In the shadows of the Altai Mountains live the Kazakh nomads of western Mongolia. These hard-living nomads survive on windswept steppes, grazing their herds and keeping an ancient practice alive: hunting not with traps or guns, but on horseback with golden eagles. The Mongolian Chronicles recounts a story of this untamed world, seen through the eyes of artist, writer, and traveller Allen Smutylo. Smutylo lived with seven eagle hunters and their families for several weeks over two years, affording him rare insight into a disappearing culture.
I was aboard an eighty-year-old, round-hulled wood boat—an ark, more or less—when I saw a sea eagle, the second I’d seen in my life, akin to the golden eagle. Which, as Allen Smutylo writes in The Mongolian Chronicles, are neither endangered nor rare but far from common. The sighting felt as though I’d been admitted to some sort of exclusive club, a secret avian order. Seeing that eagle soar across vast Arctic sky was as mesmerizing as cloud gazing—intoxicating and freeing, leaving an intense connection to the majestic bird in flight.
The golden eagle, one of the largest raptors in the world, interested me all by itself. I knew these magnificent birds were not classified as endangered or even as rare, yet they were far from common. In all my travels, I’d never spotted one. A friend who is a professional ornithologist assured me that a golden eagle sighting, at any time and any place, is especially noteworthy.
In The Mongolian Chronicles, Allen Smutylo shares with us firsthand encounters experienced over multiple trips to the land of Genghis and Kublai Khan. Imagery conjures visuals of high arid steppes, yurts, thundering archers on horseback, and of course Marco Polo in the Khan’s court. With the same patience and skill of a falconer, Smutylo guides us through a land, a history—past and present, and a culture, sharing it through original artwork and prose. This book is a beautiful blend of media—a well-crafted adventure travel memoir, illustrated with rich and vibrant paintings. Together we live and hunt with falconers and their golden eagles—perhaps the most difficult, demanding and dangerous hawking bird.
His extraordinary narrative is set within the context of Mongolia’s turbulent past—the long shadow cast by the empire of Genghis Khan, the deprivations of early twentieth-century warlords-cum-mystics—and its protean present, where ancient customs and shamanistic beliefs exist among an increasingly urbanized people.
When I had the privilege of witnessing a falconry display from a castle, it blended adrenaline surges with fearful anxiety—witnessing a hunter hunting. Yes, it’s for food, clothing, survival, but still, it’s a blood sport. A thing of terrible beauty. Once more, connectivity to killers in flight. And artful in its execution.
Smutylo’s vivid prose and powerful artwork portray a Mongolia of contradictions and extremes. Readers will encounter a country with a vast wilderness that nonetheless has one of the most polluted capitals on earth; a modern economy in which tent-dwelling nomads still rely on their animals for survival; a people unchanged for millennia, yet recognizing that their way of life may disappear with their generation.
Perhaps this is what makes Allen Smutylo’s The Mongolian Chronicles so enrapturing. A well researched, engaging travelogue with accompanying art, it’s content consciously complementary yet subtly juxtaposed. Enjoying his text and savouring his paintings, as a reader I’m fully ensconced, experiencing his modern day encounters in a place and practice of the past—the delicious ambiguity of time, boundless as raptors in flight, delicate as invisible lines linking us to the natural world.
About the Author: Allen Smutylo’s work as a writer and artist is informed by his experience of travelling and living in some of the most remote places in the world. His first book, Wild Places, Wild Hearts, which recounts his time among the nomads of the Himalayas, won the Best Travel Adventure Book Award at the Banff Mountain Book Festival. His second book, The Memory of Water shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction, draws on his travels along the world’s waterways, including the Canadian Arctic, the South Pacific, and the Ganges. His most recent book, The Mongolian Chronicles was longlisted for the 2020 RBC Taylor Prize. Smutylo’s paintings and etchings have been featured in numerous group and solo exhibitions in Canada and abroad and are included in more than 300 public and corporate collections. He lives in Big Bay, Ontario.
- Title: The Mongolian Chronicles: A Story of Eagles, Demons, and Empires
- Author: Allen Smutylo
- Publisher: Goose Lane Editions, 2019
- ISBN: 9781773101330 (hardcover)
- Pages: 258 pp
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Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of the Gone Viking travel memoirs (Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail) and A Season on Vancouver Island. He’s won numerous book awards and received a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.