Two generations of a Kazakh family recall a life of partnership with birds of prey
Train K9736 is the only convoy between Altai prefecture and Ürümqi, departing at 7:50 every evening from Fuyun county in the southern foothills of the Altai Mountains. The train runs from the northernmost tip of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to its heart. En route, it passes through key cities such as Kuytun, located in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Karamay, and Shihezi, taking about fourteen hours to reach its final destination. The train is seldom full, and even the most expensive “soft sleeper” class is priced at only 284 yuan.
When I returned to Xinjiang to visit relatives in 2021, a sudden cancellation of my return flight meant I had no option but to board the K9736. The “hard sleeper” class could sleep six people to a cabin, but there was only one other Kazakh guy inside when I got on. We nodded and smiled by way of greeting each other. At dinnertime, I sat in front of the small table to nibble on my mother’s fragrant bean cake while watching a video that a friend from Inner Mongolia had sent me. On my screen, a Mongolian man was hunting with his eagle. My young fellow passenger suddenly broke his silence. “Hey, do you know how to tame eagles too?”
I shook my head and said that this was just a random video. The young man kept talking. “Did you know that there are falconers in Altai as well?” A shy smile followed. “My grandpa and my dad both tamed eagles. Would you like to hear about them?”
Over the course of my long journey, I got to hear a story of mutual allegiance, accomplishment, and partnership between two generations of falconers and the Aquila chrysaetos, a bird of prey more commonly known as the golden eagle, the “empress of the sky.” The narrator of this intricate tale is none other than my fellow passenger, a Kazakh youth named Yerken.
Eagles inhabit most people’s imagination as one of the most ferocious birds of prey in nature, far more powerful than other winged predators and equipped with eyesight able to reach thousands of meters. However, the truth is that both the Mongolian and Kazakh peoples mastered the art of taming eagles thousands of years ago. Past generations of Kazakhs in Xinjiang earned their livelihood from falconry in the exceptionally long and harsh winters of this region.
My people hail from the Altai region in the northernmost tip of Xinjiang. Our extensive history of falconry is intrinsically linked to a rather extraordinary species of eagles, the golden eagle. Dubbed “sky empresses,” they are also known by some as “golden hawks.” The plumage of golden eagles in the Altai region are dotted with symmetrical white markings on their wings. They are huge birds, unrivalled in terms of strength and ferocity. No ordinary eagle can quite match their speed and strength in hunting game. They will readily hunt a variety of prey; mainly hares and foxes, but also roe deer and gazelles.
My family used to own two golden eagles that belonged respectively to my Grandfather and Father. Grandfather was born in the late 1930s, and Father said that he’d started his falconry training in his early youth. Grandfather lived the life of a nomad from the 1940s until the 80s, and my father did not know just how many eagles he trained throughout his life.
Grandfather passed away from illness when I was 2 years old, so naturally I don’t have a vivid memory of him. However, my father often reminisced about him and the very last eagle he ever tamed. After all, he had learned his own skills from Grandfather.
Grandfather had rescued his last eagle from her own nest. Father couldn’t quite remember the exact year, only that he was in his early 20s. Autumn was just around the corner when Grandfather decided one day to take his whole family from one summer pasture to the next across Kaba county. As they passed through the valley, the constant sound of chirping from an eagle’s nest on the cliff caught his attention. He was curious enough that he climbed up to inspect the nest.
Arrogant and rapacious by nature, golden eagles lead a solitary existence. After taking a long look, Grandfather’s careful inspection persuaded him that the mother eagle was probably out hunting, so he took the risk of climbing up to the nest. There, he found two young eaglets. Out of hunger, the larger of the pair was constantly pecking on the smaller one. By sheer force of their instincts, golden eagles will kill and eat their weaker peers. Grandfather realized that the already injured eaglet would soon be pecked to death, so he reached out to check the sex of the bird. Once he confirmed it was a female, he took her in his arms and left. Grandfather’s rationale was that only female eagles were worth domesticating—on average, male eagles are smaller and less willing to hunt prey after being tamed.
