Second in a two-part post. Read the first installment here.
I expected to wake to sunrise but instead woke to darkness. Winter in these northern latitudes meant that the morning sun was shy, so we ate our breakfast under fluorescent lights. Our coupemates would ride this train further into the day – for us it was time to go. Karaganda had snuck up outside our window, and was calling us into its streets.
The city smelled of industry and the cars were all coated in dirt. We needed to find a bus to Aksu-Ayuly, a small village where we had tracked down the only woman eagle hunter in the whole of Central Asia. As if seventeen hours on the train were not enough, we now had to spend two more driving back the way we had come. The town was too small for its own stop on the railway. Abay found us some tickets and found us our bus, and we stood in line in the cold. A woman was leaning out a window, announcing her hot pastries to every last passerby. Her calls sounded like a lullaby to these tired ears, “samsa, samsa,” over and over. The sunlight still young, we filed onto the bus and settled into our seats, sleep beckoning me back into darkness.
I woke up sweating. The heat was blasting and my coat was still on. The bus was new and tv-equipped, and my busmates craned their necks to watch a bad Russian crime drama showing at the front of our moving cinema. I tried to tune out the gunshots and fall back into slumber. Soon, though, Abay nudged my shoulder and picked up his bags. We had arrived. Outside, there was not much to greet us. The town square was coated in mud. Men stood huddled on its periphery, staring into the fog that shrouded the steppe. We called Makpal and waited in a small cafeteria. There was a mural of yurts on the wall, all billowing smoke, all promising something more alive than this lifeless village. Now the yurts were gone, replaced by stone buildings and stables.
Two young women came in the door and looked at us doubtfully. It was Makpal and her sister-in-law Saltanat. Makpal was done up in makeup and braids and looked lovely, younger than I expected. I didn’t recognize her without the Kazakh costume she donned in the photos I had seen. Now they were both dressed in classy black, ready to impress their new visitors. They showed us outside, where we all piled into a car and drove through the cold to her house, two blocks away.
Inside, it was warm. There was a big oven in the kitchen that sent its heat through the wall to the living room where we sat. Makpal’s father Murat brought us photo albums upon photo albums to occupy our time as they cooked a meal to welcome us. They were like your average family photos, group shots in front of landmarks, but half of them had eagles in them, like family members. In one, there was not only an eagle but an owl, it’s eyes big and alert. When we asked, Murat told us they didn’t catch the bird for hunting – then they would have to hunt at night. They caught it just for its feathers, which it shed in large numbers at a special time every year. Kazakhs before had told me these feathers were sacred. Some say it was because you could read Koranic script in their markings.
A little kid bounced around the room, shouting at me in Kazakh. I returned the favor, speaking to him in a language he found strange. “You little punk, you don’t understand a word I’m saying do you? Neener neener.” He ran away and lunch was served. We ate our meat and potatoes, staples of steppe cuisine. When we had washed it all down with at least four bowls of tea, I pitched some questions to Makpal and Abay interpreted. In a wonder of linguistic similarity, Abay would give my questions in Kyrgyz and Makpal would answer in Kazakh – the two were mutually intelligible. Most of the time, though, Makpal gave an answer of a few words and Saltanat stepped in to speak for her shy sister. I started by telling her how impressed I was with what she was doing. Kazakh society was conservative and segregated, yet Makpal’s passion for this tradition defied all boundaries. Here was a woman in the manliest of sports, all blood and beasts and horseback hunts. She was a symbol of a new Kazakh woman, I thought, one who could do anything. She just blushed. “Yeah, maybe.”
It was hard to get much more out of her, so in a break of silence they suggested we go outside and take some photos. They asked if we’d rather go to the yard or the steppe, but the answer was clear. We waited in the living room some more, teasing the little boy lightheartedly. Jokingly they had told him I had a knife, and now he showed off his invisible sword with which he would do battle. Makpal came out in her finest falconry-ware, a traditional Kazakh robe and a fur hat. She looked stunning. I paid her compliments but they never sound quite as sincere in translation. She was too shy, anyways, and sheepishly avoided my stares.
With an eagle on her arm, I just about fainted. The beautiful girl and the beautiful bird had been partners for ten years. I was jealous. Makpal petted her eagle gently and maneuvered her into the jeep, which we rode through the streets to the edge of town. We got out atop a scenic hill, the wind up there even colder, chilling our bones. Makpal handed her bird to her father and walked along the ridge, and then called out. The eagle flew to her but veered away, landing in the grass. Makpal stayed ever calm, gently calling “Kel! Kel!” like a song. It was the bird’s signal to come to her master. Sitting stubbornly in the weeds, the eagle shook it’s wings but went nowhere. Makpal persisted, singing “Kel, Kel” into the wind. The call was so alluring that I wouldn’t be surprised if every eagle for miles around swung around and headed our way. Her eagle was proud, though, and too full of food to cooperate. Only after coming close did the bird oblige, jumping up to Makpal’s waiting wrist with a flap of its wings.
The icy wind had frozen us all to discomfort, so we sped back to the warmth of the house. Makpal’s mom had started making beshparmak, the national dish of noodles and mutton. On the kitchen table she rolled out dough, spreading it ever so thin into giant circles. These she would slice into squares and we’d eat them with our hands. The house cat was happy to have a stranger, and I was happy to have a new friend. She wrestled with my hand and purred deliriously, not use to all the attention. Makpal’s family looked amused – cat’s here are more utilitarian, meant more for mice-hunting than affection. For a while, we interviewed Murat. With all the attention on his daughter he seemed a little left-out, but it was he who taught her all she knew after all. He told us about all the complexities of the tradition he had to show Makpal, like how to properly feed an eagle. The meat must be weighed exactly, not with a scale but with a cupped palm, and washed of all blood. A bloody meal will excite the bird, and too much meat will stuff it to complacency.
Soon, we too were complacently stuffed. The beshparmak was served and devoured without abandon. Unlike last time, the meat was tender and tasty, and the noodles were easy to handle in the customary forkless fashion. I had two bowls of fatty broth for dessert. There were two other guests over, immigrants from the Kazakh diaspora in western Mongolia. I told them I had been to Bayan-Olgii and they were proudly pleased. We had feasted with our legs folded on the ground, and now pillows were brought out for some well-fed relaxation. One Mongolian rested his head on the legs of the other, though, and they picked their teeth in satisfaction.
We stayed up late playing a local card game, a Karaganda favorite called “Byelka” (which means squirrel). Abay and Saltanat were playing matchmaker, so while they were partners Makpal was paired up with me. She sat across from me, smiling often now and meeting my eyes for the briefest of moments. I adapt poorly to new card games, and every time I sighed with frustration Makpal giggled. Abay and I had been joking all week about how she was the woman of my dreams, a beautiful girl with a bird who I would sweep off her feet. Now, I felt strangely connected to her, even though we hadn’t shared a word in the same tongue. I had seen her picture in a Kyrgyz class magazine clipping, and now I had found her in the middle of nowhere. The strangeness of it all jumbled my common sense, and I thought of staying here forever, learning Kazakh, living with my beautiful bride and her eagle, giving my heart to a hunter in the heart of Eurasia.