Independence Day Celebrations take place in Bishkek on 31st of August. A match of Ulak Tartysh (buzkashi, kokpar) in the hippodrome (easily reached by bus) is part of the celebrations.
The sound of car horns rising with the heat of the day, preparations for Independence Day celebrations in Bishkek were well underway. The centre of the city closed off by barricades, trolleybus cables hung limp and redundant. Rather put out by the detour he was being asked to make, the driver of the neon blue toy train which circumnavigated Bishkek’s streets sat disgruntled with arms folded, stubbornly refusing to budge. In Ala-Too Square, the first troupe of dancers in flowing red and gold gowns and tall domed hats emerged from the dressing yurt and took to the stage. Moving with poise and grace to traditional music, they glimmered in the bright morning sunlight. Despite the feverish build up given them by the two Eurovision style presenters, however, they and the performers which followed were greeted with a deafening silence. Even the Russified pop acts met with this fate, each descending from the stage without so much as a ripple of appreciation. Applause was obviously not the Kyrgyz way.
Along Chuy Prospektesi, tweenies’ proudly carrying pivo bottles were the first to be seen staggering. It was ten AM. In Dubovy Park, drained vodka bottles soon lay marooned beneath oak trees in the long, unkempt grass beside a moss stained, waterless fountain. Gamburger and got-dog stalls springing up on the kerbside, games of Ordo had begun, the aim being to throw a goat’s knee bone, the alchik at Kyrgyz Som banknotes weighted to the ground by stones; a bit like a fairground coconut shy. To the yelps of unfortunate bystanders being struck by the bone, they played with great enthusiasm, but not much skill. Leaving the city centre festivities behind, my brother Stan and I set about looking for a taksi to the buzkashi games at the Hippodrome, but no one would drive there. When they finally worked out where we were trying to go, cab drivers eyes widened, filling with fear at the thought of the tailbacks before they sped away. It clearly wasn’t going to happen. Buzkashi, Ulak Tartysh in Kyrgyz, is the traditional, but notoriously difficult to track down Central Asian horseback sport which roughly translates as ‘goat grabbing’ due to the fact that a headless goat, the buz, is used as a ball.
Our search for buzkashi had begun some days ago at a Tourist Information Centre which had no information. Passed up the food chain, we finally graduated to the manager’s office. ‘Maybe buzkashi, maybe not,’ the stout woman with rigid black hair shrugged from behind her desk. ‘I don’t know. I stay at home’. In pursuit of the elusive goat, we were variously told that the traditional sport definitely would be on, definitely wouldn’t be on, would be held on Thursday or would be held on Friday. The games would start at ten, maybe in the morning, maybe at night, and we both would and wouldn’t require advance tickets. Attempts to glean any nuggets of wisdom regarding Independence Day festivities in general were equally fruitless. Replies ranged from there would be a parade, but no one knew at what time, to Independence Day had been cancelled altogether this year. Having seen what we thought was the Hippodrome on a map in the Tourist Office, we decided – given no other option – to walk in the general direction we believed it to be.
It was thirty-eight degrees Celsius in the shade as we traipsed through the shadeless city and into the sprawling suburbs. The further from the centre we got, the more ramshackle things became, crumbling grey concrete Soviet high-rises lifting from piles of rubbish scattered by the desperate looking for food or things to sell. Abandoned factories with broken windows decayed in potholed yards, vehicle parts corroding in the dead yellow grass. We’d been walking for twelve kilometres beneath a cloudless sky, the top of my skull starting to blister, when we heard the faintest whisper of what sounded like distant cheering. Staggering towards the noise, we reached a fence. Through cracks in the wood, there was the Hippodrome, its flags fluttering gently in the distance. The roar of the crowd – tantalisingly close, yet still so far away – told us that the games were on. And they were good. Following the fence around for another hour of heatstroke delirium, we reached the fabled white arches of the Bishkek Hippodrome.
It was a beautiful moment. There was even some shade, for which we didn’t have time to spare. This being a ticket free affair, we shambled into the main arena. For an event nobody could tell you anything about, there were sure a lot of people there, a heaving throng of rowdy men in hats made from newspapers quickly turning their attention to us. ‘Sahdytsah! Sit down!’ they jeered. Unable to see anything standing up, let alone seated on the baking concrete steps of the stands, I was buggered if I was going to sit. My view of the backs of heads and yesterday’s news was interrupted by a fellow insistently beckoning. The people around us prodding and pointing, indicating that there would be no choice but to go and speak to him, we reluctantly waddled in his direction.
‘Where you from?’ the shaggy-browed, tracksuit clad man questioned us through his soup strainer moustache.
‘England. Angliya,’ my brother Stan replied.
