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The Valley of the Dogs

April 8, 2011

The place was dead. The ground was coated in nothing but grey grass, choked dry by the endless winter, and the mountains and skies were dressed in grey too, for the funeral maybe. Nothing could grow here. People lived in clumped-up villages of adobe shacks, and they lived off flour trucked in from China over Soviet roads that had been crushed to stones. Their animals gave them something to eat, perhaps, but what did the animals eat? The yaks could’ve been there for comic relief, clomping about like barrels wearing shag carpets, but even they looked sad. Shepherds moved their yaks from place to place and everybody else sat crouched in dirty circles, playing cards and drinking vodka. I was getting a headache. This place was sucking my spirit dry.

We had come here for a reason. We were looking for falconers.  A man named Duishon in the Alay mountains told us over pickles and vodka that, you know, I heard that there were some traditional hunters in Chong Alay. We had found little in the Alay, but “Chong” meant “big,” so that must be a step up, right? So we got in our jeep and headed to what seemed like bigger and better things. Nestled in these Chong Alay mountains was a long valley stretched out like a smile. I imagined it full of falconers, hanging out on street corners and plowing the fields with their birds on their heads. It was remote as you could get in Kyrgyzstan, 10,000 feet in the air, and I dreamed it was a paradise. An eagle hunter in every home.

But the eagle hunters were dead. The first town we drove through, we stopped a guy on horseback and asked him for help – Are there any falconers here? He looked a little scared and shook his head. “Jok” – the Kyrgyz rejection. There used to be, he said, with a far-off look in his eyes, but now…now, there are none. We drove through dust from town to town, and everywhere we were greeted with the same “jok” and the nostalgic stare. There were tantalizing leads. One man, a little braggadocious from booze, told us he used to have a falcon, but it flew away. Another said there was once an eagle hunter in the next town over. But every next town brought us rejection, and I cursed this place with bitter words.

 

By the time we got to the corner of the valley’s smile, I was frowning and resigned. We were at the cusp of Tajikistan, and I figured the falconers must have fallen over. The bird guys were gone, but we were thrown a wild card. “Would you like to meet a dog breeder?” asked one of the men we met. I knew what that meant – in addition to hunting with raptors, Kyrgyz people have an ancient tradition of hunting with sighthounds called Taigans. I had seen them at falconry festivals but had never taken the time to learn much about them. So I threw the chance of raptors to the wind and took my chances with the sighthounds. This was the thrill of research – off I went into uncharted territory.

The man’s name was Turgunbai. In his yard was a beautiful black dog, its leash looped onto a clothesline with a ring so that it could run across the barren garden but not out past the fence. He called it Laika, like the Soviet space-dog adored across the former Union, and she ran to him with affection. Laika had the lean look of a sprinter. Her belly was concave like a greyhound’s, but her fur was longer and shiny and her tail looped into a curl. For some reason, I thought of my mom’s dog-collar business – if Laika was dressed-up a bit, she could be a real show dog. She was a thing to behold, and she stared at us right back. After months of gawking at indifferent birds, I was instantly caught up in the curiosity of the creature.

Turgunbai bought Laika for a hundred dollars in Jalal-Abad, an unusual investment in a place so impoverished. But once she’d learn to hunt, she’d pay her dividends in the prey that she’d catch. Turgunbai said he would take her out to the mountains with his rifle, and shoot a mountain goat in the leg. Then he’d let her loose. The dog knew instinctually what do, he said, she just needed some practice. She would even know where to bite – it’s built into her blood, he said. But this was pretty ambitious game. Mostly, Laika would learn to chase rabbits and badgers. For now, she chased after the bread that Turgunbai threw in tempting arcs in the air. In Jalal-Abad, she had been fed chicken legs. Here, in the dead place, bread was all there was.

Turgunbai had bought his bitch in Jalal-Abad, because here the taigans were hard to find. Just like the falconers I had given up on, the taiganchis (as the dog breeders were known) used to be bountiful here. Turgunbai’s dad was a taiganchi, and he bragged about his ‘pure’ Chong Alai taigans. They were the pride of the region. Now Turgunbai said they had mostly disappeared. Where had all the taigans gone, I asked?  It unraveled like a murder mystery.

In Soviet times, there was a “SETs” in every town – a Sanitarniy Epidemiologicheskiy Tsentr (stare at the Russian for a second and you might have an idea of what it is – a “sanitary epidemiological center.) They were there in theory for disease control, but by some bureaucratic decree they were also charged with canine control – curbing the populations of local strays. It was not a sophisticated process. They would systematically roam the streets, and any dogs that seemed to be roaming were shot. The taigans, Turgunbai said, would stray from their yards and the hired guns wouldn’t know any difference. Boom. Taigan down. A breed slowly trickled out of existence.

