Hello there! All of my work on Kyrgyz falconry has moved to a brand-new site called The Central Asian Falconry Project. There you can find dozens of scanned books, documentary films, photos, my writings and my new blog. Come visit!
Hi there, all!
It’s been a year since I left Kyrgyzstan, and it’s been even longer since I’ve been away from the blog. In my last months there, I didn’t have much time to write posts, and so the blog was left hanging awkwardly, without an end or an explanation. I’m sorry if you were a faithful reader and you were left confused or concerned.
I’m now in a graduate program at Stanford in Eurasian Studies, and I hope to keep working with the same kinds of things I wrote about with this blog. Maybe one day I’ll come back to write some more. In the meantime, please enjoy, and don’t hesitate to contact me (you can find me information in the “About” section.)
From the Issyk-Ata Sanitorium, a thin trail leads through the valley above the bathhouses and dormitories to the alpine wilderness beyond. It was mid-morning, and the sanitorium’s patients, given some free time after the group breakfast, had come to the trail in twos and threes for the day’s first treatment – a dose of horsemilk. A herd of horses chewed lazily on the grass at the head of the trail, and some shepherds doled out their milk to anybody with an empty cup. Like almost any other natural substance in Kyrgyzstan, the milk of a mare was believed to be medicinal, and for darn near any ailment. As my brother and I made our way up the trail for a day’s hike, we were greeted by a gaggle of middle-aged women, glasses in hand filled with leftover froth. One of them had just had some kind of knee surgery, and had come to these mountains to recuperate. “Go drink some milk, boys!” she said with maternal kindness. “I drink it for my health, and you should drink some for yours.” Sadly, we had no cups to drink the elixir, and besides, the shepherds were nowhere to be seen, so we had to move on unmedicated.
Past the horses, the path ran straight, hemmed in by hills on both sides. The river that cut this groove gurgled noisily below us, and Palmer and I took turns chastising it for ruining the silence. “We get it! You’re mighty! We hear you roar. Now zip it, already, we can’t hear the birds sing.” The water paid us no heed and went on its way. A half-hour along the trail, we found it’s noisy beginnings. A waterfall careened off the hills to our left, chatting loudly with the rocks beneath. With no hot water this month in our Bishkek apartment, I hadn’t bathed in a week, so I couldn’t resist its cleansing powers. Palmer stood guard in case of another womanly gaggle, and I stripped and went for a session in the shower nature had provided me. The glacier water may have been colder than from the pipes at home, but I’ve decided that when the world gives you the opportunity to be naked in nature you might as well take it. I’m no hippy or nudist, I just don’t think one needs to blush in the presence of mountains.
Fresh and fully-clothed again, I followed Palmer’s lead to a spot a little up from the falls. Cheese and sausage from the market the morning before were sliced into serviceable pieces and eaten with a torn-apart wheel of Central Asian bread. A bag of strawberries had been pulverized, but that didn’t stop us from scooping them up anyways, dripping deep red juice on the rocks around us. The ground was our tablecloth. I couldn’t help but feel good. If every meal was eaten outside, I think, the world would be a happier place. When eating al fresco, the fresh air is almost another dish, just as nourishing as the berries and the rest. We drank it up and took in the alpine views before us. It was all the more enjoyable for its solitude. Not a soul passed us by.
The trail took us further up the valley and treated so much beauty we felt a bit embarrassed. Orange butterflies fluttered past, glassy creeks split our steps, and horses and sheep idled in grassy bowls filled with wildflowers colored yellow and blue. It was almost so idyllic it felt a bit cheesy. Perhaps I was so jaded from TV shots of romantic, pristine wilderness that to actually be in the shot felt a bit surreal. Once again, Palmer and I couldn’t help but be sarcastic. “God this is ugly” we complained. “Can’t we go back to Bishkek?” After a while, we relented. The trail had ended in a vast mountain meadow, and the beds of flower begged us to take them seriously. I lay down in the grass and closed my eyes. Palmer sat on a rock and sang. Yes, I thought, there’s nothing wrong with taking this beauty as it is and just basking in its warmth.
