Here in this high valley, the oldness whispers. The wind and snow stinging my cheeks know nothing of Christmas. These Kazakh families are Muslims descended from Turkic tribes, the khans who ruled Central Asia in about 1460.
The valley sweeps beyond what I can see. There are no fences or roads at all. The specks on the mountain slopes—herds of goats or yaks—stretch out and come together like flocks of birds flying.
In the stone enclosure next to me, goats with snowy coats shift and bleat. Dung is drying on top of the stone wall. Inside the house an older woman in a tight scarf and her sweet daughter in law pass bowls of milk tea to us while her husband sings songs.
We stay in cozy gers of white felt, with frames of willow and birch. Above our beds, the women have hung furs as decorations near each bed: wolf, fox and beech marten.
This is an eagle hunter’s family. For hundreds of years, the men have captured young female golden eagles and trained them to hunt, just as our Elizabethan ancestors hunted with falcons and hawks. After 7 years they release them again to the wilderness. It’s not a living. Their herds support them, and the men practice the ancient hunting technique as part of their old traditions.
One brilliant blue afternoon we go out on the mountain to hunt with the men. We’re at about 9,500 feet and the wind is harsh and cold, so we pull scarves over our faces. Today the hunters are on foot because we guests cannot ride well enough to keep up. Usually they ride horses on the rough slopes. Loose rocks cover the ground in uneven patterns. Just walking is difficult; running seems impossible.
With us are two hunters. Each carries an 18-lb golden eagle on his arm. There are several beaters too who spread out in the lower valley to scare foxes out of hiding. The hunters run down a treacherous slope and up over a ridge. They pause, squatting, watching the grey and tan slope for movement.
Someone spots a fox.
With a shout, the hunters jump up and pull off the eagle’s leather hood. She cries out. Normally she would take off, and the hunters would race behind her. But this time, even though she senses the excitement and screams to fly free, the hunter does not see the fox and pulls her hood back on.
An hour passes. We run behind the hunters, gasping for breath, tripping and stumbling as we try to keep up. The Kazakhs dash along the treacherous slopes like children playing.
It’s a brilliant moment made of high sky, mountain stones, sun, fine air, cold wind, pounding hearts and cramping muscles.
Usually, the eagle dives for the fox and does battle on the ground. The trapped animals snarl and bite, and if an eagle is bitten, she may die. The hunters sprint to help with the kill, knives out, trying to sever the backbone, to kill the animal quickly and keep the eagle safe.
This time there is no kill. The fox hides and the eagle stays on the hunter’s arm. We run again. I can feel my shirt wet against my back. I lean over, gasping.
Up another slope into the sun, along a ridge, and then we wait again. We run again. Another hour passes. We squat and wait. The beaters shout again. We dash along another ridge, trying not to fall, running, stumbling. I have never felt such wild exhilaration.
Far below, a beater shouts. While we were running ahead, the fox doubled back and ran like hell in the opposite direction. We’ve lost him.
We come down the mountain, tired and happy. I am wet to the skin, and my legs are shaking. In all my life, there has never been such a day.