Mongolians and Kazakhs both differ in their domestication methods. Mongolians prefer to tame mature eagles, while Kazakhs believe those are much more challenging to tame and are partial to immature eagles. During the fortnight while Grandfather’s family migrated, he took good care of the young female eaglet, gradually nursing her to a full recovery. Sometime after the family settled down at their new pasture, Grandfather initiated the traditional Kazakh domestication process known as “breaking eagles.”
Breaking eagles is a crucial step for a falconer and requires a full set of tools ready in advance. First, you need an “eagle hood” made of cowhide. The eagle is blindfolded with this hood at all times, other than at feeding time and on hunts, to avoid attacks on people or livestock. Secondly, the falconer should also protect their arms from scratches by wearing a pair of leather gauntlets up to the elbows. Leather straps of equal length known as jesses are fastened around the legs of the eagle along a Y-shaped racket cut from birch poles, so that her master can retain her on his gloved fist and the back of his horse.
The process of breaking an eagle can take anywhere from seven to ten days, depending on the bird’s temperament. Some particularly stubborn specimens may even require a fortnight. At this stage, Grandfather put on his leather gauntlets every day at dawn. He would get up, remove the hood from the eagle’s head and walk around with the bird perched on his arm so that soon enough she would get acquainted with her master’s surroundings—Grandfather’s family, dogs, horses, cattle, and sheep.
Eagle taming is no easy task. Even immature birds are sure to resist and attack their master at first. For this exact reason, breaking an eagle is ultimately meant to weaken their combative nature. In the initial stages of this process, Grandfather made sure to offer the eagle very little food. Some falconers actually used to go as far as parting the eagle’s beak to stuff it full of ice cubes. Grandfather kept an eye on the eagle to shake her immediately out sleep spells, so that she wouldn’t have a moment of rest. For the sake of Grandfather’s own rest, the family would even take turns in the middle of the night to replace him for an hour or two. The process was as torturous for the eagle as for the master. Once, there was a falconer who failed to watch his eagle and let her sleep for more than ten minutes on the fourth day of training. As a consequence, the bird started to contest his authority and all his previous days’ efforts went to waste.
Bound together by a prolonged lack of rest, both parties begin to mutually acknowledge each other. From this moment onward, the eagle will no longer attack her master. It was at this point too that Grandfather finally allowed the eagle to eat and catch up on sleep. Kazakhs maintain that a well-rested eagle at the end of this deprivation period will let go of the past entirely and surrender to her master.
Once eaglets hit their first anniversary, it’s time to train them to take off, land, and hunt. There is also a learning curve to hunting. Grandfather started by letting the hungry eaglet catch an injured rabbit for a reward of beef chunks. After a few successful rounds, the eagle was sent to catch an uninjured rabbit. Upon reaching this goal, the eaglet then had to prey upon a fox. Smoothly taking off and landing, sinking a sharp set of claws on a fox’s head with great precision, and bringing all prey back to her master are all markers that an eagle is ready to join her master on the hunt.
By Father’s reckoning, Grandfather’s eagle remained by his side for almost eight years.
Falconers always say that in the winter, eagles raise people; come summer, people raise eagles. Xinjiang summers are characteristic for their lush pastures and plump cattle and sheep; herdsmen do not lack anything for their sustenance in this season. During this prosperous time, Grandfather did not skimp on feeding his golden eagle daily. Sometimes he even took the bird’s cap off and threw a whole chicken inside its shed for the eagle to capture and feast on. Sometimes he would supplement the eagle’s nutrition with beef shank cuts. When dusk fell on the summer pastureland, grandfather got on a horse and took the golden eagle with him for a few laps in order to acclimate her to the feeling of riding horseback.
In the depths of winter, when the temperatures dropped dozens below zero, Grandfather’s golden eagle was his best helper—catching hares, foxes, and other prey in the ice and snow to garnish her master’s winter meals. The eagle’s own winter diet was significantly more frugal than in summer, and mostly consisted of the leftover beef and mutton entrails from the family’s meals. Grandfather washed blood and fat off the tripe with water before feeding them to the eagle. She only had one daily feeding at 70 to 80 percent of her fill, giving her enough nutrition while leaving her strong hunting instincts and body shape intact.
