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Wrapped in my winter deel1, snug under two sheepskins, with my feet warmly encased in fur-lined boots Made in Mongolia, I navigate the unstable scree, making my way through snow patches to reach the three horseback hunters atop the hill. Perched on sharp rocks, Bakhbergen, Nuraï, and Kurmanbaï observe, their golden eagles perched on their forearms, ready to fly at the slightest signal. Meanwhile, Bekhen, Bakhbergen’s father, endeavors to spot foxes or rabbits below, using a medley of whistles, shouts, and stone throws. From this vantage point, we survey the valley still cloaked in the icy shadow of a lazy sun. The wind swiftly cools my body covered in sweat. The wait feels interminable, yet the eagles, their eyes concealed by handcrafted leather masks preventing them from being tempted to take flight at the slightest opportunity, remain composed. The vicinity reveals nothing; it’s time to move on. Bekhen, a vigorous 63-year-old, also on foot, exhibits remarkable stamina. Struggling to keep pace, I lag behind the proud cohort of hunters, resilient remnants of a culture sustained now in only a handful of villages—despite experiencing a resurgence of interest in recent years.

Eagle hunting is a leisurely, contemplative pursuit. We walk through a desert of snow-covered frozen rocks, ascending one hill after another, blown by the ever-present wind sweeping through the valley. Each scenic spot provides an opportunity to pause, observe, and scan for the small reddish or white dot that will come to life in the distance. Bekhen moves frantically in all directions, as if his life depends on it—all in vain. I can’t shake the feeling that today’s expedition is a lost cause, and truth be told, that’s not that bad considering I’m beginning to freeze. Bakhbergen, in his mellifluous voice, suggests we seek warmth at one of his aunt’s places “not far from here, on the other side of the hill.” I quickly lose sight of him and find myself alone, struggling to follow the tracks left by the horses on the thin layer of frozen snow, all while blisters form in the holes of my Chinese socks.

From a distance, I see Bakhbergen rushing towards me: “fox! fox!” He urges his horse to move as fast as possible along the slope, and I run down through the scree like a madman, my camera swinging and bouncing against my ribs to catch up with the hunters. Running in a deel is not ideal—no pun intended. The layers of wool make each step heavier, and the length of the tunic hinders my strides. I arrive breathless. The two golden eagles firmly grip a red fox in their talons, a devilish blend of curves and points. Formidable weapons. Is it dead? No, it still valiantly fights for its life, but its chances are slim. Bekhen holds its mouth closed to prevent it from attacking the eagles. It has already torn a talon from one of them; the bone is exposed. The hunters strive to loosen the grip of the raptors, but the eagles are hungry and excited by their catch. They peck at the fox as if it were already just a pile of meat, and up close, I regularly take wing flaps to the face. The scene is electric. The eagles must not damage the fox’s fur. With their leather gloves, the hunters try to grasp the talons and systematically undo them, one by one, offering pieces of meat to appease the fierce appetite of the predators. Then, Bekhen resumes the struggle against the fox. He grabs it by the throat and thrusts a stick into its mouth. Will he finish it off like this? The scene is brutal and clashes with my sanitized city-boy sensibility. Deep inside I hope the fox will survive, but its fate is sealed. Bekhen seizes it by the rear legs, previously tied, and spins it in a perfect circle before slamming its skull against the rocks with all his strength: “POC!” No unnecessary suffering, the goal is a swift death. I avert my gaze. A second plummet: “POC!” This time it’s dead (?). A final blow of the rock on the skull: one can never be too sure… There, it’s over. The creature that struggled like a demon now gazes towards infinity, its corneas tainted by dust. Bekhen hands me the carcass: “it’s for you!” I find it difficult to look at it in the eyes; I feel responsible for its death. They cut off the front legs: “one for each hunter,” explains Bakhbergen. They carefully stow them in their small pouches adorned with Kazakh motifs, replace the leather hood on their eagles’ heads, and mount their horses towards the small hamlet a few dozen meters away, content with their catch. There awaits a warm stove and liters of piping hot milk tea that we engulf in the company of the eagles, in the living room.

