Hunting with golden eagles is a traditional art of the Eurasian steppes, particularly defined as “Horse Riding Falconry” or “The Eagle Falconry” in Central Asia. Professional hunters from Kazakhstan call the practice berkutchy or kusbeguy.
Berkutchy is a life’s profession, and is often a hereditary one. The relationship of the bird and its master is constant and all-consuming. In the training of a young eagle, the berkutchy must sacrifice his sleep for a long period. For weeks, the growing bird is rendered sightless under its hood until its dependence on its master becomes complete. Such intimacy must turn into a lifelong trust with the eagle – twenty years or more. It is said that as the man trains the eagle, so does the eagle train his man. There is a proverb here : “There are three things a real man should have: a fast horse, a hound, and a golden eagle.
And here it was, in Medeu, in the outskirts of Almaty. The winter sports facilities here are good enough for Almaty to have made an (unsuccessful) bid to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The settlement of Medeu, at 1700m, is a scattering of buildings around the huge Medeu ice rink, 10,500 sq-metre. Built in 1972, is made for speed skating and many champion skaters have trained here.
“i used to ice-skate here every sunday”, explains a local, in her fifties or so. “But nowadays, nobody is interested in skating anymore”. Why that, do I ask, naively. “Well, you know, computers, screens, and stuff…”
From Medeu, the road climbs further to the surprisingly swish Chimbulak ski resort, with a vertical drop of 900m and a variety of ski runs for all levels. The ski season runs from about November to April.
It takes three lifts to reach the Talgar Pass at around 3200m. On the other side : Kirghizstan ! When I was on the north shore of the Issyk-Kol Lake, I could see those mountains. And as the driver was saying : “Behind those trees is Kazakstan”, I was imagining that : ice, wind, hawks…