It was her long-held fascination with Mongolian horse culture that initially led Italian photographer Chiara Luxardo to the annual Naadam Festival—a traditional gathering focused on celebrating the country’s nomadic spirit, with a history stretching back to the days of Genghis Khan.
One of the festival’s highlights are the cross-country horse races in which children as young as five compete. Indeed, the horse is entrenched in Mongolian culture, not only for their multitude of uses but also for their lifelong companionship and the sense of pride they give their owners, a feeling which is stamped upon the hearts of the Mongolian people.
During the weeks of the festival, Luxardo spent time living amongst herding families where she was welcomed with nothing but generosity and kindness; homes that Luxardo says were “always open for anyone.” Against the backdrop of the Mongolian steppe, she presents an insightful, beautiful series that delves into a community whose lives and daily rhythms are dictated by the unpredictability of nature.
LensCulture contributing writer Eva Clifford spoke with Chiara Luxardo to find out more about how she approached the project and her thoughts on the future of these youth-dominated communities.
LC: Where are you from and how does this inform the work you’ve done in Mongolia?
CL: I grew up on a farm near the city of Milan. We had horses on our farm and most of my close family worked with them in some capacity (for professional sport or as veterinarians and riding instructors).
I remember listening to my family discuss horses every day of my childhood and I loved hearing how obsessively passionate they were about these animals.
LC: Can you tell us a bit about how this project started?
CL: I’ve always been fascinated with Mongolian horse culture and nomadic lifestyles tied to nature. When I heard about the Naadam Festival, I thought it would be an incredible opportunity to experience the country and explore some of my passions.
Dating from Genghis Khan’s time, the Naadam Festival includes wrestling, horse racing and archery games; a celebration of the country’s nomadic spirit. I was particularly interested in the horse races, where children from 5 to 12 years old compete in cross country races that can stretch up to 40 km. During the festival’s duration, I lived with herding families whose children participated in the races. Staying with them enabled me to really experience their daily activities and rhythms.
LC: How did you gain access into these isolated communities and how long did you spend photographing the nomads?
CL: I spent three weeks in central and northern Mongolia and lived with three different families. I was extremely lucky because they were relatives of my local contacts in Ulaanbaatar who helped me arrange everything with their family members. English was very limited, but the experience taught me the huge role and importance of non-verbal communication for the first time.
LC: What appealed to you most about their lifestyle?
CL: I was most drawn to the communities’ intimate relationship with nature. As if they were all one, the human-animal-nature interdependency was so familiar and natural that everything seemed to work in complete harmony.
Still, nomadic life is one of hard work, discipline, and dedication. Nature dictates the rhythms of daily life and living creatures honor its force and generosity with filial gratitude. Perhaps it is this universal communion that makes Mongolians the most hospitable and generous population that I have ever met. Ghers (Mongolian tents) are always open for anyone, at any time of the day, be that a break from a long journey or the joy of a chat accompanied with airag (fermented horse milk)—or vodka. When I was there, I felt that Ghers were like live social networks based on real encounters where people shared and communed with friends and strangers alike.
LC: What role do horses play in their lives?
CL: “A man without a horse is like a bird without wings,” is a famous Mongolian proverb, and its meaning was brought to life when I visited.
Horses are at the centre of Mongolian culture; they are used for traveling, hunting, herding and sport. Children even learn how to horseback ride immediately after they learn how to walk. My perception was horses are true life companions, representing pride and joy.
LC: You mention in your statement that more than a quarter of Mongolia’s population is under 14 years of age. Do you see the nomads losing their connection with nature in the future?
CL: Mongolia has an extremely young population, among the youngest in all of Asia, and there is a general trend among youth to migrate towards the cities. This shift is perhaps influenced by the promise of a new life and better opportunities for livelihood. Young people are also exposed virtually to many different realities and lifestyle possibilities and thus are not as embracing of a hard, devoted life as in the past.
On top of all this, climate change has been very harsh on Mongolia over the past decade, resulting in both desertification and extreme winter weather. Temperatures have, at times, fallen below -40 ℃, sweeping away entire herds of animals and forcing families who are left with nothing to relocate to Ulaanbaatar. For example, one of the families that I stayed with became nomadic less than two thirds of the year and moved to a small town where their animals could be protected during the harsher months.
However, in the face of all these obstacles, it is the Mongolian spirit that ultimately charges forward. To look at a storm of horses galloping across the steppe or the striking image of a man in traditional dress holding two tin buckets with nothing behind him but the open landscape—it is at those moments that it doesn’t seem like things will be changing any time soon…
—Chiara Luxardo, interviewed by Eva Clifford