Burkut and burkutchu.

We were to spend the night in a small yurt camp belonging to a berkutchu up in the mountains not far from where the Hunters’ Games had taken place. The horses were to be delivered there that afternoon. It involved our driving back along the lake’s southern shores. About 17 miles west of Karakol we diverted south into the Jeti-Oguz valley. Marat explained that we were off to see the “Seven Bulls”, after which the valley and river are named. It is a valley of high red sandstone cliffs and is packed with Kyrgyz legends. Our first stop was to look at Razbitoye Serdtse – broken heart. Erosion has fractured the red rock down the middle and seen from some angles it could resemble a rent heart. Inevitably the various legends involve young lovers separated and murdered by cruel khans. Slightly further on is a greater ridge of the eroded red sandstone Jeti Oguz – Seven Bulls. Erosion has multiplied the bulls since the legends were born and there are now eight or nine and one would have to be very drunk indeed to imagine that they even remotely resemble bulls. However the numerous legends all involve a stolen wife, later murdered by her capturing khan and seven slaughtered bulls – hence the blood colour of the rock.

Below the bulls is a sanatorium that apparently makes the most of the natural supplies of Radon, Sodium Chloride-Calcium, Sodium Sulphate and Sodium Calcium. Judging by the general look of dereliction we weren’t the first to have more confidence in alternative routes to improved health. In 1991 Boris Yeltsin and Askar Akayar held talks there after the failed Moscow August Putsch. Sadly we didn’t have time to travel further up to the romantically named Dragon Gorge. Instead we headed back and while we gingerly paddled in Lake Issyk-Kul, whose waters were not as warm as we had been told,  Marat stripped off and swam. Briefly.

In Bokanbaevo we followed Shuhrat and Marat in and out of a few restaurants searching for a place to lunch. After trying one or two that didn’t meet with Shuhrat’s hygiene standards we ended up in back lanes outside what looked a cross between a ‘gentlemen’s’ dining and night club . Through solid metal gates behind a high wall, crazy paving, punctuated by weeds and looped, dead fairy lights, reinforced the impression that it must have looked better at night. On the upside the loos were clean. Three be-suited men, who could have been tax-inspectors, were the only occupants of the echoing dining hall. They looked at us in astonishment and soon left. The bored waitress reluctantly took Shuhrat’s order. The food took overly long to arrive. Perhaps she had to recall the chef.  After an unremarkable lunch we headed south to the mountains and village of Turasu.  

We reached the berkutchu’s home in good time for Shuhrat to get the kettle going for tea. Separated from the house by a tiny, fast running brook was a semi-circle of four yurts and a newly built loo and shower block. We were to be the only guests that night. Marat went in search of our host and returned with tales of a downed power line in the valley below and continuing attempts to reconnect the electricity. Until such success the shower and loo would involve carrying buckets from the stream. We dumped everything from the minibus on the grass and waved Costia goodbye as he bumped away in a cloud of dust. All the drivers we have had in Kyrgyzstan have been charming and helpful but totally mystified by our desire to spend any time at all, let alone days on end, away from urban life. They can’t wait to get back to civilization.

The sky was threatening so we put all the provisions and kit for the week in one yurt, the guys put their stuff in another and Sue and I sorted what we would need for the night in a third – all the time helped by a young black taigan with a wagging tail. The babushka, who had been sitting on a log under a tree apparently contemplating the view, heaved herself to her feet and wandered to a wired enclosure supporting a healthy crop of weeds. She returned with a bunch of carrots that she proceeded to wash in the brook, all the while sitting on her hunkers. She was impressively supple. 

Seeing something move behind the wire I went to inspect and found an eagle tethered by a rope from its ankles to a raised log. The eagle was extremely cross. Every now and again she would launch herself into the air only to be pulled unceremoniously back to earth by the rope. Sometimes she landed indecorously on her back. Although both rope and knots seemed fit, and she was wearing  a tomogo, she sent vibes that, had she escaped, it would be me that she aimed for first, for watching her humiliation. Deciding not to tempt fate I wandered off around the smallholding. 

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Behind the house a stockyard was still knee deep in muck from the previous winter. An older taigan guarded the must-have lorry trailer, balanced on blocks. A kitten scampered up a ladder to escape a posse of turkeys that were on the march. It sat under the gleaming new corrugated aluminum eaves of the house declining to descend until even the bantams had passed.

A small acre of potatoes looked lustrously green under a blackening sky. The wind got up in one of those pre-storm furies, rattling the aluminum. It began to lift the covers from the yurts’ tunduks. We swung on ropes to tie them down just before the rain started lashing at 75 degrees and we ducked inside for more of Shuhrat’s tea.  From our snug yurt we sympathised with the eagle who had every right to be miserable. 

