A POSTCARD FROM KYRGYSTAN, THE LAND OF ULAK TYRTYSH

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Think polo. Add a freshly slaughtered and disembowelled goat carcass. Grey, and headless, and stuffed with grass to give it a nice plump shape. Think rearing horses foaming at the mouth, yelling riders, whips and dust. Big ruddy-cheeked horsemen with outrageously wide shoulders led on a merry chase down the valley, across the river and back, suddenly charging in our direction so that we must quickly scramble further uphill. Think leather Soviet-era tank helmets that confer more status than safety, and padded shin guards strapped over sturdy leather boots. The mass of horses jostling for position is enough to shatter bone. Sometimes the horses lose their footing and take the riders down with them. Think skill, and sweat, and testosterone-soaked competition.

Grab the carcass, sling it over your horse, hooking your legs over it to keep it in place. Push and shove and yell until you make it out of the throng – it helps if your horse is in a biting mood.

You’ve made it out. Now ride, ride as fast as you can to get away from the galloping horde kicking up dust in pursuit and fling the carcass into the goal.

One theory traces the Central Asian game of ulak tyrtysh, or buzkashi as it is known in Afghanistan, back to Genghis Khan. His horsemen played it to refine their riding skills, though they preferred to use the bodies of their fallen enemies as the ball.

Today’s game is a small friendly tussle, with around a hundred horsemen leaving and entering the fray at random, yet its more savage moments still offer a glimpse into the violent past it stems from. It is unlikely that there will be any casualties today, I am reassured.

The event had been organized by Muhammad, a cheerful mountain of a man, in honour of his father’s 75th birthday. When asked who his favourite contender is he beams and points at his own barrel chest.

A sudden downpour makes us run for cover, but the horsemen continue with their ancient game as the water cools down their horses, the dust turns into mud and the river swells with rain.

-K

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