In June 2014 I received an email from Otto Bell, a creative director based in New York. He was making a film called ‘The Eagle Huntress’ about one of the first female Eagle Hunters, Asholpan, a 13 years old girl living in the outskirts of Bayan-Ölgii, Mongolia. As soon as he told me about the project and his ambitions I knew I had to be a part of it!
Eagle Hunting is an ancient male tradition that goes back thousands of years where nomadic Kazakhs capture a young golden eagle from it’s nest and train the Eagle to hunt for rabbits, foxes and on occasion wolves! How insane is that!
Hunting most commonly takes places in the winter where temperatures drop to -40 degrees celsius and food supplies are at an all time low. The meat from the animals caught are used to feed the Eagle Hunters family and the fur is used for the Eagle Hunters coats to keep them warm!
Otto asked if I’d join him for the first part of the shoot! However the dates for the shoot clashed with a job I was already on and I couldn’t move the dates around so reluctantly I had to turn down the amazing offer of being a part of this project. It was heartbreaking and I couldn’t believe I was turning down such an amazing opportunity. But reputation is everything in this game so I couldn’t turn around and say no to the other job after I’d already committed to it.
I wasn’t ready to give up though and I knew they’d be going back to Mongolia several times over the next year to finish the documentary! When Otto arrived back from the trip I called and emailed him every two weeks to discuss the project and say how I would love to be a part of the film. Six months passed and they went out to Mongolia two more times – without me – I was beginning to think that I was wasting my time and I should just leave it.
However I decided to call one last time, just before they were about to head out to Mongolia for the epic winter shoot. Otto said logistically they couldn’t send me out for the winter trip as they were already fully crewed but he had an assignment for me which he wanted to discuss on his arrival back in New York. I waited with baited breathe.
As soon as Otto arrived back I called him and a few months later I found myself boarding a plane at Heathrow airport with my good friend and sound man Louis Thompkins, I couldn’t believe it was finally happening, I’d been dreaming about this project for close to a year!
Three planes, countless car journeys, on and off road and three days later we were in the Altai Mountains, Mongolia!
The shoot itself was intense! We’d been sent out during the Kazakh New Years celebrations, also know as Nowruz to capture the end of the film. We had four and a half days to get everything done and boy were we in for a rollercoaster of events!
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar – the capital of Mongolia the night before after very little sleep and three days of traveling to get there.
On our first shoot day we woke up at 4am, checked out of our hotel in Ulaanbaatar and took a taxi to the airport. We hopped onto a small propeller driven plane and four hours later we arrived in the township of Bayan-Ölgii. There we met our fixer and translator. We grabbed some lunch from a delicious turkish restaurant called Pamukkale and set straight to work capturing establishing shots of Bayan-Ölgii.
We then headed to the local school where Louis and myself met the star of the film, Asholpan for the first time. I introduced myself and offered to help her with carrying the luggage but she kindly rejected my offer and headed straight for our van. She was very shy and not very talkative at first but this didn’t last for too long.
We headed straight for the mountains and began our off road journey to Asholpans family home. It was incredible, Louis and I just looked at each other bouncing up and down hitting our heads on the roof of the van not quite believing where we were! It was a huge contrast from the London city life we'd just left behind!
An hour later and feeling like we’d just been through the blender we arrived at what can only be subscribed as literally the middle of no where! I hoped out of van to see a man holding a huge great eagle and wearing a beautiful fur coat. Asholpans father Agolie! Around him were sheep, horses, goats and animal skulls. I felt like I was in an episode game of thrones, this was the real deal! Asholpans winter family house is situated on the edge of a huge mountain and in front of their home the land just expands into nothingness. It’s beautifully epic!
We were welcomed into the families house for tea where we met Asholpans younger sibblings. Asholpans youngers sister looks a lot like Asholpan and was also very quite and reserved when we first met her. She had a huge glowing smile that can’t help but make you happy! Tinka, the younger brother is a delightful boisterous monkey who gets amongst and involved with everything!
