My devotion to any one of my personal projects is fleeting. After sending this website to the presses, I was soon distracted by another “thing” I’d been working on, a kind of Almaty encyclopedia that I’ve called Walking Almaty. If you look over the site, you can see that there’s been plenty of research to keep me busy, and that means exploring this Kazakh city of mine inside and out. I think I may have found nearly everything bird-related in town, so here is a guide to nine sites of falconry art in Almaty, for some hypothetical visitor that shares my obscure fetishes.
It is only sensible to begin our guide with the Altyn Adam, or Golden Man, an icon of Almaty in its central square. The statue is devoted to a Scythian warrier whose burial mound was excavated in a town outside of Almaty in 1970. Found on accident while planning a parking lot, the mound turned out to contain some of the best-preserved gold armor ever found (it had until then gone mysteriously unraided). The “Golden Man” became a symbol of nomadism’s past glories, and in 1996 a monument to the hero was erected in the Square of the Republic. The sculpture, designed by Shoti Walikhanov, is a fanciful interpetation – the Scythian is shown riding a flying snow leopard like a surfboard, a falcon perched on his fist. Who decided that the Golden Man was a falconer? I posed this question when I visited the Golden Man Museum at the excavation site, and the confident tour guide responded that a hunting eagle had been discovered in another burial site in Mangyshlak, Western Kazakhstan. “Okay, then why did they give him a falcon and not an eagle?” I nitpicked. “That’s a question for the sculptor!” said the guide.
Below the stela that lifts the falconer sculpture to the sky is a semi-circle of bronze, with several panels showing Kazakh history from its earliest Scythian roots to the trials of Russian colonialism and independence. On one panel is an archer, again with a falcon on hand. What do these artists have against eagles? Too big too carve?
The Auezov Theater metro station nearby is a goldmine of falconry art. At the end of the hall where passengers wait for their trains, there’s a large mosaic, titled “Atamura” or “Heritage”, that was modeled off a mosaic you can find aboveground on the Soviet-era Wedding Palace nearby. It features a Kazakh wedding party or betashar, and it’s full of corny depictions of “traditional” Kazakh costume and accessories. Therefore a falconer is in presence, his bird presumably there to officiate. Along the hall itself are 16 circular bas-reliefs, made of plaster of paris, each one depicting a different scene from traditional Kazakh life. One shows kok par, or goat-carcass polo. Another shows horseback wrestling. Falconry birds appear in several scenes, especially prominently in one large panel that shows a man sitting cross-legged with his eagle.
The Zhibek Zholy metro station also has some falconers, but they’re not as conspicuous. The wall opposite the ticket window is decorated with a scene in glazed porcelain, its whiteness (ak in Kazakh) representing the purity and sacredness of the Kazakh people. There’s a caravan, representing the Silk Road that once ran through Kazakhstan (the name of the station, Zhibek Zholy, is the Kazakh phrase for that ancient trade route). In the caravan, you can spot a falconer. A bit further into the station, above the escalators, is a composition titled “The Great Steppe and the City.” The right-side panel features images of masculine Kazakh life, like caring for horses and training eagles.
Kazakhstan’s most prestigious university is perhaps KIMEP, the Kazakhstan Institute for Management, Economics, and Strategic Research. It’s building was formerly the trade school for aspiring party members, and it was presumably during this incarnation that a mosaic, pieced together with colored glass called smalta, was installed over an arch on Prospekt Abaya. In this work, the falconer himself is not glorified but the hunt itself. Only the very moment of predation is shown in the bottom-left corner, an eagle poised to take a fox.
The restaurant Zheruyik on Seifullin and Karasai Batyr is a local landmark for its ornately crafted exterior, topped off with a metal bas relief. A strip runs along the length of the restaurant and shows various icons of traditional Kazakh culture – nomad girls making kymyz, jewellers pounding silver, and to our delight, a falconer with his bird.
Soviet buildings have gotten a reputation for drab conformity, but at least in Almaty they are frequently adorned with charming carvings and mosaics. In the west of Almaty there are these kinds of commie suburbs, the mikroraions, grids of pre-fab apartment blocks arranged in self-contained community units. Here one can find some of the neatest facades. At 11 Shalyapina between Beregovo and Sain, the two-story building sports a mosaic of a falconer, shaped out of glossy colored ceramic. He’s sporting a do-rag, which has inexplicably become a part of the ancient Kazakh’s imagined wardrobe.
The Hotel Alatau was once the crowning joy of Intourist, the Soviet Union’s infamous hospitality department, but it has since been nearly forgotten as the Marriots and Best Westerns have come to town. The Marriot may have a gorgeous glass skyscraper and a glamorous reputation, but the Hotel Alatau, with its sculptural ensemble out front, at least has a sense of place. The statues there were designed in 1975 by Viktor Innokentovich Konstantinov, the same “monumental artist” who worked on the better-known Arman Cinema down the street.
