(Check back tomorrow for Dave’s photo essay on the Kazakh Eagle Hunters)
I am perched on top of a cliff on a small crag looking out over the arid Altai mountain chain of western Mongolia. In this remote corner of the globe, population density registers less than one human being per square kilometer, roads into the region are nothing but dusty tire tracks, and temperatures during the eternal Siberian winters regularly plummet into the minus 40 and 50’s. One rarely spots an airplane overhead, nor for that matter many Russian vans or Suzuki 4WD jeeps lumbering through, but what is striking out here is the complete absence of sound. All I can hear from my perch, other than the wind, is the beating of wings, coming from a large golden eagle who sits beside me, scanning the horizon for prey. Eagles inhabit the vast grasslands and mountains of the Central Asian Steppe, from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and on into Mongolia. Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, the forbearers of the modern nomads, had thousands of hunting birds, and their falconry expeditions were detailed by Marco Polo. It is also thought that berkutchi, as the art of eagle hunting is called, has been in existence on the Steppe for some 6000 years. In Bayan Ulgii Province, which straddles the Kazakh, Russian, and Chinese borders, there are over 200 golden eagle hunters, all carrying on the ancient tradition of their forefathers. Most of the actual hunting takes place during the winter, when the birds are lean and hungry, but a large festival takes place in the province at the end of autumn, where the ethnic Kazakh hunters gather to show off their skills and talents, as well as compete in traditional Kazakh games such as kokbar, in which a tug of war with a goat or fox pelt is played while on horseback; kyz kuu, which is a romantic flirting game involving horse racing between women and men; or tenge alu, in which horse riders attempt to pick up tokens laying on the ground without getting off of their mounts. The bond between hunter and eagle is a strong one, as the eagle is a fiercely independent creature, and in order to create trust, it must be trained from an early age. The eagle hunter I am staying with, 50 year old Bikbolat, tells me that females make the best hunters, as they are more aggressive due to protecting offspring, as well as tending to be a third heavier than their male counterparts. Training young chicks can be preferable, as they are tamer, and won’t harm children or sheep, but birds that are a bit older are actually better hunters and have the killer instinct needed to bring down wolves and foxes. Bikbolat tells me that the eagle chicks can be obtained by finding nests on the mountain tops during hatching season, but that to get older birds they have to resort to setting out traps baited with fresh rabbit meat, or tethering an accompanying eagle next to an animal carcass which will provoke a flying eagle into a jealous fit of rage if it occurs in a space they consider their territory. Once trained, the eagle goes out with the hunter on horseback, riding on his left arm. The bond can be so close between veteran hunters and their birds that the slightest change in talon pressure on a hunter’s arm alerts him that his bird has picked up the scent of a prey. Some Kazakh hunters have antiquated Russian rifles which they can use to pick off hares, but most of the hunting is left to the eagles, as their vision is eightfold that of a human, and they can spot a fox or wolf several kilometers in the distance. While their main victims are marmots and corsac foxes, prized for their pelts which make excellent insulation, the physically powerful eagles also take down owls, wolves and even rare snow leopards. While not out on a hunt, the Kazakhs tend to keep blindfold hoods known as tomaga on their raptors so that they will remain calm. Despite the hardships of life in rural Mongolia, the Kazakh hunters and their families remain tightly knit and enterprising. Bikbolat, who has also trained his first son Asentai to go hunting with him, lives in a traditional ger (yurt) for 4-5 months a year, and then in a small wood home on the edge of the grasslands during the colder months. Ever smiling, he proudly joked with me that he had 70 sheep, 50 goats, 40 cows, 20 horses, but only one eagle and one wife! His wife and daughters spend the day cooking, sewing, and preparing an endless array of dairy and bread products to supplement the mutton that feeds the family year round (not to mention their beloved eagle, which needs around half a kilo of raw meat a day to stay nourished!). One could say that with enough livestock, hunting is superfluous, and mainly done for sport. However, the warm coats, cloaks, and hats that the hunters wrap themselves in during the severe winters are made entirely from the furs they get. Additionally, the practice of eagle hunting still serves as a rite of passage for Kazakh young men as well as a time honored tradition and highly refined art form that has been passed down for generations eternal. Overgrazing of Mongolia’s rangelands has impacted the wildlife available for hunting in recent years, not to mention that with the arrival of tourism and its sponsors, pressure for wildlife preservation has also made inroads into the traditional way of living of the Kazakh eagle hunters. Yet eagle hunting requires a blend of force and tenderness as well as a profound respect for the natural world. The birds are treated with reverence and honor by the Kazakh hunters, and are always released back into the wild after ten years or so (eagles normally live to around fifty). And Bayan Ulgii Province is thousands of kilometers removed from the bureaucrats in Ulaan Baatar. A Kazakh proverb sums up the hunters’ lives out in one of the world’s most remote places, saying “fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people,” and from my mountain perch, my view is almost as good as the birds. Travel Tips: Mongolia can be reached via Air China, which has daily flights to Ulaan Baatar via Beijing (http://www.airchina.com/th/en/index.shtml). To reach Bayan Ulgii, the new Eznis Airways has domestic flights every other day and is the most comfortable way of reaching the remote west of the country (http://www.eznisairways.com/). To set up visits with eagle hunters or tour anywhere in Mongolia, local outfitters Kazakh Tour are recommended (www.kazakhtour.com) The Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii usually occurs during the first several days of October each year.
