On a recent sunny Sunday morning, crowds gathered, as they do every weekend, at the Ashgabat hippodrome to enjoy the nation’s favorite sport and celebrate its main protagonists — majestic Akhal-Teke horses.
The venue is impressive, completed in 2011 at a cost of $100 million to showcase the venerated breed. Spectators walk in through an entrance adorned with a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov astride a horse. The leader’s love for Akhal-Teke has been widely trumpeted in state media, and he has even been awarded (by himself some would suggest) the honorific title of “People’s Horse Breeder.”
The grandstand fills up fast. Horseracing is an important family event in Turkmenistan — an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy themselves in a simple and spontaneous setting. That is a rare luxury in a country where few mass gatherings are permitted, unless they are designed to extol the state and its leaders.
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Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture in Central Asia.