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The Hunt for the Hunters

April 12, 2011

The country of Kyrgyzstan had been split in two, between North and South, and sometimes, it seemed, between the Pure and the Other. The South was overrun with Uzbeks, they said in the North – they called them Sarts, and it was a word that stung. In the sociocultural makeup of Central Asia, a Sart wasn’t any certain nationality, but a way of life. It meant you were settled. For the Kyrgyz people, ancient nomads of the mountains, there was nothing worse than a Sart –a Sart was a landowner, a trader, a swindler and enslaver. The rooted and the rootless were diametrically opposed, enemies for ages. They’d reduce each other to caricatures. “You no-good Sart,” a Kyrgyz would say “you’re nothing but a melon hawker.” “Well”, the Uzbek might reply “at least I’m not a horse-wrangler.”

Still, as much as the Northerners would like to think it was overrun with Uzbeks, the South was mainly Kyrgyz. But these weren’t real Kyrgyz, they’d protest – they’re Sarts in disguise! On holidays, we eat horse and they eat rice. Like the Uzbeks. When they say “good”, they don’t say jakshy, like us, they say yakshy. Like the Uzbeks. Sometimes, we can’t even understand what those Southerners are saying – speak Kyrgyz, dagnabbit, I ain’t a Sart.

The petty differences could be amusing, maybe, if they hadn’t brought mass murder to this country. In April of last year, the Northerners overthrew a Southern president and blood stained the streets of the capital. The vanquished president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled to his hometown and held court with his cousins, threatening civil war.  By June, the South was unhinged. Kyrgyz teenagers were decapitated. Uzbek men were burned alive. Horse wrangling Kyrgyz shepherds flooded in from the countryside and burned down Uzbek bazaars, melons and all. This was no longer a joke. This was war.

By the time I arrived in the country in the fall, the fighting had fizzled out and the country was on its feet again. A new constitution and a new congress, though, couldn’t banish the cultural divide. Political band-aids couldn’t heal a cultural wound. The country remained as split as ever. The evidence was everywhere I looked, and it showed up in my work.

For my falconry research, I went to nation-wide hunting festivals and watched delegations of hunters march in line, carrying their bird in one hand and a flag in the other. Talas, Chui, Issyk-Kul, Naryn, the banners read. The four northern provinces. The Southerners must have forgotten their flags, I thought, but soon I learned the truth – there weren’t any Southerners there at all. They weren’t invited. As far as the Northerners were concerned, there weren’t any falconers in the South and that was that.

There was a chasm in this country, and it ran right through the falconry community. I had little patience for it. This was a tradition, I knew, that was not limited to half a nation. A century ago, there wasn’t even a Kyrgyzstan to be divided – this was just the Central Asian Tien Shan, and men hunted with birds throughout. The Kyrgyz culture had its geographical nuances – rice here, horse there – but falconry was an exception. This was something that belonged to all people of Kyrgyzstan, north, south and in between. This was common cultural heritage. This was a tradition that could bring people together. Next year, the Southern hunters would be there in force, and their flags would fly with all the rest. For one day, in one arena, this country could be united.

My rhetoric could only go so far. We had to find the falconers first. So I got on a plane, and I flew over the divide. The hunt for the hunters had begun.

 

 

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.”

Welcome, Redditors!

April 7, 2011

So I put up a post in Reddits “Ask Me Anything” forum about my experiences with eagle hunters in Kyrgyzstan. Here I am to confirm that this really is me! Stick around and enjoy my site. You’ll see that I do a lot more here than just hunt with eagles – I also research Kyrgyz folk music and anything else that floats my boat.

Keen Out Of Kyrgyzstan: Stories From Abroad

March 15, 2011

I wake up to a blowing fan. It is too hot for sheets. I’m not quite sure where I am. I arrived in the middle of the night, my mind delirious from sleeplessness, and it was all I could do to fall onto the mattress on the floor and pass out. I know that I am in the desert. I was brought here by a man in white robes. He told me he would come back in the morning.

I go outside. I have been sleeping in a toy house. Around me are hundreds of facsimiles, stretching to a sand dune in the distance. Save for the Indian workers polishing off the cookie cutter copy next door, I am the only soul around. In this new housing development, I am the sole resident. There is no water here, you see, so it should be impossible to survive. But my friend, the man in robes, has brought me water from the mosque, five buckets full, and I wash my face and drink it in gulps.

