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Travelling Blind, Pt. 2

November 25, 2010

(Read Pt. 1 here)

The next day, we slept in and went across the street for some breakfast. The small café was already full of gold-teethed men in berets, emptying flask-sized vodka bottles into their gullets. People stopped at each other’s tables to make small town small talk. I ordered some local variant of laghman – the Central Asian staple of noodles, peppers, meat, and broth. The noodles could be chopped up into small pieces or fried, you could have extra peppers or added rice, and each version had its own name. I got the rice version and forgot the name. It was tasty though. It’s good to eat peppers, Abay said, because it’s cold outside. Gotta heat up your insides.

After our meal Abay called Dinara, the woman from the museum, to see if they had had a change of heart. He was grinning when he hung up the phone so I knew that they had come around. Benny was sad to see us go so soon, but we checked out of the hotel and caught a taxi back to Nura. At the gates of the museum complex we greeted Dinara, and this time she welcomed us with an inviting smile.

The next hour soon changed that smile to a grimace. She immediately wanted to know how much we would be paying them for our stay. We hoped to stay there for five days. She suggested five hundred dollars. My jaw dropped. I looked at Abay and laughed. Five hundred dollars? I thought I was loaded just because I had two hundred in my pocket. “I’m sorry, just tell her I don’t have that kind of money.”  Dinara didn’t budge. “It doesn’t matter to me if you stay here or not,” she said, and that pretty much defined her attitude towards us for the duration of the negotiation. She didn’t care if I was a student, or that I was really keen on seeing her museum and meeting her family. I was just another foreign face. She repeated a list of foreign visitors like a mantra: “But we’ve had guests from Japan, Hungary, the UK, Turkey, Poland, Mongolia, Russia…” I was nothing new, and without money, I was nothing.

After begging for sympathy and bargaining for something cheaper, Dinara sighed and told us we were making her uncomfortable. We were bringing shame to her ancestors, she said. I felt bad and told her we would stay for a night, for a hundred dollars. It was absolutely too much, but I had come too far to just get up and leave. I was not about to give up and stumble back to Almaty defeated. Also, the museum was the only one of its kind and would be a valuable resource for my research. We made a deal and tried to forget about it all.

Dinara invited us in for lunch, meat with rice. The meat was a strange color and the rice had lots of hairs in it. Abay and I had talked before about how this was a culture of give and take, and if I would be staying and taking from them material, I would have to offer something in return. It seemed that money was not enough. So I suggested that I could help make them a website, so that western tourists could find them. I had found it impossible to find any information about their museum, I told them, so how have others found you? Just like in a lot of places in this region, it seemed that local tourism was based around the anachronistic tour company. People would give thousands of dollars to some company, who would then take them to the museum and various other points of interest, keeping most of the money for themselves and sharing little with their business partners like Dinara. One company, she said, had asked for a large sum of money from their clients – they said they would use it to buy five hundred rabbits, for some unimaginably large eagle hunting bloodbath. They bought five and kept the leftover money. The clients came to Dinara, utterly pissed, wondering where she could possibly be hiding four hundred and ninety five rabbits.

Dinara shows off an eagle crutch in her museum

Local tourism here seemed to be built around these profiteering tour companies. Yet the kind of people who really want to come to this part of the world (which frankly, most people don’t know about) aren’t the kind of folks who want to shell out a few thousand dollars and sit on a tour bus. They’re young people like me who want the independence to organize their own adventure. You can’t rely on these tour companies to make yourself known, I told Dinara, you have to know how to publicize yourself. She liked the idea of a website. She liked that I was bringing something to the table. She liked me, and it made the rest of the afternoon go a lot more smoothly.  Now I just need to learn HTML again. Oops.

After our discussion and less-than-spectacular meal, we got a tour of the museum. It was just a single small room, with display tables in the middle and pictures on the wall. The tables were full of hunting paraphanelia – eagle leashes and falcon hoods, gloves and bags, stirrups and knives. The pictures showed famous legendary hunters from the ages in gritty black and white. Dinara explained that one of these hunters, Dauletbak Koshkinov, was known for his unusual eagle. His bird had lost a talon in a scuffle with a wolf, and with the help of some kind Soviet comrades Dauletbak had a prosthetic one made. Thus was born “Steel Claw,” the  first Soviet cyborg eagle. There was even a book and a film made about it. An action movie remake is in order, I thought.

