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Anatomy of a Hunting Festival

May 6, 2011

The Mysterious Oracle

A woman reads a speech from a stage, but she’s not standing on it – she’s standing behind it. Her disembodied voice floats over the audience, pronouncing, “We are reviving the traditions of our ancestors!” After the couple hundred people who are there clap and cheer in agreement, she repeats the entire speech again for the four who have just arrived. Again, with feeling!

The Primordial Ancestor

A teenage boy dressed in a caveman outfit thumps his feet on the ground. He circles a pyre of juniper branches, then lights it on fire. He fans his arms at the sacred smoke and passes out. The audience hopes it is a metaphor.


Schoolchildren are a prerequisite for any revitilization effort. “We are the future!” they say. In an ideal world, they would all have eagles on their arms, but these ones carry only meaningless little flags. They wiggle them in the wind and then hold hands, spinning in circles. It is absolutely adorable. “Long live the Kyrgyz people!” they shout. Adorable and nationalistic! The caveman comes back from the dead. Good. It was a metaphor.

Lipsynced Theatrics

A middle aged man wearing a fake wizard beard steps forward from a group of old men wearing real ones.  A woman wearing a turban steps to his side. “Hello my sacred nation!” they shout over the speakers. “You did not forget the traditions of our ancestors!” Something is off. Their voices are amplified across the fairgrounds, but they have no microphones. Look closely. Their mouths aren’t even moving in time – they’re moving their jaws up and down, but nothing’s coming out. Pre-recorded proclamations play on the P.A. The effect is uncanny.

Powerful People Make Speeches

The provincial governor reads from a paper he probably saved from last year. “Today is a holiday, and holidays are for relaxation!” He goes on to say exactly nothing meaningful for two minutes. “And in conclusion I want to wish you all peace and prosperity.” How thoughtful! Later, the governor invites me into his yurt.  “Don’t translate this” his police chief says to my translator in a language he doesn’t know I understand, “but this kid is too young.” I tell them about Fulbright and they all joke I’m a spy. They are only half-joking. They look uneasy. Powerful people are paranoid.

A Collective Prayer

Everybody cups their hands in Islamic prayer and a well-wishing old man sings out similes. “May your problems stay in one place, like a mountain. May you be as flexible as a river.” May you swim like a salmon into the stream of success…

An Epic Tale

A man sits in front of a microphone and reads a tale from heart. It’s about an historic hunt. He sings it in a familiar rhythym, every line seven syllables long. “BUM dum DUM dum DUM dum DUM.” It’s in archaic Kyrgyz, Shakespearian you could say, and my translator understands none of it. We get bored and go eat ashlan fu, a Dungan dish with noodles made out of fat. The man keeps chanting. Eventually he stops, but he could go on. The story he’s reading from is half a million lines long.

The Spinning Pigeon

 The first event of the afternoon begins. Falconers line up with their birds. A boy ties a rope to a pigeon and throws it in circles around his head like it’s a bullroarer. One by one the falcons fly at their spinning target. Half the time they slam it to the ground and start plucking out its feathers. The other half of the time they get bored and fly off into the sky, chasing crows.

Bows and Arrows

The next event is an archery competition. Instead of a bullseye, there’s a wooden board with a mountain goat painted on it.  Nobody seems to know quite what they’re doing and most of the arrows fly over the goat and kick up dust. The ones that do hit their mark get him in his goat-beard. “Good job!” the announcer says anyways. The top prize is a television and he ends up giving it to his brother. Nobody acknowledges the resemblance.


 Hunters stand crammed in a truck bed like they’re being shipped to market. Across a field a wolf is tied to an anchor. The hunters throw their giant eagles into the air with a shout and hope that the birds have some guts. Most land on the ground and look peeved. The unusually brave fly onto the wolves back and they tussle in the dirt like schoolchildren. The men jump from the truckbed and run up to the brawling predators, trying to pull the eagle’s talons out of the canine’s front leg. The wolf is demoralized. The same poor animal is recycled for every festival.

The (Dead) Fox Chase

For hundreds of years, Kyrgyz have bred hunting dogs called taigans that are streamlined like greyhounds, built for speed.  The truth is that most hunters here adore them more than their birds. To see how fast they can run, some guys tie a dead fox to a rope and drag it behind a minivan. The taigans fly through the air. Their feet hit the ground only as an afterthought. The sputtering van can hardly outrun the dogs. Catching up with the fox, the taigans tear into it like it’s been calling them names.

The Dogfight

The final event. Another wolf is brought to the arena, this one even bigger. There’s no anchor this time, just a long, long leash. The taigans go after their canine cousin in pairs. One nips from behind while the other growls from the front. Like the eagles, some aren’t as courageous as they’re made out to be. They sniff the wolf’s butt and trot off with their tails between their legs. When the competition is over, men take their dogs to the fairground margins and sic them on each other for amusement. The dogs lunge at each other’s throats and the men whistle.

The Concert

A woman plays on a Kazakh dombra, two men strum komuz, and a small tan man squeezes an accordion. An old woman sings folk songs, holding notes for uncomfortable periods of time. All the young people who ran away during the folk tunes run back as a boy dressed up in a Michael Jackson suit and fedora flails his arms to Jacko singing “All I wanna say is they don’t really care about us.” A teenage girl bellydances as middle-aged men record her on their cameraphones.

The Awards Ceremony

While the girl was hypnotizing the audience with foreign choreography, the masters of ceremony were tallying up points. The scoring system is a mystery – ten points for a talon to the eye, two for a nip to the bum? It’s probably irrelevant – the awards go to brothers and friends. Tired hunters sit with pride on top of their prizes, boxes of Chinese vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens.

The End

The yurts come down and the wolves are put in their cages and the eagles are loaded into the trunks of cars and the place is emptied. The mysterious oracle sings out to the departing crowd. “Don’t forget your ancestors! Don’t forget your traditions! See you next time!”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2011 3:54 pm

    Malodetz, Dennis, for the interesting/absurdist report but especially for the great shot that’s next to the Eagle Tossing header.

  2. Lola permalink
    March 11, 2012 12:44 pm

    I’m planing a trip to Kyrgystan in the summer and I was wondering if you would know where I can catch a festival like this one around July or August…?

    Thanks a lot,

    • March 16, 2012 4:30 am

      It is rare for such hunting festivals to be held in July or August – it is far from hunting season and the birds are shedding their feathers and growing fat. Still, if you are on the south shore of Issyk-Kul, in Tong Raion, you may want to ask around.

      • Lola permalink
        March 16, 2012 11:04 am

        Thanks a lot for answering!
        I was also wondering if you’d know any less toured special places to trek or visit in Kyrgystan that you would recommend going to, that might have a Yourt village somewhere near it?
        I’m sorry if I’m bothering you with so many questions its just hard to find information about Kyrgystan that is not an arranged group tour.

        Thank you for your help!

  3. E lin permalink
    June 24, 2012 6:17 am

    I love the Kyrgz costumes; I don’t like the dog fighting bit though.

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