Revisting Mongolia

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Digital Imaging Ambassador

If someone asked me where do you see yourself in 10 years, Cover of Rolling Stones? Yeah right, you don’t wanna hear me try make music. 10 years is out of the question let alone three years. But three years ago I did visit Mongolia and knew i’d be back. Going back there was one trip that made me nervous for but the same excited.
Challenges of Stefan Haworth on a solo horse trekking expedition in Mongolia
The first time I went to Mongolia was pretty hectic experience. It wasn’t experience I’d pay for but not something I regret or want to change. The first time I set out was to teach myself how to ride horse on my own. But the thing was there’s a series of unforeseen events that happened. I became a ‘town hero’ pulling a child’s body from the water after they have been searching for a week. And that’s just the short version so I was naturally unsure what to expect this time.

Click here for the full read to get a proper understanding of the background of the first trip.

I grew a tight bond with the family I stayed with last time in Mongolia. The thing was we spoke different languages, there’s no Internet to Google translate. It was all down hand gestures. I still stay in touch with the family through facebook which makes brief small chat. Catching me off guard the son invited me to his wedding. I gotta say I’m quite spontaneous, this was so out of the blue, it gave me instant nervousness and excitement to commit to it.
Okay let me stop you there, I missed the wedding. I’ll tell you now I got the wrong month. There was a slight miscommunication there and time I needed to save money for such a trip. When I was ready with the Visa, I booked my flights three days out and told the family I was coming. Not sure if they believed me if I was not… but hey I was back in Mongolia driving in old van along a bumpy dirt road through the mountains listening to some Russian music. I wasn’t exactly ready for the cold, I’m talking very cold. Mongolia can reach raw temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius. I’m had not been anywhere near close to that.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect based on last time.I had a big filthy moustache last time, I was jokingly thinking in my head I really hope at this point they don’t erect statue of me with this moustache. I had no plan for this trip other than to live with this family, work on the farm and help around. To be fair I was also very excited to capture more imagery.
Finding new adventures in this modern world seems to be getting harder find in my opinion, Long gone other days of untouched cultures, for me this seemed the closest thing to it. There is so much beauty and knowledge in the raw, unforgiving habitat they live in.
My first night was -20, that was okay but being that that was the only the start of the temperature drop had me worried. I woke up with the ice from my breath all over my sleeping bag. Need I point out that my tent was the only three season. We bent most of the pegs as we couldn’t hammer them in. The ground was frozen like concrete. A solution I thought of was to freeze rocks to the ground… you just hope you don’t have a warm day haha. The family invited me inside their new home, I didn’t want to depend on them. I toughed it out for a week till then one day the remaining pegs were snapped in the ground after the cow knocked over my tent so I happily moved into the warm home. One thing I didn’t think about in my determination to stay In the tent was the temperature killing my batteries.
Their home was a building in progress last time I was there and they lived in yurts, a round dome style tent with a fire in the middle. This was a big upgrade, a mud brick building and covered in paint, had a TV, cupboards, couch. I got given a room where I could sleep on the floor. Looking back the remaining 3 weeks would have been a struggle in that tent.
I find Mongolia one of the most unique countries in the world, which is why I love it. In my opinion the people are some of the most caring and kind cultures I’ve experienced. My theory is that being that they are nomadic and landscape of Mongolian being so harsh, they really care for one another, be it strangers or neighbours. Without knowing you they will invite you inside and once you have a warm cup of tea with food you will greet one another. I’ve read they would leave food at the doorstep in case of a passerby if they are out.

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Tears of joy were shared upon my arrival, family members running up to greet me. Serikjan, the son I could say is one of the closest friends i’ve connected with yet despite not speaking the same language. I got to meet his newlywed wife and all his nephews that have grown up. Sitting at the table catching up on several cups of chai, I can tell it was rushed. For an understanding of how our communication goes, tapping of the wrist means time, fast movements means busy, slitting of the throat means killing, a line down the stomach means gutting, complimentary of sounds that reasonably resembled a goat. Our conversations was a great game of charades really. I can happily say I’m very qualified and you’d want me on your team.
