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Falconry, Finally

October 17, 2010

“Dennis. This is Vladimir Shakula. I am with Almaz Kurmankulov. We are in Bishkek looking for you. We have very good news!”

It was ten at night. I was sitting in an internet club (a Kyrgyz term more appropriate than ‘café’, I think) when I received this e-mail from Vladimir Shakula. Vladimir is a Russian dog breeder from Kazakhstan. He was introduced to me by Vladimir Beregovoy, who is also a Russian dog breeder from Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan they are apparently breeding Russian dog breeders named Vladimir. (Edit: Steve Bodio points out to me that Vladimir B. is actually a biologist who has only worked in Kazakhstan. Kind of ruins the joke!)

I called up the Shakula version, and we stumbled through a conversation in broken Russian and English. He and Almaz had given up on finding me and were in Talas, a city two mountain passes and five hours away. There would be a hunting festival there tomorrow, he told me, and I needed to be there! Every falconer from Talas will be attending! It starts at ten in the morning! Come quick!

Finally, some excitement!, I thought. I had spent my first month in Kyrgyzstan studying Russian and Kyrgyz at a local school, and besides jumping out of a Soviet airplane my trip had been sorely lacking in adventure. I had finally finished my language studies that morning, and this seemed like the perfect way to begin the next phase of my project. I rang Abay, my research assistant, and told him the plan. He was one of a few students from Kyrgyz National University who applied to be my very first employee (and is a year older than his employer). Always a professional, he told me he would meet me at seven in the morning without batting an eyelash. Then again, you can’t hear someone blink over the phone.

Passengers in our van (that's Abay on the right)

The sun was still coming up when we met with groggy eyes on a street corner and headed to the bus station. Sharing a van with some strangers, we arranged for a trip across the country for eight dollars each. We were running on Kyrgyz time so it took us an hour to leave the city, but once we did the mountain swallowed us whole. They say ninety five percent of the country is mountainous, and you can’t get from one point to another without climbing up into the sky. Honking at every car, child, and dog we passed, our driver tore over the map with reckless abandon. Every car, child, and dog waved back.

Broken-footed Bürkütchü

One in Talas, we got another taxi to the hippodrome, an amazing word for a racetrack. Almaz and Vladimir greeted me like an old friend. “Welcome! Shall we go see some birds?” I grinned and nodded enthusiastically, aching to see a berkut. A man with a broken foot was standing by his car in the middle of the racetrack, and gripping a stand of ibex horns was his partner in crime. The golden eagle was blinded with a hood, but it hardly looked helpless. It stood gallant and proud, flapping its wings occasionally just to show off their length. Armed with my Dictaphone, I pitched the man questions and Abay translated. We learned that the Kyrgyz have more than twelve different names for an eagle. I was finally learning, researching, doing what I came here to do.

The afternoon went by with a series of planned events gone humorously awry. A rabbit was released for the birds to chase, but the falcon was feeling lazy and hopped after it pathetically. One of the Kyrgyz hunting dogs, a taigan, was feeling more up to the job and took off after it, and soon there were dog breeders chasing dogs chasing birds chasing bunnies. In another event, a young wolf had been caught and was chained to a weight as bait, and the limp-legged hunter we had spoken to before stood atop a heap of tires and hurled his berkut at it. The eagle flew halfway to the wolf and wimped out, veering towards the stands. The locals looked scared shitless for a second, but then laughed as the big bird landed on top of the awning and shook its wings with resentment.

Hunters and their Taigans

Many more people here have hunting dogs than hunting birds, probably because they are easier to care for and infinitely more pettable. Dozens of dogs stood anxiously with their owners, waiting for their turn to tear into the wolf. One by one, though, they approached the growling fur and fangs and ran away in fear, sometimes stopping first to sniff its butt. They looked more valiant during the racing portion of the festival, when a Kyrgyz cowboy raced through the field on horseback, pulling a dead fox behind him on a rope. The dogs went wild, dashing after the bait, their lean bodies like greyhounds leaving the ground for seconds at a time.

