A Steppe Too Far?: Eagle Hunters, Cultural Darwinism, and Getting Banned in Kazakhstan
At 4:27PM, on the afternoon of October 29th, I received an e-mail from an acquaintance in Almaty, informing me that Backpackology has been banned in Kazakhstan. When my initial laughter subsided, my amusement faded into confusion, then indignation—and then full-blown outrage.
I was not angry about being censored. On the contrary, when this site was banned in Burma and China, I was overjoyed. I understood what I had done to deserve being blacklisted, and I found it all quite hilarious.
This time, however, things were different. Other than a fleeting reference I made in an earlier post, I have never discussed the obscure nation.
So why would my site raise concern?
All I know is that if Kazakhstan is really going to censor my website from 16.6 million potential readers—I am fully prepared to earn that shit.
While I could easily earn this ban by making fun of Kazakhs for being the quirky weirdoes that they are—or by simply uploading nude photos of myself making-out with a goat in high heels—I’m not trying to be provocative simply for provocation’s sake.
Plus, those photos are private.
Instead, I’ll earn their enmity by shining my internet spotlight into their dark, agoraphobic, relatively-unknown recess of Central Asia, and show it for exactly what it is—one of the weirdest, most bewildering and enigmatic places on the globe.
Before you can understand Kazakh culture, you need to know who the Kazakhs are and how they came to inhabit such a desolate, unarable shithole.
The Kazakhs are a nomadic people of the Turkic ethnic group, and their name means, “Steppe-Roaming Free Warriors,” which is an optimistic way of saying, “Guys who get expelled out of countries a lot.” The Kazakhs originated in the steppes of Mongolia, from where they were first driven out by the early Hun tribes. They then fled to the Caspian Sea, before being repelled south into Uzbekistan. It wasn’t long before the Uzbek Khan, Abu’l Khayr, expelled them yet again, after decreeing that Kazakhs were “disagreeable.”
With nowhere else to go, the unpopular and disagreeable Kazakhs settled down in the arid plains of modern-day Kazakhstan, where they began to develop their odd, indigenous culture…
Like most countries of the Asian steppes, Kazakhstan contains large swathes of unarable grasslands, and so its people developed a nomadic lifestyle revolving around livestock. Instead of towns, families lived in isolated yurts (felt tents) and moved from place to place every few weeks in the pursuit of fresh pastures. The Kazakhs derived all they needed to survive from their camels, cattle, horses, goats, and sheep—fur, transportation, fuel (dung), milk, meat, and on cold, lonely nights when the mood was right and inhibitions were low, perhaps something more.
In traditional Kazakh culture, you’re expected to start conversations by first asking about the well-being of the other person’s livestock. The general salutation is “Mal bichij ogno uu?” Which means, “Are your sheep fattening up nicely?”
This traditional way of life came to an abrupt end in the 1920s, when the USSR appropriated Kazakhstan and Stalinism turned the nation upside down. Soviet prison camps sprung up across the steppes and the population swelled with exiled Russian convicts. Soon the Kazakhs were a minority in their own homeland.
Their nomadic culture was squashed out by forced Collectivization and industrialization. Shamanism, Islam, and Buddhism were outlawed and the ensuing Cultural Purges left hundreds of historical temples destroyed and thousands of religious Kazakhs shot and killed. Borderlines were drawn up, ending traditional migratory routes to summer pastures in western Mongolia and China, and the remaining Kazakh pasturelands were ripped up and redeveloped for grain production. By the time Nursultan Nazarbayev assumed dictatorship, most of the shepherds had been forced out of their yurts and relocated to depressing, concrete factory towns.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Kazakhs saw all of this as an improvement. Before long, their traditional way of life was abandoned forever.
Or so it was believed.
Unbeknownst to the soviets, one tribe got away.
On the eve of the communist invasion, a small faction of the Juz tribe decided to settle down in their summer pasturelands of Bayan-Olgii, just across the border in western Mongolia. Due to the region’s mind-bending isolation, the Juz tribe managed to slip under soviet radar, avoiding the Cultural Purges and Collectivization that devastated their relatives across the border. As Kazakh culture evaporated from Kazakhstan, it discreetly flourished in Bayan-Olgii, remaining undisturbed and detached from the world through most of the 20th century. Today, it is the last bastion of the traditional Kazakh way of life.
For most culture buffs, visiting Bayan-Olgii is nothing short of amateur anthropologist porn—and incentive enough to make a long, arduous detour north from China.
I timed my visit to coincide with the nomads’ Burkit Eagle Hunting Festival, a spectacular two-day pageant of Kazakh culture, traditional food, equestrian sports, and giant eagles laying waste to bunnies, foxes, and one unlucky wolf.
For many inhabitants of the steppes, the eagle is held with a reverence that borders religion.
It is the tradition in Mongolia that when people die, a sky burial is conducted. It starts with the family dragging their deceased up a hilltop, exposing the corpse to the elements, and then waiting. Within an hour, eagles and vultures descend and everybody watches as the birds rip and tear the dearly departed limb from limb. For the Mongolians, this is a happy occasion. If the body is eaten by birds of prey, it means that the deceased lived a virtuous life and that their souls will be carried to heaven. If the deceased led a sinful life, foxes and wolves will arrive to the body first.