Walking into one of the sheds I could see why they were busy, the room was full. The start of each winter when the outside temperature drops enough to constantly keep meat frozen they begin their winter butcher for food. Let me describe the Mongolian diet, meat, meat and more meat. This wouldn’t be a destination high up on the vegan’s list in honesty. So walking into the room, let me describe it to you, dirt floors, some car tyres, smashed window, a fireplace and some tarpaulins. It wouldn’t be the first place I would think to be butchering meat yet this place was full of people and they made it work efficiently. Everyone had their station. Five neighbouring families help one another family for a day to get their winter butcher, they all help to get the job done. Five goats, one cow, one horse. The men would do the heavy lifting, killing, skinning, and meat cuts. The woman would do the guts, maintain the fire, constantly getting water and boiling big pots to clean the guts, carry and hang all the meat. It was an equal task for both genders, both just as hardworking.
I’ve eaten a lot of different meat in my travels, some knowingly, some unknowingly. I’ve hunted and i’ve gutted animals. One that we regard as a pet in New Zealand wasn’t the same here, that was something new for me, watching a horse get killed from meat for the family. It’s a pretty intense moment to experience.
When you give a birthday gift or a wedding gift, any sort of gift, it’s sometimes not touched for months or years, or maybe even re-gifted. Watching Serikjan struggle with his knife gave me the perfect opportunity to give his wedding gift, a hunting knife. Within minutes he was rushing back to the shed, all members of the room were in awe of his new shining knife. Smiles and nods of approval were given my way. I didn’t really expect the knife to be used so soon in such a way. I don’t think many people could say their gifts were instantly use to butcher of horse.
I can understand people will stop reading right here and not agree with their culture. An animal is an animal, eating beef or a cow as you put really isn’t too much different. Its what we have done for centuries. Please take in respect to their culture, this is their way of life. There’s no growing tomatoes, there’s no growing lettuce, the land is too harsh. I have the utmost respect for their way of life, they are more sustainable the most of the developed world. I would say this family lives more sustainable that 99% of you reading this. They don’t waste anything, everything gets reused or has a place to be used again. The animals roam free, they migrate different pastures of the seasons, they only sustain animals for what they can use. The Meat for meals, bones for soups and toys for the children, skins for warmth, leather for ropes, poo collected for the fire, they milk the horses, milk cows, they make butter, cheese, curd and yoghurt. They only purchase flour, salt, tea and sugar. There’s a purpose to everything. They make fermented horse milk as beer which is questionable. There is no wastage and very little purchased. One I aspire to their way of living. I’ve learnt so much. The sacrifice in such a harsh environment is that the diet is very limited. Consider yourself very lucky to live the way you do.
I didn’t just rock up wanting to take photos, disturbing their working life. I arrived with the intension to roughen up my hands, help out around place and with the livestock. Being winter, the temps were dangerous. There was a routine which filled most of the day. Some days without spacetime but I enjoyed it thoroughly with Serikjan. I didn’t care about collecting poo, we were always making games out of things. Or he was singing away. There were any bothers. The outside world didn’t exist. It was basic and pure. I typed out a huge page of the list of tasks to do from collecting poo to milking to mustering. When we did get spare time sometimes we would just go inside for an hour or two to warm up. The fun days we’d go for an eagle hunt up in the hills or go ride to neighbours home for chai and chat.
