Text and photographs by He Yihong
With falcons on their shoulders, a cavalry of Kyrgyz hunters patrols the bushes and rocks of the dry, desolate desert. A gray rabbit scampers across the ground, almost invisible with his camouflaging fur matching the soil. Still, the sharp hunters’ eyes don’t miss the quick movement. The captain gestures to the rest of the squad, and they quickly surround the prey. Sensing the impending danger, the rabbit hops up, attempting a last-second escape. At the same moment, though, the hunters urge their horses on, kicking up a cloud of dust from the dry ground. The falcons dive towards the fleeing rabbit and one quickly seizes the animal with its powerful claws.
In Akqi, a small border county hidden deep in western China’s Tianshan Mountains, the tradition of falconry lives on after being handed down across the generations.
A Family of Falconers
When I visited the county in early 2010, the winter hunting season was already near the end. Locals primarily hunt in winter because it is easier to track animals with footprints in the snow. Additionally, falcons shed some of their feathers in summer, which slows them down. I stayed in the home of Makaner Bieke in Yalangqi Village, more than 10 kilometers away from the county seat of Akqi. His seven brothers also call the village home.
In years past, the Kyrgyz led nomadic lives. Their skill to train falcons has been handed down from generation to generation within the ethnic group. On horseback, their ancestors scaled snow-capped Kokshal and Karateki Mountains to set their falcons free after their appreciated service concluded. With the help of the birds and hounds, they hunted wild animals such as rabbits, pheasants and foxes. In recent years, locals have begun to settle down and find careers outside of hunting. For instance, several of the Bieke brothers have full-time jobs in the county seat: Rouzhahong Bieke once acted as the director and organizing secretary of the county’s Defense Department, Aishan Bieke is the vice president of Akqi People’s Hospital, and Kanjiahong Bieke is a driver for the county’s Tourism Bureau. Still, falconry remains an indispensible custom in many local households.