• Eagle Hunt
    (Xinjiang China)

    The Kazaks have a joke, that if a hunter's father dies on the day of the first snowfall, you can't expect him to attend the funeral: he'll be in the mountains, hunting with his eagle.

    Kazak eaglers anxiously await the first snowfall, because it marks the beginning of their hunting season, one of the few comforts afforded by the bitter winters of the northwest Altai Mountains. From then until the 20th of February, the date chosen to honor the fox's gestation, hunters will take every opportunity to sneak away from the monotony of the household with their regal pets. Across the snow-covered landscape, quarry is tracked and fox fur is thick, ideal for lining coats and making the traditional fox fur hats. The Siberian winters of eastern Central Asia have always deterred outsiders from witnessing this legendary sport as it actually occurs. This past winter, photographer Philipp Engelhorn and I visited China's northwestern Xinjiang Province, its northernmost Altai Prefecture, where the Altai Mountains form a natural border between Mongolia, China, Russia and Kazakstan. While today Kazaks across the borders are mostly sedentary, in Xinjiang many have returned to their migratory lifestyles since the dismantling of the communes in 1985. Among those whose lives still ebb and flow with the seasons, continues the ancient Kazak tradition of hunting with trained Golden Eagles, and so our own hunt for a glimpse of this living relic led us here. Eagle hunting is a refined art form, involving an array of sophisticated tools and techniques that have evolved from father to son since its earliest documentation in Neolithic cave paintings. For these men, eagle hunting is one of the highest expressions of their national heritage. Yet not every Kazak is born an eagler. The sport requires a combination of prowess and tenderness, reverence for the natural world, and above all else, a valiant spirit. Even the changes in values that accompany modernization have not altered these Kazak ideals of honor and manhood.

    One of the region's most renowned eaglers was an 80-plus year-old who had earned the title batur, or warrior-hero, for his exploits fighting with the Soviets at Stalingrad, 1942-1943. We arrived in Aske's village after one day of shoveling a jeepacross the Jungarian Basin and a second day by horse and sleigh up to the Altai's edge. Hours later, the man came riding home. A wooden crutch attached to the saddle supported his right arm on which perched a Golden Eagle, blinded by a leather hood. Under his left arm was a second eagle, hooded and wrapped in a wool blanket. He had caught this eagle while out hunting that afternoon. Spotting it flying over the hills, he laid a net with fresh rabbit meat and waited for it to come feed and entangle itself.

    Inside, Aske stood the wild bird on his gloved forearm. He rolled his arm back and forth to test the bird's balance. He felt its upper legs for muscle mass, then poised his hand in front of the eagle's beak, dodging peaks before snapping the beak shut. "It's a fine eagle.".......>>>>