I have been in some pretty cold conditions but for me this was next level. The cold wasn’t as obvious, there wasn’t hanging icicles or frosts to wake up to. It didn’t look as cold, it was still dusty. I guess all the moisture was already frozen. That left making any sort of judgement, hard to go by. Yes, the river was frozen solid and we could ride over it with horses, anything on the ground was now glued till spring, cow poo would freeze overnight, ice would form in my beard from my breath. I got that it was cold, I’ve felt my fair share of freezing temps, cold to the core, numb hands. That wasn’t a shock for me. It was the fact I got hypothermia without realising. Everyday we were doing a lot of physical work so naturally we stayed warm in our layers of clothing. It was very apparent how quickly cold bare skin got though, so thankful I took ski gloves. I can understand why they drink 10 cups of chai’s, It warms the core, then we were good to go again for more outdoor work. I didn’t take note how key it was to staying warm, but now I know.
Awareness is key, but I lacked that while on a 5 hour ride. I was so focused on taking images, controlling the horse, the pain of my ass on Mongolian saddles, burns from not having proper riding boots. My cold fingers taking on and off the gloves became main focus. Those seemed to overpower my body shutting down. But with the cold, yeah I lost feeling, yeah, I got big shakes. It didn’t feel like anything extreme. I could say I more vividly remember other times in New Zealand hiking in the rain, crossing rivers in -15 degrees, sleeping in a wet sleeping bag, shoes frozen. This wasn’t like that. It wasn’t until I got back and 3 days later I realised the amplitude of the effects it had on me. I was exposed to cold for longer than I expected, underdressed, unaware, exposed to colder windchill along with headwinds from riding. Going from -25 outside during the day to inside at 30 degrees was a big shock. I laid on the couch hiding how cold I was, not hungry, disorientated, couldn’t make my mind up with being too hot or too cold, exhausted, my core took 3 days to get warm again. I didn’t see this at the time, didn’t cross my mind too much. Figured I was just a bit cold or possibly sick, maybe early stages of hypothermia. It wasn’t till I was back in New Zealand killing time in a hut reading a book about hypothermia and the different levels. Turns out based on the chart of symptoms I was on the severe level. That shocked me, seeing that and putting all the pieces together was eye opening to the seriousness in conditions like that. Bit of a learning that I guess.
Going from outside to in, as mentioned above was a dramatic 60 degree change in temp. My body would be hit with warmth. It would be humid from the family cooking inside throughout the day. A problem I had to adjust to, was my camera gear would instantly condensate and be foggy. It would take 30mins before it came to room temperature. I learnt to leave it outside incase I was going out again or else the moisture would then freeze inside over components and out including the lens. There were many moments inside that I wish I had left a camera inside purely for those moments. While being outside I just had to watch with my batteries incase they start dying or safely keep them in my pockets closer to my body warmth.
For a bit of a funny note, I’m yet to meet someone that enjoys a long drop. Im not talking about famous scenic ones because those are nice. I’m talking about the overall time while using one, the smells and sights. It’s not something you’d rave about on Tripadvisor. What’s ideal with the Mongolian long drops though, it’s out in the open so you get a fair bit of nice fresh air since it’s always windy in Mongolia, but maybe a bit too much air if you ask me, my bum got pretty cold. You have to walk out 100m to this corrugated iron surrounded hole, two planks of wood going across this pit where you place each foot and squat. Easy as. Here’s the catch, being so cold, poo freezes, It becomes an ever mounting pyramid of soft serve that grows per day. I would hate to know what it looks like at the end of winter as it was steadily gaining in height rapidly. This is where it becomes interesting. My first time in Mongolia was a lot warmer, I washed myself in the river but since it was frozen solid this time, I couldn’t shower for a month. I was pretty glad I stocked up on wet wipes from all the plane rides. It was an absolute luxury. Mongolian toilet paper is like newspaper with a rough texture, it’s on the opposite side of the scale. It hurts. I came up with the genius plan to spit on the paper first. Worked a dream. I came up with a better plan. Wet the toilet paper in the house. At 100m away who wants to walk in the cold to the long drop then spend more time with their bum out to the bitter wind at -20. Not me, so I did my business and prepare to wipe. Big problem, the toilet paper was frozen solid to my hand. That left me in a pickle with my bum out overhanging the long drop. Needless to say I wasn’t doing that again.
