A mother's work is never done, so the old saying goes.
Often, mothers say they deserve a medal for all the work they do and few would disagree. But in Mongolia – the so-called land of the eternal blue sky – this is not just an empty phrase.
Mums are literally awarded a medal from the Government if they have four or more kids and are given the title of a "State Honored Mother".
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And there are tens of thousands of award-winning mothers across Mongolia.
Officials want to bolster the country's population and mothers who produce four or more children get paid by the Government.
Looking at the overall population of the country, this type of encouragement is hardly surprising. Although Mongolia is roughly the size of Iran and Libya, it has a population of just 3 million people. Roughly 1 million people are nomads – those who travel from place to place finding fresh areas for their animals to graze.
As we travel across the country, white gers (the traditional tent-like home of the Mongolian nomad) are constantly dotting the horizon with herds of animals close by. In many parts of the country, this is the way of life for most people.
Nomad life tends to revolve around the animals, which are left to wander and graze around the endless peaks and valleys of Mongolia. It has been estimated that the number of domesticated animals and livestock in Mongolia is just shy of 70 million.
By day, flocks of sheep and goats in groups of 700-900 wander the open plains in search of grass to graze on. By night, they return closer to their owners' ger to rest under a star-stained sky.
And it's not just sheep and goats; it's common to come across caravans of camels while driving along the bumpy dirt roads. Even herds of the country's national animal, the horse, can be seen galloping through the open fields, free as a bird.
Although sightings of these types of livestock are common, Mongolia is home to some of the rarest animals in the world: Snow Leopards. They live in the mountains in the coldest parts of the country and are rarely seen by humans. Some wait for days to catch a glimpse of the majestic animals, with no luck.
There are estimated to be just 1000 Snow Leopards left in Mongolia so seeing one is considered to be a rare honour. But there is a lot of waiting involved. A lot of waiting in the cold, Mongolian mountains – wrapped up in puffer jackets and sipping on a warm thermos of soup.
For locals, the waiting is endured. For tourists, the waiting is to be savoured.
The Mongolian mountains are staggeringly beautiful; steep and jagged, peppered with snow and rock. And it's quiet, so quiet.
Other than the occasional gust of wind, not a sound penetrates the vast mountain ranges.
The stillness is occasionally interrupted by movement down in the valley – not a Snow Leopard, a small herd of ibex – a species of mountain goat with long, sharp curved horns.
They make their way up the side of the rock-face but are camouflaged against the hill. After a few minutes of climbing, they scatter – something must have spooked them.
Ibex form an important part of Mongolian history and culture. Cave and rock paintings, which are scattered across the Western-Mongolian region, depict the animals being hunted.
For thousands of years, livestock and agriculture have formed the backbone of the nation's economy. Even today, most nomads are self-sufficient and live off the meat and dairy provided by their animals.
And there are even those who let their animals do the hunting for them.
Home of the eagle hunters
In the Western-most point of Mongolia in a green valley, between a wall of snow-capped mountains, is the Saigsai region – home of the eagle hunters. The Saigsai eagle hunters use the birds, which they have trained from chicks, to catch foxes too quick for human hands. Their families have been hunting for hundreds of years and are among the most skilled bird trainers in the world. The eagles sit outside the hunter's ger, like feathered centurions on guard.
In the vast open plains of Mongolia, an eagle's eye is a major advantage when it comes to hunting. Where an adult man can easily be heard coming from quite some distance, giving the prey time to hide, a swooping eagle is silent but deadly. They mostly hunt foxes and other rodent-like animals for the fur.
The eagle hunters themselves are dressed head-to-toe in the pelts of their kills, sporting exceptional hats and coats found in no other part of the world. Although the practice of eagle hunting is more traditional than practical now, the hunters of the region are still revered and are among the most eligible bachelors in the area.
The hottest guy in Mongolia
Jinsbek – whose name translates to "strong victory" – was just recently named the "hottest guy in Mongolia" by Vice. Jinsbek is 26 years' old and is somewhat of a celebrity in Mongolia – he is a master horse trainer, an admired eagle hunter and a champion kokpar player.
Kokpar is akin to polo, except players on horseback fight over a headless goat carcass instead of a ball. The team who gets the carcass in the opponent's goal the most times wins. Although the sport is mostly played in neighbouring Kazakhstan, Jinsbek has made the sport his own.
Jinsbek arrives on horseback late one afternoon. He gallops through the valley, through the creeks and across the long grass with the sun at his back.
Through a translator, he explains the process of training the eagles and how long it takes to gain their trust and obedience.
They're taken as chicks and trained from a young age until they are ready to hunt. The eagles are completely obedient to their trainers and, after two or three years of hunting, are released back into the wild.
Jinsbek and the other hunters say their families have been eagle hunters for generations – for them, it's a family tradition.
The importance of tradition
Ask any Mongolian and they will all tell you how important tradition is in their country.
Perhaps none more so than the fabled throat singers; internationally admired for their painstaking craft.
It's a skill that takes decades to perfect – in fact, Mongolia has a whole department of its biggest university solely devoted to its teaching. That's the new way.
For generations, throat singing was a skill passed down from father to son as a way to tell stories around a fire during the cold Mongolian winters. It's a technique of singing unlike any other in the world.
The performer produces a deep, husky sound akin to the hum of a well-oiled engine. For those unfamiliar, it sounds ominous and sad – many of the notes are minors and the deep, thumping nature of the performer's voice is foreboding.
But the songs are stories of the land and the people and are often about love, friendship and the bond between a man and his horse.
Though most seasoned performers dream of entertaining crowds of thousands on stages and in stadiums, Tseren Davaa prefers the shores of Lake Dorgon in the Western-region of the country.
Standing on a bed of grey stones against a cloud-stained sky, his deep blue traditional attire – with ancient dragons snaking their way from his toes to his neck – is stunning.
At 65, Tseren is one of the most accomplished throat singers in Mongolia. He was given the title of a "State Honored Artist" – a commendation the Government bestows on those who have made a significant contribution to their craft.
Tseren says he has trained thousands of throat singers in his life – some of those have gone on to be State Honored Artists as well. Growing up a nomad, like many of those in the Chandmani region where he is from, he always dreamed of being a throat singer.
But he was told he was too skinny to be any good at the craft – being a throat singer requires an incredible amount of core strength.
Tseren, however, was not deterred and vowed he would one day achieve his dream.
He watched the camels and studied the sounds the mothers made when calling out for their young. He learned to imitate the low hum the animals made and over the years perfected it into his own style of throat singing. By the time he was 22, he was well known in his region and was making a name for himself across Mongolia.
Although different to the traditional style of singing, how Tseren came up with his technique is not dissimilar to the pioneers of the craft who began singing centuries ago.
On the banks of the lake where he has just performed with a group of his students, he explains through song the origins of throat singing.
He points out at the large body of water and, through a translator, says the throat singers of old listened to the wind on the water and were mesmerised by its sound.
It was a similar noise that could be heard high up in the mountains and when the wind rushed through the reeds on the river bed.
They began replicating the sound, adapting it continually until they had perfected the unconventional but mesmerising music.
Tseren is older now and admits that his best throat singing days are behind him. Over the course of his career, he has performed in 39 countries and 180 different cities. But he says he is not done yet – not even close.
In late September, he was one of 1000 throat singers to perform in a town nearby; making it the largest gathering of singers to perform together in history. Despite it being a tradition thousands of years old, Tseren says young people are as keen as ever to take up the craft.
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