The city life was squeezing the air out of us. My brother Palmer has been living with me, doing a version of the nine-to-five at a school down the street, and he’d been stuck in the belly of Bishkek for a month without reprieve while I played with eagles in the countryside. He started to look a little pale. There’s a place I know in the mountains…” I told him to lift his spirits, “…and it’s called Father Heat.” Issyk-Ata, it’s called in Kyrgyz, because it has hot springs boiled by radon. Palmer could not say no. After weeks of urban grime and the city’s annual Hot-Water Deprivation Month, we could ask for nothing more than a nuclear cleansing. Rucksacks were filled with swim trunks and we said goodbye to the city with a “whew” and a wipe to our brows.
The van we flew there in had thirty-five people piled into it, like 1950s frat boys cramming themselves into phone booths. I wanted to tell the girl pressed up against me, begging for English practice, that our fellow passengers were like sardines, but I figured her seafood vocabulary didn’t extend that far. I ran it through my idiom emulsifier and out it came – “we are like fish in a can!” “I am fish?” she said. No, no, no, I pleaded, but pantomiming packaged sardines seemed hopeless. I sighed and stared at the backs of the necks in front of me.
It took us two hours and then we were there, an arched gateway announcing our arrival at the Issyk-Ata Sanitarium. The complex was built over the hot springs during the Soviet times as a mountain retreat for the urban proletariat. Dormitories and bathhouses were built along a tree-lined corridor. The path pointed to a peak looming above it all like a postcard Matterhorn. A river gurgled nearby. The Soviets had found serenity, and built a Lenin statue on top. He waved his hand over the place from a pedestal under the panorama. Welcome, Brothers Keen, to the worker’s paradise!
We got ourselves a room in Lenin’s getaway, but through not-so-sanctioned means. This was a health resort, and in theory you needed some kind of prescription to be there (which is an interesting concept in itself. Doctor: You have liver disease? I hereby prescribe you a week’s worth of mountain air and daily dips in radon water). Palmer and I were a little too young and spritely to fake our way in, so I had to turn up the charm instead. “Здравствуйте!” I said to the caretaker of the dormitories. “My name is Dennis and this is my brother. We just arrived from Bishkek and are looking for a room. Can you help us?” “Go check in at registration” the woman said like a demoralized clerk. “Okay, but can you help us?” I said with a smile perhaps a little too sincere. “It will be two hundred and fifty som. Follow me…”
Our wily insistence got us a room on the top floor, overlooking a lush courtyard and mountains dressed in cottonballs of fog. The television didn’t work, but this was a place where that hardly mattered. The world would provide us our entertainment. Creeping around outside from curiosity to curiosity, we came across an old Soviet car, a Zhiguli, parked haphazardly near Lenin. An old man saw me taking pictures and waved us over with the usual puzzlement and concern. “What are you doing? Why is that interesting?” he asked. “I’m interested in old Soviet cars,” I said. “Why are you here?” he asked this time. “I’m interested in old Soviet resorts…” He found this as amusing as we would find a Russian tourist taking pictures of worn-down motels with Cadillacs in front. Nevertheless, he humored me, and told me about those golden days.
“In Soviet times,” the man said, “this was all free! You’d be sent here by your workplace and spend a week, just relaxing. Now it’s all private, just like everything else.” Lenin’s bucreaucratic ancestors may not run the thing anymore, I thought, but it seems like the new management has hardly moved around the furniture. The grounds were overgrown but the fountains still ran, the flowerbeds were still shaped like communist stars, and hammered and sickled monuments still stood with pride. And the man was still coming – that was his Soviet car, he said, still good after twenty years, and he still drives it here every spring to stay in building number seven. The weeds grew up around it but the memories of another time would never leave this place.