I had heard tales like this before, and they sounded tall. We heard from a taiganchi in Bishkek, for example, who told us that the KGB used to go from town to town with hypodermic needles, squeezing water into taigan bloodstreams. But all I could do was take Turgunbai’s word for it, and look for validation elsewhere. After a photoshoot with him and his dog, we drove down the road to another hunter that Turgunbai knew in the next village.  There were hunters aplenty, it seemed, but their partners didn’t have wings.

One hunter turned into two when we learned he had a taiganchi son. Omirbek (the younger) and Mamaseit (the elder) came out to greet us from their home made of clay. In the corner of their yard were two more taigans, one for each of them perhaps, playing in the dirt without a care. By some coincidence, Mamaseit had a face like Goofy the Dog and a mouth full of goofy gold teeth. He had been hunting with taigans since 1972, he said, when he got back from the army. He’d had a handful over the years, but they were knocked off one by one. His dogs used to bark at neighbors and wander around the hood, so local kids fed them drugs. The dogs died. The conspiracy theory spun out of control. The children were in on it too!

A few blocks over, a couple old men regaled us with more taigan stories, not so sinister. Kudaibergen was so skinny his worn-out grey pants kept slipping down his waist, and he hiked them up repeatedly like any old bumpkin. He looked maybe eighty years old, but his father stood next to him looking ninety, his eyes barely open.  They used to go hunting with their dogs, they told me, in a place called Altyn Mazar – “Golden Grave.” It was high in the mountains, but they knew these mountains better than anybody. They knew every pass to Tajikistan like a line on their palm. In their quest for prey they would cross frigid rivers on their horses, and they bragged that their taigans were so smart that you’d whistle and they would hop right up onto the horse and ride it with you like a child. They laughed and looked at each other like they’d remembered they were once young.

We asked them about the disappearance of the dogs and they told it to us straight. There were no drugs or sidewalk shootouts. People just stopped caring. My son’s a doctor, said Kudaibergen, and he lives in Bishkek. The other lives in Chui, and he doesn’t know these mountains for shit. They never cared about the taigans. When they were growing up, there were other things to care about – learning Russian and going to med school, joining the red army. What did a couple of dogs matter to them? The men grew old and the sons didn’t find partners for the dogs to breed with and the taigans grew old too, and they died. So they were gone. And that was that.

This place was dead, I thought, and the taigans would die too. It was sad. The hunters would go into the ground with their dogs and it would all be just another gleam in the eye of a drunk man down the road. “Yeah, there used to be taiganchis here,” he would say, and he’d trail off, watching the yaks trample the cracked grass across the road. “But now they’re gone. This valley’s got nothing but poor people with memories.”

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Lane Bellman permalink
    April 8, 2011 2:44 pm

    Dennis, thank you. I look at my own taigan…gazing off to that Valley of the Dogs, so far away from home…and am glad that for today, he lives, and is loved. I wish I could thank the old man and his son. If you meet again, perhaps you will tell them.

  2. Debbie permalink
    April 8, 2011 2:45 pm

    You manage to turn a bleak scene into a story worth reading, Dennis. Glad you are thinking of collars2switch.com at odd moments when you are far from home, although I am not sure those dogs are the target market for a “Decorate Your Dog” ad campaign.

  3. Chris permalink
    April 8, 2011 4:48 pm

    Good post Dennis. I spent 5 long days in Chong Alai and can confirm its a place with few prospects. Stoic/hostile communities that remind me of parts of Scotland – another economically depressed and virulently nationalistic region of the world (takes tongue out of cheek).

  4. Jutta Rübesam permalink
    April 8, 2011 9:17 pm

    Thank you for your story of the Taigans. I wish they will stay what they are, gorgeous hunting dogs, and I hope they will survive in a changing world. They are such great dogs!! One bitch is living with me…there are some Taigan lovers spread over the world:-))))
    I would be happy to see more pictures of Taigans!

  5. Emily permalink
    April 11, 2011 9:22 am

    Another excellent story, thank you! I look forward to your posts so much and I was getting worried there would not be any more. I’ve also read your work in the Spektator online as I am interested in Kyrgyzstan, do you publish anywhere else? (don’t want to miss anything…)

    • April 11, 2011 9:33 am

      Thanks, glad you liked it. The Spektator is a small operation and I lease my blog stories out to them, so it’s the same material. This is where I put all my work so it’s your one-stop-shop.

Trackbacks

  1. Anatomy of a Hunting Festival « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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