In our Western civilization, neatly packaged in cellophane, there’s a quick tendency to forget just how intricately life and death are intertwined—a timeless couple whose bonds cannot be severed. Without one, the other would cease to exist. Among the Kazakhs in Western Mongolia, this relationship is no taboo: to live, one must kill, and this understanding permeates from a young age. The climate in that region is such that without meat, no culture could have thrived. So, when winter arrives, the endless procession of trucks laden with sheep, goats, cows, and horses destined for the pantry seems unending. During this time of the year, be it in the city or the countryside, each family slaughters approximately ten sheep and goats, a cow, and a horse. It’s not uncommon to step out of a house and find oneself face to face with a sheep being slaughtered, or to enter a home where women are cheerfully cleaning intestines. For someone like me, who has always tried to slip away when the scent of death becomes too overwhelming, there’s no option but to confront it head-on.

Today, Bekhen has planned to slaughter eight sheep and goats. Knowing my aversion, he takes great pleasure in teasing me: “Me, sheep champion!” He then mimics the motion of a knife going back and forth under his throat, emitting gurgling sounds before bursting into laughter. Here, when a joke finds its way, it’s cherished and repeated endlessly; I’ll have to endure it every day, several times a day. Once outside, he seizes the first sheep by the horns and leads it towards the small wooden house that serves as a butchery/pantry. The animal barely struggles, as if it has already accepted its fate. Holding it close to him, he recites a prayer, then turns it upside down, enters the room, lays it on the ground, and ties its legs. The sheep doesn’t even resist. He delicately cuts its throat while holding its head. The blood flows to the rhythm of the heartbeats into a small stainless steel basin, and life leaves its gaze in a subtle transition—sheep, even alive, have vacant eyes. In the span of a minute, the animal transforms into meat. He removes the head, separates the skin from the steaming flesh, and hangs the body on a hook to cut the various pieces, which are then salted and hung to dry. Meanwhile, Saole, his wife, with her usual maternal gaze and a smile filled with tenderness, empties and cleans the animal’s intestines, playfully acknowledging that I’m photographing her. What is an unusual and discomforting spectacle for me is entirely natural for them. They witnessed it as children and now reproduce the same ritual every year. Once the first sheep is cut, Bekhen goes to get the next one, then another… The morbid procession lasts all afternoon, neighbors come to lend a hand, turning it into a social event. Of the eight animals, five have been slaughtered and prepared. It’s a Herculean task. My heart is turned upside down, and the heads of the deceased animals that sit in a basin at the entrance of the living room, waiting to be prepared, serve as a reminder that one day it will be my turn. Memento mori. At forty, it might be time for me to toughen up a bit.

Death, it seems, doesn’t stray far from human endeavors either. On an exceptionally cold day, I join Bakhbergen on horseback to assist a neighbor. He needs help loading a horse into his truck to bring it to the village for slaughter. Already there are Bekhen, one of Bakhbergen’s brothers, and other men. The will to live and the intelligence of horses, especially the semi-wild Mongolian ones, are incomparable to that of sheep. They’re ready to fight to preserve their right to life. We head towards the enclosure where the horses are restless, sensing something is amiss. Five men armed with lassos enter, knowing well that the operation is risky. The first attempt fails miserably. As soon as the rope touches the horse, it bolts, triggering a wild chase with the others. The enclosure is tight, demanding quick reactions to avoid getting trampled. After several tentative efforts, the lasso finally snags around the neck of a horse. It panics. The men, leaning backward and gripping the rope, exert all their strength, attempting to control the animal. However, their brute force is no match. They strategically use trunks in the enclosure to form angles, attempting to reduce the horse’s traction. Yet, one trunk collapses, they lose control, and the horse regains dominance. Bekhen’s brother falls, and the scene unfolds in slow motion. Attempting to rise and avoid an approaching horse, he takes two kicks to the face, collapsing, knocked out. The others drop the rope and rush to his aid, working swiftly to get him out of the enclosure. He holds his face, groaning in pain, and Bekhen, his father, remains by his side until he regains consciousness. The others return to the hunt. As a typical Westerner, I attempt to convey to Bakhbergen the urgency of taking his brother to the hospital, emphasizing the potential seriousness of the situation. He acknowledges my concern, but priorities here are different. Only after the horse is securely tied to the back of the truck, a good quarter of an hour later, can I make my voice heard. “OK. They’ll head down to the village and take him to the hospital,” he informs me in a neutral, almost indifferent tone. Whether said to reassure me or genuinely carried out, when I check in the next day, the brother is recovering well, and that’s the most important. They express warm gratitude for my inquiry: “rakhmet, rakhmet“—”thank you, thank you.”