Curious passers-by shook our hands and interrogated us about our plans. I told one old man more than five times that Palmer didn’t understand Russian, but he shook my brother’s arm and spoke slowly as if it would help. “We. Are. Kyr. Gyz!” he said, enunciating each syllable. “We. Ride. Horses! We. Lived. In. Yurts!” Eventually he realized it was futile and took to shooting an invisible machine gun into the air, railing against American imperialism. He asked us if we were spies. I started to tell him that the CIA isn’t interested in old Kyrgyz health resorts, but two kids came by and saved us. “Have you had dinner yet?” they asked. We hadn’t, and they whisked us away to the mess hall.
Kamin and Kubanych were maybe fifteen and were thrilled to have somebody to ask about American boxing heroes. After I told them I didn’t know Roy Jones Jr., they snickered and started making fun of my Russian. I changed the subject. Their parents, apparently, worked at the resort, and this camp in the mountains was their one and only home. We didn’t have a meal ticket for the cafeteria because we smuggled ourselves in, but the boys knew the chefs so they whisked into a back room and fed us bowls of leftover laghman. When the owner came in, we snuck out the back door through the kitchen, and the boys ran off to pray. “We must go to the mosque,” they said “Asalam alleikum.”
As the boys prayed, the sun set, and Lenin greeted the stars. We retreated to our room and ate strawberries. The TV didn’t work but it was for the better. Curled up in a new bed, my imagination buzzing, I fell asleep with the windows open to the world.
The Mysterious Oracle
A woman reads a speech from a stage, but she’s not standing on it – she’s standing behind it. Her disembodied voice floats over the audience, pronouncing, “We are reviving the traditions of our ancestors!” After the couple hundred people who are there clap and cheer in agreement, she repeats the entire speech again for the four who have just arrived. Again, with feeling!
A teenage boy dressed in a caveman outfit thumps his feet on the ground. He circles a pyre of juniper branches, then lights it on fire. He fans his arms at the sacred smoke and passes out. The audience hopes it is a metaphor.
Schoolchildren are a prerequisite for any revitilization effort. “We are the future!” they say. In an ideal world, they would all have eagles on their arms, but these ones carry only meaningless little flags. They wiggle them in the wind and then hold hands, spinning in circles. It is absolutely adorable. “Long live the Kyrgyz people!” they shout. Adorable and nationalistic! The caveman comes back from the dead. Good. It was a metaphor.
A middle aged man wearing a fake wizard beard steps forward from a group of old men wearing real ones. A woman wearing a turban steps to his side. “Hello my sacred nation!” they shout over the speakers. “You did not forget the traditions of our ancestors!” Something is off. Their voices are amplified across the fairgrounds, but they have no microphones. Look closely. Their mouths aren’t even moving in time – they’re moving their jaws up and down, but nothing’s coming out. Pre-recorded proclamations play on the P.A. The effect is uncanny.
Powerful People Make Speeches
The provincial governor reads from a paper he probably saved from last year. “Today is a holiday, and holidays are for relaxation!” He goes on to say exactly nothing meaningful for two minutes. “And in conclusion I want to wish you all peace and prosperity.” How thoughtful! Later, the governor invites me into his yurt. “Don’t translate this” his police chief says to my translator in a language he doesn’t know I understand, “but this kid is too young.” I tell them about Fulbright and they all joke I’m a spy. They are only half-joking. They look uneasy. Powerful people are paranoid.
A Collective Prayer
Everybody cups their hands in Islamic prayer and a well-wishing old man sings out similes. “May your problems stay in one place, like a mountain. May you be as flexible as a river.” May you swim like a salmon into the stream of success…
A man sits in front of a microphone and reads a tale from heart. It’s about an historic hunt. He sings it in a familiar rhythym, every line seven syllables long. “BUM dum DUM dum DUM dum DUM.” It’s in archaic Kyrgyz, Shakespearian you could say, and my translator understands none of it. We get bored and go eat ashlan fu, a Dungan dish with noodles made out of fat. The man keeps chanting. Eventually he stops, but he could go on. The story he’s reading from is half a million lines long.
