Place: “Ak Kula” racecourse, Bishkek
Date and time: 12 p.m., October 30 2010
On Saturday, October 30, Aigine was invited to attend a festival at the Bishkek Hippodrome celebrating traditional Kyrgyz hunting. I had attended two other festivals like this before in Talas and Issyk-Kul, but the scale of this event was truly impressive. Every hunter from Kyrgyzstan, it seemed, paraded before the stands, where hundreds of people had come to witness the spectacle. They came from Issyk-Kul and Talas, Chui and Naryn. Beside them walked taigan hunting dogs, and on some arms were perched falcons, hawks, and most impressively, golden eagles.
I had come to Kyrgyzstan on a Fulbright Scholarship to study this tradition of hunting with eagles, but from these festivals I’ve learned that the eagles are just one part of an extensive tradition. Most popular are the hunting dogs, lean animals with impressive speed and sight. On the racetrack, they chased a fox fur dragged behind a horse, and it was clear why the Kyrgyz people have been breeding these dogs for centuries. They were fast and agile, the perfect hunting companions.
There were also falcons and hawks, kush and itelgi, which are smaller birds than eagles but significantly faster. Rabbits and pigeons were let loose on the field.
The master falconers threw their birds in the air and they swooped down on their prey – at least usually. They often grew lazy and gave up mid-flight, or flew over the gasping crowd into the stands. The birds were surely just nervous, not used to that kind of environment. Usually it is just the bird and the master, the mountains and the prey.
This new form of the tradition, though, is necessary if it is to survive. The spectacular amount of knowledge and skill involved in Kyrgyz hunting is now visible for all to see, catered to the masses. Before, hunting was a solitary sport, and most people had no way of appreciating it’s wonders. But in the last ten years, hunters like Almaz Akunov from Bokonbaev have been organizing these festivals, with the idea of transforming their ancient tradition into something for the modern age, something that people from all walks of life can enjoy. I certainly enjoyed the festival myself, and from the cheers in the crowd, I can safely say it was an indisputable success.
By Dennis Keen, research fellow