I meet a lot of interesting people: Inventors, basketball players, presidents, deep ocean explorers — the list goes on forever. But recently, I met my first eagle hunter. 75-year-old Sulantanbi. And yes, eagle hunter is an actual job in some parts of the world.
“The eagle is like my son. He only recognizes the person who raises him,” the tall man with the small hat says to me.
I was in Xinjiang, China’s wild west. Sulantanbi is nationally Chinese, but he is ethnically Kazakh. About 200-years-ago Kazakhs started to flee Russia into far western China. Their goal: to preserve their culture and identity. Some say the migration has kept some traditions, like eagle hunting, better preserved in China than in Kazakhstan.
“They were living under pressure form the Russians in Kazakhstan. The Russians had an assimilation policy, so my ancestors migrated here,” Sulantanbi tells me over tea in his house near the Nalati grasslands.
“At that time Russian men married Kazakhstani women. They forbid them from speaking Kazakh.”
Sulantanbi is the 7th generation of his blood line to be born in China and he is in fact proud of his Chinese nationality. Afterall, he’s 75-years old and grew up in a much different China. While his family was able to hold on to some of their traditions, like eagle hunting, their path in China has been far from easy.
“We grew up eating millet and wearing clothes made of sheep’s wool and skin. We had to eat from the same big pot during the Great Leap Forward. All of my family did. At that time they gave us 200 ml corn flour and that’s all we ate for several years. But after the Great Leap Forward, our life became better. It was Deng Xiaoping’s time.”
Today, Sulantanbi raises eagles on the grasslands. Its an ancient tradition that allows Sulantanbi to get food and exotic furs during the long winter months. Sulantanbi tells me, when his eagle is fully trained he will be able to snatch a fox in less than 5-minutes during winter months.
“Eagle hunting started during the times of the emperors. The emperors often went hunting, bringing their eagles and hounds. The emperor’s hunt would last for days and this hunting tradition spread to Kazakh folk life,” he explains to me.
The largest ethnic population in Xinjiang are the Uighur people, the original inhabitants of much of the region. While China’s Kazakhs and the Xinjiang’s Uighur people follow two separate blood lines and cultural paths — they do share some things in common, including their religion. But a growing Uighur insurgency has caused China to tighten their control of the Muslim population. New rules have banned Islamic dress and religious practices.
Rights’ groups say these policies create widespread discrimination and politically marginalize the population.
While the Kazakhs have not been part of violent clashes in the region, China’s anti-Muslim policies have started to effect China’s Kazakhs, causing some to ironically leave China for the same reason their ancestors migrated here.
But not Sulantanbi.
“I was born in China. This is my home. I want to be buried in Chinese soil.”