The Naryn oblast Shepherds’ Games

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I woke to bright sun, a blue sky and the most perfect view of the At-Bashi (Horse’s Head) Mountains with their white tops in a line, four of them between 13,000 and 15,700 feet. Our last night camping had been spent, not in a tip as we had thought, but in a copse beside a wide, fast flowing river bordered by reeds through which little birds fluttered, chattering to each other. Linnet washed her hair in the freezing water, stating that she could not be seen at the games looking “so bedraggled” as she wrongly imagined she did. I pointed out that the man-of-her-dreams might not be there to make a judgement. The water was not long-melted snow and I wasn’t going to put my head and shoulders in it. That night we would be in a home-stay and would have hot showers. Hopefully.

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The games were held in a flat, natural amphitheatre that covered a few hundred acres. The At Bashi Kirka Toosu rose to the south and the Narin Kirka Toosu to the north. Cars and vans were parked in a fairly orderly way, with their bonnets facing away. With tail-gates open, their owners sold everything from watermelons and peaches to bottled water, sweets and Coca-Cola.

15 or 16 large yurts had been erected in two approximate lines. Each with a different woven band (ormok) where the walls met the roof.  Most had a pole with the sun of Kyrgyzstan fluttering in the breeze. They appeared to belong to different villages – village hospitality centres. 2 sets of stripped conifer trunks had been wig-wammed into the ground. From a cross bar slung between the wigwams, swings had been hung and children were seeing how high they could soar. There was an infectious air of fiesta. Everyone, including Marat, knew everyone else and stopped to talk. People of all generations cantered about on horses. Dogs went about their business unaccompanied. It reminded me of English points-to-points before Health and Safety got hold of them.

Marat led us up onto the southern hill where people were gathering to see the acton from above.  Generations of families sat together often accompanied by a single horse standing patiently until needed. A young woman, wearing a shimmering deep turquoise velvet chapan with exquisite gold, ochre, pink and blue embroidery bordering its edges and across the shoulders, walked past us. She proudly carried a framed certificate that she had won for her shepherding skills. Teenage boys on horses with brothers in diminishing sizes perched fore and aft, moved between families.

This was the third day of the games and as the knock-out matches had taken place, today was for semi finals and finals. Below us we could see that an arena had been marked out by flags at each corner and a goal at each end. The goals (kazans) were high circles of bald lorry tyres and banked earth. They were for kok boru. One of the semi-finals was about to start. Teams of ten men in blue and scarlet sweatshirts cantered around the edge of the field led by their standard bearer carrying Kyrgyzstan’s flag. They lined up on the far side, apparently to receive a team briefing, and were addressed by the umpires. A large flock of sheep kept a safe distance.

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Other than the coloured sweatshirts to denote to which team players belonged, dress was random. Some wore protective headgear like rugby players, others baseball caps, the rest sported brand-named beanies. Baggy trousers or tracksuit bottoms were tucked into loose-fitting mid-calf boots. Four players were on the ground at a time and could be substituted at will from the remaining six that waited on the side-lines. The game was played in two halves of 45 minutes each. They lined up in the centre, the boned and headless goat was chucked in among them and play began.

The player who scooped the goat off the ground, tried to gallop with it to the goal, and drop it in. However with four players all trying to grab it off him he was lucky to get very far. If he did succeed, it was achieved by an exhilarating burst of speed. The goat, looking to have landed in the middle of the tyres, sometimes was caught mid air by the opposition, triumphantly held aloft and carted towards the other goal. In the equine scrums the goat was often dropped and players had to scoop it off the ground again. Another scrum occurred. Players hung onto the saddle pommels with one hand, the saddle with a heel and leaned right over to snatch the goat with the other. Heads and knuckles clashed with hooves, knees and hocks in the melee. I asked whether it really was the forerunner of polo as is sometimes claimed.

“Polo is a girls’ game!” came the reply.   Compared to what we watched that day one couldn’t disagree.