Just a girl and her bird

Somebody interrupted our tour and asked if we’d like to see a falcon feeding. There’s no real reason to say no to that kind of thing so we headed outside. Unfortunately, the bird had no metallic upgrades of any kind. It was, however, being fed by an intense young girl, who watched it urgently as it ripped apart an anonymous piece of meat. Her name was Aikerim, we learned, and she was learning to be a falconer. I was surprised and delighted to meet a female apprentice. When I had asked hunters about such a possibility in Mongolia, they had frowned and discouraged it. A woman wouldn’t be strong enough to hold an eagle, they said, or survive the chill of a hunt. Yet here was this young girl, taking their prejudices and telling them to shove it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, Dinara said, it matters about your character. You need dedication and patience, and even most men are not cut out for the job. And Aikerim would not be the first: there were tales of women warriors and their loyal birds, even woman hunters in Dinara’s own bloodline. Aikerim was no anomaly, but the newest member in an elite club of fierce female falconers of yore.

Aikerim's Predecessor. Look at that piercing glare.

We spent a long time poring over the small library they had on eagle hunting. I was astonished by the amount of printed material on the subject I had not been able to find because it isn’t in my native tongue. Here I found books in German, French, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz, all devoted to my topic of choice. I learned about new equipment I had never seen before (some kind of leather eagle mittens?), new facets of eagle management I had never even thought of (a full list of different eagle diseases: beware eagle tuberculosis), and intriguing intersections with other aspects of Kazakh culture (some percussion instruments were apparently used during ancient hunts to lure out prey!). I was happy as a fatly-fed falcon, devouring the books before me.

But I needed to be nourished in other ways so I was called to dinner, where I was presented with another large dish of some very meaty meat and rice to soften the blow. As we ate, we watched some finely made Kazakh documentaries that had been shot of their family, who it seemed were some kind of hunting royalty. In one, the footage was overlaid with two Kazakh beauties doing a traditional eagle dance, flapping their arms in mimicry. Kazakhs have never had traditional dancing, I knew, but I didn’t say anything. In another, there were computer graphics of how an eagle can break a wolf’s back, the predator and prey stripped down to animated skeletons. I watched captivated, chewing gristle.

After the cinematic sideshow there was a lull in conversation, which Abay and I have now learned how to quickly combat. “Did you know that Dennis is a quadruplet?” The reaction was the same as always. After a look of confusion and a moment of hesitation, everybody broke out laughing. We showed them photos and they gawked in awe. “Maybe you will bring luck to our young bride!” they told me, and nodded toward the quiet girl who had been serving us tea all evening. She had been hoping for a child and maybe I was her charm. We used to be a shamanistic culture, they told me, maybe you could leave something of yours behind, so we can use it in a ritual? I thought about loaning them a t-shirt until I realized they were being facetious. Still, I told them a story that gave them encouragement. When I had been in Kazakhstan five years ago, I had visited some of my host family’s family, a newly-married couple who were trying desperately to have kids. I remember sitting on their couch as they pushed a big Soviet dictionary on my lap and pointed at “artificial insemination.” A few years later, they had triplets. They immediately thought of me. It must be contagious.

We had more laughs and then it was time to rest. We slept on the floor on top of some pillows, hardly VIP treatment for our hundred dollar donation. It seemed to be colder inside than it was outdoors. I lay there shivering as Abay grinded his teeth with slumbering anxiety. My own concerns, though, had melted away. Whenever there was a bump in my road, an uncompromising woman or an untrusting subject, it seemed I could just clench my fists and pummel forward. With every sigh of rejection there was a warm-hearted laugh of acceptance, and all bad luck, it seemed, was just a sign of good luck to come.

Tomorrow: A train to the middle of nowhere and the eagle hunter of my dreams

Bonus KeenonKyrgyzstan Video: One of the Kazakh hunters at the Jety Kazyna center feeds his giant berkut.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2010 2:16 pm

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your eagle-hunting adventures… gah, how I miss the wonderful absurdity of Central Asia. Have you met Ishenbek the eagle hunter of Kaji-Say, Kyrgyzstan?

    • November 26, 2010 10:17 am

      I don’t think I’ve met Ishenbek formally but I ran into pretty much every eagle hunter in the country at the festival they had a few weeks ago in Bokonbaevo. Glad you like the blog!

  2. November 26, 2010 11:55 am

    The festival at Bokonbayevo is so much fun! My friends and I stayed with Ishenbek the weekend of the festival in 2008, and went on a private hunt with him, too…. wonderful.

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