He had no choice but to take the house. It was financed for free from the coffers of Abu Dhabi. We will let you have it, they said, but why do you need it now? Wait a few months and we will pipe in water. He could not wait. Across the border in a dusty village in Oman he was being hounded out of his house, and it was there that he was now, patching up holes in the walls from drunken fists. The landlord wanted him out. He has already moved most of his belongings to this new home. They are laying in piles in the front yard, gathering desert sand like dust.

The day passes like a dream. The gate to the street beyond is locked. I am a prisoner. I sit on the sofas outside and stare at the sun, take naps on the ground, listen to birds singing, but somewhere else, not here. The man comes home in the evening, and he jokes, “How was Guantanamo?” It was he who had locked the gate. He was worried that if I’d left the yard I’d get lost. All the houses here are the same, all the addresses are the same, and it’s hot, so hot, no place to walk around. I’ve been bored stiff, building up anger, but I sigh it out. “It was fine, Marvin. Thanks for the water.”

 

~

 

Dubai was overflowing with tourists. They rode camels around parking lots. They picked their noses on air-conditioned buses. They slithered in lines around historic neighborhoods and pointed at crumbling walls of irrelevant fortresses and fingered through their informational brochures – “Ooo, how old is this one?” I was a tourist too, but I was not on a tour, and I recognized my self-loathing. I did not like the feeling of the invader, eyeing the strange faces of the natives. I wanted to be invisible.

I walked away from the mob and fled to  Dubai Creek, where seagulls shrieked and aquatic taxis plied the waters. There was a bus stop of sorts at the water’s edge and I sat there, sharing the space with two Arab boys, watching the boats go back and forth, from shore to shore. After a while they stood up and strolled away, holding hands. Over the hum of the boats and the blaring of the birds rang out the sounds of a twinkling guitar, fingerpicking electric with tremolo. A big white ship sat idle nearby, looking like me, without direction. On its deck, a man was sitting alone, playing songs from a tattered notebook.

“Hey, can I play?” I shouted, and he waved me aboard. What’s your name? I asked. Nomar. Where are you from? The Philippines. We sat down at the corner of a table and he handed me his guitar like a gift. I played him Here Comes the Sun. The sky was grey and he was happy to hum along. He asked me if I knew any Simon and Garfunkel. That I could do. Then he asked for the Bee Gees. That, I’m afraid, I couldn’t. “You don’t know any Bee Gees???” he said, eyes wide open and eyebrows twisted in shock.  Disco was dead but I hung my head in shame. In his notebook, he had handwritten lyrics and chords, and we picked “Imagine” and sang it together. Anywhere in the world you may be, you cannot go wrong with Lennon.

After a while, different men emerged from the cabin to gawk at the American who had wandered into their midst. They were all Filipinos, and all friendly, and I tried to explain where Kyrgyzstan was. Reggie was young and wanted to know if he could have my sister’s hand in marriage; John had a fake FBI badge in his wallet. Nomar was a cook and made me some noodles, and also brought me some coffee and madeleines. We sat and ate and played around. They all sang unabashedly. My voice is thin but I couldn’t help but join in, squealing like the seagulls all around us. People with cameras stood on the docks, watching us with amusement, but they rarely stayed long. Their tour bus was waiting for them.

Listen here to Nomar giving his rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Fighter” and then switching to singing a different tune in Tagalog midsong…pretty neat.

And listen here to our briefest of jams, me on acoustic and  Nomar on the ‘lectric.

~

After months of wintry monotone, the green of Goa left my mouth agape, like the place had invented a new color. It blurred past me as I rested my arms on the back of my friend. His arms clung to handlebars, pulling the throttle and pushing our bike past fields and cows and mendicant wanderers.  Renting the scooter was a good investment. Freedom was ours and with it came beaches, beaches after beaches just ripe for the picking. Colin had one in mind. “Palolim?” he asked the occasional roadside wayfarer. That way, they would say, and point us onwards. We got lost but it hardly mattered.