Eagle (burkit) hunting is a distinguishing characteristic of Kazakh culture. Often these birds are raised as hatchlings, however many discerning burkit trainers insist that captivity-raised birds lack natural killer instincts. These trainers prefer to capture their eagles after they’ve mature, by stealing them out of the nest. To the casual layperson such as me, stealing a full-grown, pissed-off eagle with “killer instincts” from its nest seems pretty inadvisable.
Some people take even more astoundingly stupid risks to acquire their birds of prey.
In 1984, a Saudi man was stopped in Ulaan Baatar Airport after trying to pass through security with a suspiciously clumpy overcoat. When security had the man remove his jacket, they made a shocking discovery: The suspect was attempting to board the plane with a live Saker Falcon in his coat.
Eagle and falcon trafficking results in the disappearance of hundreds of endangered birds each year. To keep a lid on the crisis, the Mongolian government allows the capture of 300 birds annually, which are auctioned off, mostly to royalty from UAE and Kuwait, with an average price tag of twelve thousand dollars per bird.
Twelve thousand dollars. That’s an extra year of traveling added to my itinerary. I could go to Africa. Upon seeing the abundance of falcons in Bayan-Olgii and hearing how feasible it is to wrestle them out their nests, I started to contemplate how many birds I could stuff into my backpack.
Exactly four birds—individually wrapped in my laundry to impede resistance, with just enough air holes ripped into the side to ensure they survive the two-day bus ride to Beijing. I eventually reconsidered, however, realizing the environmental damage I would be causing and the heavy ethical toll it would take on my conscience. Falcons should be free, soaring the windy skies of the steppes—not stuffed in a backpack with a price tag.
On a completely unrelated note: if I have any Saudi readers interested in purchasing a slightly smooshed, slightly dead falcon, please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The eagle festival kicked off with a puzzling ceremony, involving haggard, thick-wristed nomads draped in animal skins sitting on their horse, striking stern poses for a frowning panel of judges. While I never received an explanation for this awkward nomad fashion show, the contestants seemed to be judged on how wistfully they stared into the distance, and how many woodland critters they could cobble into a hat.
Shakhyru was the first event, in which the eagle trainer drags a dead(?) fox behind his horse. His eagle is then released from a nearby hilltop and judged on how quickly it can descend upon the bouncing, deteriorating fox (it’s certainly dead at this point).
Here’s a second example of shakhyru that didn’t run quite as smoothly. I’m including it because it shows the wonderfully volatile nature of the eagles. Eagle hunters only use female eagles, which are larger and more aggressive than their male counterparts.
The first day ended with a traditional concert. Relying heavily on the dombra (lute) and kobyz (bowed instrument), Kazakh music is typical of Central Asia—cluttered, forgettable, and generally bizarre. The highlight of the concert was admiring the traditional dress, and beholding the ancient Kazakh custom of wearing awesome birthday hats.
Like Kazakh music, Kazakh dance is decidedly odd. The aim of the dance is to replicate the movements of all the great steppe animals (all four of them).
The second day was marked with sports demonstrating equestrian prowess. Tenge ilu is played by trying to snatch a red piece of cloth from the ground, while galloping past it at full speed.
The most exciting game was kokbar—similar to tug-of-war, except it’s played on horseback and the rope has been substituted for a dead goat.
A violent and exciting sport to witness, Kokbar was easily the most popular event at the festival and drew even larger crowds than the eagle hunting.
The festival ended with the distribution of awards to the winners. If you’ve already read “A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia,” you’re probably expecting me to mention a certain Eagle vs. Wolf Death Match now…
The climax of the festival involved the top three eagles being unleashed on a wolf. The inconceivable awesomeness of this match-up might seem too good to be true—and that’s because it is. The “wolf” turned out to be a small, terrified, abused, and bloodied pup. The video that I recorded is cruel and disturbing, so I’ve chosen not to share it on this site.
Just as unsettling as the killing was the rage and hostility it provoked among the other foreign photographers—some of who rabbled for the cancellation of future events. What these well-intentioned photographers don’t grasp is the broader necessity and significance of this festival. In an era of cultural Darwinism, where indigenous traditions are rapidly vanishing on the wayside of western modernity, this festival protects one of the world’s most endangered cultural treasures. It reminds the nomads that they’re wonderful and unique for dancing around with giant birthday hats and wearing dead animals on their heads. Wrestling over a dead goat carcass on horseback is something worth celebrating. The festival and the competition helps preserve a dwindling culture that has since perished in its very homeland.
While mingling with the eagle hunters was a spectacular experience, I’m still not sure if it was controversial or offensive enough to earn me my blacklisting… So just for posterity, here’s Kazakhstan’s Supreme Dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev eating Chick-Fil-A in a pink dress under a burning Kazakhstan flag, accompanied by a satanic depiction of the pope, a child Nazi, offensive profanities, a bloody pentagram, Sarah Jessica Parker’s face, and Nazarbayev’s girlfriend (a sheep in red high heels with lipstick).
I’m definitely banned in Kazakhstan now!
I’ve also ensured that if I ever try to visit Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev will personally use my visa application as toilet paper.
But I don’t care.
I have no desire to venture further into the Kazakh heartlands, as there’s no longer any appeal.
As far as I’m concerned, I’ve already seen Kazakhstan at its quirky, cultural best.