The tent was large — Kazakh-style, decorated with embroidered wall-hangings and photos of family members, including an image of a young girl in traditional Kazakh dress holding an eagle. Medals hung next to a large fur stole. The setting was simple — the story complex.
I was in Mongolia to meet Ashol-Pan, the young sensation who, in early 2014, took Mongolia and the world by storm when photographs of her hunting with her pet golden eagle, Akh-Khanat (“White Wing”) went viral on social media. The pictures, taken by Asher Svidensky, told the story of the sole young woman trained in the traditional Kazakh art of falconry. A little over a year later, I traveled with a three-person crew across the far western Mongolian province of Bayan-Olgii to interview Ashol-Pan and her mother for Learning from Lhagva, a documentary film highlighting the impact of new media technologies on Mongolian nomadic women.
Ashol-Pan, the now 14-year-old Mongolian/Kazakh celebrity who rose to fame online, is a primary example of the potential of new media technologies to transform the lives of nomadic women. In January, 2016, Ashol-Pan will star alongside her family in Eagle Huntress, a documentary that follows her life in the remote mountains of Tsambagarav Uul National Park. The film will also call attention to the rapidly disappearing tradition of eagle hunting.
A day earlier, Ashol-Pan’s mother, Almagul, sat in front of the camera and talked about her daily life, oriented around caring for livestock and making dairy products and food for her family. She has never eagle-hunted, although she often feeds and cares for her daughter’s and husband’s eagles. She has a Samsung cellphone, which she uses infrequently, and watches D-dish television occasionally with her family — especially films in Mongolian. She likes technology, but is in no way attached to it. She is proud of her daughter’s fame, but then, she is proud of all of her four children. And while she feels that technology has played a role in her daughter’s celebrity status, she does not have a desire to use technology more regularly. She is satisfied with her life.
At the end of the interview, I asked: “How has fame changed your daughter’s life?” Almagul smiled. “We’ve been very lucky. I’m very proud of my daughter. But, I also worry about her. In Mongolia, we have this belief that fame is bad luck. So, I worry that too much fame will bring my daughter bad luck.”
The following day, Ashol-Pan dressed up for us in an embroidered vest, a mint-green dress and traditional feather-tipped fur hat. We had spent the past few days playing pick-up basketball and sharing meals with her family and I felt protective of the young woman in front of me. I asked her about eagle hunting — the techniques she was taught by her father. She told me about Akh-Khanat, her pet eagle which she found in the neighboring mountains and artfully trained. She explained how she took it from its nest when it was still a chick and brought her home. With Golden Eagles, traditional gender roles are reversed, and the females hunt while the males guard the nest. Ashol-Pan took care of Akh-Khanat “like a baby,” feeding and cuddling her, building her trust. In the spring, she trained her to hunt, luring her with small rodents attached to a string. As we talked about the process, Ashol-Pan’s eyes glowed. Clearly, eagle hunting is central to her life and identity. But, it will not become her sole occupation. In a few years, she plans to leave her nomadic lifestyle behind, moving to Ulaanbaatar to become a doctor. When she leaves home, her younger sister will take over from her, and another young woman will have a chance to carry forward the art of falconry.
Until that time, Ashol-Pan will continue to hunt and compete. In October, 2014, she beat 40 of the province’s best eagle hunters for the winning title at Olgii’s annual Eagle Festival. She proudly pointed to a photograph of her posing with actress Michelle Rodriguez. “She came to the Eagle Festival and I met her,” she told our translator. I couldn’t help wondering how much Ashol-Pan knew about Michelle Rodriguez before her own launch to fame. But when I finally asked her about her celebrity role — about how fame has changed her life — Ashol-Pan’s voice faltered. “She doesn’t really know,” our translator explained.
Ashol-Pan looked down, shyly. When she looked up, her eyes were bright. She told me that in January, for the first time, she will travel to New York City with her parents for the premiere of Eagle Huntress. She will realize her childhood dream of visiting the United States.
Before the end of our interview, we walked outside for a short photo session. Ashol-Pan, unaffected and comfortable in front of the camera, seamlessly guided her eagle onto her arm. The night before, we had given Ashol-Pan the Sony video cam to personally film the footage of her eagle for the documentary; we wanted her to not only ‘be documented’, but to ‘document.’ She moved the lens carefully, patiently — learning how to capture her eagle’s movements. She looked natural in the role of videographer.
Technology and media have empowered Ashol-Pan and her family — giving them more financial stability and a sense of pride in their cultural heritage. Unlike many other nomads in the area, Ashol-Pan and her elder brother have new iPhones, which they proudly use to communicate on a regular basis. Through new media technologies Ashol-Pan’s story has reached millions, if not billions, around the world, simultaneously inspiring other nomadic women in Mongolia and calling attention to the rich tradition of falconry. Yet it is easy to see how this sudden burgeoning in media technology could strain traditional nomadic values — based on a herding lifestyle, family cohesiveness, and in-person communication.
Right now, Ashol-Pan is arguably the most famous nomad in Mongolia. But if the current technological trend continues, her fame is only the beginning.