Any falconer worth their salt knows how to feed an eagle. They will also be able to check the eagle’s call, eyes, movement and body shape to see whether she’s is in optimal conditions for hunting. Every year, Grandfather's golden eagle kept the family fed throughout the harsh winter season in northern Xinjiang. In addition to the common prey of hares and foxes, there were also wild ducks, pheasants, roe deer, and wild goats. These animals were also valued for their fur, which could be sold for a rather handsome price in the spring.
Father believes the bond between a falconer and their bird was different to that of a pet and its owner. Instead, it was rooted in mutual cooperation and respect. Father can still recall the wingspan of Grandfather’s golden eagle when she hunted; her wings stretched open at least two meters wide. Sometimes, the sheer force of her wing-beats was enough to stun the prey. Grandfather’s right arm was much stronger than his left, too, because it bore the weight of the golden eagle all year round.
Father himself was a frequent witness to the golden eagle’s hunt. These birds are equipped with sharp talons, which they use to pierce the head or throat of their prey before twisting their necks. Only when they are certain that their quarry is dead will golden eagles return to their master to claim “credit.” With larger prey, such as a roe deer or a wild goat, golden eagles will tear their flesh apart on the ground and eat the internal organs. Then, they will divide the rest into several portions to bring back to their master in batches.
With the development of Xinjiang’s tourism industry, some falconers have branched out of hunting into the far more profitable business of taking pictures with tourists. However, Grandfather adamantly opposed this practice. He told my father that golden eagles are assassins in the sky, not caged pets.
However fierce Grandfather’s golden eagle was when hunting, she never hurt him nor his family—not even once in all the time they spent together. Grandfather decided to release the golden eagle back into nature after she’d accompanied him for eight years. He was getting older, and his nomadic lifestyle had worsened his asthma in the cold winter. His hunting days were over, and although the golden eagle had never attacked anyone in the family, nobody else could have taken over his place as her master. Furthermore, many traditional falconers believed in rescinding the “contract” with their birds after a number of years of loyal service, so that they could soar back to the blue skies where they belonged. On average, golden eagles have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years. It was only right that they spent plenty of this time in freedom.
Grandfather released his golden eagle in the early autumn. He fed her a whole chicken for the very last time before untying her completely and removing her hood. At first, the golden eagle hovered in the air looking for prey. However, when she approached Grandfather’s horse, the bird found that he was not there to reach out his arm as usual. Instead, he had hidden inside his yurt. It took a few attempts for the golden eagle to understand her master’s last command. After circling for a while, the eagle spread her wings and flew into the distance.
In the first snow after winter that year, Grandfather took Father to the sheep pen to feed the flock, only to find two dead foxes and a few hares at the entrance of the yurt. On closer inspection, their wounds had been clearly inflicted by a golden eagle. Perhaps Grandfather’s former companion had feared that her master would go hungry in the cold winter, and returned briefly to “feed” the family.
My father, who was a young adult at the time, understood at that moment the meaning behind the Kazakh saying, “A good horse is hard to exchange for a good eagle.” Though he had never intended to become a falconer himself, from that moment on, he felt a desire to tame his own golden eagle.
After some deliberation and with the passing of the older generation, my parents decided to end our family’s nomadic lifestyle in 2005. We settled in a village in Kaba county and kept raising cattle and sheep. We also rented a few plots of land to plant sunflowers for oil.
There was another significant event that year. In 2005, Father met one of the most significant figures in his life—“Officer Stone.”
Officer Stone, a forest patrolman, owed his moniker to the meaning of his surname, Shi. He sported a perennial tan, courtesy of the strong ultraviolet rays of the northern Xinjiang region he traveled in year-round. He was of cheerful disposition, and spoke Chinese as well as Kazakh. He and his colleagues were responsible for protecting the wildlife in the forest. Sometimes they also served as mediators between the nomadic herdsmen, to help resolve their disputes and maintain public order in the forest region.
