Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Eagle Fest!!

October 25, 2008

Warning: Animal Rights in Kyrgyzstan are essentially nonexistent. This post contains some graphic photography and videos which are rather unpleasant. However, there are a lot of really incredible and beautiful things to see/read in this post as well... just be forewarned.

Last Friday after work, J had arranged for taxis to meet us at the school to take us (for 650som/person) to Kaji-Say, a village just east of Bokonbaev on the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul. J and D (being students who didn’t have to work) had left earlier that day, and eight of us piled into two taxis for the journey at roughly 9pm. We arrived in Kaji-Say around 1am, and went to our homestay. J had arranged for us all to stay at Zina’s B&B, a very nice place run by the wife of one of Kyrgyzstan’s champion eagle hunters. (It isn’t affiliated with CBT, although it is in Lonely Planet.) The B&B was comfortable, except for one small problem: they didn’t have heat. I don’t know if this was because the power was out at night so electric heaters wouldn’t run, or if it was because the state heat hadn’t been turned on yet (if there even *is* state heat somewhere as remote as Kaji-Say). We were placed (nearly) all together in the top room of the home, which – fittingly – felt very much like an aerie.

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We stayed in the little room atop the house

We were all miserably cold during the night, and as a result awoke quite early. We went downstairs for breakfast and met Ishenbek, the champion eagle hunter, for the first time. We also met Tuman, his gorgeous golden eagle.

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Tuman, looking a tad grumpy early in the morning

After breakfast we loaded into a pre-arranged marshrutka (mini-van/bus) which drove us to a site just to the west of Bokonbaev where national traditional hunting championships were being held. This consisted of numerous eagle hunters and falconers, in addition to handlers of wolf hounds, archers and skilled horsemen. I had expected maybe ten eagles at the most, but there must have been at least fifty there with their handlers, in addition to numerous hawks, dogs and horses. I got my favorite pictures of the day before the competitions began, when elderly men on horseback lounged around with eagles on their arms, chatting with one another.

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Ishenbek and Tuman

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The Kazakh team had really awesome costumes

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This man was really nice, and I was in love with his horse.

Ishenbek had told us that there would be a captive wolf at the festival, which would be released for the eagles to hunt. He told us that he was the only person – from both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – who was willing to pit his eagle against the wolf at the festival, and said that she’d killed three or four wolves in the wild. He was obviously very nervous about this, and I admit I was worried for gorgeous Tuman as well. We all anxiously awaited the release of the wolf... but many events came first.

I didn’t get very good shots of the first events, as my camera simply doesn’t have that great of a zoom. We watched first hawks and then wolf hounds compete to take down pigeons, rabbits and even a fox. The hawks were incredibly impressive and good at what they did. The dogs were less impressive, mainly because there was only one poor fox. It was killed after the first round, and its maimed carcass dragged behind a horse for subsequent rounds. It was rather distressing to watch, and the poor dogs obviously felt as though they’d been teased when they discovered that their “prey” was already dead.

When they began to launch the eagles (mainly against rabbits, although some were also launched against ye olde dead fox), it began to get more interesting. B, E, and I climbed up the side of the mountain to the place from where the eagle hunters were launching their eagles, and I was able to get some rather decent shots:

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Of course, these eagles are trained, but they are still wild animals and do not always do as they should. One turned away from its rabbity target and wheeled directly backwards at me and B. Oblivious to the people shouting at us to get out of the way, we stood in awe, not even photographing, as it swooped straight towards us. It landed on the ground roughly four feet in front of me.
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It was while we were crouched on the mountainside, eagles being launched for attack over our heads, that we somewhat ingratiated ourselves with the local press pack, who would help us by pointing out which eagle would launch next and whatnot. Suddenly there was mass excitement as one shouted, “Davai! Volk!” and began bounding off the mountain. They were bringing out the wolf. Following the press pack (who were allowed past the annoying line behind which spectators had to stand), B, E, and I found ourselves standing, cameras poised, not far from the wooden box wherein the captive wolf was held. At one point the alleged professional wolf handler (wearing a shirt which read: Kyrgyzstan – Land of Tourism no less!) came over and told us, “You do know there is a *wolf* in there? There might be problems.” No one moved.

During this time, B and I were feeling a bit of camera envy. E can blend into the press pack with his super awesome camera and amazing lens. My camera might be able to take great photos on occasion, but it doesn’t exactly scream “professional photographer.” I felt the need to say (in Russian) a few times that just because my camera was small didn’t mean I wasn’t a journalist. We even invented a newspaper to claim we worked for: Annie Nimity’s Daily.

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable amount of time waiting, they brought out the wolf hounds. Apparently they had decided to change plans and have the wolf tired out by the dogs before setting the eagles on it; this way, more eagle-handlers had agreed to participate in the eagle vs. wolves part of the event. While I feel that eagle vs. wolf is acceptable, I wasn’t too keen on one wolf taking on a pack of trained wolf hounds. And when they released the wolf, my heart sank; he was chained to a ball of iron. He could run around and even drag the iron ball behind him, but he could not escape. (I suppose the iron ball was probably a good thing for the dumbass journalists – myself included – as the wolf immediately charged us upon exiting his box. Most of us moved out of its way, as we do have some sense of self preservation. Meanwhile, B didn’t move at all, and just stood there taking photos. I wish I’d gotten one of him almost getting mauled. He had a rather narrow escape.

