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Horsing Around with Tajikistan’s Highland Kyrgyz

You can’t travel too long through the Kyrgyz heartlands without coming across some horse games. Recently the eastern Tajikistan town of Murgab, a region dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz, hosted a festival to celebrate the games. 

The two-day event featured four traditional horseback standards: tiin ilmei (catching the corn), in which riders attempt to snag balls of cloth off the ground while riding at top speeds; kyz kuumai (catching the bride), where men on horseback chase female riders hoping for a kiss (if the male fails, the woman gets to chase and whip him); an all-out long-distance horse race; and er odarysh (flip the saddle), a wrestling match in which two riders each attempt to pull his opponent off his horse.

Although organizers had hoped to have the traditional goat polo game of ulak tartysh, only seven horses were available and thus it was cancelled. Still, the crowd of more than one hundred onlookers -- Kyrgyz fans, foreign travelers, and expat aid workers -- at the internationally sponsored festival last month, remained enthusiastic throughout the event. 

Well, mostly. One local Kyrgyz man carefully eyed the horses like a connoisseur, noting that the riders were good but the horses needed more experience. As he spoke, the crowd was cheering on a few competitors galloping to the finish of a long race around a nearby hill. One of the horses came to an exhausted standstill about 50 meters before the finish and refused to continue.

The man continued, “You see? Ha! He can’t even finish. Good for him to stop!” 

While light rain and sand blew through an awards ceremony concluding the weekend, the crowd applauded as young victors received prizes such as mobile phones, DVD players, and televisions.

As attendees returned to their cars, a Kyrgyz man asked if I enjoyed the festival. Before I could even answer he leaned in close and advised me, almost conspiratorially, to head to a town in northwestern Kyrgyzstan: “Talas. Strong horses. The best riders. You must go to Talas.”

Horsing Around with Tajikistan’s Highland Kyrgyz

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