Photography gear i took:
-Sony a7RIII
-Sony a7RIII
-24mm f/1.4 GM
-55mm f/1.8
-85mm f/1.8
-70-200mm f/4
-several Sony 128GB tough Cards
-2x microphones (needed back up fluffy cat cover)
-Manfrotto modo tripod + spare mount
-Macbook Pro 15” Touch Bar + padded cover
-1x SSD 1TB + 5TB HDD + 3TB HDD in a lens pouch.
-2x 10,000Mhz USB battery chargers
-headtorch + gloves
-fstop tilopa + large ICU + rain cover
-cords, Chargers, Lens cleaners, sensor cleaner, spare lens caps
For a full list of my gear I use including outdoor gear click here
Horseback riding in Mongolia is a given, you’re on them when you’re young, if you’re still too young you’re trying to ride the goats instead. Their skill is something else like nothing I’ve seen before. They will have competitions hanging off the side of the horse to pick up a rock off the ground. Bare in mind these horses are smaller but more brave and agile. I’d consider them more like mountain goats as they climbed up mountains better than most humans. I’ve never seen horses go places like that before. We had an afternoon tracking down some lost horses which were galloping away, Serikjan set off in full gallop to intersect them before they snuck over the river, it was the most rutted out knee height lumps for 300m, he was able to ride over and weave between it all at full pace. I was in total amazement, at first I thought he didn’t see what he was going into but no it was as if it was nothing to him. Any western experienced rider wouldn’t even consider it. My riding experience improved dramatically, not just the gradients and terrain we rode. But also rounding up the horses. I got to use the champion horse and I could see why it won so many medals. It was fast, it acted almost as it if it was a sheep dog, it was one step ahead of me knowing if it had to turn around and push them into the right direction. It would leap over ditches with determination like it had a passion to go fast and get the job done. Such an amazing combination between us.
I have never gotten an image of myself riding properly and without speaking the same language it was very difficult to explain how to use my camera. A static images was fine but moving was hit and miss. I thought I would try it myself, set on a tripod and on interval timer. I’d race off on the horse, sharp turn and another sharp turn as if barrel riding. The horse felt confused like it couldn’t see what I was rounding up so it felt held back. I’d return back to the camera to check image position, or when it captured the photo or focusing. Back on the horse a few times later the horse was kicking at the ground, ready, like it knew what was happening, Each time it would race to get back to the camera like it was eager to see the camera, hovering over my shoulder to look at what I was looking at. The routine had already kicked in. It was a race course for him and didn’t need instructing. A loop around and drop me off again. The eagle had a pretty full on name which doesn’t translate very Kindly, but the horse didn’t have a name. So the family would understand a name I gave it I felt it had to be something I can do with charades. So it was called “THUNNDERRR”. Serikjan really like mimic’ing the way I said it too.
On the note of bareback riding, it was my goal in Mongolia to learn how to. It doesn’t look pleasant but just a skill I want to master. My first morning getting the horses from the paddock was that moment. Directed to just jump up and follow behind him. I was up and we were moving, the horse was ready for the day before I was fully on. I realised at that moment we didn’t have reins, only one rope to one side. The only direction I could go was to the left or more left if need be. Now I was just going around in circles unable to get it to go more right. Serikjan was laughing away then demonstrated you have to learn over and flick the rope around to the other side of the head each time you want to change direction. That was my first laugh. Trotting, simply wasn’t a laugh at all, that doesn’t count as the second laugh. My second was getting off the horse. I was now super confident and filming myself ride, I went to hop off, forgot there wasn’t a foot rest thing since there was no saddle. I found out very quickly when my full weight went to nothing and I ended up winded on the ground. It wasn’t just the horse looking down at this muppet. I was the laughing… stock of the yard. Ha get it. Stock… yeah good one Stefan. Guess I got the last laugh.