At the beach we ate spicy fish and spicy shrimp and washed it down with banana lassis, the glorious milkshakes of India. It was hot but in a good way, as refreshing as the greenery. Then we sat on deckchairs drinking beers, as politely as we could shooing away solicitors who were selling beaded bracelets and flutes. Palolim was lined with palms, and in its bay an equally palmy island hovered like an oasis. Before us, a big rock also stood out from the still water. We swam to it and crawled up its barnacles. Colin got scraped but happily bled. He was hurt but it hardly mattered.

Sandy and salty, we drove our bike back through the softly fading sunset. Locals laughed at us and cops gave us thumbs up, all amused we were both wearing helmets. Handpainted signs hung on the back of trucks – “Horn okay please.”  We rang ours out around every turn, and as the sky grew darker it became a necessity. Nobody turned their lights on. Our bike was overdue so we sped through the newly-minted night honking like mad. We were late but it hardly mattered.

 

Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review

February 28, 2011

Until March 11, I will off globe-trotting with no time for blog maintenance. There’s a fully-funded Fulbright conference in Goa, India that I will be presenting at, and I’m going to the U.A.E. for five days on my way there. In the meantime, then, catch up on my writings so far. Keen on Kyrgyzstan is now about five months old, which means I’m officially half-way-done with my ten month stint in this confounding country – as good a time as any to reminisce. Here is a brief summary of all forty-four posts so far:

 

My First Day in Kirgizia, in which I arrive from Urumqi, meet my Russian host family, and go for a cruise with my bodybuilding brother

A Week is Gone, in which I share a series of vignettes from my first week, like drinking vodka with pickles and fish

Falling out of Kyrgyz Skies, in which I go parachuting out of a Soviet airplane

Banya Funya, in which I take a dip in a Soviet poolhouse and get naked and steamed in a sauna

The Daily Grind, in which I recount my mundane existence as a language student

Sounds of Kyrgyzstan, in which I share various recordings I’ve made on my trip

Being a Beeznesmen, in which I tell of my various business affairs as a Fulbright Fellow

Love and Hate, in which the Russian population of Kyrgyzstan reveals itself to be astonishingly racist

A Stroll, in which I walk through apocalyptic landscapes and find a roller rink

Falconry, Finally, in which I drive across mountains to attend a hunting festival in Talas

New Home, in which I move into my very own apartment and meet the Dungans upstairs

Issyk-Kul, Day One-Three, in which I climb a tree, ride a tractor, and offend many people

Eagle Exterminators, Azerbaijani Dance-Offs, and Kyrgyz Espionage, in which I celebrate Halloween, watch Caucasian acrobatics and learn I’m suspected a spy

Komuz and Creation, in which I tour the Philharmonic and visit a Kyrgyz instrument maker

A City of Change, in which I visit Almaty, Kazakhstan, and am shocked by its ascendance

Travelling Blind, Pt. 1-2, in which I go to a suspected eagle hunting village on a whim

Riding Kazakh Rails, in which I ride a rusting traincar across the Eurasian steppe

Eagle Babe, in which I track down the only woman eagle hunter in Asia

Lit 101: Intro to Aimatov, in which I report on the beautiful works of a Kyrgyz literary hero

Family Matters, in which I meet a new baby and learn about ancient ancestors

Fleeting Foxes, in which I attend an unsuccessful hunt and later watch a fox get eaten alive

Stories from the Field, pt. 1: The Gift, in which my eagle-hunting master Sary shows me his new bird

Stories from the Field, pt. 2: The Dead, in which I visit a Kyrgyz cemetery and receive a curse

Stories from the Field, pt. 3: The Sacrifice, in which a horse is carved up for a party

Marshrutka to Nowhere, pt.1-2, in which I take public transportation to nowhere in particular

Bookish Bishkek, in which I visit the national library and read old books

The Hunter with the Paintbrush, in which I meet a talented and mystical artist

Olga and Her Houseplants, in which I buy pirated movies from the crumbling remains of a Soviet film studio

Master and Apprentice, in which I receive lessons in Kyrgyz lute from a legendary musician

The Desperate Stranger, in which I meet an Arab interested in falcon smuggling

Lights, Camera, Eagles, in which I watch a wolf from the zoo get mauled by dogs on film

Komuz in Translation, in which I meet a guitarist who puts Kyrgyz folk tunes to classical guitar

