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Issyk-Kul, Day Three

October 27, 2010

Saturday morning I woke up to a snowy surprise. The ground and the hills that had stood barren and brown the day before now shone brilliant white. Abay was worried that the snow might cancel the eagle festival, but I didn’t mind. I was enjoying the scenery so much that it hardly mattered. I wandered around the orchard, enrapt.

One of Sary’s grandson’s, Shamil, appeared from nowhere with a dead pheasant and a rabbit in hand, a prideful smirk on his face to match. It was breakfast time for his hawk. Tying a rope to the pheasant’s legs, Shamil threw it on the ground and stood at a distance. Sary stood across the yard with the hawk, and when he unhooded it his grandson pulled the rope and the lifeless carcass sprung across the yard. Seeing it’s bright colors move through the snow, the hawk pounced. You don’t really think of birds pouncing, but there wasn’t much room in the courtyard flying. Next it was the rabbit’s turn, and it’s head was soon on the snow, entirely detached. Sary picked up the rabbit’s foot and fed it to his bird like a drumstick. Their nonchalance around body parts made my squirminess seem naïve. I tried to get used to it – I would certainly be seeing a lot more gore.

Before heading out to the festival, we went back into the hills with Rustam to check the pigeon traps. There was no good news. One pigeon had been mawled through the net by a fox, and the other was simply gone. We did come across a half-dead rabbit snagged in a metal trap, one of a handful that Rustam had set earlier in the week. He took a proud photo and shoved it in his canvas bag. As we walked from trap to trap, he would point out various tracks he would spy in the snow. That one’s a rabbit, that one’s a fox, that’s from this morning, that’s from last night. He was alert and aware, and they came to him without effort. He had memorized the exact location of the traps, too, even though they were hidden under the snow. One snapped at my feet, but I narrowly avoided it. Rustam just laughed. He had told me to watch out for it, but in Kyrgyz.  Maybe I should just learn the language so that I can keep all my limbs intact.

Back at Sary’s they were getting the birds ready for the festival. Bakyr showed off the falcon hood his son had made. It was crafted from leather to perfectly fit the bird’s head. When I asked where they got the materials, Abay didn’t even translate for me. He told me they got the leather from their cow, of course. “Everything comes from here, on the property” he told me. The self-reliance of it all impressed this Westerner steeped in consumerism. They had also crafted a bag out of an old pair of jeans, and in it they stuffed a pigeon for a later feeding. The falcon, too, was wrapped in an old bandana, looking as harmless as a swaddled baby. We had to take it with us in the car, and because it was young they were worried it might cause a commotion. I sat in the back seat next to the hawk, who grew nervous as the restrained falcon squealed for freedom. He flapped his wings against the window and sliced Abay’s finger with his talon. I’m sure he didn’t mean it.

At the festival, Sary was the star of the show. The other hunters gathered around him, holding out their birds for his appraisal. No matter how old or experienced, they waited their turn to hear their master’s assessment. With barely a glance he could discern the age, health, and type of the eagle. He would point to spots on their tail feathers and tell them they were eating too much liver, or count the bumps on their claws to determine their age. Abay and I followed him around with our recorder, proud that we were his honored guests. I bought him a bowl of lagman for lunch, and he would go off with his smoking buddy Abay every so often for a cigarette, the young man and the sage, sharing a vice.

The main events would be on Sunday, so today was just a preliminary meet and greet. In one rather informal event, Sary stood on stage and took turns rating the hunters on their costumes, their equipment, and their bird management skills. In another event, the hunters scaled a hill overlooking the valley and threw their birds one-by-one into the air. Down below a horseman galloped with a dead fox dragging behind, and the eagles spied their prey instantly and flew at it with impressive force. Some weren’t so perceptive and flew towards the crowd, who didn’t run but cheered. Though a few of the birds were crowd-pleasing laughingstocks, there was no doubt that these eagles could kill. Earlier in the day, one of the birds had been left without a leash and had sprung on Shamil’s falcon, perched nearby. The bird’s bones were crushed; it’s head hung limp. The boy took the bird in his hands and ran off, crying. First, everybody took photos of the tragedy with their cameraphones.

