The Kazakh Eagle Hunters
Two hundred years ago the advance of the Russian empire into Kazakhstan sent many Kazakhs across the border into western Mongolia where they settled in the region of Bayan Ulgii. As the Russians continued to occupy Kazakhstan, traditional Kazakh culture continued to be diluted to the point where, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, new prime minister Nursultan Nazirbyaev began offering financial and domestic incentives for diaspora Kazakhs in Bayan Ulgii to relocate back to Kazakhstan. The idea being that they would bring with them traditional practices such as eagle hunting and dombra playing and that this would inspire a revival in the dwindling Kazakh culture and population.
I stayed with two families five hours south of Olgii who decided against moving back to Kazakhstan in favour of staying in the mountain range that has now become their home, and as much a part of Kazakhstan as their ancestral land itself.
The heads of the two families were brothers and eagle hunting partners. They would saddle up together with golden eagles on their arms and spend afternoons on horseback riding through the Altai mountains looking to hunt rabbits, foxes, mammots, wolves and other game. Eagle hunting only really takes place in winter when animals have the thick winter fur that Kazakhs turn into their infamous fur hats. One of the brother’s grandsons would join us on the hunting trips, he had reached 12, survived the penis pulling ritual, and was now ready to learn the art of eagle hunting. He followed the hunt on foot with seemingly endless energy, ready to rush in at the first sight of a kill. The hunting provides very little in the way of food for human consumption, but it is a tradition dating back 6,000 years and the fur hats and the eagles themselves are a matter of great pride amongst Kazakhs.
Kazakhs are predominantly Muslim and so, as custom dictates, in the evening we would all share one huge plate of food, generally a combination of mutton and intestines. As a guest I would always cut the meat and throw it back onto the plate where hungry hands would dart around looking for the fattiest and most filling pieces. This would then be followed by nearly endless cups of tea made from melted ice during which stories would be told, eye patches would be made for the eagles and children would chase sheep and goats around the living room.