The Spinning Pigeon
The first event of the afternoon begins. Falconers line up with their birds. A boy ties a rope to a pigeon and throws it in circles around his head like it’s a bullroarer. One by one the falcons fly at their spinning target. Half the time they slam it to the ground and start plucking out its feathers. The other half of the time they get bored and fly off into the sky, chasing crows.
Bows and Arrows
The next event is an archery competition. Instead of a bullseye, there’s a wooden board with a mountain goat painted on it. Nobody seems to know quite what they’re doing and most of the arrows fly over the goat and kick up dust. The ones that do hit their mark get him in his goat-beard. “Good job!” the announcer says anyways. The top prize is a television and he ends up giving it to his brother. Nobody acknowledges the resemblance.
Hunters stand crammed in a truck bed like they’re being shipped to market. Across a field a wolf is tied to an anchor. The hunters throw their giant eagles into the air with a shout and hope that the birds have some guts. Most land on the ground and look peeved. The unusually brave fly onto the wolves back and they tussle in the dirt like schoolchildren. The men jump from the truckbed and run up to the brawling predators, trying to pull the eagle’s talons out of the canine’s front leg. The wolf is demoralized. The same poor animal is recycled for every festival.
The (Dead) Fox Chase
For hundreds of years, Kyrgyz have bred hunting dogs called taigans that are streamlined like greyhounds, built for speed. The truth is that most hunters here adore them more than their birds. To see how fast they can run, some guys tie a dead fox to a rope and drag it behind a minivan. The taigans fly through the air. Their feet hit the ground only as an afterthought. The sputtering van can hardly outrun the dogs. Catching up with the fox, the taigans tear into it like it’s been calling them names.
The final event. Another wolf is brought to the arena, this one even bigger. There’s no anchor this time, just a long, long leash. The taigans go after their canine cousin in pairs. One nips from behind while the other growls from the front. Like the eagles, some aren’t as courageous as they’re made out to be. They sniff the wolf’s butt and trot off with their tails between their legs. When the competition is over, men take their dogs to the fairground margins and sic them on each other for amusement. The dogs lunge at each other’s throats and the men whistle.
A woman plays on a Kazakh dombra, two men strum komuz, and a small tan man squeezes an accordion. An old woman sings folk songs, holding notes for uncomfortable periods of time. All the young people who ran away during the folk tunes run back as a boy dressed up in a Michael Jackson suit and fedora flails his arms to Jacko singing “All I wanna say is they don’t really care about us.” A teenage girl bellydances as middle-aged men record her on their cameraphones.
The Awards Ceremony
While the girl was hypnotizing the audience with foreign choreography, the masters of ceremony were tallying up points. The scoring system is a mystery – ten points for a talon to the eye, two for a nip to the bum? It’s probably irrelevant – the awards go to brothers and friends. Tired hunters sit with pride on top of their prizes, boxes of Chinese vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens.
The yurts come down and the wolves are put in their cages and the eagles are loaded into the trunks of cars and the place is emptied. The mysterious oracle sings out to the departing crowd. “Don’t forget your ancestors! Don’t forget your traditions! See you next time!”
This is part two in a two-part series. To read the first part, scroll down or click here.
Ala-Archa National Park was just a friendly taxi ride away. “Hey Dennis,” our taxi driver said before every question, “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Can I find you a Kyrgyz wife? Oh, you’ve already got yourself a Kyrgyzka? Good boy!” Dusty villages and cemeteries rolled by, and the mountains we were flirting with just a couple days before from within our urban confines beckoned us onward and upward. Forty five minutes out of town there was a gate and then a road and then a lodge and then a trail. That’s where we said goodbye to the questions and walked ourselves into the mountains and valleys that lay before us like a treasure.
