a long way to see eagles

November 13, 2011 · 1 comment

in Kyrgyzstan, photo post, travels

Like many of my mini-trips around Kyrgyzstan, I boarded a marshrutka full of friends and friends of friends at an unreasonably early hour, not quite sure where we were going or what we were actually going to do once we got there.

That day’s destination turned out to be (in theory) an eagle hunting festival in Bokonbaeva, a town on the southern shore of Issyk Kul, about four hours away from Bishkek.

In reality, there were some unsteady-sounding postponements. We left early enough that most had not even made time for coffee, but there was still talk that we were leaving too late to catch the start of the activities. Then, about half-way there we began stopping to stretch our legs, photograph the scenery; take your time, the driver said, the festival has been postponed and we’ll arrive early now.

Pulling into Bokonbaeva, I found a town that looked like it had simply expanded slightly outward from one main road, and another postponement. We thought we’d be right on time, but now we have an hour or so to pass before the festival starts. How about some mindless wandering around a market? Perhaps a syrupy mug of instant coffee? Just make sure you stir around the sediment of sugar and artificial creamer that has settled on the bottom.

Back to the bus at 12, now can we go to the festival?

The driver confesses the festival organizer and the hunters aren’t answer their phones anymore. It’s a classic cold-shoulder move in Kyrgyzstan. How about we just pop on over to the organizer’s house instead? See what he’s up to, get the details on this festival.

The doubt is starting to sink in, but we drove to his house and found out from his wife that he was already at the festival area. From there, it’s only a slow, bumpy ride on a dirt path. Finally, we pull over a hill and see a group of men, horses, and large birds.

Not before some more disappointing news: the actual festival was going to start the next day. Today was just a practice-run. Four hours in a bus to see the hunters take their birds out for one quick run? I was a bit bummed.

I had to make the best of it though, so I acted like a total creeper, stalking the hunters and their birds for photos and video clips. I dutifully watched each hunter whoop and chirp at their eagles, goading them to chase after a dead rabbit attached the back of a galloping horse. I even interviewed Elizabeth, an American woman who came to Kyrgyzstan after a local eagle hunter caught a baby eagle for her, straight from the nest, so she could train with him. It’s a fascinating and random story and I’m hoping to whip up a video about it soon.

The hunters started packing up immediately after their one practice run and suddenly our marshrutka of foreigners was left to figure out what to do with the rest of our day. We made one more stop close to the shore to admire Issyk Kul (on the southern shore, it’s a lot less beachy and a lot more marshy than I thought) and then drove to the Burana Tower, one of the oldest structures in Kyrgyzstan.

By then it was after dark and I had long since filled my quota of hours-spent-on-a-bus, so I was anxious to get home. It was interesting to see the eagles up close (they’re huge! and loud!) and talk to Elizabeth (my Russian skills aren’t anywhere near good enough to interview the other eagle hunters), but overall I probably would’ve rather stayed the weekend than try to shove all of that driving into one day. Oh well, maybe next year.

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