Central Asia is the birthplace of eagle hunting. As old as two millennia, hunting with eagles is not only fundamental in nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazak culture, but in the past was essential to the acquisition of food and furs in the winter. I’ve been captivated by eagle hunting every since being directed to a video about it (below) five years ago. The balance between a hunters training and an eagle’s intellect, the raw power of its wings and grace of its talons, make the hunt feel like a dance between the symbiosis of man and nature —a primal friendship forced in the bitter winter of the steppe.
Before arriving in Kyrgyzstan, I had only ever heard of eagle hunting being practiced by Kazaks in Mongolia, and constantly wondered when or if I would ever get the chance to make it to the Golden Eagle festival held in October each year. Once here, I was as excited as I was surprised that Kyrgyz are quite intent that eagle hunting originated in Kyrgyzstan. The tradition has started to fade as modern Kyrgyz lifestyles are changing, but a re-fortified national identity after independence and the advent of international tourism have fueled eagle hunting’s slow resurgence. Now, Kyrgyz are once again world renowned in falconry, consistently winning top accolades in international competition and even established with it’s own national organization.
The hunt itself is done by a golden eagle, plucked out of a nest when it’s young and trained vigilantly trained to hunt, catch,
and hold prey without eating it. First they learn on dead prey, then on moving targets like foxes, rabbits, and coyotes –some eagles can even take down wolves and deer. Younger hunters are
first trained on flacons, which learn to hunt pigeons and other small birds. The hunt itself is quick but spectacular. Once released by the hunter the eagle swoops low and direct toward its
prey, curving with it as it moves. As soon as it’s close it attacks, digging long talons into its mark deep enough to stop it but not enough to kill it. The eagle then waits for its hunter to
arrive on horseback. Huddled over its victim, the raptor encompasses the entirety of its catch.
Eagle hunting has enchanted my imagination for years now, and seeing it in practice was the one major thing on my must-see list for Kyrgyzstan, but the festival itself was not what I had expected. Maybe we were spoiled with the horse festival we were able to attend in Tibet, or maybe in that case we just got lucky, but this festival is much more of a spectacle than it is a tradition. All real eagle hunts happen in the deep of winter, and the international competition for eagle hunting isn’t until September. Conversely, The birds of prey festival, always held in August and organized by the local CBT (community based tourism) office, is more of an introduction to the highlights of Kyrgyz culture for tourists. The eagle hunt is not on live prey and lasts for a short-lived ten minutes. Despite this, it was an honor to be able to be so close to such magnificent birds and such skilled trainers. Any initial “touristy” feel was overwhelmed by a warm afternoon on the jailoo (the Kyrgyzs plains), a nice lunch in the yurt, and abundance of local kids having a great time –and being extremely good at a dance where you pop your shoulders back and forth.
Perhaps even more interesting than the eagle hunting, the festival was also filled with a showcase of other traditional Kyrgyz sports, ranging from the common to the harrowing to the downright intense.
Of all nomadic games, Buzkashi is the most unique, and most celebrated sport of them all. In essence it’s polo with a headless sheep carcass instead of a ball and mallet. In practice, it’s an extreme push of the limits of close quarter horsemanship coupled with a hardcore upper body workout – the carcass of the sheep alone is up to 30kg. Riders twist and shove on the field is they try to sweep the body off the ground, blocking eachother off and jamming heavy hooves dangerous close to outstretched hands
Then there was Oodarysh: wrestling on horseback. The sport originates in the pure brutality of intimate horseback combat, and hasn’t changed much since. The two contestants begin the match with arms locked, shirtless in the saddle. The object then, of course, is to attempt to throw your opponent off his horse without being dismounted yourself. Anyone who has fallen off a horse can attest to how this feels –not good. The wrestling relies heavily on balance; it’s less about force as it is about movement. Swinging across the neck of the horse, the matches are not necessarily a visual spectacle, but definitely an impressive test of pure anaerobic strength.
While the birds of prey festival is essential just a performance of these traditions, all of these sports, Buzkashi especially, are played very seriously in this part of the world. Last year, the winners of the international Buzkashi championships (Kyrgyzstan) walked away with $110,000 USD.
We left in the late afternoon, down a dirt road wedged between to mountain ranges. In the sun of a gorgeous valley north of Bokonbayevo, finally close to a practice that until now seemed only as real as a legend, it was hard not to be happy.