Circumcision is an important rite of passage for every male Kyrgyz child.
In Ak-Turpak, a rural district in southern Kyrgyzstan, the end of the rice harvest ushers in the season for marking these special events.
With his crops gathered, farmer Ziyadilla Ergeshov decided to throw a large, three-day party for his family, friends, and neighbors. The center of the attention were his two young sons, Ilyasbek and Mustafa. The culmination of festivities was to be the rowdy ulak-tartysh horse game.
Early in the morning of the first day, older relatives met and sat on a bench at the entrance to the Ergeshov family compound in the village of Chon-Kara. There they sat throughout the morning, greeting the hundreds of guests filing in.
Even amid the relaxation of a feast, hierarchies and customs are strictly monitored. Ergeshov’s guests were led to various dining rooms in accordance with their age and standing. Men and women do not mix. An elderly man standing by the entrance made the sign whenever it was time to recite a prayer.
Two cooks were enlisted to prepare the plov, the meat and rice dish favored for such events. A group of assistants frantically rushed around, delivering the food.
Guests arrived and left in waves. As midday approached, acquaintances departed and the closer family members arrived, all bearing gifts, like carpets, clothes, shoes, and even a bicycle. The most generous gifts of all were horses for the two boys.
Once the eating and chatting was done, the men made their excuses and vacated the courtyard to make way for the women. A large carpet was unfurled, and a group of older women lined up around the carpet, while an assortment of children took their place in the middle, trying on the clothes that been brought in earlier in the day.
A large ox was slaughtered on the day to provide meat for the plov. The men led the ox into the courtyard and laid him on his side. Slaughtering such a powerful animal is a tough task and requires many strong men. Before the ox’s throat was cut, in compliance with Islamic requirements, the men recited a brief prayer. The cutting up of the animal happened with breathtaking rapidity. The 240 kilos of meat it produced was more than enough to feed the guests.
Plov can be made in different ways. On this occasion, two cauldrons were set aside for boiling the meat, instead of the meat being cooked together with the rice.
Amid all the hubbub, two men in chapan overcoats walked around taking notes in a copybook, noting who attended and, no less importantly, who gave what gift. When Ergeshov is in turn invited to a feast thrown by one of his guests, it is important that he be no less generous in his gifting.
The ritual to celebrate the circumcision occurs on the second day. Traditionally, the operation would have been performed there and then, but the preference now is for the procedure to be done in the hospital by a medical practitioner. What happens at modern feasts is a simulation.
Ilyasbek and Mustafa sat side by side on a raised platform in a veranda with a local cleric just next to them. The blanket pulled over their legs mimicked the old ritual, whereby the half-naked and freshly circumcised child would be covered for modesty. The money and gifts given to the sobbing child would once have been intended to salve the discomfort. On this day, Ilyasbek and Mustafa beamed contentedly throughout.
Curious young girls peered at this spectacle from another room through a window, but were chased away angrily by elderly female relatives.
One of the final tasks of the day was to prepare the calf for the ulak-tartysh contest. This game differs from the better-known kokboru, which pits one team against another. Ulak-tartysh is arguably an even rougher sport. Broken bones are commonplace. There is only one winner: the horse-rider who manages rugby-style to carry the animal carcass across the line.
The carcass gets badly knocked about over a day’s play, so good preparation is needed to ensure it remains intact. After the animal is killed, a slit is made in the abdomen and all the soft innards are removed, as are the head and extremities. All the apertures are carefully sewn up. At national kokboru championships, a sheep, weighing around 30 kilograms is usually used. The calf used at the Ergeshov ulak-tartysh was closer to 80 kilograms.
The games unfolded on the third day. More guests arrived and ate from the copious masses of plov.
The ulak-tartysh took place in a valley not far from Ergeshov’s home. Spectators crouched on the hillside to get the best view. Trucks lined up at one end of the field served as makeshift bleachers for people wanting a closer look.
Prizes included a young camel, foals, goats, sheep, a ton of rice divided into sack loads, carpets and cash, in Kyrgyz som, as well as U.S. dollars. The main prize of the day was a golden belt said to be worth several hundred dollars.
“One hundred American dollars from President Biden,” joked the commentator, who delivered a running commentary through a loudspeaker system loaded on the back of a truck.
With every session of ulak-tartysh, the prizes increased in desirability and more riders congregated in the field. The wealthier the organizer, the grander the prizes, and the greater the number of contestants. Some days of ulak-tartysh can see anywhere up to 1,000 people taking part. The commentator at Ergeshov’s feast conveyed humility over the relative simplicity of the prizes on offer.
“He’s not a businessman, he’s just a simple farmer,” he said.
Although there is only one winner – the rider who carries the carcass across the line – teams and alliances are forged. A point-man’s confederates will assist by performing blocking moves and variously assisting his passage to the end line.
In Chon-Kara, some of the less cautious spectators put themselves in grave danger by inching toward the twirling scrum as riders struggled ferociously to get hold of the calf. One man huddled under a truck to avoid being trampled by the horses. Watching ulak-tartysh is no less adrenalin-generating than taking part.
One by one, the winners of each round rode up to the truck where the commentator sat and claimed their prize. They introduced themselves and then told the crowd who owned the horse – it is a matter of some prestige to own a winning animal.
The final winner of the day, the one who got the golden belt, held his prize aloft over his head as he stood on two horses at once. He was utterly exhausted.
The calf is not wasted. Its flesh, now utterly tenderized by a day’s mistreatment, is cooked later that day.
Danil Usmanov is a photo and video journalist based in Bishkek.