I’m physically and mentally drained. My body is slowly giving in. Fatigue, upset stomach, cough, all I want to do is stay close to the fire and play the dombra, the two-stringed Kazakh guitar. I’m familiar with this feeling; it’s not the first time it’s happened to me. So, I push my weak body a little further, knowing that soon I’ll return to civilization and its comforts where I can rejuvenate. Today, there’s a wedding with our neighbors, and I can’t afford to miss it. Not having planned for it, I’m dressed like a sore thumb, standing out while the entire family is dressed to the nines–I’m getting used to this too. Kazakhs love to celebrate at the slightest opportunity. When I talk about a celebration, I’m not referring to a meal with a dozen people–that’s a normal meal–but rather an event with several dozens–hundreds in the city–of people. Every occasion is a good reason to celebrate: the first birthday of a child, their entry into primary school, the construction of a house, and so on. The wedding, of course, is one of these significant moments in life and deserves two celebrations: one at the bride’s family, followed by another at the groom’s family where she will go to live. The small winter house is just big enough to accommodate the guests. I struggle to understand where all these people come from in this vast, mostly uninhabited steppe. Each room hosts a small party with a different atmosphere. One room is filled with the youth, another with a feast for the elders where everyone sits on the floor on carpets, side by side, devouring the colorful food laid out on a long tablecloth–Kazakhs, much like the French, share this interest in food, even though we have two distinct ways of appreciating it. Another room becomes the gathering place for those wanting to down a few shots of vodka, and later transforms into the space where grandmothers take care of the babies. I encounter familiar faces, including my host from a few days ago. He looks at me seriously, nods his head while pointing to a woman, sometimes his wife, and repeatedly hits his palm against his fist in an obscene gesture before pushing her towards me, causing everyone to burst into laughter and making Bakhbergen uncomfortable. Of course, a joke is only funny when repeated endlessly. I’ll get it every time I cross paths with him throughout the day.

As I devour the cucumber and tomato slices covered in mayonnaise–damn, vegetables!–overlooked by the Kazakhs, even though it’s a sort of luxury here in the remote wilderness, the meat is abundant. Several sheep have been sacrificed for the occasion, and four times immense plates of boiled meat are served. Without fail, with each delivery, Bekhen looks straight into my eyes with his mocking smile: “sheep champion!” Then, he waves his finger under his throat, gurgling again. The joke never gets old. Before diving into the meat feast, he now adds: “Kazakh krokodil!” in reference to a comment Bakhbergen had made while we were watching a wildlife documentary at a neighbor’s place, where reptiles attacked a herd of wildebeests: “We Kazakhs are like crocodiles.” Meals are punctuated by breaks where guests come to make a donation to the family, thanking them and wishing them the best in a long speech recited with varying degrees of confidence. Then, the musician guests launch into a melancholic song accompanied by a dombra, an accordion, or even a cappella, quickly joined in chorus by the others. I discover in Bekhen a talent for playing the accordion, and in his son Bakhbergen, a voice of incredible beauty. Could a family of artists be hiding under this wild appearance? I discover in them a sensitivity that I wouldn’t have imagined after being so familiar with death in recent days. Could the Kazakh Krokodils be cute little lambs under their carnivorous scales?

  1. Traditional Mongolian dress. ↩︎

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