Steve Bodio at the controls
Sovereigns of the Sky
In 1995 an old friend, the photographer David Edwards, went trekking in western Mongolia and returned with tales of people "from history, from legend, from myth." He spoke of Mongol sheep feasts, Tsataan who rode reindeer and lived in tepees, Kazakhs who wintered in adobe houses and hunted with eagles. Edwards said that the Kazakhs were hospitable and had eagles in every village. He knew a young Kazakh entrepreneur, Canat, who had learned English in the Soviet army and was willing to guide me. I was ready to go.
Some weeks later I stood blinking in a Mongolian courtyard in the blazing sun of a February morning. The night before, Canat and I had rattled into the village of Bayaan Nuur, in the northwestern province of Bayaan Olgii Aimag, in a Russian jeep. The village was near the home of Canat's mother-in-law, where we were staying, and Canat knew of a master eagler there. The eagler was a shepherd and potato farmer named Suleiman. His eagle, a two-year-old, dozed atop a tractor tire. She was nearly three feet from head to tail, thick and broad-shouldered, black-bodied and touched with gold on her neck. She wore a black-leather hood like those I had seen in the photos (eaglers generally keep their birds hooded except when they are flying, so that the birds will stay calm). Her bill was charcoal-colored and gracefully curved; her feet shone like yellow stone. Pale fluff fanned out over the white bases of her tail feathers. Braided leashes connected heavy sheepskin anklets on her legs to the hub of the wheel. In the bright desert light she glowed like a dark sun, as elegant as a living thing can be.
Suleiman ushered us inside to a brilliant-blue room. In it was another eagle, on a roughly carved tripod. A slender young man entered, carrying the first eagle on his right arm and a similar perch under his left. Canat explained that this was Suleiman's apprentice, Bakyt, who owned the second eagle, and that they were going to give the birds a drink. A child brought in a teapot and some lump sugar, decanting the tea into a drinking bowl and sweetening it while Canat translated. "Suleiman says that it is end of season. He has not flown eagles for two weeks. But tea and sugar give them energy, so they will be hungry and fly." Suleiman put one end of a length of rubber tubing into his mouth, like the end of a hookah, and made a joke ("He says it is the exhaust pipe"). He put the other end into the drinking bowl, sucked up some tea, and then emptied it into the first eagle's mouth. He repeated the process. The bird shook her head but otherwise remained still. "Now he will take the eagle's hood off," Canat said. "She will vomit fat if she has any." Indeed, after a moment the eagle gagged, brought up a little tea, shook her head again, and wiped her beak on the perch. She then "roused," shaking down all her feathers, and looked alertly about, as though a morning caffeine dose and purge were the most normal thing in the world. The other bird got a similar dosing, and we were ready to go.
Back out in the courtyard we found a bustling scene of organized chaos, with elements that spanned many centuries. A camel was signaled to kneel so that its rider could mount. Horses stood waiting as Suleiman gave brisk orders. Hunters slung rifles and shotguns over their shoulders, single-shot twelve-gauge Baikals. Siassi, our driver, fired up our jeep and popped in a cassette; wild Kazakh music with the rhythm of a galloping horse rang out loudly from the speakers. Suleiman motioned toward a ridge about a mile away: we would climb the rocks and sit on top while Suleiman's younger brothers beat the plain below for game. He, Bakyt, and the other riders set off. READ MORE
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