The sun is dipping below the horizon as I hold out my arm in trepidation, and Ruslan carefully edges the huge bird from his wrist onto mine. The eagle’s eyes are hooded, to keep it calm, but I can sense that it is checking me out. I try to swallow my fear, always conscious of the weight of the bird on my arm. Suddenly the animal becomes three times as large as it flexes its wings: it’s time to pass it back to its owner.
I’m in Kyrgyzstan, the heart of central Asia, at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road which connected China and India with the West. This is a high country, with 90% of its territory above 1500m. Pik Pobedy, the highest mountain, rises 7,439m on the border with China, and slightly smaller peaks mark the borders with Kazakhstan, in the North, and Tajikistan to the South.
I started in Bishkek, the capital, known during Soviet times as Frunze, and travelled east to Issyk-Kul Lake, the second highest navigable lake in the world after Lake Titicaca. Sandwiched between two mountain ranges, the micro-climate means that it is warm and winter and cool in summer. Silk Road traders once stopped here to relax after crossing the mountain passes; it is still a popular spot for tourists.
For thousands of year people were nomads, living in Yurts which they carried on horseback. At Kyzyl-Tuu village, where they still make them, I’m given a quick lesson in how to assemble one - an essential skill when you’re moving home every day. First, they form the frame with wooden struts, made from willow; then lattice sections are inserted in the gaps. Next, the structure is topped with a circular arrangement and, finally, everything covered is in felt. It takes less than an hour if you know what you’re doing.
From here, I set out on the road west. The landscape is stunning. Towering, snow-capped peaks on one side pierce the deep blue sky and contrast with the azure waters of the lake. Small shacks, roofed with corrugated iron and surrounded by neat fenced-off compounds, dot the parched terrain. Soon, I am climbing up to over 2500m, into rocky treeless terrain, before dropping down to greener pastures and small woods. I’m aiming for Arslanbob, a never-ending drive on a long dirt road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
It lies in a fertile valley, the town planted with poplar trees and the slopes containing one of the largest walnut forests in the world: it has been here for over a thousand years and spreads over 60,000 hectares. The walnuts here are of high quality and were one of the many goods transported along the Silk Road. Now is harvest time and families are camping out in the woods to gather the nuts; small children rush up to me, thrust their treasure into my hands, and then shyly run away. In a good year the forest yields over 200 tons of nuts.
My final destination is Osh, one of the oldest cities in the Kyrgyzstan, founded over 3000 years ago. In the 8th century it was important for silk production, and a major trade centre situated at a crossroads on the Silk Road. These days there are few signs of its illustrious history but a visit to the Jayma Bazaar, one of the largest in Central Asia, gives you a sense of its importance. It’s incredibly well organised, divided up into clearly defined zones; the only blip in its seamlessness are the men pushing carts who shout “Bosh Bosh!” as they make their way through the crowds.
Overlooking the city is a steep rocky outcrop, where King Solomon reputedly spent the night. Although this is only legend, it’s known that a descendant of Tamerlane the Great, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, took refuge here in 15th century, before going on to India and founding the Moghul dynasty. The mosque he built at the top is still known as Babur’s House, although the original was destroyed by an earthquake in 1853. The views of the mountains towards Tajikistan are tremendous.
Back on the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake, I’m waiting for a demonstration of eagle hunting. Ruslan tells me that
he has been involved in this sport for over 30 years and is presently the proud owner of two eagles. He took them from their nests in the wild, before they were able to fly, and patiently established a bond, training them over a few years.
These are females, bigger than the males, and they make best hunters. This tradition goes back a thousand years; the birds essential for catching food and guarding flocks. Soviet rule put an end to nomadic life and nowadays hunting with eagles is mainly for sport and entertaining tourists. Still, there’s no
shortage of young apprentices to carry on the tradition.
I watch as one of them, with the eagle perched on his arm, trudges to the top of a nearby rock outcrop
and waits. Ruslan drops a dead rabbit at his feet and emits a high pitched whistle. The eagle rises from the peak, swoops down, grabs the carcass and starts to rip it to pieces.
As she tears at the raw flesh, her owner calms it by stroking its head. This relationship will not last forever. At 15, the eagle will be released back into the wild to find a mate and hunt for another 25 or 30 years. Ruslan will then have to find another chick and start all over again. For now, though, he’s looking forward to competing in the World Nomad Games, held next year in Turkey.
By Rupert Parker