We had to cross a river but found no stepping stones so we threw our shoes across and braved the cold. We ate cheese and sausage on bread from the market, sitting happily on rocks amongst piles of shit. The fog rolled in and swallowed us up, but we had gone as far as we could and seen what we wanted to see so we were happy to just pretend we were swimming through a cloud, and headed back to our taximan. There was a patch of ice unfrightened by spring and we made ourselves to be ice skaters without skates. We saw only two other people, cresting a ridge in the distance, and they disappeared into the fog.
The next day we arrived at the house of my eagle hunter friend, Ruslan. The car ride there was interesting enough, an old lady hounding my dad for not saying hello and then pouring us juice in plastic cups and feeding us scraps of bread. The car was broken but that was nothing new. At Ruslan’s there was no Ruslan to be found, only his dad, Kubat, who welcomed us with hearty handshakes and an invitation for tea. Not much later, Ruslan came home from a soccer match and showed us his eagles with nonchalance. A sheep’s throat was cut in our honor and then the animal was picked apart and boiled. The big chunks of meat went on our plates, and we ate them with our hands as we drank teabowls of broth. The organs were fed to the eagle the next day, after it chased down a foxfur. It was fat and lazy, preparing for a leisurely summer moult, and was happy to get a reward. It seemed to swallow the lungs whole.
We went to Sary’s village and the village had migrated: it was some kind of day of remembrance, and the whole town had gone for a picnic at the cemetery. We found them and sat on the ground eating fried bread and drinking thick, fermented wheaty sludge. Men with long white beards and cokebottle glasses were compiling a list of soldiers who had died during the Great Patriotic War. You could see their minds spinning as they closed their eyes and tried to remember. They were going back in time.
Sary took us to the shore of the lake and we sat on the red sand and talked about it. “This sand is healthy” he told us. “You should come here and bury yourself in it. Up to your necks. It would be good for you.” He ran it through his hand like a sieve. The sand fell to the ground and then he picked up some more, and watched it over and over again in meditation. He was trying to show Palmer something but he didn’t understand. There was something about this sand that he wanted us to know.
The place was quiet except for the small waves licking the shore and we all layed down and closed our eyes and enjoyed the serenity. “This is a special place,”Sary told us. We all nodded and agreed.
Suleiman Mountain was special too. The day after we were in Issyk Kul we drove all the way across the country, over even more mountains and valleys, just to see this beautiful rock. It watched over the southern city of Osh like a mother and the people adored it just so. We crawled with them all over its face, caressing it in spots where it had been polished smooth with love, finding small caves and sitting in them singing it songs. My dad had hurt his shoulder in a dune buggy in Mexico and the nerves running down his arm were reminding him constantly, so we asked the mountain for help. An old man sat giving prayer and we asked him for help too. With our hands bent into the shapes of bowls, we listened to him chant and then washed our faces with what we hoped was good luck. It only helped for so long. As the sun got lower, we went to a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy and bought prescription meds without a prescription. Well they say the mountain only works if you believe…
Aziz was a believer, and he sung out “Allah Akbar”s from inside his tent as we drank vodka by the fire. We were on a trek in the Alay mountains, and had brough extra firewater for our guide, but it seemed that we had been assigned one of those few Kyrgyz men who take the Quranic word for what it’s worth. When I asked Aziz if he’d like a shot, he didn’t say ‘I don’t drink.’ He said ‘I read namaz.’ He wasn’t kidding. After dark had fallen he took his shoes off and rinsed his feet in ritual ablution, and then retreated into his tarpaulin mosque to read and sing the Quran. I’ve always like the sound, even if I don’t partake. I watched the stars and listened to his song. We watched satellites trace the sky.
