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Author: Maria Zehentner / Translation: Moritz Zehentner
Beitrag vom: 29.09.2017

Visiting an eagle hunter

Kyrgyzstan III, July 2017

After a morning hike through the Fairy Tale Canyon, we started the last 40km that still separated us from Aitbek, the eagle hunter. We left with a nervous feeling.This was due to the directions Andre gave us but even more because we didn’t have a clue what would await us once we arrived there. As I mentioned, it was a childhood dream of Leander to meet an eagle hunter, and of course to portray him. Andre, our translator for Aitbek couldn’t come with us but kindly asked Aitbek in advance if he would be okay with the photo shoot. He agreed.
Leander´s anticipation and excitement was easy to see all the way to the eagle hunters place. He only awoke from his daydreams when we realised that we couldn’t find the hut with Andre´s vague descriptions. So we had to drive a few kilometres back to reach a spot with internet reception to contact Andre. He told us to wait at exactly this spot and tried to arrange that Aitbek would pick us up there. After about 30 minutes a blue VW Polo arrived.

A 40-year-old man got out of the car, walked towards us and greeted us with a welcoming handshake and bow. Then he told us to follow his car. For several kilometres we drove over bumpy roads until we reached a small little hut. We parked Akela right in front of it and left the truck. All around the hut a lot of animals were gazing and running around. Rabbits, Chickens, two dogs, horses, it seemed like Old McDonalds farm came to life. Aitbek seemed to like Lennox from the very first moment because as soon as we entered his house he took him by the hand and showed him around.
Inside his cosy hut we were welcomed by his wife with a lovely apricot tea and a lot of sweets. Together with Aitbek´s family, Xenia, Martin, Leander, Lennox and I sat around the table and couldn’t stop looking at the many pictures on the wall which all referred to the tradition of eagle hunting and the keeping of these majestic animals. Even though our Russian was insufficient, and Aitbek´s English wasn’t the best either, we found our own way to have an interesting conversation. He told us about his long years of training to become a good hunter. Already as a young boy, aged only 8, he started to work with falcons under the supervision of his father. Only when he was 20 he was found to be experienced and old enough to get an eagle. Usually the tradition of eagle hunting is given on within a family from generation to generation. Nowadays, he said, only a few people are still hunting in a natural and sustainable way. Aitbek has two daughters but unfortunately none of them seems to be interested to carry on the family tradition which, when he mentioned it, sounded like he had tears in his eyes. He would be the last eagle hunter of his family.

Some of you might criticise us at this point, but of course we are not naïve and blind. Eagle Hunting is a topic that wouldn’t raise a lot of joy in the eyes of an activist for animal rights. Already the way of how an eagle is caught is against all their main ideas of preservation. Either by plundering nests during breeding time or by catching a bird from the sky, an eagle hunter catches his animals. Personally, I still think it is all about the treatment of the eagle once it’s caught. It is a fact that fake hunters are travelling up and down the country with their birds just to get a lot of money out of tourists for a single picture. They’re not interested in feeding the animals in an appropriate way or if they are treated respectfully. It’s only about the one shot they get to show it around when they’re back home. However, with Aitbek we had the feeling that he was doing honest work with his eagles. He also told us that during the winter months, when there is not enough food in the mountains, wolves would come down into the valleys to hunt their cattle.

Due to the high number of wolves in this area and the fact that they are not an endangered species in Central Asia like in Europe, it was easy to imagine that attacks on cows and sheeps were a pretty normal thing in this region during cold winters. You can imagine that these months are hard in Kyrgyzstan and people, as well as animals, have to get through difficult times. That’s also why the loss of every single animal is a huge damage for a local farmer. To withstand these attacks the men of the villages take their dogs and eagles out for hunting down the wolves. Guns and lead based ammunition wouldn’t be a solution because the locals know that it would influence nature too much.
Hunting and being hunted is the motto. Although this method seems to work out pretty well most of the times it can occur that an eagle or a dog can be too weak and therefore gets killed in the chase. However, it seems like animals, domesticated or wild, are treated differently here compared to the western parts of our world.
A good example to underline this is the horse. It is used to travel, to carry out work on the farm as well as being a source of meat. Especially in rural communities it is a major part of the everyday life and won’t get out of the stable if there isn’t a free gap in the farmers timetable. What is even more, the peasants don’t decorate the horses with fancy accessories like saddles, gaiters or bridles. The same goes for the owner himself who doesn’t have the money for expensive riding outfits. That’s another reason why wild animals get hunted by dogs and eagles. But could we also say it is due to the respect to nature? I would be able to discuss this topic over and over but at the end of the day everyone has to make up his/her own mind.

