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Issyk-Kul, Day Two

October 26, 2010

                Friday morning, I woke up to Abay gently nudging my shoulder, grinning madly. “Dennis, look!” He held his sheets balled up in his fist, and something was inside, scratching. I was still a bit asleep. This might not be happening. Abay flicked the lump of sheets at the end of his hand and, sure enough, something inside rustled about. “I woke up and felt something tickling my shoulder, so I grabbed it. Look!” He opened up the sheets and out poked a little mouse head, whiskers a-twitching. “Falcon food!”

            We bundled up and went out into the morning to show Sary our find. He smiled and untied his bird. Kneeling on the ground, Abay kept the mouse in his handkerchief, and Sary unhooded the falcon. Abay opened the cloth and the critter darted out, and with a quick flap of its wings the falcon was on the chase. Both animals moved so fast I wasn’t sure what happened. I looked in its talons. They were empty. The mouse must have crawled under the house. I felt a little relieved. I’m still not quite used to the hunter’s easy relationship with death. I thought the mouse was cute. I didn’t really feel like seeing its bones crushed.

            After a little breakfast (more bread and tea), Sary had to head to a celebration, or toi, in another town on the lake. A relative was getting circumcised, and as the eldest member of the family his presence was requisite. Without our subject to interrogate, Abay and I went for a walk down the road. I thought we might just hike up the nearest hill, but in the distance I spied the teal waters of Issyk-Kul, and there was no question where we would go. We walked past dozing cows and horses, talking about how relieved we both felt to be out of the city. Something felt different in our hearts out here, we decided; a certain kind of quiet eased us into peaceful contemplation. I taught Abay the difference between loneliness and solitude. It’s strange, he said, but it’s much easier to be lonely amongst the masses of the city. Here, he just felt right.

            Shepherds waved us on our way and then we were in no man’s land, a desert buffer before the lake that seemed to me just like the land around my Dad’s place in Baja. Abay told me to taste the air. It felt familiar. Here we were in the middle of Asia, and we had come across a salty sea. A tree stood starkly against the sky. The rainclouds floating towards us from the other side of the lake made it seem more desolate than hopeful. Always more aware of his surroundings, Abay pointed out a nest nestled in the topmost branches. I climbed up to investigate, but found nothing inside.  Still, I paused for a second and felt satisfied. It may not be a Santa Cruz redwood, but it felt good to be back in a tree.


           As we got closer to Issyk-Kul and the plant cover disappeared, its winds blew unabated and chilled our faces to numb masks. I smiled but couln’t feel it. The sea opened up before us and, despite the winter weather, it was awesome in its beauty. Then, though we were hemmed in by icy peaks and blustery weather, we were on the beach, and there was only one thing to do. I took off my shoes and my socks and walked to the waves. It was too cold for a dip, but my toes would compromise. The lake lapping at my feet, I remembered a mental note I had made weeks before. I had been standing at another mountain lake with Sarah Francis, feeling Lake Tahoe for the first time. In two months, these toes will be in Issyk-Kul, I thought, pleased by the surrealism. Now I was here, and I felt proud.

            On the way back, I sang softly to myself as Abay smoked a cigarette. A flock of sparrows swarmed a bush, and I made a film of it with my camera. A man was watching his sheep in the field adjacent, and called out to ask what I was doing. “Just filming the birds,” Abay answered for me. The shepherd shook his head, amused. Behind us rumbled a tractor, and as we stepped out of the way Abay looked at me and shouted “Country taxi!” Before I really understood what that meant, he hopped on the back and I was chasing after them. I got on to and we hitched a ride all the way back to Sary’s. Three boy’s were crammed behind the wheel, and they looked at us from the rear window, laughing. 

            Back at the ranch, Merim was stirring broth in a big kazan, something like a Kyrgyz wok. She would add rice and meat to it to make a popular Central Asian dish called plov. I walked around the property, navigating chirping chicks and taigan hounds munching apples in the orchard over the fence. Sary wouldn’t be back until the evening, so after eating the plov his grandsons urged me to go for a donkey ride. The animal was comically small. Abay, six-foot-plus, had to get off because his feet were dragging. I got on and rode it up the road, but turned around when we got to a few houses. Trotting along, Abay taking photos, I felt like an ass. No pun intended – I simply don’t like feeling like a tourist.

     Sary’s grandson Rustam tied up the donkey and retrieved a felt bag from a shed. He was headed up into the hills to check some traps he set, and asked if we’d like to join him. We stumbled up rocks to a ridge overlooking the house and the lake, and there sat a strangely serene pigeon, tied up as bait. Around him they had perched four sticks from which were strung a homemade net, or tor. They hoped that flying by, a raptor would see the bird and carelessly get snagged in the surrounding strings as it dove down to catch its dinner. It seemed improbably to me, but they had already caught countless birds this way. Today, they didn’t have much luck, as the pigeon still remained. Looking across a gorge with his binoculars, Rustam announced that the other traps he had set in the surrounding hills were just as falconless. We headed back, defeated.


               As the sun was setting, a car careened into the courtyard and out came a group of very drunk men. Rustsam led Sary to the house, wear he plopped down in the corner and stroked his beard gleefully. Sary’s son came in too, and decided to tell us everything we already knew about falconry. He wasn’t a hunter himself, and Sary told him to shut up.. Old men here are called ak sakals, or white beards, and their authority is absolute. Sary’s son stumbled out of the room. I figured our chances for collecting more material that evening had vanished, but our hunter insisted he was up for it, so after eating more plov we headed to a quiet room in the other building to ask our questions.

            Abay conducted the interview in Kyrgyz, and I sat nodding encouragement at moments that seemed appropriate. Soon, though, it seemed Sary was growing combative, and Abay rubbed his temples in frustration. I didn’t really know what was going on, because the back-and-forth continued without translation. After a while, my assistant explained. Sary had worked with other Westerners before, and he wasn’t sure he could trust us. It seemed that they had come and picked his brain and left with their pickings, never to return. It bothered him that he was such a source of knowledge, but all the knowledge he dished out left the country in the researcher’s notebook. The Kyrgyz people don’t even know about this tradition, he said, and you plan to take everything you learn from me and bring it to California? I felt ashamed, scolded by the white-beard.

            I paused and spoke with Abay for a few moments, and from that brief exchange came a series of revelations. I had told him I wanted to write a book about Kyrgyz eagle hunting, but we decided it would be impractical to write a primer on a Kyrgyz tradition in a language most Kyrgyz couldn’t even understand.  What if we could publish a book of Sary’s knowledge in his own language? What if we could take everything he had learned from oral tradition, passed down from his father and generations beyond, and make it available to anybody who was interested? Sary liked the idea of his name in print, his sagely reputation enshrined. He told us he feared he would die soon, and felt like he needed to leave something of himself behind. Together we could write his story, and Abay could help put it all together in Kyrgyz. I was thrilled at the prospect of this new project. Then he said he would be honored if I would be his first Western apprentice, so he could pass the tradition on across nations. I shook his hand, speechless, amazed at how it was all coming together.

Abay was happy too. Before going to bed, we stayed up talking about the turn of events. He was proud to be working with me now, he said. This was no longer just research for its own sake. It meant something. It meant something special for this budding researcher, for this aging man, for the future of an ancient tradition. It meant that this knowledge wouldn’t die, in the mind of this old man or in the pages of an English-encrypted book. It would live through the Kyrgyz word, finally inscribed, and the knowledge could live forever.

Tomorrow: Catching a rabbit, throwing eagles, eating boiled sheep with my hands and offending way too many people.


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