Father made Officer Stone’s acquaintance first when he was retrieving lost horses for the locals in the village. Officer Stone patrolled daily in his police car. Sometimes, he would stop by our family house for a bowl of milk tea and some rest. My brother and I were both very fond of Uncle Stone, as we addressed him. He never failed to bring us some small toy on his visits: a little top that spun seemingly endlessly with a whip, a small car that could run for more than ten meters when wound up...For my mother, Uncle Stone usually brought a gift of coarse grains, such as millet and red beans. Kazakhs have no shortage of meat at home, and we had also learned to grow some produce—potatoes, tomatoes, snap peas, and so on. Uncle Stone’s offerings thus complemented our pantry, and he enjoyed the whole family’s warm welcome in return.
Once he was on friendly terms with Father, both men called each other affectionately “Old Shi” and “Old Hai.” This was based on the Mandarin pronunciation of Father’s name, Kairat, which means “firm and strong.” The name suited him well. As my mother was in poor health, Father bore the brunt of the work in our household for many years.
One day, Uncle Stone drove up quite unexpectedly when Father was herding cattle and sheep into a circle. He handed over a golden eagle bundled in an old T-shirt to Father and said, “Old Hai, this eagle suddenly hit my car. Won’t you take care of it for a few days? Some woods down south caught fire, I have to go take a look.” After this, he left immediately on duty, without stopping for a drink of water.
The golden eagle that Uncle Stone had brought seemed to be on the cusp of maturity. She also seemed to be dying. Her eyes were firmly closed, and she barely had the energy to flap her wings. Father carefully inspected the poor bird and found out that the eagle’s wings had scorched marks. The bird had most likely hit electric wires, an unfortunate by-product of the sustained modernization efforts in pastoral areas in Xinjiang after the year 2000. With the numerous new buildings rising up along the mountain trails and highways came the electricity poles where more and more birds met their death by electrocution every year. Father fed the golden eagle with sugar water, sprinkled iodine on her wings to disinfect the wounds, and gently parted her beak to stuff some minced meat into her throat with his little finger. He was far from a professional veterinarian. All that was available to him were the most traditional remedies of the Kazakh people. The rest was up to fate.
Unexpectedly, the golden eagle seemed to have turned a corner the next day. Her eyes were wide open, and Father said that her eager cry was also a good omen. Sure enough, soon the bird was gladly pecking away at the beef cubes that Father brought up to her, and after a while she was feeding normally. This is how a golden eagle came to stay in our house temporarily.
Uncle Stone did not return until about a week later. He eagerly drank the milk tea Mother brought him and ate a whole disc of flatbread before taking a look at the golden eagle. He then suggested that Father kept her permanently. “Just go get yourself a permit when you’ve got some time. That’ll do.” Father was speechless with joy. This accidental rescue had unexpectedly helped him fulfil his falconry dreams.
Mother was an equally strong supporter of falconry. Although she was a traditional Kazakh woman, she had also traveled extensively through pastures. When she talked to us about eagles, gratitude emanated from her face. After all, a golden eagle had spared Mother from tragedy in her youth.
This story happened during the transition from autumn into winter, a fleeting period when the herdsmen would drive their livestock from the pasture to their winter den, build pens for the cattle and sheep, and stock up on everything they needed to survive the long snow season. It was while doing this that Mother and her family encountered a lone wolf. At that time, the men were already ahead with the livestock. Only a few female family members were left behind to bring the rest of the supplies on horseback.
Wolves are rarely seen on their own, and Mother figured the rest of the pack must be around. Everyone started riding faster. The wolf kept its distance, but did not stop following them. When she told this story, Mother said that she was so nervous that her hair stood on end and she was sweating despite the cold winter temperatures. Wolves feared neither horses nor people, and she had no way of knowing when the wolf and its pack would spring.
Then, the shriek of a golden eagle pierced the air. An older woman in the group told Mother, “The wolf’s natural enemy has arrived!”