After the events, awards for the best dogs and birds were given, according to some unknown metric that nobody was willing to disclose. It turned out that a hunter from Issyk Kul who I had e-mailed, Almaz Akunov, was one of the judges, and after the event Abay and I chatted him up. He didn’t seem happy to see me, and I later learned why. It seems that last year when I wrote to him in anticipation of my Fulbright application, he had been seeking some sort of financial contribution in return for his support. Abay told him that I was only a student, here to do research, but he didn’t seem to understand why he should help me for free. I felt awkward and discouraged. He is the head honcho of eagle hunting in the country, and I was already on his bad side. I brought a handle of Jack Daniels with me from America to give as a gift – I’m going to bring it to him next week when I go to Issyk-Kul and see if that will change his mind. For whatever reason, Tennessee whiskey has a special place in the hearts of Central Asians.

I knew that alcohol held some serious sway over these folks because after the festival, they had hardly left the hippodrome before they took out the vodka and started the celebration. Abay and I hadn’t eaten all day and were wiped out from our long journey, and refused to drink. I think it was a mistake. They proceeded to get drunk and mostly ignore us as we drank Fanta and scarfed down some nan. Almaz Kurmankulov ranted at us about how he had read 4,000 books in his liftime, and did you know that the Kyrgyz invented pants? Apparently they also invented forks, stirrups, and chain mail. I was vaguely interested but mostly annoyed as his nose grew redder and my chances of getting anything productive done slimmed to nul.

We tried leaving but were forced to follow them to a feast, where I ate fatty mutton and wished I understood Kyrgyz. A sullen man sat across the table from me staring, clicking his cheek at me. Almaz K. stood up and made speeches to no one in particular about the glory of the Kyrgyz people. I wanted to drink and share in the joviality, but I was disturbed by the amount of vodka that was flowing down the throats around me. Each man was at least twenty shots deep. I would have been unconscious already, but they must have had wooden legs for vodka storage, or an extra liver. I sat there gawking, vicariously nauseous.

Abay and I managed to escape, bribing them with a UC Santa Cruz shot glass and jumping into a car with the most sober dog breeder we could find. At the Talas bus station we crammed into a minibus with a screen up front playing music videos of Kyrgyz pop stars. It was night already, and the lights carved into a black void that I knew must be beautiful, but now was just boring. I learned that it’s impossible to sleep to accordian music. Abay kept me up with tales of Kyrgyz victimization – skinheads in Russia last year deemed it “the year of catching Kyrgyz” and murdered an acquaintance’s migrant worker boyfriend, and in June his friends family’s had been skimmed off by Uzbeks. It was two in the morning, and I grew depressed and delirious. Bishkek seemed like a dream. I think I rang the doorbell and went to bed, but I can’t be so sure. It had been a long day.

The excitement never ends


Bonus KeenonKyrgyzstan Video: A view of the falconry festival


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    October 17, 2010 7:54 pm

    “their learn bodies like greyhounds leaving the ground for seconds at a time.”

    I see you’ve experienced the new model of Kyrgyz Hoverdog.

  2. October 18, 2010 1:33 am

    One small correction: Vladimir B is a Russian, a former dissident in Soviet times, a scientist with Kazakh dogs, who has worked in Kazakhstan (and lives in Virginia); he comes from the Urals originally I think.

    Re drinking: bluntly, you sort of HAVE to in Central Asia, socially. You can mitigate it– hold the drink with your hand covering the glass or bowl so you can’t be rushed (something Canat taught me long ago); sip at toasts. Eat a lot even if you don’t have to; it balances the alcohol. But not to drink is considered insulting, despite “Islam”.

    If it is any consolation, Mongolians are even worse!

  3. Elnura permalink
    October 21, 2010 8:40 pm

    Dennis Keen, good day! As you’re in Kyrgyzstan several weeks and you enjoy, i think your spending time with your job for 10 months or more will be more interesting and you will reach you goals. You’ll see that in our not big country you could find new things for yourself and our nature will suprise you, impressing best sides of our nation also. You’ve been in Kyrgyz National university and interested us more. I wish you good luck. Elnur. This my mail

  4. October 22, 2010 3:51 am



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