When we did get spare time and we went off an eagle hunts, sometimes we went solo, or a neighbour would come with us. We had several spots we’d visit, some close, some far. The purpose was to catch a hare or even better a fox.
Here’s an example of how we communicate say for instance asking the question of ‘how many fox’s had the neighbour caught in his lifetime’. First I’d point at him and say ‘you’, put my hands to the side and shrug my shoulders saying “how many”, then count on my hands, finally saying “fox” pointing to the “fox” skin. I would repeat it over for their understanding. I would hear the mumble under their breath “fox”. He showed one finger, then five. So was it six, or 15? He drew in the dirt 15. After each communication I’d be very enthusiastic and amazed. For anyone that spoke English it would come across over the top but this was to support their confidence in a foreign language. It allows them to open up more and try harder to have a conversation. So I usually raise my eyebrows and open my mouth in amazement or give them two thumbs up while also saying “good good” or “very good” which I don’t know why but I would say it in a Borat accent.
So the neighbouring eagle hunter I guess would be in as late 30s, possibly the early 40s. He had caught 15 foxes in his lifetime. Serikjan, 5. I figured my chances to see a fox get caught were very slim. Nope as soon as we got to the top of the hill there was a mad rush, adrenaline was pumping at the sight of the sprinting fox, unhooding the Eagles, calling “KAA” for them to fly. Eventually three birds in the sky, there’s no time to waste but one of the eagle already had it in its claws. It had swooped down with speed, we had to get down there before it was killed and ripped apart. These Mongolian horses were like goats going up over the rocks, and exactly the same going down. They gunned it with pace. I wasn’t a huge fan of the next part where they keep the fox alive, take it home and let the eagle practice before skinning it so they could eventually make a coat. But thats just what they do and I was there to experience it.
I was pretty lucky to be trusted with one of the eagles while hunting on a few occasions. On my second day I got to release the eagle where it dove and caught a fox. Sadly it got out of the grips of my eagle. It is a pretty special honour to be given that trust. They treat the eagle like a family member. The care for it like their own child. That evening sitting at the dinner table I puffed out my chest, raised my eyebrows, put on a silly voice, “ae, ae, me… one fox… me, Champion”, “Me, eagle hunter”. The family looked in amazement, Serikjan hiding is grin behind the bowl of Tea. I gave in and admitted got away followed by the laughter from the family.
We didn’t have much luck from that day on, it was pretty slim pickings. These images I’ve taken weren’t posed images or staged because of a magazine deadline. No, we did it because we enjoyed it hunting together. It was also a time to socialise what other neighbours. We would get our daily chores done, excited to go eagle hunting in the afternoon. We had the routine sussed it turned into an everyday occurrence. Living and working on this farm gave me the opportunity to capture such intimate and real imagery. Each photo I feel connected with, a real passion behind them. Yes, I could’ve rocked up, asked for this shot or this shot but it wouldn’t have been the same.
I don’t mean to go on about the connection I have with Serikjan and the family, I simply struggle to express in words. I still vividly remember Serikjan pulling my exhausted body from the water, taking me across the river on the back of the horse to warm up in front of the fire. Enough was enough, I was on my last legs. We didn’t need to speak the same language to understand each other the way we do. Even if my first Mongolian trip happened the way it did or not I still think we’d still have that same bond. There were times eagle hunting I’d look over that same spot from mountain top. Kinda daunting, kinda nervy. Hoping next time that I visit, I gain the courage to face that spot.
It’s quite cool after all that I even got to teach the eagle something. Sometimes the eagle’s perch, a wooden 3 legged stool, tips over. Eventually someone would notice, one of the men would get the leather Eagle glove, fix the stool, lift them up, reattach the dangerous claws to the perch. It would just be awkward as the eagle seems like it was ready to go for a hunt when you pick it up. It didn’t always understand you’re just helping it back up. I thought I’d skip that step, I’d fix the perch, tapped on top of it as if it was my own dog telling it to hop up on the couch. The Eagle leapt up on the perch. I’d like to say we hi-five’d after this but I wasn’t messing with those talons. It’s a bit different saying ‘give us paw’ verse “give us a claw”. Showing the family the new track is pretty cool, they were amazed. Mark this day down, I’m a man of many talents. Now refer to me is Stefan Haworth, the great eagle tamer.