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The squall ended as suddenly as it had begun and as it did so we could see a lorry belching smoke, followed by a car, bumping up the track towards us. The lorry driver proved to be our host who clasped all of our hands warmly and then introduced us to the driver of the car. His clothes told us that he was a berkutchu and we recognised him from the Hunters’ Games. Two teenagers stood shyly behind him. His daughter held a long rope with a wolf’s pelt tied to one end. It turned out that a wolf had killed our host’s own eagle the previous year and the one in the vegetable patch was a young hen yet to complete her training. So our host had persuaded a friend  to bring his eagle to put her through her paces for us. Females are used as they are bigger than the males.  As if on cue the storm moved on, evening sun bathed the valley and for the first time we could see the snow covered peaks near the pass that we were to tackle the following day. 

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The berkutchu opened the boot of the car and the eagle stretched her neck and looked around before hopping on to her berkutchu’s extended forearm. Off we all went, to the moorland beyond the farmstead. Having been placed for optimum photo opportunities the berkutchu walked some way up the hill, then he signaled to his daughter who ran past us as fast as she could trailing the wolf’s pelt 40 or 50 feet behind her.

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The eagle, with tomogo removed, was released. In the wild a golden eagle will cruise at 30 mph, hunt at 120 mph and swoop at up to 200 mph. With powerful flaps of her great wings she was racing towards the bouncing wolf pelt, and uncomfortably near to us.  She landed on the pelt, legs and talons outstretched in front of her, a few yards from where we stood. Asian golden eagles are the largest of all eagles and this one seemed enormous. The girl dropped the rope and walked back winding it in loops as she went. Her father ran down, and removed a lump of raw flesh from an inside pocket to persuade the eagle to exchange it for the once-was wolf.  He unclenched her talons from the pelt. Having put her on his gauntleted wrist he stroked her neck and head affectionately before replacing the tomogo. Keen that we should take as many photographs as we liked he repeated the display a number of times. When he invited us to photograph her close up he would suddenly raise his wrist to shoulder height. To keep her balance she flapped her wings.  With a wingspan over 7ft she completely covered the berkutchu like a garden umbrella. She was enormous, her beak savage and her talons unforgiving. A wolf would have had its work cut out to better that armoury but she was so majestic and so loved by her berkutchu that I hoped she always would come off best. 

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With our memory cards loaded with eagle, she was returned to the boot of the car, the berkutchu went into the farmstead, doubtless for kumis, and we settled down on a log by the stream. We made inroads into the vodka and shared our crisps with the taigans.  The babushka peeled potatoes watched by the kitten and her toddling grandchildren peered at us from the safety of an outhouse doorway. Again we wallowed in happiness at being back in Kyrgyzstan surrounded by fabulous, unspoiled views, back with friends. 

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Cocktail hour with the taigans (Sue, Jonny and Shuhrat)

Once the berkutchu had driven away our host removed his eagle from her perch and brought her over to us. He spent a good half hour stroking her head, back and neck and arranging her wing feathers as delicately as hairdressers arrange ringlets. As he did so he explained that it takes 3 – 4 years to train them during which time they are handled and fed by one person only, so that they become totally devoted and recognise the voice of that person. Winter is the hunting season. Summer is spent training, exhibiting and competing. Eagles can live for forty years and when their ‘captivity based’ hunting days are over they are released back into the wild. We invited him to help us lighten the packhorses’ vodka burden but he opted for kumis back in his house. He took his eagle inside with him. We briefly pondered whether the eagle would have a tot too. 

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That evening we were treated to the fruits of the babushka’s preparations with a delicious stew (kuurdak). We sat cross-legged on the raised floor round their low table in the candlelight – still no electricity. I remembered with envy the old lady’s ability to sit on her haunches to wash the carrots. It is the height of ill manners to sit with one’s feet stretched out in front of one.  I was shifting from buttock to buttock trying to get comfortable and wondering when we could retire tactfully to our yurts, when there was a commotion outside.

The horses, that should have been waiting for us when we arrived, had finally turned up in another diesel-belching, open-topped lorry. Numerous ‘phone calls during the evening had elicited excuses for their no-show ranging from lack of permits to police checks.  We hadn’t been convinced by any of it. Jonny and Marat went out to inspect. When Jonny returned he looked cross and in need of a nicotine fix. Typically the lorry had no ramp so the nine horses had had to jump from it in the pitch dark. Most of them had stumbled onto their knees, some had fallen onto their sides.  With only head torches to inspect them and no medication to mend any damage anyway, we went to our yurts with fingers firmly crossed that daylight would not reveal anything too serious. Amazingly it did not. Kyrgyz horses, like their owners, are tough. 

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