In the morning, we walked around the jailoo where we had ended up, after hours of hauling our stuff up hillsides in sacks. The Kyrgyz jailoo is what we might call a summer pasture, a patch of green pastorale in the wake of mountains, freed up by the melting snow. Spring had hit hard here and the birds were catching up after a season’s worth of muted chirping. I saw one little sparrow hop from branch to branch with fuzz in its mouth for a nest, chirping all the while. I saw a big rabbit bounding into a hole. I saw a marmot, but it was so orange I thought it must be a fox. It would have to be one fat, funny-looking fox. I learned that Kyrgyz marmots bear a striking resemblance to Garfield. They’d be eminently pettable if they weren’t so quick on their feet.
I saw the mountains, and the rivers, and eagles and old men, but I showed them, too, to the Keens at my side. A place is transformed when its yours to display and not just to live in. You feel some kind of ownership. This wasn’t my country, but it felt like home, and there’s nobody better to share your home with then your family.
After seven months of being separated from my family, I was happy to see two other Keens walk through the doors at Manas airport. They had traveled twenty hours to get to this nowhere-place, and were as worn out as their trampled luggage. They were here to see what I had been writing about for months on my blog, what was really behind all those strange pictures I’d posted on Facebook – Was it all real? What is this life you’ve been living? Bishkek was our first stop, and we didn’t have much time. I allowed them a nap for recovery and then I did my best to wear the tour guide suit and show the guys around town.
We went to a teahouse and ate laghman, plov, oromo, vareniki, and olivier. We walked past the White House and its monument to sniper victims from last year’s revolution; we took a trip to the top of a ferris wheel to admire the city from above and flirt with the mountains beyond. In the national museum, we saw a sculpture of baby Lenin and a mural of an American cowboy wearing a deathmask, riding a Tomahawk. In the park, we ate ice cream and watched ping pong. The city was ours to dissect and inspect. Tall American bodies were stuffed into marshrutkas. We headed to the bazaar.
A Bishkek without bazaars would be like life without birthdays. They are what reminds this city that it’s still alive. The endless apartment blocks sometimes look ready for the apocalypse, but at the northern edge of town they shrink into the ground and something much greater grows up – the amorphous mass of metallic shipping containers that is Dordoi. They are stacked two apiece for what seems like miles, shops in one container and storage up above. We walked through aisles of shoes so long that we grew sick of the smell of leather and looked for sunlight, but this was an ecosystem that swallowed you whole. “World of Shoes,” it was called. Maybe it was a shopaholic’s dreamland, but for three fashion-averse men it struck us as a strange form of torture.
We had only two things that we wanted to get at the market that day: a towel for Palmer, and a poster for our wall. How could it be that as Shoeworld spit us out into the open air we fell right into the only container in the whole market that catered to such a niche? They sold only two things – towels and posters. The towel was cheap (and turns out to be miraculously unabsorbent) and the posters were charmingly kitschy (Chinese storks and Mecca) but the ladies working the container were pleased to meet our needs, and were wary to let their generosity run dry– “Come visit us in Issyk Kul!” they said, “We will cook you beshparmak! We will give you the finest kymyz!” Palmer and my dad grinned, unused to the attention. “This is the norm, you guys,” I said. “People here are so kind it’s tiresome.”
We took a ‘shrutka around the suburbs to Osh bazaar, where food was the main draw. A tube of horse sausage caught my eye, and the kindness continued. “Try a slice!” the vendor said, and handed me a circle of sausage that looked like a yin-yang, with as much white fat as dark meat. I’d already tried chuchuk before so I passed it off to Palmer, who said he liked it but spent the next few minutes chewing. The dad-guy refused. “There are some things I will not do.” Palmer teased him but kept gnawing on the fat.
There was more: drinking beer on public lawns, eating rabbit pizza and duck kebab, laughing at the leopard print bed at the Russian sauna they provide for hookerly escapades. We were well-fed and well-steamed, but Bishkek only has so much to offer. We were called to the wilderness.