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Then they released the dogs. They released the dogs in teams of two, starting with the least experienced and moving up to the most experienced. It was utterly heart-wrenching to watch the poor wolf, tied to a chain, defending himself against pair after pair of wolf hounds. I got some very bizarre looks from my journalist compadres for cheering loudly for the wolf in Russian. I must say that despite his handicap, the wolf gave better than he got, injuring numerous dogs. He was still standing at the end... or at least he was until Mr. Kyrgyzstan: Land of Tourism pinned him to the ground with what was essentially a two pronged pitch fork around his neck.

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Now that the wolf was tired out, he was taken to the center of the field and left on his chain to await attack by eagles. His mouth was also tied shut. Ishenbeck strongly disapproved of all of this, having wanted to prove himself and Tuman against a strong, healthy and free wolf. Additionally, eagles are trained to not attack domestic animals. As such, a tied wolf looks much like a domesticated dog, which rather confused the eagles. Not to mention that they’d had to wait an extra long time for the dogs to try to tire out the wolf. The eagles were cranky. And they were coming.

The first eagle that was launched was one of the Kazakh eagles. It started down toward the wolf, then veered sharply to the right and directly into a crowd of spectators sitting on the side of the hill, attacking one man and sending his companions fleeing for their lives. It was too far away for me to get decent pictures, but I did get some where you can see what was happening.

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The man on the ground is the one who was attacked.

Madness took over. Everyone (spectators and journalists alike) ran towards the injured man – including B and me, who shamelessly sought to get photos of his wounds. (He was bleeding profusely from the side of his face, but unfortunately, I didn’t get any shots of it.) The Kazakh eagle had swooped down towards the crowd just as Ishenbek launched Tuman toward the wolf. Tuman, heroine of the day, swerved off target and took down the Kazakh eagle, which made Ishenbek quite proud.

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Ishenbek, proud that Tuman kicked Kazakh eagle ass.

While everyone was clustered around Ishenbek and the Kazakh eagle hunter, watching them disengage their birds (Tuman was fine, but she injured the Kazakh eagle), the fabulous green-coat eagle hunter with the awesome stallion (pictured near the beginning of this post) launched his eagle at the wolf. I didn’t get a good shot – and it was hard to tell what happened. The eagle definitely scored a hit, although it’s hard to tell how successful she would have been had the wolf been unfettered.

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At that point, the festival was over. We walked back into Bokonbaev, had dinner at a local café, then met up with our marshrutka driver who took us back to Ishenbek’s home.

The next morning we again rose early, and piled back into the marshrutka – this time with Ishenbek and Tuman for company. Only in Kyrgyzstan!

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We drove for about 45 minutes to another nearby village where horses were awaiting us. The horse-handlers first asked who among us had experience riding a horse. I said that I did. They looked me over and pointed at the horse and asked me if I was sure, as this horse was tough to handle. I said fine, and immediately mounted up. They even asked me if it was ok several times before we left, although I have no idea why. My horse was perfect. He did everything I asked, would turn on a dime, and was incredibly surefooted. And he never once tried to toss me, even though he had several decent opportunities (Val would not have passed those up!). Perhaps he just required someone with confidence to handle him? I have no idea what all the fuss was about. Plus, some of the horses my companions got were incredibly ornery and disobedient. (Although I suppose this might have been the reaction of the horse to the rider’s inability to control it.)

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We set out over the steppe following Ishenbek and Tuman, and wound our way up into the mountain hunting grounds. We stopped atop several cliffs from where Ishenbek launched Tuman after several foxes. She came close to capturing them, but in the wild, the foxes have a fair chance; they were able to scurry under shrubbery and into holes just in time.

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Ishenbek prepares to launch Tuman

We rode for a total of about six hours. After about four, we stopped for a break in a high mountain pasture, and relaxed on the grass with Ishenbek and Tuman and with our horses grazing unfettered nearby.

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Isn't she gorgeous?

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My trusty steed :-)

We made our way down towards a lower pasture, a scenic spot where Ishenbek allowed each of us to hold Tuman and have our photos taken. We were instructed to remain quiet; she had her mask on, and would panic if she heard the voice of someone other than Ishenbek holding her. She was incredibly heavy, and I could barely hold her up. Perhaps she could tell by the way I held her that I was not her master, and she began flapping her wings violently, but I was able to get some decent shots with her.

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Almost immediately after we finished taking our photos, it began to storm, a painful mixture of rain, snow, sleet and hail. Our horses initially got a little spooked; B’s wouldn’t even let him mount for the longest time. We had a good hour or more of our ride left, and within minutes we were soaked to the skin and freezing cold. At one point as it was hailing, the horses began to slip and slide on the little balls of ice covering the trail. Both J’s and B’s horses fell down. J was able to jump clear in time, but B’s horse landed on his foot. Afterwards, B’s horse was so spooked that he wouldn’t let him remount, and he had to walk back.

By the time we returned to the village, we were miserable. The heater in the marshrutka helped a little, but not much. We returned to Ishenbek’s house in the early stages of hypothermia. K and I were so cold that we wanted nothing more than to get out of our wet clothes and into dry ones; meanwhile, we were so cold that our muscles wouldn’t do what we asked. All we could do was stand there, shivering and laughing hysterically. Eventually we got changed and hid under the covers until the marshrutka which we’d hired to drive us back to Bishkek arrived. Not surprisingly, I came down with a pretty horrific cold!

Our weekend was quite an adventure and I had a wonderful time, despite the sickening feeling that the wolf-torture left in my stomach. I don’t believe in Hell, although I do rather feel like I might be going there after watching the wolf vs. dogs event.
Internet has been slow and uncooperative of late - thus the delay in getting all of this online. 

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