I am sitting in a small hovel just off the main street of dusty Chitral town, not far from the Afghan border, where a couple of old blenders, two dirty tables covered with an army of flies, some broken benches, and a very large slab of ice serve to create a mango shake parlor. I am surrounded by eight wizened old men with long wispy beards and skull caps staring at me, all of whom look exactly like Osama Bin Laden. At first glance, the traveler might find Pakistan to be a bit daunting.
However, minutes later, the bearded men have treated me to two delicious mango shakes, a wonderfully cool reprieve from the 40 plus degree searing temperatures outside, and after finding out I am American, the men are full of questions, wanting to know if I find their country safe, and why tourists no longer come to visit.
To say that Pakistan is a land of extremes is not to exaggerate. Home to some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, from barren and baking deserts to the huge and jagged Karakoram Mountains; where dozens of indigenous tribes eek out an existence under towering peaks and massive glacial upheaval. Baking hot in the summer, a frozen wasteland in the winter, and yet containing some of the most beautiful and lush valleys in the world, with abundant fruit and vegetables during the harvest season.
The international media portrays Pakistan as a land of lawlessness and evil, home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda mobs, and there are indeed areas such as Waziristan in the Northwest Tribal Frontier, which are very much off limits to foreigners. In Waziristan, everything off the main road is not subject to government jurisdiction, and the land is ruled by feudal clans who have been suspicious of outsiders for years. The inhabitants here sleep with their doors open, with the women in the family placed next to the door to serve as a frontline against intruders, while the turbaned men lie in bed clutching their Uzi’s, AK47’s, and just about any other of the latest military hardware, all of which can be copied from an original in 30 minutes in small villages whose existence serves only to replicate weapons.
Yet the traveler to Pakistan will never be allowed into these areas, and outside of the political violence that has disturbed the big cities, the rest of the country is safe and hospitable, especially in the north, with one being far more likely to be crushed by the never ending cascade of boulders falling onto the Karakoram Highway on an hourly basis than by any act of terrorism or violence.
The sectarian violence and Al Qaeda related jihad groups are restricted to most of the far west and south of the country, and government troops make sure that visitors cannot enter these areas while they are busy battling insurgents. Meanwhile, the north of the country is a mosaic of different ethnic groups and even religions, with Ismaili Moslems (following the leadership of the esteemed Aga Khan) and various tribes of the Pamir mountains making up a majority. Every bend of the raging Indus River brings about a language change, from Burusheski to Gojali or Chitrali, and often the only way one can tell the difference between a Baltit from a Hunzakot is by the color of his hat.
In the northwest, near the Afghan border in the Chitral district are the famed Hindu Kush Mountains, stretching across northern Afghanistan. In the shadow of the Hindu Kush, live one of the most interesting and remote ethnic groups in the world, the Kalasha, also known as the Black Robed Kaffir. The Kalasha are a non Moslem animist group with light skin and European features. Legend has it that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great, who traveled through the region on his journey from Europe to India. How the Kalasha have survived over the years is quite amazing. They are the only non Moslem group between Turkey and India, and they inhabit only three remote valleys, surrounded by conservative Islam on all sides, and a Taliban inhabited region of Afghanistan just across the border.
In contrast to most of the neighboring villages, where women often are not even seen outside of the home, the Kalasha women are unveiled, attired in colorful headdresses made of cowry shells, pillbox hats, and embroidered skirts, and all are smiling and welcoming, even engaging in drinking wine and smoking cigarettes!
