Hunting with eagles has a long history among the Kyrgyz, but today only a few people keep the tradition alive. One of them is Tenti Djamanakov, who lives in Jele Debe village near Karakol, about five minutes from the junction with Jeti-Oguz. He has gained quite a reputation as an eagle man; in 1997 he beat 32 competitors to win a national contest in Bishkek. His eagle took down a wolf, he says proudly. Tenti was 12 when he got his first eagle - by the dangerous method of finding an eagle's nest high in the mountains, climbing up into it and stealing its chick. Having secured his chick (of which there are usually only one or two in the nest), he had to teach it to recognise him as its new parent. This is crucial: without that bond, there is nothing to stop the eagle from heading for freedom while hunting in the mountains. That was 60 years ago. His current eagle is aged 14 years and will carry on hunting until it is 30 or 35.
Genuine hunting only takes place in winter, between September or October and March. Tenti and the eagle go high into the hills, spending four or five hours on each hunt. About 90 per cent of the time, the eagle returns with a catch. In the 1999-2000 hunting season, it took 32 foxes and eight wolves.
Tenti keeps his eagle in a large but dark cage in his back yard. Only when he takes it out do you fully appreciate its size-eagles typically have a wingspan of 1.2 metres. The eagle is so heavy that it cannot be carried comfortably for long. When the hunter is riding, the eagle sits upon a T-shaped wooden strut, which fits into a support attached to the saddle.
Suddenly rounding a bend, we meet the most impressive sight of all: three Kirghiz riders with eagles on their fists.
The first is wearing large, dark snow spectacles. The others gaze at us and at our mute astonishment. The birds of prey are enormous, it is the only possible word for them, so mighty that I cannot imagine what other bird could better deserve the title 'king of birds.'
From the jutting shoulder the wings hang, their dark, shining plumes like an armour of overlapping plates. The heads of the birds are covered with leather hoods through which they cannot see. The cries they utter sound as though ten doors were screeching on their hinges. The hooked beak is on a level with the man's forehead. The black talons are enormous, and issue from a grey, scaly sheath of skin to grasp the leather glove which, in order that the reins may be held, is cut for only one finger and a thumb. The bird tries to tear a piece off with its beak. A slip-knot fastens a long thong to one foot. The man's fist rests on a wooden fork socketed in the saddle.
The nape of the eagle's neck is a tuft of white disordered feathers. The hood removed, the implacable eye appears, glittering like a jewel.
From the cruppers of a pack-horse the stiffened skins of wolves, ibex, and marmots hang in quantities.
We sight a marmot, and track it down. The bird, released from its noose, is cast off after it. It does not rise very high, then it swoops down towards the marmot, and cuts off its retreat by settling in front of the warren. The marmot, disturbed by the noise, seeks its hole for refuge, and falls into the fatal talons. The Kirghiz comes up, finishes it off, ties up the eagle again, and gives it the entrails to eat.
We learn that even a young eagle is able, four or five days after its first flight and accompanied by its mother, to catch a hare. At the end of a month it will attack a fox. To capture an eagle in a net, the trap is baited with a pigeon.
Then for forty days and forty nights it is worn down by being carried about always hooded. Meat is given it once a day, cut up in a dish, to which water is added. Then its eyes are uncovered so that it may see its food. When the forty days are over, the meat is fastened to a goat's shoulder, which is removed ten paces at feeding-time. On the second occasion the goat is removed twenty paces, and on the third fifty... Thus by degrees the eagle is trained and grows accustomed to the voice of man. It is never allowed to eat its fill, so that it shall hunt better. They tell me that a well-trained eagle is worth several horses.
Falconry, art of the Middle Ages, this land was its cradle! I think of Attila, whose banners bore a falcon for device.
"Turkestan Solo" by Dervla Murphy