By Hannah Stevens @Hannahshewans
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Videographer / director: Joel Santos
Producer: Hannah Stevens, Nick Johnson
Editor: Joshua Douglas, Marcus Cooper
Largely based in Western Mongolia, Kazakhs are a nomadic people who brave blizzards, extreme hot and cold weather and rocky mountain paths several times a year when they move between their seasonal homes.
Videographer and photographer Joel Santos, 38, ventured to Mongolia’s Altai mountain range twice to shadow families - who have never let an outsider into their camps - as they made the breathtaking journey between seasonal homes.
He said: “Witnessing the migration is like time travelling. Once we were all nomads. Now, living sedentary in our overly organised cities, we might have forgotten what it’s like to be deeply in touch with our surroundings and nature.
“In a way we might say that some of us are lucky to have better life standards, being able to live inside a protective bubble.
“But when we witness a migration and take part in it, we realise how plastic our life sometimes is and it helps our feet touch the ground again, generating a richer perspective of our lives.”
After being chased out of Kazakhstan by the Russian Empire in the 19th century, many Kazakhs settled in Mongolia but through the generations they have maintained a strong connection to the tradition of migration.
Kazakh migrations provide them with the best protection for each season, so many have a winter home with more permanent wood or clay houses, while in spring and summer they live in Gers - circular oversized tents supported by wooden sticks and covered in sheep fur.
In 2015, the adventurer spent seven days on foot with Muhammed Kudha’s family as they ventured from their spring home to their summer hideaway and in 2016, he witnessed the Sailau’s summer/winter migration using his drone camera.
Every migration is a struggle as the family face harsh conditions and the, seemingly insurmountable, task of transporting their yaks, camels, goats, sheep and horses 100km to their new home - which is increased to 150km when the migrators have to correct their livestock’s every wrong turn.
As all Kazakh families migrate during similar periods families run the risk of mixing up livestock herds, so neighbours will often agree to migrate on slightly different schedules, since sometimes it is impossible to follow different paths.
The Portuguese photographer said: “The migrating families always bet on a mixed strategy for a successful migration and tasks are divided among all family members, from the eldest to the youngest.
“Usually the firstborn male son and his father lead the animals through the shortest path across the mountains, follow the river streams across the valleys, allowing them access to water and to put up camping sites in the wilderness.”
The patriarch’s spouse, remaining sons and their wives and the grandchildren all play a key role in the migration as they trail behind transporting disassembled Gers, basic goods and the tools they’ll need to set up their new base.
Usually the second group arrives a day earlier than the first and they will greet the leaders with a homemade meal, a cosy bed and a vodka fuelled celebration of another brutal, but successful journey.
Despite not speaking a word of Kazakh or Mongolian Joel developed a strong bond with both families and, even after each treacherous journey, found saying goodbye to be the hardest part.
He said: “I started off as a stranger but as the journey began and we started sharing challenges and hazards along the way a sense of trust and true friendship started to build.
“I might not be able to speak Kazakh or Mongolian but body language general behaviour and true friendship made me closer to both families than I’d ever dreamed of.
“I’m not the crying type but I sure had water in my eyes when I finally had to say goodbye and I know it was mutual.”