The final evening was pretty tough, Serikjan took me out eagle hunting, he knew that’s what I enjoyed. I could tell he wanted to make me happy. Setting up the tripod, so we can both be in the photo, I noticed him tear up multiple times. It wasn’t just then, it was also the days leading up to this. Deep down you could see he was hurting, he wasn’t looking forward to the next day. Neither was I. Last time leaving sucked too, I didn’t realise it but when I went away for seven days, on my quick return and final goodbye. Serikjan wasn’t to be found, he was away. I then clicked why he was so upset, he walked off in tears and couldn’t face me go, he knew he wouldn’t see me again. It hurt returning, asking and learning he was away. Now I understand why he was that upset. I guess over there, the neighbours are so far, the town too. Having a best friend that you really got along with wasn’t as easy and common. Of all my travels, the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had can’t compare with this.
So that final eagle hunt was pretty special. He took me over to a new mountain where we got to watch some the sunset. We were just talking but not really as much joking. Just dreading the next day. After dinner sitting on the couch with the kids, a van rocked up in the dark. Everyone was shocked, I didn’t understand what was happening. They pointed at me in question, “Stepp’n you?” “No” I worriedly replied. My heart was racing, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, my flight was tomorrow, my goodbyes were tomorrow. My driver had driven hours to pick me up, I couldn’t turn him around. It was so stressful trying to figure out the right or wrong thing to do. The driver decided to come earlier as he was worried since there’s a snowstorm coming. And now the problem was that we wouldn’t be able to start the van in the morning due to the dangerous temperatures. The driver understood how stressed I was, I guess he could see the tears in my eyes. It was settled, the driver would sleep on the couch, and we’d risk not making a flight in the morning.
During that time I didn’t notice that Serikjan had left the room. After it had settled down I realised and looked for him. I found him in another room laying on the ground tearing his eyes out. His wife comforting him, he was embarrassed and try to cover it up. I laid down with them, cuddling and ended out crying too. He was absolutely boobing. Not something I’d imagine I could cause to a man of my age. The kids came over worried, then all started cuddling us too. We got the giggles how silly we must look. Trying to gather ourself, sitting up and puffing out the tears.
That short lived evening wasn’t easy, it felt like being on a knife edge. I woke up early, well before the sun rose, my bags moved to the door, I noticed the driver wasn’t on the couch. Looking out the window there’s a fire under the van. My heart dropped, I layered up to brace the cold. It was okay but the driver had been up for hours tending a fire under the engine, keeping it warm so it doesn’t freeze over. Now I understand the risk I took and why he arrived to take me last night. The van now had a flat battery. Flights to the main city only go certain times a week. Missing this flight means I wouldn’t be making it back to New Zealand either. I was slightly worried at this stage, I had never seen a fire under a car and snow was coming in. We still had a snow covered mountain range to cross too. Serikjan and his brother scrambled outside to help push. No hope on this ice. Eventually with a lot of struggle we got it moving, it puttered and banged. The roaring engine wasn’t allowed to stop now, we had to get it warm, we had a plane to make. I think if it wasn’t for that struggle it would have made the good bye a lot harder.
It was hard enough writing this without tearing up. A huge thank you to Serikjan and his family. Couldn’t have asked for a better time. Truely was an unforgettable experience once again. There was already talk of going back to Mongolia with my father. Think I’m going to make that one happen.

If you missed out on the first trip to mongolia, give it a read here.

Also did a Q&A’s with Will and Bear if you want to read too. Click HERE

@Stefan_haworth on Instagram