The Alma-Arasan gorge in the mountains south of Almaty hosts the Sunkar Falcon Center, the only place to see professional bird handling in the city (yes, there are some sad-looking hawks at the zoo, and various amateurs selling eagle photo-ops at the parks, but those are best ignored). The place is a must-see if only for Pavel Pfander, the Kazakhstani German who trains the birds of prey there and puts on a highly-entertaining and educational show. I met “Uncle Pasha” at the IAF meet in Qatar and can confirm his credentials as an ornithologist and respected falconer.
It was a nice coincidence that I spotted a falconry bus stop on my way to visit a falconer. My friend and I were driving to visit the hunting legend Abylkhak-Ata at his home outside of Almaty when we cruised past this relic of a Soviet-era regional bus network. “Stop the car!” I shouted. The bus stop is similar to many in the area, made of form-molded concrete slabs that have been painted rather crudely with cheap paint. This falconer has been especially disrespected. The red paint on his lips was laid on so thick that the noble hunter seems to be wearing lipstick.
Welp, that was one big gulp of air. I spent almost five years researching, then almost a year building this stinking website, and it went up in April with all the fanfare I could muster. Then…crickets. While the bugs were chirping I was taking something like a victory lap, except instead of racing around a track I was planted firmly in bed, relaxing to my heart’s content. Yes, there are an awful lot of “Work in Progress” warnings on this site, I thought, disappointed that the 90s had passed and “Under Construction” GIFS are no longer excusable. Those caveats will have to be scrubbed away some day soon with a serious batch of updates. In the meantime, that deep breath I took has done my nerves a lot of good. Thanks for the patience.
The other problem I struggle with, besides smug procrastination, is that this whole thing is still just an after-school hobby — literally. I live in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and to heat the house I work as a full-time English teacher. Most of my students and co-workers have absolutely no idea that I’m an expert in anything beyond irregular verbs. So my falconry research has proceeded in fits and starts at the margins of a busy schedule, a weekend field trip here, an afternoon library visit there, and if my website had feelings it would be sobbing now with a broken heart. Does anybody know a Kazakh oil baron with spare funds for ethnographic research? Because my aspirations remain bigger than my abilities.
What’s on the to-do list? The site itself has a lot of gaps in content and features that have been promised and unrealized. There are little essays I’d like to write for the blog, on eagle hunter souvenirs, and falconry in public art, and Kazakh falconry terminology. Toughest of all is finding the time and funds for travel. I dream of interviewing Uyghurs in China, visiting the “national sports” bureaucracy in Astana, returning to Kazakhstan’s only falconry museum in the village of Nura. All this, I hope, can come together in time. Meanwhile, with this site out in the open for all to scrutinize, I feel like I’ve got to prove I’m making progress, and I hope I don’t disappoint.
I certainly hope that we won’t see another two-month gap in blog posts. In a social media environment that encourages constant self-documentation, a wait that long suggests that there’s nothing worth writing home about, and that can’t stand. But until that sugar daddy with a falconry fascination shows up on my doorstep, this project will lurch along as my free time ebbs and flows. My apologies for the inconsistency, and my brightest hopes for the future.
Until last week, Makpal Abdrazakova was the internet’s favorite eagle huntress, and I played no small part in her fame. I travelled hundreds of miles by train and bus across the flat steppe of Kazakhstan to meet her in her village, do an interview, and take some photos, and when someone shared a particularly devastating image of her and her eagle on the social networking site Reddit, it blew up. She looked stunning, no doubt. Makpal had dressed up for the shoot by wearing a matching ensemble of fur hat and velour jumpsuit, brown and gold and laced with Kazakh ornaments. For most Reddit-users, just this get-up was exotic enough to catch their interest. But it was her weapon of choice, a fierce eagle on her arm, that sparked the world’s imagination. “She looks like a video game character!” seemed to be the consensus from the thousands of people who shared and commented on Makpal’s photo. Which is to say, she looked unreal. She was a fantasy, and the internet ate it up.
Yet the web is fickle with its attention, and some time at the beginning of April, Makpal was dethroned by a fourteen-year old girl from Mongolia. Ashol Pan’s BBC photoshoot went viral in a big way, or it certainly seems that way, as five different friends who don’t give a hoot about falconry all flocked to my wall on Facebook to share the story. The world was captivated by “the world’s only girl hunting with a golden eagle,” captured in stunning photos from the Israeli photographer Asher Sverdinsky. Whereas Makpal’s image was so memorable for its mature intensity, Ashol’s was irresistible for its charm. Even while hunting, she’s shown flashing a perfect white teeth framed by freckled cheeks, a Kazakh Annie. The kid’s adorable. Most importantly, though, Ashol is a feminist’s poster child, a young girl going against the grain and taking up a sport claimed by men. What her cheerleaders back home may not fully realize is just how sensitive an issue gender equality is in this part of the world. Ashol and Makpal have become icons because of their rarity, and they’re likely to remain black swans for the foreseeable future.
