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Travelling Blind

November 24, 2010

“You’re a f***king idiot” Stas told me. “You think you’re just going to drive to this village in the middle of nowhere, where you know nobody, and just find yourself an eagle hunter? What are you going to do, knock on people’s doors?”

Call it spontaneity. I had read in several articles about a town called Nura, a few hours east of Almaty, that was promoting itself as the center of Kazakh eagle hunting. It was the Mecca to my eagle cult, and I obviously had to go there. I knew there was an eagle hunting museum somewhere in town, and that was all. So we headed off into the unplanned void, hoping that somehow everything would sort itself out. Stas thought I was being a stupid American. I thought I was being adventurous.

At the museum, my hopes were cruelly crushed. The woman working there was overweight and stone-faced, and looked at me with suspicion. She came from a family of eagle hunters, she told us, and they ran the museum and the hunting center here. When we asked if we could stay with them for a few days, she grew difficult. They’ve had researcher there before, she said, and she didn’t trust them. The paranoia was familiar. It was hovering in the air all over Central Asia.  I had seen the same insecurity amongst Kyrgyz people: the Chinese stole our Manas epic and claimed it as their own; the Japanese patented our beshbarmak, and the Germans stole our kymyz. We’re not about to let you steal our eagle hunting, the woman seemed to be saying. Stas stepped in and explained how I had come all the way from America to see her and her museum. She didn’t blink an eye. “He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last.”

After arguing for ten minutes, she said that she would speak to her family and think about it. In the mean time, we drove dejected to the next town over, Bayseit, where there was apparently a hotel we could stay at for the night. It was surreal. Nestled at the end of a one-street town in the middle of nowhere was this complex of log cabin buildings, and a horde of Land Cruisers. We stepped inside the main building, and were greeted by an Indian man named Benny. He spoke English but insisted on using his lousy Russian. He had moved here with his family, he told us, to help start an Indian spa. Benny showed us to a room, which was spectacularly clean and Western. We didn’t really have a choice, so we took it. It cost us fifty dollars. In Kyrgyzstan, our accommodation cost us fourteen. Money was everywhere here, and they knew we had it too.

Stas took off back to Almaty, happy to leave me and Abay to our  hopeless adventure. After bringing our bags to our fancy new room, we went downstairs to find some lunch. The smell in the air was glorious – Indian food! I had hardly tasted a spice for months. Benny was standing in the lobby, and I simply looked at him and sniffed vigorously, suggestively. “Smells good.” He didn’t get the hint. I decided to be more direct. “Do you have Indian food here?” I asked. No, he insisted, we do not. Just Russian food. The reek in the air told me otherwise.

“Are you sure?” I said, winking.

“Yes,” he said, eyes absolutely winkless.

Why the deceit Benny? I was just a foreigner like you, looking for some comfort. So instead, I walked with Abay down the quiet main street of this podunk town in search of shashlyk. It was a lovely walk, as the sidewalks were lined with these giant trees, plucked of leaves by the cold and reaching up straight to the heavens (Russians always learn their tree species from a young age, and find the difference between a fir and an elm to be utterly simplistic. I still must rely on descriptive adjectives and guesswork – they might have been poplars!).  In the middle of the village there were vendors aplenty. There wasn’t much to sell here, just food. So people hawked buckets full of fruit and piles of cabbage, tin pails of strawberries and ramen noodles from China. There were a dozen shashlyk grills grilling away. We picked up one at random and ordered four kebabs, sitting down at a picnic table outside to watch our food prepared. When it arrived, we slid the meat off the skewers with pieces of homemade bread as gloves, and ate it with vinegar and red powdered pepper. Indian food, shmindian food.

Our stomachs bloated, we strolled around side streets letting off steam. I was in a sour mood, tasty food regardless. My thoughts were too tied up in our confrontation at the museum earlier in the day. I was tired of all the rejection and dejection. I never expected such open hostility to my project. Was it so naïve to think that people here would be excited to see an American interested in their tradition? An American who had come halfway across the globe to help them preserve it? Abay told me I was thinking like a little kid. They don’t care that you’re American, he said bluntly, they just care about themselves and their families. And they don’t trust you. Why do you think you can just show up on the doorstep and expect them to hand over their knowledge to you? It’s the heritage of their ancestors, and you think you can just ask nicely to borrow it, with a smile?

I had no good answers and changed the subject. At a gas station on the way back to our new home, we bought some Air Astana playing cards and spent the rest of the afternoon in silence, playing Gin Rummy. We ate dinner in the corner of a restaurant, watching middle-aged Kazakh couples dance to too-loud techno. In the early hours of the night, we laid in our beds, bored, talking. Abay told me about various regional stereotypes in Kyrgyzstan – people from Jalal-Abad are friendly; people from Issyk-Kul are so crafty; people from Batken are just like the Tajiks and people from Osh are just like the Uzbeks. Abay was more than happy to give me his insider knowledge. He was just a friend who liked sharing about his people. I only wished he was an eagle hunter.


First in a daily series of four or five posts! Prepare for a feast! Tomorrow: Will the eagle hunters let me into their lives? Will I ever eat Indian food in Kazakhstan? Find out!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    November 24, 2010 9:59 pm

    You should find spices and make your own Indian food. Spencer and i made paneer tikka masala a couple of weeks ago, and it was daaaank!

  2. November 25, 2010 12:16 pm

    Look forward to read the continuation of your story. Sounds very adventurous.

    Good luck to you and wish you all the best with your eagle hunting.


  1. Travelling Blind, Pt. 2 « Keen on Kyrgyzstan
  2. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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