In our cozy yurt by the shore of Lake Issyk Kul, we slept soundly through the pelting rain to wake up in hopes of a dry morning. It was vital that the weather cooperated as we were to have an important meeting in the village of Bokanbaevo. With a man, my wife has dreamed of for a long time.
In this small village on the south shore of lake Issyk-Kul there are thirteen men practicing the ancient custom of hunting with Golden Eagles. They will do a demonstration for a small fee for the curious in the nearby fields. Easily arranged, thinks our guide. But then my wife drops a bomb. She has no interest in a tourist show. She wants to ride with the hunters into the mountains on a real hunt.
“The Impossible we do immediately, Miracles take a little longer, maximum till the next day, “ is the oft-proven motto of our Begaly.
As we poked our heads out of the yurt his beaming face meet ours. The rain has stopped and we are to meet one of those Magnificent Thirteen.
It feels like we are in a movie. Our meeting is set at a dilapidated gas station where we wait for a few minutes. We don’t know what our man looks like. We lean against our car and eye every vehicle driving by with raised hopes. Then a beaten up Mini Daewoo with broken windshield, back seats sold for spare parts and car doors impossible to close stops by the side of the road. A lean man, dressed to the nines like a model from a gentlemen’s fashion magazine AND in riding boots steps out, shakes our hands, and beckons us to follow him. We drive through the narrow unpaved streets of the village and stop at a modest unassuming family house where the gentleman keeps, feeds (fresh chicken only), and trains his darlings, three Golden Eagles.
As he goes to fetch his horse we notice something brown in the back of his car.
Under close supervision of his wife the Eagle man unceremoniously drags the bird out of the car and…
… ties him to the car
then perches him on the wall, head covered by a leather cap
where he waits for the hunting team to assemble:
The hunter with the leather glove for the heavy “weapon” on his arm, the assistant with sharp eyesight to identify the victim in this crime; and my wife with an alternative harmless gun – her trusty iPhone.
All accomplished riders, they mount their horses at once
and disappear down the village road and into surrounding by fields towards the mountains in the background.
We, less than accomplished horse riders (may we dare call ourselves media supporting team?) are left behind but in no way do we give up our participation in this quest. We will be, at least discreetly, following in our LandCruiser, observing from behind and offering any (un)necessary help, if God forbid, the hunters ask for it. Meanwhile, our guide assembles a small drone with a camera.
We drive behind the hunting party about half a mile ahead of us on the country roads but
even with a 4W drive, we can not follow them up the first rocky hills as they press onward on their horses.
Yet we can still observe their dramatic adventure at least on the drone display.
At the top, they dismount and leaving the horses to graze, continue on foot.
There is no common language to communicate in anyways so the group proceeds in silence to the steep edge for the unobstructed view of the immense blue lake. But all attention and awe is reserved for the giant bird, one of the largest, fastest, and nimblest raptors in the sky. In olden days these faithful birds would bring the prey to the hunter to help feed his family, especially during the lean winter days.
The eagle gets a short glimpse of the surroundings with his cap removed
After he had a chance to stretch his wings the cap goes back on and everyone scrambles over the uneven floor looking for potential movement in the sparse vegetation. The assistant stops every now and then throwing a rock down the hill or calling out immitating an animal.
As the hunting party crosses a steep terrain on the other side of the mountain range the hunter’s assistant catches a glimpse of a jackal on the slopes below covered by boulders and brushes. Not more than one, maybe two hundred yards away from him. After a quick exchange among the party members, the hunter clears our Golden Eagle’s vision by removing its cap and releases it. My wife, an accomplished iPhone camera-woman, without missing even a blink of her eyes, starts recording the whole action so this hunt can be saved, if not for generations to come, then at least for us! And here it is:
The released Golden Eagle majestically descends down the mountain slope mercilessly eyeing the jackal, who is now running for his life….but to no avail! The Eagle moves silently to the jackal from behind, his sharp claws chopping into his furry neck. Then, in the critical moment, the jackal luckily slips from Eagle’s sharp talons. while our Eagle continues on its flight path, the jackal somersaults multiple times completely out of control, before his body gets out of our sight.
While the Eagle circles above the search party scrambles down through the scree and bushes looking for the injured jackal. In the end, unfortunately, the recovery search for jackal’s body is not successful, yet the hunters are strangely elated. We find out only later that this is the first ever real hunt of the young eagle after three months of training with a stuffed fox.
The excitement is even bigger when they realize the whole hunt is de facto recorded and can not only be studied carefully for future training but shared (and bragged about) on Facebook!
Golden Eagle back on his master’s arm, the hunting expedition returns to the horses.
Adrenaline still runs high as they mount their horses and descend
down to the rim of the deep ravine where the LandCruiser is waiting.
A congratulatory bottle of beer is what all actors of this drama, our young Golden Eagle, all hunters, poor jackal, all of them deserve!
Last photos are taken
and we leave deeply grateful that we could come face to face with such a magnificent creature and experience firsthand this age-old tradition, part of the life of local people for thousands of years.
What is more, we are now invited to return any time in the future and STAY with the family, as this mutual experience of the Golden Eagle’s virgin hunt forged important and powerful bonds.