The fact is that while these girls are heroes to the Western world, they are dismissed by nearly every prominent falconer I’ve met in Central Asia. Their objections, as I understand them, are not about women hunting. Women falconers from the West have even visited on pilgrimage and have been met with kindness and tacit approval. What they object to, rather, is Kazakh women hunting. It is a knee-jerk reaction based on a traditionalist understanding of society and the sexes. Especially in the rural economy, household labor is rigidly split between men and women. Men herd cattle, take care of finances, and have a greater luxury of recreation and hunting; women herd children, take care of guests, and when free, sew or shop. The vast majority of Kazakhs don’t live in yurts anymore, but they still provide a potent illustration of how codified this gender segregation can be. On the left side of the home was the female domain. There kymyz was prepared, dishes were washed, and so on. The right side of the home, meanwhile, belonged to men. A gun might hang on the wall, or a shepherd’s whip, and on cold winter nights a hunting eagle might be perched in this hemisphere. To the strictest traditionalist, a Kazakh woman taking up an eagle is like a tornado whipping up this delicately ordered feng shui. It’s a serious disturbance in “how things are done.”
A Kazakh friend told me that when Ashol Pan made the news feeds of his local friends, the comments were overwhelmingly supportive. Urban Facebook-goers were no doubt thrilled simply to see a dispatch from their culture on the planet’s front page. Yet there is a serious gradient in Central Asian culture (or perhaps the world over) in conservatism and lifestyle, and the falconry community tends to be more reactionary. It’s quite easy to understand. We have a group of individuals who practice a sport that demands frequent access to hunting grounds, and thus more often than not they live in auls, or rural villages. Moreover, they’ve made a willful choice to practice a lifestyle that represents bygone pastoralism. Living according to the values of the aul and proudly promoting nostalgia, Central Asian falconers are almost preordained to be on the conservative end of the spectrum, and from there the view of eagle huntresses is not a positive one.
The internet will continue to fawn after these striking women. I myself admit that I find their stories irresistible – after all, I somewhat obsessively sought out Ms. Abdrazakova for my original story. But we must remember that a single woman in Kazakhstan and a single girl in Mongolia do not a trend make, and, globalization be damned, there is no wave of Western values that will change the face of falconry here any time soon. Makpal and Ashol appeal to the English-speaking world because they seem to represent a triumph of our modern sensibilities over a traditional world we look down upon. Yet this victory is superficial. To the people that matter the most, however, the falconry community that guard the gates, these girls will continue to find little respect. They will forever be more prized by their fans abroad, supporters they may never know they have.
Many assume that falconry is a solitary sport for loners. A man lives in the country with his bird and secrets it away to the hills for hunting; they provide for each other, man and beast needing nobody else but themselves. But hold on, that ain’t right at all! Falconers love to talk shop, and all over the world they’ve formed clubs and associations and so on, gathering in flocks to share their techniques and show off their birds. Even in Kyrgyzstan, there’s the Salburun Federation, with whom I worked closely, and here in Kazakhstan there’s a group called Kyran. Now, these groups love gathering so much that the groups themselves gather in bigger groups, so that there’s a federation of federations: The International Association for Falconry. Delegates from around the world meet once a year to discuss legislation, promote conservation, and the like – it’s the bureaucratic underside of a subculture that few get to see. I’m proud to say that Central Asians and other former Soviet Unioners are well-represented at these meetings, but few of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks speak any English. And so that’s how I was invited to translate for a gaggle of Russophones at the IAF meet in Qatar. The elite of Central Asian falconry and I, on an international holiday.
For me, the greatest joy of the IAF conference was meeting so many people who shared my passion for Central Asian falconry. The first I have in mind was the lead bird trainer from Almaty’s Sunkar Falcon Center, an ethnic German named Pavel Pfander. Now I call him Uncle Pasha, as he became something like a mentor and a guru. Pasha is not just obsessed with birds but with spiritual enlightenment, and we spent the week in Doha talking about falcons and free will.
Another new acquaintance was Yevgeny Shergalin, the archivist from a project called the Falconry Heritage Trust. With the help of Abu Dhabi-an generosity, Yevgeny has built a website to catalog and share an amazing wealth of falconry artifacts and resources. With my tendency to hoard Kazakh falconry esoterica, I was a great match for Yevgeny, but I can only sympathize with his plight – my task is to exhaustively document falconry in this little corner of the world, while he has set out to cover the planet.
