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Issyk-Kul, Day One

October 25, 2010

Issyk-Kul was calling me. Ever since I had arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I have been idling away the days until I could finally go to the land of the eagle hunters. The Kyrgyz call it Yssyk-Köl, the warm lake. They also like to call it “The Pearl of Kyrgyzstan,” and after asking how long you’ve been in the country, the next question is always “Well have you been to Issyk-Kul yet?” It’s not only a locus of national pride but also the epicenter of Kyrgyz eagle hunting, and the logical location for my research site. Yet for weeks I was unable to visit, held back by language classes and a lecture I had to give at Kyrgyz National University on Wednesday. With my lecture done and my schedule free, there was nothing holding me back. I called my research assistant Abay, and Thursday morning we flew off into the mountains in search of the lake of my dreams.

The drive is supposed to be scenic, but the cliffs and rivers and mountain passes had all been blotted out by a whirring white void. Abay told me “S pervym snegom!”, the Russian congratulations on the first snow of the year. For this blessed California boy, it was actually the first snow I had seen in something like five years. The drive was slowgoing but I was giddy. I wanted to hop out and make snow angels, but we had places to go and people to see. We pushed onwards, eating apples and taking naps, opening our eyes occasionally to look for the lake. It was elusive, and I grew restless.

At last it appeared, stunning turquoise against the sullen grey sky. It was truly a wonder, the second largest mountain lake in the world. “Damn you Lake Titicaca!” I joked with my Kyrgyz friends, for stealing the superlative that this lake so deserved. It spread across the upper flank of Kyrgyzstan, spotted with crumbling Soviet resorts on the north side and sleepy little towns on the south. We were headed to the sleepy side, where a little town called Bokonbaevo had somehow become the center of Kyrgyz falconry. There would be a hunting festival there that weekend and a small hunting museum hid in its streets, all the result of one man, a man with a plan, a man named Almaz Akunov.

Almaz met us in the center of town and drove us to a homestay that he had arranged. When I met him the previous weekend he had been cold and dismissive, unsure of my intentions and disappointed that the “Request for Financial Aid” he had sent me last fall had been met with months of no reply. Now that we were in his hometown and it was clear we were there for research, he brightened up considerably. Driving his jeep over potholes and into riverbeds, Almaz took us up into the mountains and told us of his vision. Ten years ago, he said, falconry in Kyrgyzstan had been in a sorry state. Though the tradition of hunting with eagles had been a part of Kyrgyz culture for centuries, it was a solitary pursuit enjoyed by only a handful of hunters. What if we could take this lonely hobby of a man, his bird, and the mountains and make it into a public spectacle? There could be competitions with judges and point systems, held in the open for all to see. A few years ago Almaz organized his first hunting festival, and started a new hunting tradition that would draw dozens of interested people from all over Kyrgyzstan, and even an American boy from across the sea. I was impressed by his optimism and initiative, and felt optimistic myself about our prospects of working together.

With the sun long gone and the chill of the night setting in, we arrived at our home for the night. It was a house of adobe that had appeared out of the darkness, and I had lost all sense of where we were. The mystery of the place was deepened by its legendary caretaker, an eagle hunter who had been the master to Almaz’s apprentice. His name was Sary, and he was 81 years old. He first learned to hunt under Stalin, in 1943. He was the deacon of Kyrgyz eagle hunting, a living encyclopedia of traditional knowledge that had been handed down through his family for countless generations. He was living now in the mountains with his grandson, who was also a master hunter. He invited us in. We would be his honored guests.

His family was gathered around a low table, anxious to meet this strange man from distant land. A Russian movie was playing on television, and in the corner a falcon was perched over a canvas covered in shit. It eyed me nervously and flew towards the door, flailing against the leash that tied it to the ground. With the nonchalance borne from sixty eight years of taming raptors, Sary waited for the bird to calm down and gently stroked its head. It closed its eyes slowly, comically relaxed. His family set the table with bread and jam, and the family matron, his grandson’s wife, pushed a bowl my way. “Chai eech”, she said – drink tea.

I must have had five bowls of tea as I told them about why I was there and how I had come to be. As always, they were astounded to learn that I was a quadruplet. Your mother is a hero!, they said. When I told them that in America there were a couple families with octuplets, they nearly lost it. I showed them photos and they stared in amazement. They wanted to know if we had farm animals too, so I showed them a picture of the sand in Manhattan Beach. I don’t think your chickens would like it there, I said.

I waited for some kind of dinner, but it never came. They were a poor family, and bread and apples were the main courses of the evening. After eating, Sary asked us if we had any questions for him. I took out my recorder and he opened up his mind. It was astounding. He told us about the dangers of catching eagles from cliffs, how to tell a good falcon by the blue on its beak, how to catch pigeons in the night and set them in traps for raptors. He showed us an instrument he had made himself for grabbing the snagged bird.  He had to learned to make it from his grandfather, who was born in the 19th century. I could tell these things were just the limits of his knowledge. I was in awe of his wisdom, grateful to Almaz for bringing me to this place. I knew I would learn more than I had ever expected.

After answering our questions for a few hours, Sary grew tired and showed us to our beds, a pile of blankets on the floor, in another adobe house across the courtyard. It was freezing outside, and the soil walls offered little insulation. Abay and I burrowed under our the felt of our covers and shivered our goodnights. I didn’t know it at the time, but we slept that night by the shore of Issyk-Kul. It lay there in the darkness, glistening in the night not a mile away. I closed my eyes and it came to me in my dreams.

Coming tomorrow: Riding a tractor and riding a goat, meeting the lake and learning my fate. (edit: I’m not sure why I promised you a goatride. It was definitely a donkey. My bad.)


Bonus KeenonKyrgyzstan Video: Sary and Abay and research firsthand

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel permalink
    October 26, 2010 4:55 am

    Great writing Dennis. You should send it to Spektator.



  2. October 26, 2010 6:38 am

    Glad to see this installment of the blog on the trip to Issy-Kul, can’t wait to see what happens next.

  3. Debbie Keen permalink
    October 27, 2010 1:08 am

    I shall include “Hero” on my resume next time. But why would you not include Yertle the tortoise , Tink the dog and Dewey that cat as our farm animals?

  4. Grandad Keen permalink
    November 7, 2010 5:36 pm

    How do I get on your mailing list ?
    Enjoy reading your prose..



  1. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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