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Celebrating Horses In Tajikistan's Mountainous Murghab

Posted: 07/23/2012 7:00 am

While most of you spent last weekend tucking into the second half of the baseball season, supporting the world's top cyclists as they descended from the Pyrenees or watching Sonderjyske rout Randers 6-1 in the Danish Superligaen, I was on hand to see the real action in Murghab, Tajikistan, where the Festival At Chabysh was underway.

Each year the French Embassy, The Christensen Fund, and Foundation Kyrgyz Ate hold a cultural and sporting event devoted to the Kyrgyz horse. After a rousing event last year at the base of Peak Lenin in Kyrgyzstan, this year's festivities were transplanted south across one of the world's highest borders to Murghab.

A 19th century military outpost, Murghab sits 3,650 meters above sea level, making this town of 4,000 the highest in the entire ex-Soviet Union. A weekend in a town that might as well be on the moon is as good a way as any to celebrate the "resistance, endurance and sobriety" of the Kyrgyz horse.

Saturday morning arrived with the once-a-year traffic jam on the main road heading southwest out of town. Groups of ten stuffed into Pajeros, women on horseback, pedestrians, and the odd mid-1980s Chevy Astrovan painted like a giraffe headed towards the hills. We arrived to see the whose-who of Murghab. Men slouching on the hoods of the turn-of-the-century Audis and Opels (cracked windshields a requisite) competed for attention with the merchants hawking their wares. The shashlik grills were burning, kymyz was flowing, and the yurts were buzzing with excitement. In other words, we had a stew going.
As ten o'clock approached, crowds gathered behind the fences, forming a 200 meter long corridor on the high alpine plateau in which the horse games would take place. After an evening of close to freezing temperatures, the sun was already high above the snowcapped mountains and the temperature was nearing 35°C by the times the first horses arrived.

After a round of introductions, the games started straight away. First, men competed to pick a rubber ball off the ground at a full gallop by sliding off the side of their saddles. The crowds eagerly watched on both sides as men and boys alike desperately flung their bodies from side to side in hopes of grabbing the elusive balls. The best were able to grab three, swinging their torsos from side to side like a slalom course. The 5,000 meter mountains all around us looked on with approval.

Most competitors were shirtless -- their windswept and leathered faces, in tandem with their young and pale chests provided new meaning to the term "farmer tan." After a string of these topless men, many of whom had emerald and gold sashes tied around their heads, a highlight was the man who appeared to gallop straight from work, flipping from side to side in black trousers, a blue button-down shirt, and spectacles.

Next up was tyiym enmei, which is essentially just horse wrestling. Some matches lasted six seconds and consisted of little more than a slap in the face, somebody falling off their horse and the referee throwing the victor's arm into the thin air. Other matches went on for twenty minutes, with two evenly matched competitors magnificently controlling both themselves and their horses -- one arm grappling with the competitor, a whip in the other hand and the reigns in their mouth. The agility these men showed moving their horses around the pitch while engaged in hand-to-hand combat was truly remarkable.

The final game of the day was the perennial favorite, kyz-kuumai. Girl gets on horse. Guy gets on different horse. Girl starts galloping. Guy follows five seconds after. Guy catches up to girl. Guy kisses girl. Guy wins. In what can otherwise be such a conservative culture, it was exciting to be able to cheer from the sidelines as both competitors galloped past in search of a kiss. From the 5-year-old ethnic Russian boys in tracksuits to the Kyrgyz wise men of yesteryear, their kalpaks tanned from years of dust and sun, everybody just wanted to see a kiss.

The game gets more exciting when the tables are turned on the way back to the finish line, with the women chasing the man. Depending on who is playing, the custom can be for the women to kiss the man, the women to grab the man's hat, or (my favorite) the women to take her horse whip to the man. In any event, we didn't have the opportunity to witness any retribution from the females on this occasion.

It is important to take a minute now to celebrate the Kyrgyz horse. All of these games were played on a total of 12 horses. There had been 20 in Murghab the year before, but after a difficult winter only a dozen remained this summer. The horses showed extraordinary grace and aptitude, being paraded by children at one minute, at a full gallop the next, and being wrestled on after that. Beneath all of the joy that the day brought, there was some sadness: The national pastime couldn't be played because there were too few horses.

Kok boru, or buzkashi as it is more commonly known as, is a cross between polo and basketball, where two teams compete to put a decapitated goat carcass into a goal on either side of a 400 meter long field. There has been a great deal written abou this sport, but before the moral opprobrium sets in it is worth remembering that football was developed in 12th-century England with a pig's bladder instead of a ball. The absence of the game was notable.

By four o'clock in the afternoon, life had reverted to normal in Murghab. A air of celebration still hung about the town, but as spectators packed up their things and moved home, the town regained its sense of isolation which permeates the region every other day of the year. That evening, I walked past a group of boys playing volleyball in a dusty parking lot. The sun was quickly fading, there are no street lights, and the dust muted the already dull shades of grey and blue that everybody was wearing. But through the haze I recognized one of the boys from the games earlier in the day, his emerald sash likely tucked away in a safe spot in anticipation of next year's games.

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