This one’s for those who expressed interest in the crazy guys on horseback wrestling over the dead goat referred to here: this was none-other than that most Central Asian of games, buzkashi.
The name translates, more or less, as “grab the goat”, which pretty much sums the whole thing up. A goat is slaughtered and the head removed; the carcass is then soaked in cold water overnight to toughen it. The next day, several dozen horsemen assemble and fight over it. I think there’s a method for goal scoring in there somewhere, but lets face it, that’s not especially important when you are engaged in serious horseback wrestling. Enjoyed primarily by the historically nomadic Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Tajik people (indeed, Kyrgyz evening TV schedules give pride of place to a buzkashi Match of the Day, complete with interviews inarticulate players, grumpy managers and overly groomed commentators), my announcement that I was going to a game was met by blank looks by my Uzbek colleagues, who eventually admitted that this might be something that “those odd people in the mountains do”. Indeed, the playing field was a plateau set in a mountainside outside a village miles from anywhere, almost on the Tajik border. We were deposited by our rickety-lada-driving taxiste on an icy footpath, and immediately had to fling ourselves out the way of a hundred or so horsemen hurtling past on a detour from the field of play. Rule one of buzkashi seems to be that the game is wherever the goat is.
The spectators had ranged themselves across the hillside among dozens of makeshift barbeques and snowdrifts sprouting cooling vodka bottles. The horsemen (and yes, they were all men) ranging in age from six to sixty (and the rule was not necessarily one man, one horse) hurtled around the field below, caked in mud and slush. Every so often, the guy with the goat would decide that playing on the field was cramping his style and make a beeline directly up the hill towards the onlookers, forcing everyone to make a run for it, scattering fur caps, empty vodka bottles and spare goats in all directions. Over the chaos, the commentators, aided by a monumental sound system the looked as though it had been patched together from several dozen car radios, kept up a breathless, multilingual commentary. As a group containing the only two women in attendance, our presence attracted a certain amount of excitement and we were immediately invited to introduce ourselves on the sound system and tell everyone how much we loved Uzbekistan (a lot, obviously) and drink a toast to international friendship.
The four of us wandered around taking photos and dodging stray horses, offers of dinner and marriage, and people who were keen to show us their photo album of their horses which they had named after Premier League football teams. The game (or games – someone assured me that several teams came and went, but I really couldn’t tell the difference) went on all afternoon, and as the sun went in it became bitterly cold, prompting the spectator to up their fortification with copious quantities of vodka, plov, shashlik and vodka. Since none of us had really dressed for subzero temperatures, we were by this time all too happy to accept all of the above, and the proceedings rapidly became pretty merry. Eventually, a team (or person? I really never got the hang of the rules) and they (or he?) were awarded an extremely irate-looking eagle as their prize and everyone stumbled back down the hill, carrying the prone bodies of their friends who had medicated against the cold too liberally or received a knock on the head from an over-enthusiastic goat-chaser, only stopping for one final vodka-fuelled picnic in the snow at the bottom of the valley. By this time we were firm friends with Premier League Horse Guy, so we retreated to his brother’s house to defrost and drink toasts to love and international friendship and horses named Arsenal and so on. I have no memory of how we got back from the mountains, but those who were alive to the particulars of our chauffeur’s driving on the icy roads assure me that this is a good thing. Some things one is happier not knowing.
All in all, A Grand Day Out, and certainly beats hanging around in embassies reading promotional leaflets exorting me to consider the investment opportunities inherent in the Pakistani towel industry, wich is what I’ve been doing this week. Two out of five visas in my passport, three more (fingers crossed) on their way. I am a visa machine.