Yurting holiday

Dawdling in Kyrgyzstan is an almost entirely pleasant activity, even if its object (to wait out the violence down south) is somewhat less so. The reason for this is primarily because it is so easy to engage in said time-wastage in yurts up in the Kyrgyz mountains, which flicked in a day from spring to summer – morning drizzle gave way one day to bright afternoon sunshine that hasn’t let up since. With this in mind, I coralled a trio of Swedes (travelling with Swedes is great: you learn the best Norwegian jokes) and we hired some horses and a guide to disappear for a few days into the hills in the centre of the country, where yurts sprout like mushrooms and there are ibexes (how do you properly pluralise an ibex? ibices?) on the mountain ridges and marmots (not marmosets. This caused a certain amount of confusion for a while) running shrieking at your approach.

Time for some yurting.

I really can’t get enough of the mountains here. Even when the horses are intransigent (Kyrgyz horses know damned well that foreign tourists have imbibed too much animal-welfare nonsense to follow the single piece of advice that constitutes riding instruction in these parts (“just hit it”) with much conviction, and take full advantage of this, with the result that you frequently find yourself stationary in a patch of wildflowers for extended periods of time with the horse stuffing its face and you prodding it cautiously the whip, vaguely worrying that an RSPCA inspector is going to pop out from behind a rock and do you for animal cruelty, while the guide disappears over the horizon. Or possibly that’s just me.) and the “saddles” appear to have taken their notion of comfort from a medieval torture chamber, everything feels fresh and bright and clean, with the high still covered with spring flowers and dozens and dozens of meltwater streams running off the hills. Wandering around the valley one evening I suddenly remembered what one is supposed to do when faced with a multitude of small streams and a large supply of flat stones and mud, and spent a very happy couple of hours damming and diverting several streams, and anyone who doesn’t fully appreciate how supremely satisfying an activity this can be is probably dead inside.

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Premier league buzkashi

A latecomer to the game.

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.

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I have been misinformed.

Guys, the vodka didn't work!

In fact, drinking epic quantities of vodka does not compensate for being underdressed for a day in the mountains watching a hundred and twenty guys on horseback fight over a dead goat in knee-deep snow. Proof of this lies in the stinking cold that I am now nursing. I cannot believe that four drunk old guys in fur hats lied to me about this.