A herder named Boldeken told me a story about a man named Kudaibergen who used to steal horses in the region where he lives—the Sheredik mountain range in the Tolbo region of Bayan Ulgii province, a province within Mongolia where Kazakhs make up the ethnic majority.
When the locals found out what Kudaibergen was doing he had to stop stealing in Tolbo. It’s about fifty kilometers to the bordering state, Khovd, so he started to make the journey on horseback into Khovd to continue his business. One day Kudaibergen stole an especially powerful mare with a strong spirit. He brought her close to his home but wanted to make sure she wouldn’t run away. He was trying to put her in hobbles when she kicked him shattering everything around his elbow.
Fearing he would be found out, Kudaibergen didn’t go to the hospital and instead used a traditional method to heal himself. He dipped camel wool in red salt water and then wrapped his arm in the wool. After two days you’re supposed to remove the wool, but he didn’t. Keeping the wool on for too long, Kudaibergen cut off circulation in his arm and ended up having to remove his arm from below the elbow.
Often Kudaibergen would disappear for fifteen to thirty days at a time. Nobody knew where he went or what he was doing. They would come to find out that in Khovd he would steal horses and then travel even further, often hundreds of kilometers, just to sell them. He’d also take a few back to Tolbo where he’d slaughter them for food. Kazakhs are known for their horse meat.
As Boldeken’s story was translated to me, Kudaibergen the horse thief was described as a shameful character. At first, Boldeken was even a bit shy to tell me the story as he felt it would reflect poorly on the Tolbo region. But as the story progressed I couldn’t help notice a certain air of respect.
Boldeken explained “Of course I’m mad because he’s a thief and because he stole from our families. But I’m also impressed because he would travel great distances and use impressive tactics to steal and sell the horses. His patience to be so far away from home and to travel so far was impressive.”
Photography & Words by Dimitri Staszewski
Films by Dimitri Staszewski
Edited by Bis Turnor
Editor in Chief Vincenzo Angileri
Executive Producers Albert Folch, Rafa Martínez