The Whirling Dervish, in which I meet a dreaded Dutch didgeridoo player

The Call, in which I visit my local mosque to hear the call the prayer

The Voice of Kyrgyzstan, in which I meet a famous Kyrgyz diva

Manasland, in which I visit an unusual tourist trap devoted to an ancient hero

Adventures in Kyrgyz Fast Food, in which I eat the most disgusting hot dog of my life

An Emporium of Souls, in which I explore the glory of the bazaar

A Tale of Astonishing Naivety, in which I buy a guy a cheeseburger and then get mugged

The Hunting Party, in which I climb some small mountains with an eagle and become complicit in the murder of a domesticated animal

 

The Hunting Party

February 28, 2011

We were combing the mountain for foxes. It wasn’t so much of a mountain, I suppose, but it was much more than a hill. The Kyrgyz have words for these things but we just don’t. So we were poring over this mountainette with our eyes open wide and our senses alert, atuned to some primal frequency in our monkey brains – find the food, find the fox! A couple of scrappy Kyrgyz guys kicked rocks down into the basin below and hollered into the emptiness, and the sounds of the stones tumbling and the voices hollering were given right back, bouncing from rock to rock. We wanted to flush our these cowards from their hiding holes. We had an eagle to feed.

The eagle was sitting calmly on the arm of her owner, Ruslan. Her eyes were covered by a leather hat called a hood, or tomogo, so that she wouldn’t grow too nervous by our jittery antics. Around her ankles were little leather loops attached to a short rope, called a kyska bo. The short rope was attached to a longer rope (uzun bo) by way of a spinning mechanism carved out of wood and bone (ailampa) – this way the bird could move its leashed legs around freely without getting tangled. The eagle’s talons dug into a leather cowhide glove called a melee, thick and tough enough to prevent all pain. Ruslan made all these trappings himself, skinning a cow and curing the leather and braiding it into ropes and molding it into gloves. He carved blocks of wood into the ailampa and bigger pieces into a wooden crutch for his eagle called a baldak, which he rested on his hipbone. The eagle astride his arm, tethered with his home-made ropes and perched on his home-made glove and home-made crutch, Ruslan was a self-made man. This eagle was his and all that it wore was his too, and these mountains were his, and soon, he hoped, a fox would be his as well.

Ruslan took off around the mountain, growing small as he stepped about its barren face. He was quiet and intense, but occasionally he would shout out to us from across the valley, and conversations in Kyrgyz would commense from mountain to mountain. “Do you see anything?” he’s ask impatiently. “No” we would holler back. We had stopped looking, but had taken to chatting instead. There is only so much time you’re willing to spend staring at rocks, hoping they would turn into foxes. Ruslan’s friend Janybek told us about how the previous spring his brother had grabbed two small raptors called hobbies (jaagalmai to him) and trained them to be his loyal friends. They lived in his yard unleashed, and when he went to school they would come with him, flying above, leading the way. The winter here was too cold for them, so they flew away, but they would come back again in the spring. Such was the bond here between men and their birds.

As Ruslan and his eagle wandered the rockheap, we made a fire out of a spiky shrub called ‘camel’s foot’ and sat squatting around its warmth. The town of Tort Kul lay below us and its lonely mosque sang out to us in afternoon prayer, the calls of its muezzin reaching even the tips of the mountaintops. Yellow smoke came off the smoldering camel’s foot and the allahu akbars rang out with reverb and the man and his eagle disappeared over the ridge into the next valley beyond. It was a strange and serene scene, and I rubbed my hands and closed my eyes and breathed deeply. If this was hunting, then it was surprisingly relaxing.

But then, Janybek hollered, and Ruslan came running. Down below, at the edge of a little lake, a fox had scurried into view of the boy’s binoculars. We planned our siege, and the strategy of the hunt became complex. We want to fox to run this way, through the field, so the eagle has space to swoop; so you, corner it from this side, you, go that way; Ruslan and the eagle will go here and wait. It was a multi-man operation. I was wrong if I ever imagined a man and his bird and the mountain, some kind of solitary pasttime. This was no loner’s hobby. This was a team sport.

