sold, such as the one to Aybalot. Many are sad to part with their Eagles, but are unfortunately forced to do so.
Kazakh families are large and before the possibility of dating, Kazakh men must ask which clan their prospective date is from to ensure they are not related. The Kazakh community of Mongolia stands at roughly 100,000.
Winters are harsh and unpredictable. Snow storms can arrive and blanket an entire landscape within minutes. If caught in the middle of one, wandering nomads can lose their way and die.
Although proud of Kazakhstan, many Mongolian Kazakhs who chose to migrate in 1991 when offered the financial incentives by Nazirbyaev, were met with a culture shock – that Western Mongolia was in fact more traditionally Kazakh, than newly independent Kazakhstan. Over the past two decades, more and more Kazakh families have chosen to move back to Mongolia, to live the traditional nomadic life now almost completely lost in Kazakhstan.
Once out for a hunt, Eagles’ blinders are removed. When an Eagle has spotted its prey (more often than not from a great distance), they tense their talons against their master’s glove, who then in turn releases the bird into flight. As soon as the prey has been taken down, an Eagle will stay with it until its master arrives to collect from the bird. If successful, Eagles are then rewarded with meat.
When the Soviet ban on freedom of religion was lifted, Kazakhs shifted back to their original practice of Sunni Islam. Although many claim to be Muslim, the religion is often loosely practiced – vodka is as commonly drunk in Kazakh Mongolia as it is throughout the rest of country.
Many Mongolian Kazakhs have begun to make pilgrimage to the motherland of the culture, and are, more often than not, overwhelmed and confused by the difference between the two regions. Although proud to be Kazakh, they are also immensely proud to be Mongolian.
Once Winter is over, Eagles are kept in homes and are cared for whilst their coat changes and adapts for the rising temperatures. Eagles have a life span of around 15 years. Christo will return to Mongolia and the western Chinese region of Xinjiang this December to shoot the second part of ‘Displaced’, when it will be prime eagle hunting season.
Christo has recently been announced as one of the finalists for Travel Photographer of the Year Award.
Check out more of Christo’s work at christogeoghegan.com