The sun was soon setting so Louis, our guide Baldo, and myself decided to climb the mountain behind the house to get some landscape shots before it got too dark. I grabbed my camera gear from the van and headed up the hill. Tinka tagged along!
Out of breathe and feeling exhilarated we arrived at the top of the hill. The view was AMAZING!! A huge baron dessert with clumps of snow capped mountains surrounding it. It was like nothing I’d seen before. We took some shots and admired the surroundings. I’d never experienced true silence until being on those mountains in Mongolia – it was unreal. It’s what I’d imagine Mars to be like.
As we headed down the hill I decided to get a quick shot with the drone. I set it all up and took off – this is going to be good! Two minutes later the drone started to lose altitude, fast. I moved pushed the stick up on the remote. But nothing, the drone continued losing altitude. Bang! The drone smashed into the rocks breaking the propellers. Oh no!
Sadly I didn’t have time to fix the drone while I was in Mongolia as we were on such a tight schedule but on my return back to London I managed to get it going again and the drone still lives on today (for the time being anyway).
Back at the family home we had a delicious dinner and decided to shoot one more scene before bed. We had an early start the next day as I’d convinced everyone to get up early to shoot Asholpan with her eagle in the mountains at sunrise! I was excited!
The final scene for the day was with Asholpan fixing her fathers coat. As there was no electricity in the house – it was the middle of no where – I used candles to the light the scene. I was shooting with the Sony A7s which is incredible in low light situations. It was the first time using only candles to light a scene and it was liberating. However while filming this scene my camera stopped working and ten minutes later the converter that allows me to use all my lenses also broke! I managed to come up with a temporary fix but it made me nervous as we were shooting some important scenes over the next few days and I had to able to rely on my gear working!
I didn’t sleep that evening. I was overtired after the long journey and terrified that my equipment would continue to fail – I was reliving the moments of the drone crash and broken camera – all within a few hours, what was going on! I also had a bad cold that I’d been fighting the last few days! I was tied, grumpy, frustrated and stressed! In that moment I wished I was back in my own bed not on the cold hard floor. I was craving the familiar creature comforts of my own bed. Why the heck had I decided to go on this trip! In that moment if there was a big red button that would have given me an escape route back to London I would have taken it.
The next morning we were up early for sunrise, I was pumped to start the day!
Groggy eyed but willing Asholpan climbed the hill with me to get the sunrise shots of her and the eagle on the rocks. It was extremely windy but the shots came out beautifully!
We then spent the morning filming Asholpan around her family home, capturing intimate family moments of Asholpan helping her brother with his homework, Asholpans father and brother wrestling, playing cards and collecting horse dung for the fire.
We then headed back into Bayan-Ölgii to get shots of the local wrestling competition that was happening as part of the New Year celebrations! It was like nothing I’d seen before – huge Mongolian men wearing tight underwear and flaunting their muscles. They would then wrestle against one another until one of them was thrown to the floor. I was glad not to be involved! It looked painful!
After wrestling we headed back to the Motel to sort out equipment and then grabbed some dinner. It had been a productive day and no camera failures!
We headed back to the family home and were told about an unplanned bonus parade that the local community had organised! We arrived in a very small township and parked up. There were little children running everywhere all dressed up in colourful tradition dress. They ran up to the fence and started waving and smiling at us! We were the only tourists and had all our camera gear so we stood out like a sore thumb! They were all very welcoming and friendly!
The celebrations began, everyone was dancing, singing and clapping! It was amazing to see the smiling villagers dressed up and enjoying themselves. It was very special moment and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to be there and capture it all.
After the parade we headed back to the family home and filmed daily life. The advantage with being a small crew was that it allowed us to capture intimate and personal moments that a big crew wouldn’t have been able to capture. It also meant we were very mobile so we could shoot quickly without having to move lots of equipment around from location to location.