So we scampered down the mountainside, being quick so as to cut off the fox but not so careless as to scare it away. But as we reached the valley floor, the fox had disappeared. Where could it have gone? Had it gone for a swim? Again, Janybek was the one to see it. It was skipping up the rocky outcrop in front of us, gleefully sly as foxes are so known to be. The eagle was in no place to attack, but it was fine, because we had it cornered. The fox was on something like a vertical island, a singular hill that jutted out from the valley around it. It could hide in the rocks, sure, but as soon as we flushed it out it would have nowhere to go but killing fields  in every direction. The game was up, Mr. Fox.

So we climbed atop our island and continued our flushing routine, hollering and throwing rocks and being the scary men that the fox thought us to be. For a moment, the fox flashed in front of our eyes, and everybody startled. I ran with my camera and my contact lens fell out. Ruslan readied his eagle, but he hadn’t seen it, and just as soon as the fox had appeared it had vanished once again. This was frustrating business. Now, one-eyed, I sat on a rock and watched, but half my world was fuzz. With blurry vision I wasn’t much of a hunter. The others wandered the island, cursing the furry little bastard, but now it knew for certain it was a target. So in some little hole it waited and waited, sure that it was smarter than us.

Patience. The hunt was about patience. It was a test of will now between the hunter and the hunted. Who would budge first? We sat on our rocky bulge for an hour, then two, shivering in the cold and watching the sun fall lower and lower. Ruslan took the tomogo off his eagle and let her search for the fox herself. She shifted her head in abrupt jerks as she scanned patches of the landscape for anything furry and moving. Then, she saw something. Ruslan unhooked her short rope from her long rope and she was off, soaring over the valley, and he shrieked, shrieking at the fox so that it wouldn’t turn around to see the giant bird that was headed its way. In the distance, the eagle pounced on something, and we ran down the side of the mountain as fast as we could. Ruslan and his friends were like mountain goats, bounding down the face of it like bouncing balls, but I lagged behind. With only one lens in my eye I had no depth perception, and I preceeded warily. I slipped and skinned my palm across a rock. Blood seeped out and I sucked it and ran on.

So I was sucking the blood and cursing my vision and feeling my heart beat fast as I tore across the field, and a hundred yards away the men stood crouched around their find. A fox, a fox! I thought triumphantly, and I pulled up to them panting and laughing and thrilled as can be. As I got closer, though, I saw they were only shaking their heads. The eagle was posed guardedly atop its catch, but the fur was not orange and the body was not long and it’s head was small and round. After hours of waiting, minutes of elation, the thrill of the hunt had come to this. We’d caught a housecat.

A Tale of Astonishing Naivety

February 24, 2011

It’s not every day that you buy a guy a cheeseburger and then he steals your phone. But things have not been in the cards for me this week. My stomach has been in revolt – it’s like it’s forgotten how to properly digest what I give it as a good stomach should. I’ve been curled up in bed, cursing the world, and the world has cursed back at me, spitting up numbingly grey weather day after day. Bishkek can be charming in white but it wears its grey like a homeless man. Like a homeless man who eats your cheeseburger and then steals your phone.

It all happened when I was walking home late last night from a friend’s going-away party. Perhaps that was my first mistake, but it would be only a couple-block stroll and the night sky wasn’t black so much as grey and the streets felt empty in a safe kind of way. He called out to me from a bus stop. I get these calls often, seemingly innocent requests for charity or a matchbox, but I’ve learned to keep my head screwed on straight ahead and pretend I have something in my ears. Vodka had erased all patience or understanding from this chap, though, and he took after me, calling out ‘stop, bro,’ and cursing me angrily. I knew I wouldn’t get rid of him easily. He caught up to me outside an all-night cheeseburger joint. He was young, in his 20s, with golden teeth and pock-marked cheeks. I looked at him nervously, and then up at the backlit burgers on the menu. Maybe that was my ticket out. “Do you want a cheeseburger?” I asked. “You look hungry.” He laughed with astonishment and shook my hand like I’d saved his life.