The Kalasha are pastoral, and make cheese, grow walnuts, wheat, apricots, and mulberries, which they store to survive the harsh winters that they endure. The valleys they live in are ringed by steep mountains and angry rivers, and the paths between the valleys are challenging treks over some extremely vertical terrain. In the river gorges, Kalasha men can be seen braving the whitewater rapids trying to free logs that have been cut to send downriver to be sold as timber. Each year, several men are swept away to their deaths by the powerful currents.
In the 1990’s, anthropologists, biologists (the mountains surrounding the Kalasha valleys are home to some of the largest populations of markhor sheep in the world), and tourists invaded the Kalasha area, and many feared that the consequences of large scale tourism would irreparably damage their indigenous lifestyle. But the September 11th attacks and subsequent war in Afghanistan virtually brought the tourist industry to a standstill, and the Kalasha have been left in peace ever since.
There is still a large selection of guesthouses in the Bumburet and Rumbur valleys, and I spent a week calling one of them home. My lodging was run by Engineer Khan, a jovial and energetic man who is the first university educated Kalasha from the valley, and now Rumbur village’s one and only esteemed school teacher. Interestingly enough, Khan received his first name not due to his being an engineer, but because his father wanted him to go to school and study, and his son took him to task, even going as far as leaving home to attend college in Chitral town.
Khan speaks Kalasha, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, English, and a smattering of other languages, and is happy to show visitors into local homes, the traditional funerary totems of his people, and to indulge in long evenings of astute conversation over several bottles of mulberry wine and local moonshine, a boon for the visitor in mostly alcohol free Pakistan.
Khan doesn’t worry too much about the political instability in Pakistan or the fundamental Taliban push from neighboring Afghanistan, as he figures the Kalasha have survived far worse throughout the hundreds of years they have inhabited the valleys around Chitral. He worries more about young people leaving for the cities to find employment, about dependency on western medicine instead of traditional remedies, and about overpopulation, a topic he is hot to teach in school. As he warmly jokes, “I have five kids, so it is too late for me, but I think that about three per couple for the future generations would be just right.”
I am amazed at the continuous warmth that the Kalasha show me in household after household. Even trekking over the steep 3000 meter Donson Pass to get from Rumbur to the neighboring Bumburet Valley I am constantly greeted with warm cries of “ishtapa baia,” the Kalasha words meaning “welcome brother.” Women out tending the goats invite my guide and me in for tea and rest, interested to know if we have news from neighboring valleys, as the vertical landscape and dangerous river crossings make regular travel between settlements a rigorous undertaking. I still have a hard time getting used to the fact that I can have free and open dialogue with the women, as in most of the rest of rural Pakistan, women are wrapped in burquas and not allowed to have conversations with strange men, let alone even look at them.
The freckles, green eyes, and blond and even red hair that I see on many children as I walk makes me forget I am in Asia and for all I know I could be in the countryside of Ireland or Scotland, but then one look around at the towering peaks and endless alpine ridges reminds me that I am in a landscape far more magnificent and on a much grander scale.
In the Bumburet Valley, many of the villages have been heavily populated by Moslems, who now run guesthouses and shops for the Pakistani middle class, who make up the majority of the tourist trade these days. Chitral can be reached by airplane, and the Kalasha Valleys are then a short drive away, a welcome respite from the summer heat on the plains, not to mention that nobody seems to make a big secret about the mulberry and other local wines openly available for consumption in this dry country.
The Kalasha seem to have survived the visitations, invasions, and designs of just about anyone for a long time, and it seems likely that their genetic makeup just might guarantee them to outlast the most stubborn of intruders. And if that is not enough, then the giant mountain walls of the Karakorams and Hindu Kush will provide the rest.
From Islamabad and Peshawar, local flights go to Chitral, and there is land transport available from Peshawar on a daily basis. From Chitral, local vans go to the Kalasha Valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir.
Accommodation: Hotels and Guesthouses to suit all budgets can be found in cities. In Chitral town, the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Commission) Hotel (#412683) is one of the nicer options, the Chinar Inn (412582) is basic, clean, and welcoming, and the HinduKush Heights (413151) is a swank resort just out of town.
In the Rumbur Valley in Grom village, Engineer Khan runs the Kalasha Home Guesthouse (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).