After a long day of filming we headed back to the main township Bayan-Ölgii and went to the local motel to charged batteries, import footage and get some rest before the main parade which was the next day! It was going to be intense and we had a lot of important moments to capture!
On the parade day we set off to capture the locals setting up their stalls, banners and swings. Over the next few hours the town square became ram packed with people. There were camels, horses, eagle hunters, people in amazing dresses and traditional costumes! It was a flurry of colours, textures and excitement! There was a lot to capture over a short period of time so I decided to strap the Sony A7S to my Glidecam 2000 which meant I could get beautifully smooth shots quickly and follow the action as it was happening. It was an incredibly useful and I don’t know how I could have got all the coverage that we needed without it!
We rushed to the next location where we were invited into a locals home to film what could only be described as the equivalent of a Christmas feast! The table was covered in sweets, delicious bread sticks, fruit, jams, meat and if that wasn’t enough the host came in with a sheeps head on a platter and put it in the middle of the table. We were then given a bowl of rice soup which contained rice, meat and a very fatty liquid. As soon as we politely finished it, it was topped up again. I remember looking over at Louis as he was finishing his rice soup and seeing him go a slight tinge of green – it wasn’t pretty!
We then repeated this three times over the course of an hour or two. We ate a lot of rice soup as it was rude to refuse resulting in myself and Louis having an unhappy stomach for the rest of the day! Traditionally it’s good luck for a host to have lots of visitors during Nowruz. The more guest the host has the more prosperous their year is meant to be.
After finishing filming with Asholpan for the day we had two hours before sunset so decided to head up one of the mountains where we could see the whole town and the frozen river that runs through it. I managed to capture some really beautiful shots of the township and it gave me the opportunity to take everything in and appreciate what an incredible country Mongolia is!
We got up early and set off to Asholpans home. We filmed Asholpan and her mother preparing food for all the guests that were soon arriving – a continuation of the Nowruz celebrations. We filmed the family cleaning, collecting wood for the fire and getting everything setup for their new year!
Friends of the family began pouring into the one roomed house and also helped out with cooking the feast. Louis and myself sat in the corner of the room capturing everything. I felt very special being able to experience such a wonderful tradition and see how these beautiful nomadic people celebrated it. It made me realise that despite our differing backgrounds as humans we’re all very similar. Although I was in the middle of nowhere in this incredible landscape I felt very at home. The atmosphere was warm and generous and it felt like being back in New Zealand on Christmas day.
We spent the rest of the day capturing little personal and intimate moments with Asholpan before packing the cameras away and sitting down for our final tea. As it began to get dark we said our goodbyes and set off into the blackness beyond. It was hard leaving as I had begun to feel very attached to this beautiful family who’d let us share their life and celebrations over the past few days. I would miss them and remember them for a very long time!
Thank you – I’ll be back for sure!
We arrived back to our motel, grabbed some dinner and I crashed!! I literally had nothing left. I’d given the past few days everything I had. I slept like a baby and woke the next day feeling refreshed and ready for the epic journey back to London.
Boy what a crazy life this is and I’m so grateful for every moment!
What I found so moving about spending time in the Altai mountains was how family orientated everyone was, it was incredibly refreshing to be away from technology and to just connect with people on a personal level. It’s so important and is an essential part of our existence. We just sat around a table and drank tea. Chatting and laughing!
In London I’m often very focussed on keeping busy and working that I don’t make time to just enjoy the company of those who are around me. Being in Mongolia in the Altai mountains made me realise how important human connection is. It’s about appreciating what is happening here and now rather than wishing you were somewhere else with someone else.
Technology is a wonderful way to create opportunity but it’s important to put technology away, every know and then for an hour or two and just appreciate the company of the wonderful people who surround you and the amazing world that has always been there way before technology took over our existence. It doesn’t matter whether you connect with a family, friend or even a stranger on the train – just make sure you to take the time to connect with a smile or a friendly conversation.
Photos taken by: Asher Svidensky, Louis Thompkins, Sebastian Solberg and B.Baldyrgan