We ate our burgers standing, talking to the teenagers behind the counter. Teach us English, they told me. Where do you even start? I think I taught them how to say ‘drunk,’ and my new burger-munching friend nodded and nodded and cranked an invisible corkscrew into his neck like he was saying “Yup, that’s me.” He told me he was a gangster, a word which has unfortunately been implanted into the Russian language. But he also told me he was a Muslim, and when I told him I was reading about Muhammad, that I had many Muslim friends, that I had visited his mosque, he hugged me and said a prayer to the heavens. I thought this cheeseburger summit was proceeding quite well. We declared our friendship and a new chapter in cultural relations.

I was mistaken in thinking that would do the trick. I did not give him a high five and skip home humming. Instead, he followed me, kept following me, down the block, around the corner. He told me he had no place to go, that he was on the run, that he had stabbed a cop, and he took out another invisible prop and janked it into his leg. It might’ve been a lie. A false credential to add to his gangster resume. But still, it scared me. Maybe the invisible knife in his leg had a sharper counterpart in his belt, I thought. The empty street didn’t look safe any more. The light sky didn’t feel comforting. This was not going to end well.

I tried to kill him with kindness. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Ernys.” “Look, Ernys, I’m sorry. I need to sleep. I’m going home. It was a pleasure to meet you.” For the evil, I learned, kindness only breeds resentment. He punched me in the chest. He spit Russian swear words in my face. He blathered something about us Americans, about how he hates us, and he shot an invisible gun into the air. We invade countries, he was saying, and we kill Muslims. The burger accord collapsed, the cultural understanding had evaporated. I had become his enemy. He patted my coat down and asked for my money. I showed him what I had in my breast pocket, a couple torn and tattered bills that couldn’t make a dollar. “I’m sorry, man, this is all I have. I spent it all on cheeseburgers.”

He didn’t even bother taking it. He seemed confused. I shook his hand and tried to escape, walking as calmly as I could down the street. My heart beat in my throat and I could feel him behind me, standing in the same spot, swaying.  But soon he called out to me, like he was lonely, and ran my way. ‘Why do you keep doing that?” he said, miming my goodbye handshakes. “Why do you want to go?” I kept my patient hat on, told him the necessity of sleep. Well I need to sleep too, he said, but I have nowhere to go. I will go with you. Come on.

I was running out of options; I took out my phone to try to call Abay, my translator, my friend, and my Kyrgyz savior. Ernys got mad. He grabbed my phone. “Are you calling the police?” He put my phone in his pocket. I asked for it back. It felt ridiculous. “Ernys, please give me my phone. Ernys, please.” I was begging a beggar, begging a thief. He cursed at me. I tried to compromise. “Fine. Take it. It’s a bad phone. Just give me my SIM card.” For some reason he obliged, and tried opening the back of the phone, but his fingers were cold and they shook, and he gave it to me, not so I could have my possession back but so I could speed up this negotiated burglary. I opened up my own phone and took out my SIM card, and then handed the shell to him like a gift.

The gift would not shake him. He was not ready to give up. There was a taxi idling nearby and I walked to its window. ‘Help me” I said quietly. Ernys walked up with his lips pursed in anger  – “Hey, what are you doing?” He punched me again in the chest. It was a quick solid punch from a foot away, like a warning, like he was pinching a dog when it jumped on the sofa. The taxi driver looked scared, confused. They exchanged terse remarks in Kyrgyz, and it seemed Ernys was trying to convince him we were friends, that everything was cool. I stared at the man intensely and spoke to him with my eyes – “Everything is not cool. This guy is not my friend. Everything is not cool.”

I got in the front seat but Ernys followed and hopped in the back. I opened the door and feigned to get out and Ernys trailed me just as quickly, but I tricked him – Ernys fell out the door and I stayed in my seat. My eyes fell on the driver again. They were full of fear. My pupils were pleading and he understood. He put his petal to the floor and we sped off into the night. In the rear view mirror, the burglar stood still, growing smaller and smaller. He had my phone, but that was it. Little did he know I had twenty dollars in my other pocket, and in my backpack I had a camera worth a grand. He was not even a very good burglar.

On a small, quiet street, where Ernys could not find us, we sat in his stalled car, and the driver counseled me as I shivered and sighed. “That man is a criminal. That man is not a real Kyrgyz. That man is not a real Muslim. He is a criminal. Just a criminal.” Now I know, I said, but I thought it would be fine. I bought him a cheeseburger. The taxi driver shook his head as I shook beside him.  “You’re so young, he said. “So young.”