Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Keeping the faith with falcons

On our way to the Charyn Canyon recently, we stopped off at a "museum" in the middle of the steppe to see some eagles. I use the inverted commas for the word because if you compared this to the world's great museums, for example, the National History or the Victoria and Albert museums in London, you would be very hard pressed to justify its use. A more appropriate term might be hovel. Or I suppose if you were feeling kind, you might consider the word shack.

The centre is a place for tourists to view the mighty Kazakh eagles up close, look at some mangy dogs in cages along with their own excrement, pay some money and visit a rather dusty room of curiosities including things like a plastic key ring from London - it is quality stuff. 

We were traveling with a group of families from Almaty on our day trip, and it was striking how people's approaches to the museum differed. Having been hoodwinked into visiting a few of these educational establishments in my time (most notably a particularly horrific turtle and giant bat "museum" in Bali), my natural response to men in silly suits and scruffy signposts alluding to insightful premises is to drive on by.

But some of our party were really keen to get up and close to the birds so in we drove. Baktiyar, our driver, raised an eyebrow, parked the car and got out for a cigarette, chatting to two men in silly suits who appeared at the gates. They had most likely switched off the satellite TV, probably watching premier league football, thrown their Linkin Park T-shirts to the ground and jumped into their weird velvet "falconry" suits in time to magically appear as five expensive landcruiser type cars pulled in, their days wages now assured.

We all trooped in, past a small hawk tied by the leg with a length of fraying twine to a wooden pole. Further in, past the mini-Yurt tent (closed that day, but apparently you can have authentic Kazakh tea there sometimes), we found three large eagles tethered in the same way. One of them was making repeated and apparently distressed cries which noone seemed to  notice. The kids mooched about exploring until one of the men in the suits told them not to wander off in case they were attacked by a dog. 

Then there was a 10 minute photo call for adults to hold an eagle while wearing a fur hat and get their photo taken. This was followed by a flight display. And this was where I really lost faith! 

Having recently been privileged enough to watch one of these mighty birds flying wild in the mountains near Almaty, hear it cry into the wind as it circled, rose and cruised in the thermal air, seeing these poor birds being treated as they were was just pathetic. The flight display consisted of the two men in suits wandering off through a hedge with the whole crowd of us following. Then all 21 of us stood in a line next to a drainage ditch while the men went and stood about 20 metres apart. One held the eagle, the other a small piece of meat. 
The 21 people all had their cameras trained on the bird. Suddenly it was released and in probably less than one second it flew the 20 metres across to the other guy and ate the meat. And that was the flight display. 

We picked our way back through the litter strewn wasteland to the museum, all comparing notes on whether we thought we had "got the shot"! Miraculously, with my crappy camera, I had pressed the button just before they released the bird, and by the time it clicked into action, I did indeed manage to capture the "majesty of flight"! ha ha. 

Before we left it was time to visit the dusty room of artefacts (which took approimately 45 seconds) then pay up our 20 dollars per family, and get back in the cars. 

Kazakhstan's tourism industry has a long way to go!

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