Anyway, back to Aitbek. It was already too late for the photo shoot. Leander was too indecisive about it and it started to rain. So we rescheduled the shooting to the next morning and do it by dawn and the first rays of the day. As a compensation we were allowed to meet the eagles, which were accommodated in a nearby shed. First, he showed us a 3-month-old baby eagle. If you assume now that there was a fluffy little fur ball was awaiting us behind the entrance door you are as mistaken as I was. A nearly grown-up animal flew towards us and moved its swings in excitement as a form of greeting. To calm down the bird Aitbek closed the door behind us and lead us on to another shed where his true treasure was kept. Karachin, a grown up 7 kilo eagle that couldn’t be prettier in its appearance. Never ever have I seen a raptor so close-up to my face. Respect and awe struck me. Seeing its sharp claws and beak, it was easy to imagine what kind of damage this animal was able to do. Aitbek told us proudly about the many medals he already won with this particular eagle. Before leaving the shed Aitbek bent down to pick up a long feather that he gave to Lennox as a present. According to Lennox’ beloved story about the small Indian boy Yakari, one was only allowed to wear such a gift when he/she did something heroic and outstanding. We neglected this for once as it was a precious present from Aitbek and he was allowed to keep it. To be ready for the shooting the next morning, Leander and I did a little location check in the surrounding area whilst Xenia and Martin were taking care of Lennox in our truck. He loved being surrounded by others which is pretty understandable when you live 24/7 with your parents. The same goes for us parents! After dinner, Aitbek welcomed us in his hut once more and presented us a video showing him and Karachin on a hunt. It was incredible to watch how a single eagle could kill a grown-up wolf. We were so amazed by these pictures that it seemed like the time stood still for a moment. At half past 7am sharp, Aitbek, dressed in a traditional Kyrgyz costume, was already awaiting us with Karachin and his horse. The early morning sun was rising over the mountains and shed a breathtaking light on the surrounding landscape. It was perfect! Leander didn’t want to give Aitbek a lot of instructions and just let him move around freely, which was the way of working for both of them anyway. Nevertheless, he tried to picture all possible forms of eagle hunting. Some with the eagle, some without. On the horse, with dog or without, he got all the shots even if the animals had a strong own will at several points during the shoot. Overall every single animal gave its best and so did Aitbek. One could see that his calm and sunny character was reflected in the behaviour of the animals. For Leander it was hard work and we (Xenia, Martin and myself) tried to help him as much as possible. Leaving aside the stress this shooting simply gave us a mystical feeling as everything just seemed to fit in.

When Leander was pretty much done with his story board, Aitbek asked us if we would want to have a picture with Karachin as well as if it would be an ordinary thing to do. Of course, we didn’t hesitate for a second. I was first. The eagle hunter gave me his leather glove to protect me against the claws and placed the raptor on my arm. With a lot of respect, I held my arm out as far away from my body as possible. In the video I’ve seen what he was able to do and I was very anxious. However, I trusted Aitbek and my arm came closer and closer the more confident I got with the situation. It could also have been the lack of a proper biceps and the birds 7 kilos that made my arm move. Then Aitbek brought his horse and helped me mount it very carefully, with the eagle still balancing on my arm. Words can’t describe how happy I felt in this very moment. Sitting on an elegant horse, a raptor on me in the picturesque mountain landscape of Kyrgyzstan. It was unique and indescribable. Thank you very much Aitbek for trusting me and Leander for capturing this moment in an amazing shot. Even our youngster got his little series with the hunter. Without the eagle though but with his loyal friend Jacky, the parrot. Finally, the artist himself faced the eagle without any sign of fear. After about an hour the show was over. While Aitbek was feeding the animals we walked back, enthusiastically talking about what just happened. In the hut his wife was already preparing a lovely breakfast for us. Slowly but surely, we had to say goodbye, to Aitbek but also to Xenia and Martin who wanted to stay in Kyrgyzstan for a few more days. Our final trip together was to a local Ethno Festival not far from the shores of Issyk Kul lake. There we wanted to see Aitbek one last time performing with his eagle and to have a few last hours with the two Swiss. Before our roads parted, we thanked Aitbek one last time for his time and patience. Lost in his thoughts he waved and walked back to his hut. When he suddenly reappeared, he summoned Lennox. In his hand he held a medal he won at a competition and put it over the head of Lennox as a souvenir for the time at his place. We realised earlier that there was a special connection between the two of them and each time they saw each other they smiled happily. Obviously, Lennox was very proud of the gold hanging down his neck which he put down only before going to bed and only with a lot of resistance and laments.

The Ethno Festival wasn’t quite what we expected. We thought there would be a lot of locals but that was certainly a misassumption. A lot of over landers and tourists came together and we even saw our Dutch friend Iwe strolling around. After having a too expensive Plow, usually a tasty rice dish with meat but the kitchen ran out of meat, the eagle show started. Thrilled we were standing at the fence and waited till it was Aitbek´s turn.
Unfortunately, also the eagle seemed to have lost his interest in performing for a horde of tourists and wasn’t into hunting a dead fox at all. Long story short, he simply flew away and back to his grounds. Aitbek followed him and that was the last time he was seen. By that time the sun was already high up in the sky and we were annoyed by the event, said farewell to Xenia and Martin and walked back to the truck.
A pity we didn’t see Aitbek anymore because we didn’t want to leave without telling him goodbye. But, you always meet twice in life and so he drove past us in his blue Polo when we were on the way back to Akela. Karachin was sitting in the boot, no cage needed. Well, different countries, have different customs. One last time we thanked him for his heart-warming hosting and the unforgettable moments we had.

The Kyrgyz capital Bishkek wasn’t initially on our route but as we had to go back all the way from Karakol to reach the eagle hunter it was the simpler and shorter route to get to Kazakhstan. It was a lucky coincident that the American guide Alex, who Leander talked a lot to on the phone while we were in Kyrgyzstan, was living in the city together with his Kyrgyz partner. He sounded very nice on the phone and was extremely helpful by telling us a lot of beautiful places. That’s why we spontaneously decided to visit him.
It was late afternoon when we reached Bishkek. Alex told us via whatsapp about a calm parking area for our truck where he wanted to meet. We only had to wait a few moments when we saw his car coming around the corner. He and his girlfriend were super spontaneous and uncomplicated. All of us were extremely hungry so we jumped into his car and drove straight away to the next kebab stand. After dinner we headed back to Akela when Lennox already fell asleep before we reached it. Not to wake him we put him in his bed and enjoyed a few bottles of beer on the side walk next to our truck. It was a fun night and we only got to sleep by 2am when we tipsily fell into our bed.

The next morning we hesitated and though about spending the day in Bishkek but finally the charm of the capital couldn’t convince us. Alex and Dina had other plans as well and that’s why we decided say farewell to Kyrgyzstan and drive the last 20km to the Kazakh border.

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