After the festivities, we drove back home to get our bags and met up with Almaz, who would be arranging our next night’s stay. We stopped in at one hunter’s place, where a dozen people or more were seated around a long table coated in color – purple beets and red tomatoes, yellow noodles and dried orange apricots. I knew we had been invited to a feast and I thought this was it, but before we could hardly munch on a raisin, everybody got up and headed to another house for the main event. It was the home of Almaz’s family, and they would be preparing beshbarmark, perhaps the most infamous of Kyrgyz delicacies. A sheep would be slaughtered and chopped up at random (or so it seemed), then boiled and eaten with the hands. Beshbarkmak meant “five fingers” because those were the only utensils involved.

But the eating came later, much later. For hours we sat on the floor, all eyes on Sary. I counted eighteen people in the room, all facing the old man, the ak sakal, the white beard. He told a story about how his father fought with Przhevalsky, a commander for the Russian Imperial army. Przhevalsky gave him some sort of sedative to calm his nerves and then he shot a dragon – or at least that’s what Abay managed to translate for me. Sary claimed that his family had kept the dragon’s ear in a chest for years, but gave it to another family to use as a good luck charm during a pregnancy. They are still seeking its return. I told Abay there’s no such thing as dragons. He just shrugged.

Sary’s stories slowly dried up and the room fell quiet. Almaz went to the TV on the other side of the room and put in a DVD. All the bodies shifted away from the old man to their new entertainment. It was a dog fighting video, and Almaz had contributed a segment. Grainy footage showed nine taigans surrounding a wolf, helplessly tied to a stake in the ground. The wolf was covered in blood, and the taigans tore into it. The editor cut to close-ups of their snouts, caked in more blood, their tongues hanging happily. To make it even more disturbing, the soundtrack was provided by the a hoarse rapper, roaring “Shake it! Shake it! Shake it like a salt shaker!” This alternated with blaring electronica, a robotic voice droning “We are lost and found, but love is gonna save us.” Nobody there but Abay and I spoke English. The irony was lost on them all.

When the food came, I hardly felt like eating. It didn’t help that the beshbarkmak was nearly inedible. Maybe my teeth just aren’t sharp enough, but I chewed the same piece of fat for five minutes before surreptitiously spitting it out and hiding it in the bowl of broth that was provided with my meal. It was nearly all fat, and the meaty parts were dry and flavorless. My face and hands were covered in grease. I felt uncomfortable. There were subtle cues to pass things to elders and eat the meat a certain way, all of which I missed. Some of the other guests looked at me with obvious displeasure.

Later, I offended even more. When we were getting ready to leave, I gave Sary a gift which I had brought all the way from California with a hunter in mind, a felt banner with the UC seal.  I knew they liked wall hangings, and I thought they’d be impressed by it’s academic eminence. Sary didn’t even smile. Walking to the car, Abay wasn’t happy either. “Dennis, I have to be honest, he was very angry. You gave him a flag? He expected more.” Now I was angry too. “Well what does he want from me? I already paid his family more than they make in a month! I’m writing his life fucking story! Why does everything here come down to ‘What will the rich American give me?’”

I sulked all the way to bed. The pride and optimism of the previous night had evaporated. The trip ended on a note even fouler. We stayed at Almaz’s house, and in the morning we accidentally overslept. I had to get back to Bishkek for a Kyrgyz folk music concert I was recording, and we were running out of time. There was no room for pleasantries and tradition. Almaz’s mother insisted we sit and drink some tea before we left. I apologized and told her we simply couldn’t. Walking out the door, I turned and thanked her for her hospitality – “Chong rakhmat.” She looked upset and spit something at me in Kyrgyz. Abay translated. “Just go.”

We went, my head hung low.  Ups and downs, I thought, ups and downs.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    October 28, 2010 8:41 pm

    Damn, sounds like things got really awkward really quick. What are you going to have to buy this guy to get him to like you again?

  2. February 19, 2011 7:57 am

    Fantastic photographs and interesting stories!!

  3. Colin permalink
    January 24, 2012 11:03 am

    Yin Yang Twins and Benny Benassi is extremely uncomfortable to even read about… wow…


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