Because both wolves and golden eagles are carnivores, they are natural competitors. In the summer, water and grass are abundant, and there is no shortage of wild prey. With plenty enough food for both, the wolves and golden eagles call a truce. Winter, however, is much different. With valleys and grasslands in northern Xinjiang muted by a shroud of snow, and animals hiding away from the harsh cold in deep caves, wolves and golden eagles vie for the same nourishment.
Mother knew both creatures were good hunters. However, it was not until later that she learned about the superiority of golden eagles in terms of their wider field of vision and diving power, compared to wolves. Golden eagles are also unsurpassed in terms of attack, as they can strike directly upon their foe. When they prey on wolves, they usually attack from the ground. The golden eagle can fly far faster than the wolf can run. Moreover, their talons can tear directly through a wolf’s fur, sparing them from the danger of their opponents’ teeth and claws. The golden eagle dealt a great deal of damage to the solitary wolf, unable to match her swift and violent attack no matter how fast it ran.
Mother remembered how on that day, before any could react, the golden eagle’s claws pierced into the wolf’s skull. As the bird left the scene with her prey, so was danger lifted away from the women. Later, Grandfather told Mother that the golden eagle may have been domesticated, which would have explained why she did not attack humans. However, Mother always stubbornly believed that golden eagles had a human spirit, and that this particular bird was there to assist them in their moment of need.
This is why Mother was elated to see the golden eagle that Uncle Stone had brought. Though she could not tame eagles, she was very much capable of helping Father care for the injured bird to the best of her capacities.
By the time my father got his own eagle, professional falconers were few and far between. Many Kazakh herdsmen were gradually leaving their pastures and moving to cities to make a living. To a certain extent, the development of modern industries such as mining, wind power development, and tourism have all had an impact on the ecological environment of Xinjiang. With the decline of wildlife, the best days of falconers and their birds are now behind them. Most of the time, they return empty-handed from their hunts.
However, Father regarded this golden eagle as a divine gift. The bird quickly regained her vigor under the zealous care of my parents, and Father stepped on the same road that Grandfather had tread many years ago. Once he got all the relevant permits, Father named his eagle Naizagai, Kazakh for “lightning.” The eagle hood and training equipment from Grandfather’s falconry days were long lost, so Father sewed a brand new set for Naizagai. Then, he started the process of breaking the eagle, following in Grandfather’s steps. Naizagai quickly became a part of our family, and not even Uncle Stone’s occasional visits put her on her guard.
With the ever-increasing influx of tourists in the summer, several falconers have taken to garrison scenic spots with their golden eagles, letting travelers take a photo with them for 10 yuan a snap. Their earnings per quarter range somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 yuan. However, Father was not up for this kind of business. He said he would rather just let Naizagai “rest.” Much like Grandfather, he was adamant that an eagle’s ultimate calling was as a hunter in the sky. My brother and I had both grown up with cattle and sheep, and we even raised a few dogs, but Father’s eagle was a much more exciting addition to our family. We were fascinated with Naizagai and wanted to sleep and eat by her side every day. We were also acquainted with Grandfather’s story and were eager to try our hand at falconry ourselves. However, as willing as Naizagai was to accept our feedings and pets, it was much too difficult for us kids to hunt with her.
It became apparent just how much Father looked forward to winter every year now that he was raising Naizagai. The snow-capped mountains became a primitive playground of sorts for the pair. When they reached the top of the mountain, Father took great care to spot any prey at the bottom of the mountain. No sooner had a hare or fox emerged, he removed Naizagai’s hood and made a rapid and powerful call for the eagle to break free and start her hunt.
Father said that a cold light flashed in Naizagai’s eyes when she spotted prey. She spread her wide wings, stirring the surrounding snow, and aimed for the prey’s throat every time with precision and claws sharper than a blade. Naizagai’s beak promptly ripped apart her prey and killed it instantly. Everything happened fast, like a thrilling silent movie.
Father considered his hunting sessions with Naizagai an adventure as well as an honor. Sometimes, when my brother and I rode on horseback with our father, we felt the excitement radiating from his back when Naizagai returned to his side with our prey. These were the years when Father’s tumake, a rectangular leather hat with a pointed top and two ear flaps traditionally worn by Kazakh males in winter, was made of fur from the foxes Naizagai captured.
