As the bus hit yet another bump in the road I was catapulted upward and although it was with a jaw jarring force, it was nothing compared to the impact my buttocks received on landing back in the seat.
I was accompanied by my trusted guide, translator and friend Jane Yeo and we were making our way south to Poyang Lake in Jangxi provence. At first I found it amusing to witness a bus load of passengers all launched from their seats in unison, but as it became repetitive it also became uncomfortable.
As usual we were snug and well packed, for this fifteen seater had at least twenty five passengers. As it slipped and slided on the mud covered road, I was less worried about rolling off the road and into the marsh land, than hitting one of the extra big bumps in the road.
While Jane continued to munch her way through a large bag of nuts without loosing any, I just let my mind wander.
We were heading for the lake in the hope of going fishing, I had thought their still might be some fishing families left living around the lake who managed to make a living from their trained cormorants. It is a dying art in China in these days of massive production growth, but it is a skill not unlike falconry and I love to seek out the last genuine fishermen in these remote village communities.
Although the purpose of this long arduous journey southwards was to go fishing, I had just spent a couple of the previous days pie hawking in one of major the cities.
Falconry in China is one of those pursuits that does not have the full blessing of the Central Government. Those that practise falconry do so wary of the suspicion of any strangers taking notice of them. It can be very difficult to find anything about falconry in China, and then earn the trust of anyone with any knowledge of falconers in any area visited.
After many trips to China, I have made many friends from the far north to the south west and I have enjoyed their hospitality and shared their love of hawking.
Lü is an athletic student and attends the city college, in fact he is a weight lifter and not the first person I would have expected to fly a “Qi xiong” or Sparrow Hawk. I met him in a bustling market with his fine female spar on his bare hand. She was a haggard hawk and had been trapped just a few weeks before, but like all Chinese hawks she was as calm as any of the finest imprints of the west.
Unfazed by anything she lived in Lü’s dormitory in college and he often hawked her around the playing fields and tennis courts.
Lü has a gentle temperament, with a smiling outlook on life and I soon felt a bond of friendship quickly develop between us. When he asked me to accompany him hawking the very next morning I knew he had felt the same and trusted me.
He had that days bag in his pocket, a black and white magpie, just like the pies we have here in the UK. Lü was pragmatic and hunted the most numerous and available quarry in his vicinity. This included the magpie and the Bluepie, these are slightly smaller than their black and white cousins and a bit more gregarious.
The ubiquitous bicycle was Lü’s form of hawking transport, not that he needed it because the pace that he proceeded at was slow and observant. It was more for the fact that most quarry takes little guarded notice of a human on a bicycle.
We cruised the perimeter of the college tennis courts and studied the position of the magpies. We weighed up their possible escape route to determine if the spar could obtain enough surprise before a pie made the sanctuary of cover.
Our main problem was the high perimeter chain link fence, our feathered assassin would have to clear this first, she might as well be fitted with a siren for amount of surprise that would be left once she flashed over the top.
We decided to leave those tempting magpies in the safety their fenced enclosure and look elsewhere. As we biked down the highway, Lü nudged me and nodded towards a line of trees, I could hear some chattering from the canopy as we passed.
The strategy was to mark the quarry, bike on passed, stop and prepare the spar and then casually return. The spar sat quietly hooded on Lü’s hand as he biked, when we readied her, we removed her hood and Lü placed her in the palm of his hand and gentle gripped her wings. She was now ready to be thrown like a spear. A light thread from a woven ball was fastened to her jesses, this ball of thread was contained in a bamboo basket strapped to Lü’s throwing wrist, (It is called a Zai Wo Zi). When the hawk paid out all of the thread, it was not fastened to Lü in anyway, it just drifted behind the hawk, without snagging it seemed !!.
With the spar prepared for attack we returned, this time I cadged a lift on the back pannier of Lü’s bike so I was camera ready. We slowly pedalled up the busy highway, armed and ready, as we came near the trees a group of Bluepies took flight as soon as the spar was launched.
The pies shot straight up into the trees as did our spar, and what a commotion this lot made. As we followed the action and noise under the trees, I noticed that none of the passer-by pedestrians took the slightest bit of notice of what we were up too.
The noise reached a crescendo and our spar burst out of the canopy with a foot full of bluepie tail feathers.
With another victim spotted we again started our approach run, two on a bike. This time it was a black and white pie on the grass and fairly close to cover, well what the heck it was worth a go.
Lü launched the spar and she held her wings shut as his weight lifters muscle propelled her at speed. When she felt the momentum ease she kicked in with a blur of her wings and was within yards of the pie before
it was aware of her attack. Lü and I were off the bike in unison and sprinting across the grass to assist our spar with her prize.
I watched Lü make in to his hawk and assist her break in to her quarry, a practise that all Chinese falconers do with a great deal of care and ritual.
I have watched many of them assist their goshawks break into hare quarry, the falconer would take out the stomach contents with bare hands and hand feed their hawk with heart and liver. Then pick up the hawk from the quarry with a blood soaked bare hand and continue hand feeding up.
I made my way down to the side of the Lake and climbed into a small wooden canoe type boat with Yang Shuyun. His four cormorants perched on the sides of the boat until we were further out and ready to start fishing. Then Shuyun pushed each one in turn into the water and they dived within seconds, soon they were bringing back fish to the boat.
Hawking and fishing in the same week and both methods using trained birds, this beats laying in the sun on a crowded beach. Well it does for me anyday.