I was pleased to chat up, in rusty Kazakh and more-confident Russian, a young man from Astana named Yerlen Ospanov, an ambitious leader from the Kazakhstan government’s Union of National Sports. Yerlen spent much of his time trailing our Kazakh elder, Abylkhak, quizzing him on history and heritage, and while others were in the conference room listening to delegates’ reports, Yerlen was off to the mosque to pray. His conservatism made him seem quite aloof to the rest of us, but his kindness revealed itself when he invited me to the capital to learn more about how falconry was being promoted by the government of Kazakhstan.
Above all, the chance to meet so many world-class falconers and falconry enthusiasts allowed me to understand just how ignorant I remain about the sport, a topic in which I deign to pursue authority. These were people who had spent their whole lives learning the ins and outs of an ancient craft. Their speech could be so full of jargon I could barely keep up. The first question anybody asked would often be “What bird do you fly”? and I’d have to shake my head in shame and admit I was just an ethnographer, an impostor. In a falconry-mad conference in a falconry-mad country, I was often outmatched, but translating for folks like Yerlen and Uncle Pasha I felt I made my mark.
While at the Salburun Festival in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan in September, I met Bakyt Karnakbaev, a Kazakh falconer who is the Vice-President of the International Association for Falconry. Though he has the task of representing all falconers in Asia, Bakyt was remarkably humble, and he invited me to come visit him at his home in Taraz. It was a ten hour nighttime train ride away, but the wonderful weekend I spent there made it all worthwhile.
Bakyt’s devotion to falconry was apparent from the modest guest room in his home, where we sat to drink tea after my arrival. Custom paintings covered the walls. One, done by our friend Esengaly Sadyrbaev, showed Bakyt kneeling in prayer at sunrise, his tazy dog and goshawk waiting dutifully behind. Bookshelves were crammed with falconry texts and memorabilia, and a canvas was studded with pins and medals from past festivals. Bakyt works as a manager at Kazakhtelekom, but his hobby has metastasized and taken over his life, as falconry almost always does. The centerpiece of the room was a large mat with a perch in the middle, and the mat was covered in birdshit. “My wife’s gotten over it,” Bakyt said with a shrug.
Visiting falconers in Central Asia, one soon understands that their tradition is not the romantic relic that BBC would you have you see it as. Everything changes, from the techniques to the terminology to the equipment. For example, the Kazakh tughyr, or perch, is archetypically shown as a roughly-carved hunk of wood, primitive in appearance and dramatically simple in construction. But Bakyt, leading me into his yard, showed me something remarkably different. Metal rods had been welded into a shape like a stick-drawing of a toadstool. The top curve was tightly wrapped in rope, good for absorbing the pinch of talons, and the stem impaled two spare tires, giving it some weight and stability. To make another perch, he had taken two more tires and settled them atop some kind of upturned stool. His goshawk, meanwhile, was using neither, but sitting on a small körpe, or Kazakh comforter, that had been draped over a clothesline. The tughyrs of 21st century Central Asian falconry did not bow to traditionalism. They were products of convenience and ingenuity.
Bakyt was just as clever in the equipment he used to train his birds. Granted, he did have a pretty standard lure, shyrgha, hanging from the awning of his courtyard – it was a cured fox hide, much like others I seen before. From below that, however, Bakyt rolled out an amazing vision: a dummy deer on wheels. He had taken a mannequin from a local taxidermist and coated it in faux fur, and the deer stood on a rolling cart. Bakyt would put meat on the thing’s spine or its head and have the birds feed off the mock body. This way, they would learn the form and the feel of their prey. A string was tied to some bolted-on antlers, and in the next step Bakyt would pull the mannequin through the yard or the street and beckon the bird to fly after it. He said he had learned the trick from some old-timers, and indeed, people have written about an old technique where hunters place meat in the eye-sockets of deer skulls, to teach their birds to peck their prey blind. Bakyt’s contraption, however, was one-of-a-kind, and he insisted that if I write of it, I make it known that copy-cats would not be welcome.
Though Bakyt was protective of his inventions, he was endlessly generous elsewhere. Later in the weekend, he let me scour his library, and he gave me all sorts of falconry journals, full of his writings. There were some old books I didn’t have, and he gave me permission to take them back to Almaty to scan for the Project. And as we said goodbye, we bid farewell only “until Qatar”, for he had invited me to IAF conference in Doha later in the month. Bakyt’s English was still a work in progress, and I offered to help translate for him and other Central Asian falconers at the meeting. I’m still working out what kind of bigger purpose this Project might ultimately have. The core for me, still, is the documentation – taking photos of unusual perches and giving credit where its due, scanning books and bringing them to a larger world of scholarship. In Qatar, I hope that I can find a new way to make a difference, to be a facilitator for the Central Asian falconry community in its quest to be heard.