In 2014, with the strengthening of wildlife protection laws and the steady decrease in the population of golden eagles, the traditional falconry festival was cancelled for good and there was a ban on raising these birds. Uncle Stone heard of this ahead of time, and warned to “make preparations.”
Indeed, it did not take long for the ban to be formally issued. When we heard that several elderly falconers in neighboring villages had let go of their golden eagles, my father feigned ignorance. Later, folks from the village committee came to our door repeatedly to try and reason with Father. He remained silent, locked Naizagai in her shed, and guarded the door himself. Nobody was allowed to enter.
My older brother had moved away to work in the city by that time. When he heard the news, he also rushed back to see Naizagai again. Mother and I were just as reluctant to let go of our eagle, but we took turns trying to persuade Father. At my school’s biology class, I’d heard many a story from my teacher on the topic of animal protection, and I even once watched the shocking film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol with my class. My main concern was not that Naizagai would be confiscated by the forest police, but rather that poachers would capture her.
Mother looked at things from a different angle. In the spirit of the older generation of falconers, she believed that Naizagai had provided our family with abundant prey in the cold winter, which in turn gave our household nourishment and property. Mother felt we had asked enough from Naizagai, and thus we owed our eagle the greatest reward—freedom.
All in all, Naizagai had stood by my father’s side for almost a decade as his most loyal and familiar friend. It was too difficult for my father to let go of his eagle, like his own father had done. As for his friendship with Uncle Stone, both men had known each other for even longer than a decade. Father had witnessed Uncle Stone growing from a clumsy young cadet into a senior forest patrol-man. It was due to this close, long-time friendship that Uncle Stone knew what Father’s weak points were.
I can distinctly recall Uncle Stone’s visit to our household. He had been missing for almost a month until that very ordinary afternoon, when he came to our home to eat a meal of boiled mutton. Mother had also made bahari and baursakh, two delicacies that Uncle Stone was particularly fond of. On arrival, we noticed he was limping from some injury, but the smile that he reserved for our family was ever-present on his face.
Uncle Stone told Father, “I came here today to say goodbye. I also wanted to try and persuade you one last time. If you don’t listen to me, I won’t nag you anymore.”
Uncle Stone told us that the reason behind his absence during that month was the same as countless other times in the past—poachers. This time, Uncle Stone and his team had been chasing a group of rampant eagle thieves.
The population of golden eagles in the Altai region has been gradually decreasing over the years, so much so that they have long been listed as a protected species. Furthermore, golden eagles are also listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. However, poachers’ interest in golden eagles has been on the rise. There is no shortage of folks willing to buy golden eagles at any cost, alive or dead. Poachers once secretly sold golden eagles to restaurants in the south for tens of thousands of yuan, claiming the birds’ stomach was a “miracle medicine” for gastrointestinal issues. Such nonsensical claims have brought death to countless golden eagles.
Brutish poachers prefer to hunt golden eagles in winter, when their plumage is healthiest and their coats boast the most beautiful colors. If the golden eagle is caught alive, poachers will poke her eyes out with a needle to render her blind and defenseless. Any resistance from the eagle would damage her plumage, therefore impacting her market price. Many buyers want to have the golden eagles stuffed for display. In their eyes, these “divine birds” of the Kazakh people are talismans that will bring them power and good luck. Golden eagles caught and kept alive are also smuggled overseas and sold as pets to wealthy buyers in the Middle East, where they are regarded as a definite symbol of power due to their ability to kill wolves.
Over the years, forest policemen have never given up in their fight against poachers, but these criminals’ thirst for high profits is never sated. Poaching has become rampant in the two years following the breeding bans. Golden eagles are frequently stolen from Kazakh villagers, often winding up as specimens for display or prized ingredients in broths and stews.
Uncle Stone tapped on his leg and said to Father, “I’m getting old, too. That stab wound I got years ago while on duty cut deep, you know? It hurts when it’s cold. My daughter keeps begging me to retire this year. Old Hai, I’m going back to my hometown in the south. Think on it, OK? Think of what’s best for Naizagai.”
