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Eagle Dreams – Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia – by Steve Bodio

Posted By John Holt On April 11, 2007 @ 12:00 pm In China,Non-Fiction Reviews,Travel | No Comments

Eagle Dreams – Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia
by Steve Bodio
Lyons Press, 256 pp.
CLR Rating:

Bright Moments In a Strange Land

The image of a fierce Mongol horseman riding the harsh plains of his native land with an enormous eagle perched on one arm, the two of them searching for prey that includes fox, hare and even wolf is one that has haunted writer Steve Bodio for decades. In Eagle Dreams Bodio writes with passion, lyricism and competence about the fulfillment of this life-long desire – a quest triggered by an image he saw in National Geographic in the fifties, a curious photograph of a Kazakh nomad, dressed in a long coat and wearing a fur hat, all the while holding a huge eagle on his fist.

Bodio, an accomplished falconer and author of books that include Aloft, A Rage for Falcons and the extraordinary Querencia, lives in Magdelena, New Mexico with his wife Libby. It is there that he finally, with Libby’s help, pulled all the pieces of his avian predatory puzzle together a few years ago after untold hours of planning, scheming, and, of course, dreaming far into the lonely late nights, occasionally over a glass or two of whiskey, often while roaming the beautifully surreal landscape of his home. How he pulled off his first trip to Mongolia is an interesting tale in its own right as it accurately portrays the troubles mid-list writers must overcome to not only complete books but also to merely make ends meet. Magazine assignments hinted at then withdrawn. The same with book deals. And finally an editor interested in his quest.

To say that this book is captivating and composed with skill and energy is pushing the limits of understatement. Consider this passage:

In morning light, the riders make three black silhouettes above a blacker crest of volcanic rock. Their fur hats, crested with feathery plumes, are not of our time. At each horseman’s right side sits another figure, not human, head as high as the rider’s, giving them an oddly unbalanced look.

Widen the focus and the country instantly reduces the humans and their companions to insignificance. To the east, our right, the ridge rises in sharp edges into walls and blocks and masses of white until it is lost in clouds of snow, though the sun shines brilliantly in a pale sky. To our left, the ridge juts into a broad pass, braided for two miles with tracks and ruts leading north to the little city of Banyan Logia thirty miles away, south into the Altai mountain range. Across the pass rise hills, ridges. Finally more mountains on the far western horizon. There isn’t a tree, green twig nor human habitation in sight.”

Bodio takes the reader along for a riotous cruise through the heart of far western Mongolia, a rugged land of canyons, barren hills and sheer mountain ranges located between Siberia and China. Contacts are made with various individuals who actually hunt with eagles, but as they say, timing is everything and the author arrives towards the end of the hunting season when the birds’ owners are pretty much through with their efforts and the eagles are not in fighting trim – well-fed, not recently flown, out of shape. While this is an obvious disappointment during his first trip to a landscape he frequently compares to the high plains of Montana – his photographs confirm the similarities – Bodio is not discouraged. During numerous lengthy and rough cross-country trips he engages in conversation with his new-found Mongol companions learning much about their sport their way of life and their outlook on existence.

There are even longer episodes in the locals gers (tent-like structures not to be confused with yurts as is quickly pointed out) where the author engages in conversation with individuals with names like Canat, Sailanhan, the late R. Sulieman (one of the country’s premier eagle flyers) and Bolatbek over broiled meat (often sheep), fermented dairy products, numerous cigarettes and fair quantities of vodka. Vivid descriptions of the living quarters, social interactions and the birds bring this little-known, marvelous place to life. There is a subtly humorous episode where Bodio is wracked with pneumonia-like symptoms and the local cure, one that worked and swiftly, involves wrapped raw steaks around his chest and covering the entire twisted mélange with a plastic garbage bag. Bodio will never be accused of armchair traveling or fear of getting his feet wet in foreign milieus.

Eventually on a return trip with Libby he finally participates in a successful hunt and his dream is realized. And while this obviously meant a great deal to the author and for the integrity of the book, the strength of Eagle Dreams resides in the telling, particularly when he turns his talents loose describing his surroundings as in this description of the city of Ulaan Baatar.

Out in the freezing night, my mind flipped over. It came to me in my alcoholic buzz that this was more than the home of an ancient culture: it was a road map to the next century, an enjoyable but disconcerting nightmare, like a cyberpunk novel. Out in the freezing, black-fogged streets the tenth century passed through a mosaic of 1950s Russia and the Twenty-First. Soviet cars, Chinese Jeeps, and black-windowed BMWs and Mercedes roared past ponies on their way to eighties Eurodiscos with mirrored balls and restaurants glowing with silken tents. Ulaan Baatar was Stalinist sculpture, Japanese sedans, e-mail, and expatriates. The air stank of dung, exhaust, coal smoke, and piss, embedded in a fog so cold it froze your lungs. It was medieval: it was science fiction. And – I had to admit – I loved it.

When Bodio’s up to speed he doesn’t write pose, he composes poetry. Eagle Dreams is an honest, mordant and lyrical glimpse into a land and a way of moving through time that has all but vanished from the planet.


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