CHENGELSY GORGE, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - When it snows on the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan, hunters saddle up and gallop off with eagles on their arms in search of prey.
The men follow the animal tracks in the snow then release their giant eagles into the air to snatch up foxes and rabbits.
“Hunting is my life,” said Baurzhan Yeshmetov, a 62-year-old man in an embroidered velvet tunic, his eagle perched on his arm staring menacingly into the foggy hills.
“This eagle is my life,” added Yeshmetov who, when not hunting, works as a taxi driver in Kazakhstan’s financial center Almaty.
Many in Kazakhstan see eagle hunting as a symbol of their nation’s nomadic past and a throwback to an oft-romanticized era before these steppes turned into a geopolitical battleground between competing regional powers Russia and China.
Two decades of economic growth that followed Kazakhstan’s independence from Moscow’s rule in 1991 have also created a generation of young Kazakhs whose search for a new identity has led them to look deeper into history.
“In Soviet days all of this was forgotten because everyone had to believe in communism,” said Dinara Serikbayeva who runs an eagle-hunting museum in the village of Nura.
Speaking in the Soviet-built House of Culture building where functionaries once lectured villagers about a fast-approaching communist paradise, she said eagle hunting has turned into a symbol of this new quest for identity.
“Kids once again think it’s cool. It’s an essential part of our nomadic ancestry and we are extremely proud of it.”
Called berkutchi in Kazakh, professional eagle hunters number only about 50 in Kazakhstan — a vast nation that has used its oil wealth to transform itself from a sleepy Soviet backwater into a modern consumer society.
They often gather in the icy hills on the Kazakh border with China — far from cities like Almaty, bustling with luxury cars and wifi cafes — to determine whose eagle is the best.
The Kazakh eagle is one of the world’s fiercest, with a wingspan of 6.6 ft, razor-sharp talons and the ability to dive at the speed of an express train — up to 190 mph.
During a Dec 5 tournament, a panel of juries watched with unsmiling faces from a hilltop as hunters, clad in fox-fur hats, unleashed straps and sent eagles into the air.
Villagers prepared kebabs in open-air barbeque stands, loudspeakers blared folk songs, and tourists with binoculars and fluorescent outdoor gear stared in wonder.
Eagle hunting was largely banned during Soviet rule and the tradition would have disappeared altogether had it not been preserved by ethnic Kazakhs in China and Mongolia.
More than a million Kazakhs took their skills to their graves during a Soviet-inflicted famine in the 1930s when Josef Stalin’s forced collectivization campaign erased entire villages in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia.
“Hunger, repression, collectivization. People had no time to worry about their eagles,” said Yepemes Alimkhanov, a government official in charge of reviving national sporting activities.
“It was a tragedy. But the tradition is coming back. Our sons and daughters have inherited it,” he said.
The number of trained eagles in the village of Nura alone grew to 30 from just two since 1990. Indeed, everything in Nura seems to revolve around the practice. Even the village bus stop sports a large mosaic of a flying eagle.
On the eve of a recent competition, families gathered inside their huts for a festive meal, serving the national dish of chewy meat and greasy dough. They talked about eagles.
“This year of course no one has money, it’s crisis time,” said Bagdat Muptekekyzy, a tournament organizer. “It is hard. But we’ll do anything to keep our hunters flying their eagles.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Angus MacSwan