Dinner that night was a farewell feast for Uncle Stone. Father slaughtered a sheep, and Mother cooked a big pot of soup and rice. Shrouded in the aroma of the fragrant food, the pair of old friends whispered to no end as Uncle Stone’s speech gently thawed the stubbornness in my father’s heart.
Uncle Stone took one final look at Naizagai before departing. He reached to touch the plumage on her wings, which bore no trace of the scorch marks from long ago. He turned his head and beamed at Father. “When I found her on the roof of my car, I thought she was a dead magpie. Look at her now. Old Hai, you took such good care of her.”
The night before Naizagai’s scheduled departure, my brother came back from the city. The two of us sneaked into Naizagai’s shed in the middle of the night and took off her cap. Even at night, Naizagai did not let her guard down, flapping her wings until she could ascertain who we were. My brother appeased her with a gift of cooked chicken liver, which made her very receptive to being petted after her meal.
Our voices overlapped in the night. “Dad’s going to be really sad when Naizagai’s gone.”
“Wanna get him a pony? Maybe a dog?”
“Forget that. If it has legs, Dad’s already raised it. No animal’s ever going to live up to Naizagai.”
On the day Naizagai was released, Father deliberately rode into the forest away from the roads, so that his beloved eagle would be far away from electric wires and poachers. The more they plunged into this sparsely populated no man’s land, the safer Naizagai would be. The mountains with their deep nestled caves would become her safe haven.
Summer in northern Xinjiang is a wealth of bright, vivid greenery beneath a blanket of clear blue skies. Naizagai had already enjoyed a feast before going out in the morning, so she didn’t have much of a desire to hunt. Father took off her hood and loosened her jesses while she stood firmly on his right arm. He then raised his hand, blowing a high whistle. Naizagai spread her wings and circled over our heads for a few times before quickly flying back to her usual position on Father’s horse. He tried twice again, and each time Naizagai flew back. Father put his arms close to his body to keep her from landing, and every time Naizagai flew toward him, clumsily yet deliberately.
Kazakh people believe that if a golden eagle keeps flying toward a person, they will experience good fortune in the near future.
I rode behind Father, watching him let Naizagai take off again. This time, she turned around and went in the opposite direction, just like the golden eagle that Grandfather had released many years ago. Naizagai was very smart; she had finally understood Father’s intentions. After circling a few times, she flew farther and farther, soaring into the bright, distant dome of heaven. Soon, she was gone.
At that moment, I was invaded by this memory of my childhood, when I heard an elderly man explain that some herdsmen will release their old horses back into nature, so that they may follow the law of life and the natural cycle of reincarnation that comes along with it. Leading their old horses, these herdsmen climbed one mountain after the next, until the horses could no longer recognize the way back home. Only then would their owners ride away.
Father’s eyes were red and swollen after we made it back home that day. He had always honored the strength embodied by his name. I had never seen him cry, not even when Grandfather had passed away.
Eventually, Father got used to the absence of eagles from his daily routine, much like other falconers around him. Whenever he missed Naizagai, he went on a horse ride deep into the forest, where he could always spot soaring eagles. As reluctant as he had been to part with Naizagai, he was even more wary of the risk of her being poached if she’d stayed.
Before leaving Xinjiang for good, Uncle Stone had praised Father as a loving and righteous master. Father had smiled at his words and replied, “I was not her master. She was my family.”
Eagles embody freedom and pride in the eyes of the Kazakh people, who believe them to be the one and only divine bird that can stare at the sun without being burned. My people and I count ourselves lucky to have enjoyed their company over the course of our long lives.
Our family never raised another eagle, but I still occasionally dream of Naizagai. In my dreams, she hovers over the mountains and grasslands, eternally engaged in a fight with her prey. Falconry is destined to become a beautiful, legendary relic of the past. However, I hold hope that golden eagles will always fly in the sky above the heads of the Kazakh people.
Names have been changed in the text.
Written by Qin Yue (覃月)
The Last Falconers in the Altai Mountains is a story from our issue, “Public Affairs.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.