Across Asia from West to East in 1906-1908

Carl Mannerheim is that strange anomaly, a future head of state who happened to also mention the tradition of Kyrgyz eagle hunting in his memoirs. Mannerheim is now considered the father of modern Finland, but he was born into the Russian empire and rose in the ranks of the Imperial Russian Army. At the age of forty, in 1906, he was asked to make a surreptitious journey through Turkestan to Beijing, disguised as an ethnographer, in order to collect information for the possible Russian invasion of Xinjiang. We must rejoice at Mannerheim’s choice of an alter ego, for he subsequently left a wealth of fascinating ethnographic information, with photos and observations galore.

His diary was not published until 1940, for “want of time.” In the entry for March 9th, 1907, Baron Mannerheim writes of a short jaunt south of the city of Aksu, in Chinese Turkestan or modern-day Xinjiang. There, in a village called “Khotan Kimässi”, he remarks on his first sight of a hunting eagle:

We spent the night in a more than usually miserable hut. The village consists of five houses built partly of lumps of clay, but otherwise only of sticks and branches with no clay at all or very little. They are only inhabited in the winter by some Qaratalliks, who bring their cattle here and return in the summer to kill their plots of field. From the style of building, however, you would sooner take the houses for summer than winter quarters. Some fishing is done here; in two of the huts there were nets reminiscent of our warping-nets. An eagle was chained to a perch in front of one of the huts. A leather cap drawn over both his eyes quells any desire to hunt at an unsuitable time. -p. 166

The area in general was called Qaratal by the locals, and it was common in that time for people to be called not according to any ethnicity but according to their locality (Kashgarliks, for example). The form of nomadism described differs from the usual Kyrgyz pattern, but it’s hard to say from such little material whether this eagle could be said to be trained by a Kyrgyz, a Uyghur, or whichever; it’s better to just leave it at “Qaratallik.”

After continuing northwest in the direction of Gulja and staying with communities of Buddhist Kalmyks, Mannerheim arrives on May 13th at a “Kirghiz camp at Kharosun.” The camp is placed near the Aghias gorge, which remains obscure, but the Kirghiz are said to summer in the Tekes valley, a region shared these days between east Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang. In Kharosun, Mannerheim stays with a local leader who shows his respect through the appointment of a guardian eagle:

My host, who is the judge among a population of 100 yurts, had put up a very well furnished kibitka for me. A huge dark-brown eagle, trained to hunt, had been placed at the entrance as a sentinel in my honour. My host said that he hunted wolves with this eagle. (p. 233)

Mannerheim even took a photo of the eagle security for posterity.

“An eagle trained for hunting, placed as a guard of honour outside my yurt in the Kirghiz camp on May 13th” Photo on p. 234