‘Ah, American,’ he nodded sagely, flicking a stray piece of meat from his facial hair. ‘You want to buy car?’
Two nights before, the militsia had come to our guesthouse, dragging away a group of Germans who’d driven from Munich to Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek was the end of the road for them, and they were selling their car before flying back home. Apparently the police had searched their vehicle and found a bread knife stashed in the door lining, which made perfect sense, they’d been living out of the vehicle self-catering for the last five weeks. What were they supposed to slice bread with, spoons? It seemed to me that having seen the ‘For Sale’ sign, the militsia had taken quite a shine to second hand Hyundai. They’d no doubt been amongst the tyre kickers looking it over earlier that day.
Coated in a veneer of sweat and with no chance of seeing anything, we politely declined the offer of a car, seeking out a shady spot near the entrance. No sooner were we seated than we had a new friend, Stanbek, who also thought that England was part of America. It was a common misconception.
‘How about horse?’ he asked, beaming eagerly as he flattened down his bowl haircut. We gave the thumbs up of approval.
‘Your name?’ he asked.
‘Stephen,’ said I. ‘Stan,’ said Stan, which sent Stanbek into a tremor of delirium. ‘Like me, like me,’ he laughed, doing a little jig of delight. With the language barrier ensuring that conversation was exhausted, Stanbek decided to follow us around, my search for a better viewpoint leading to a hole in the wire mesh fence behind a militsia truck. Stan and Stanbek looked worried, but undeterred I clambered through, passing through the stables to an area on the side of the bone dry, cracked earth field of play, where a thin ring of people were situated. This was the vantage point I’d been looking for.
A game popularized by Jenghiz Khan – though his horde preferred to use a human torso for a ball – buzkashi is historically an every man for himself game, the brouhaha of rearing horses sometimes measuring over fifty feet in diameter. The 2001 finals in Dushanbe, Tajikistan left twenty-two dead and hundreds maimed. Banned by the Taliban, the game has now returned to Afghanistan, whose players -warmly regarded for their bush league enthusiasm – have a tendency to carry AK-47’s, which although considered vulgar, is not against the rules per se.
Whilst still brutal, the Kyrgyz version of buzkashi – Ulak Tyrtysh – was a tamer affair, two teams of four competing to carry the buz around posts before hoisting it into a walled concrete circle; quite a feat considering the cauterized goat carcass weighs some twenty kilos. Stampeding around in a great ball of dust, the majority of the game consisted of players in old Soviet tank helmets preventing their opponents from picking up the buz. A scrum of whips and sweating horses snorting stringy snot, occasionally a horseman would emerge, swinging the goats’ carcass by a leg. A game of honour not renowned for its recompense, if the carcass were to be the prize, it would at least be well and truly tenderized.
Shortly though, the moment came, a roar lifting from the stands as with seven horsemen in hot pursuit, a jockey emerged from the pack, charging towards us with the buz laid across his steed. With the other riders gaining ground and yanking at the reigns of his mount as they punched and whipped, the jockey with the precious goat lost control of his horse. Teeth bared, the stampeding chargers headed straight for us, the crowd breaking, each fleeing for their life as the surging animals engulfed us.
This was a sport the spectators could get up close and personal with. Leaving the arena, I turned to see Stan, rearing back with a horrified expression etched across his face as – trainers bringing through their horses for the next event – a stallion’s head bore down upon him. The sun setting, we headed back into the centre, where some Russian power pop was threatening to get the crowd going.
At last, it seemed, the revellers had something they could get excited about. Either that or they were drunk enough now. With the headliner, a balding, suited and booted old-school crooner drawing to a crescendo, the choreographed fountains kicked in, and as a special Independence Day treat danced for a full ten minutes. Sporadic fireworks sputtering into life, the sound of punch bags being struck filled the air along Choy Prospektesi, where animated locals showed off their prize peacocks, pigeons and rabbits. Slouched on eiderdowns, babushkas attempted to sell their trinkets and mementos. For a Som you could weigh yourself on your choice of scales which rows of peddlers manned, or for a whopping ten Som you could go for the luxury option of new-fangled talking scales.
This was the place to dust off your blades, myriad roller-skaters whooshing around. Awed pedestrians threw three Som coins at the tallest man in Kyrgyzstan, a deformed figure measuring maybe six foot ten. In shows of strength that never lasted long, men hung from gymnastic high bars, counting the seconds until gravity inevitably defeated them. With the time approaching two AM, bars began to empty, the ubiquitous Russian pop blasting from the music TV channel dying down. Still lit up like a grounded UFO, the circus on Frunze Street cast an unnatural glow, silhouetting men as they reeled away into the poorly lit outskirts.
This story is excerpted from Stephen M. Bland’s (@StephenMBland) forthcoming book ‘Does It Yurt?’