With the help of a local guide and translator, I traveled from the town of Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii province, to visit some of the semi nomadic  herding families who continue to live off the land in an extremely harsh environment.

Encompassing the western most areas of Mongolia, Bayan-Olgii is the country's only Muslim and Kazakh majority province, aimag.

Deep in the Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia meet, Kazakh people have for centuries developed  and nurtured a special bond with golden eagles, training the birds to hunt foxes and other animals.

Alankish, an eagle hunter, animal herder and father of two, said that he looks after his eagle ''as if she were a baby.''

The ancient custom of hunting with  eagles on a horseback is traditionally passed down from father to young sons and considered a great source of pride.

''All Kazaks love to train eagles,'' said Alankush. ''Now we keep eagles mostly because it's a traditional sport.''

Serik Gingsbeck, who was 26 when I met him, is a well-known and accomplished eagle hunter, sportsman and horse hunter. He talked at length with me about his special relationship with his eagle.

''If my eagle feels bad, I feel bad,'' he said. ''If she's happy, I'm happy. When we go the mountains, we share everything together.''

In recent generations, Kazakh families have migrated from the countryside to urban areas, partly to improve access to health care, education, social services and employment opportunities.

Among those who have stayed, the ancient practice of eagle hunting has provided some families with an additional source of income from the visitors who pay to see the birds in action.

The daily demands of a traditional herding family's life can leave little time for additional education or the pursuit of personal ambitions away from home.

Given their physically demanding lifestyles, parents who work as herders often send their children to boarding school in towns and cities, sometimes far from home, in the hope that their children will secure more comfortable futures.

Despite having lived his entire life in the mountains, Alankush said he hopes for a different path for his children. ''I don't have an education, and I'm not young,'' he told me. ''If I were young, maybe I'd go to Olgii to work - but for me it's better to stay in the countryside.''

''Countryside life is very hard, especially for children,'' he said. ''That's why I send my children to school. If they finish university, I hope they'll find jobs in the city.''

Such parental ambitions may result in the eventual disappearance of a culture and a way of life that has survived for generations.

Outwardly, documenting the traditional ways of life in Western Mongolia illuminates the human struggle not just to survive, but to build a better future for oneself and one's family.

That universal struggle can be found in  situations of conflict, occupation and forced emigration, just as it can be found in the circumstances of a nomadic people subsisting on what many would consider meager resources.

And despite the differences in the surroundings and scope of the challenges faced by the people I met, I felt a connection - and shared a common language - with the Kazakh horsemen, through our mutual affinity with horses.

Kazakh people follow centuries-old paths at the center of Asia.

The World Students Society thanks author Claire Thomas.


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