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by Guardian.co.uk” width=”140″ height=”45″ />This article titled “‘It’s like the end of the world, so vast it’s oceanic’: Otto Bell on Mongolia” was written by Interview by Jane Dunford, for The Guardian on Friday 23rd December 2016 11.00 UTC
It all started when I saw a spellbinding photo-essay about Kazakh eagle hunters. Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky was on walkabout in north-west Mongolia after national service and started photographing the next generation of hunters training their eagles. There are only about 250 of them left, mostly in the Bayan Ölgii region of the Altai mountains. He stumbled on this young girl, Aisholpan, who was training her father’s eagle. They were profoundly beautiful images and had all the elements of a great film: amazing location, the world’s largest species of golden eagle, and this angelic, strong, young girl succeeding in a male-dominated tradition. I got in touch with Svidensky immediately.
I was immediately struck by the vastness of Mongolia, the unending landscape. Over 10 months, we did eight trips, staying two to three weeks at a time. The area where Aisholpan and her family live is the most remote part of one of the least populated countries in the world. It’s liberating to feel like you’re at the end of the world: it’s so vast it’s oceanic.
The people are nomads, moving four or five times a year. They’re herders: they follow the fresh grass, living in gers and supplementing this subsistence lifestyle with money from adventurous tourists. Each summer, a few tourists will spend a day or two living with them, sleeping with the family in the ger, like ducks in a row. People live with their extended family, in pods of two or three gers.
The warmth and hospitality of the people is incredible. If you ask for directions, you’re courted with conversation, and invited in for tea and food. It’s a return to a less complicated way of life: you wake with the sun, and go to bed with the darkness. There’s no electricity, no running water. It’s a very outdoor lifestyle. There is always something to do: collecting water, herding, skinning, cooking, hunting. There’s a very transparent food chain, with a lot of goat meat and cheeses – mostly from right outside the door. When I arrived, they killed a goat for us as a welcome. Eating is a very communal affair.
Filming in -50C is an adventure. Equipment fails, and everything takes a lot longer, but somehow you don’t feel the cold. Everybody is bundled up in layers and layers of fur. At night there are fires and everyone huddles together for storytelling and music. They play the dobra (a two-stringed guitar). It’s magical.
Anyone who goes to Mongolia will have the adventure of a lifetime. There are English-speaking guides ready to take people from Ulaanbaatar into the mountains and tundra, learning about their way of life. I hope the film is a shot in the arm for tourism here.
Climate change is taking its toll. They have a new word, dzud, that’s about 15 years old, for the harsh winter storms that now hit the region. They freeze herds solid: a herder can wake up and find his whole flock dead. There’s no recourse, no insurance. More and more nomads are moving to Ulaanbaatar: there are three million people in Mongolia, and half of them live in the capital. A ghetto of gers has grown up on the outskirts of town, peopled with nomads who’ve been pushed off the land and are now looking for work as taxi drivers.
There’s a great turkish restaurant in Ulgii called Pumakkale where we’d often go to get a kofte and fries. I still dream of that food; the best kebab and chips I’ve ever had! A lovely warm little place, with a bit of Wi-Fi – everything I could wish for!
The eagle festival is a celebration of this millennia-old tradition. Held in Bayan Ölgii in October, it’s a way to understand the community, because it’s so much part of their identity. There’s pomp and ceremony. The more elaborate your furs, the more esteemed you are, because they show how successful a hunter you are. It’s a feast for the eyes and a visual treat for photographers. The eagles are incredible, and nowhere else will you get so close to them.
Aisholpan broke the records and won the competition. She was the only female competitor, and beat 70 men. Many of them weren’t best pleased, but that was a fantastic moment. She and her family are coming to my wedding in Northumberland next year. It was my first film and we’ve travelled the world together since. We’ll be in each others’ lives forever.
• The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bell and narrated by Daisy Ridley, is in cinemas now
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