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It is rough. There is none of the protocol that happens under Hurlingham Rules, although before play starts players are expected to make an oath to play fairly. The best regional horses can change hands for £20,000 and would have held their own on Smith’s Lawn –  all ridden in plain snaffles without running reins or martingales They could turn on a som and do 0 – 60 with the best of them. The way we knew who had won was by the body language of the players. The blues cantered back to one of the yurts and appeared to have a team de-brief to prepare them for the final. The reds handed back their sweatshirts and joined families on the hill.

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The sun was warm.  Everybody was having a good time. A flat-bed lorry was driven  between the yurts and the kok-boru pitch. A rope was strung between two conifer poles  tied to the front and back of the  lorry and a sheet of blue parachute silk draped over. Kyrgyzstan’s sun fluttered from a stick tied to a wing mirror and balloons were tied to everything available. A stepladder was propped against one end of the flat bed and a microphone positioned. Loudspeakers, big enough to blast Wembley, were pointed at those of us on the hill. A woman wearing a full-length duck egg blue chiffon dress under a scarlet embroidered waistcoat was in charge. On her head was balanced a fur brimmed embroidered velvet skullcap topped by a double handful of white ostrich feathers of which the Prince of Wales would have been proud. She oversaw proceedings through designer sunglasses the size of side plates and  dispensed drawing pins and string. Everybody seemed to do as she suggested, including a man wearing a Stetson and sandals. The stage was set. Job done they went away.

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Two men on nearly identical chestnut horses joined the family next to us. Both had what looked like sleeping mats rolled and tied to the backs of their saddles. One was wearing army fatigues and a baseball cap. The other had a chapan draped theatrically over his shoulders. It slithered off as he dismounted revealing a tuned, tanned torso. He was naked from the waist up other than a blue cummerbund. The oldest male of the group joined them in  huddled, confidential conversation. Then with what seemed to be good wishes from those still sitting around, Camouflage helped Tuned Torso put the chapan across his shoulders. Both mounted their horses, Camouflage took the reins of Tuned Torso’s horse and led him down to the pitch. They paraded around its perimeter. Another pair paraded, one with a red cummerbund was being led by what we realised was his ‘second’. This would be oodarysh, the horseback wrestling that has been so long part of Kyrgyz culture that it is mentioned in the Epic of Manas.

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A mounted umpire with a megaphone cantered to them. The wrestlers removed their chapans, handing them to their seconds and took up their reins.  We tried to fathom the rules as we watched. The horses seemed to understand and were fully involved. Marat explained. Points are earned when a horse or opponent is held for 3 seconds; if a wrestler is unbalanced and has to hang onto his horse or if his hand is held behind his back.  Dodging an opponent’s hold or grabbing his reins is penalised. Pulling hair, kicking and punching aren’t allowed either and the target is to get the opponent off. Contests last 6 minutes. Tuned Torso won his and cantered back to his family to receive admiration. He was into appreciation.

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We watched more kok-boru and oodarysh. The number of spectators grew and activity around the lorry resumed. Yards of bunting were looped round everything and a banner, proclaiming we-knew-not-what in Cyrillic script, was hung along the lorry’s flat-bed. 6 men mounted ‘the stage’. 4 wore baseball caps and 2 kalpaks. One of the men under a kalpak had a suit and tie. The other, in T shirt and trainers, took the microphone and after the mandatory high pitched scream of the public address system, he addressed everyone within 3 or 4 miles. He passed the microphone to The Suit who, with a sheaf of notes in his hand, made a speech. This was the Deputy Prime Minister and the gist of it was to encourage the crowd to keep shepherding. He told them how valued their work was by those in Bishkek. He had a point. Following Independence the Russian market for wool and sheep meat collapsed. The national flock fell from 14.5 million to just over 3 million.  People listened more or less attentively.  Shepherds look after flocks whether governments appreciate their efforts or not.

After the finals of kok boru and oodarysh a large square of yellow plastic was laid out near the lorry. This was for the conventional wrestling ; men on foot trying to chuck each other on the floor. They slithered about on the plastic, cheers went up, more slithering, groans, cheers, a hand held aloft and the winner announced. I remembered the two little boys in the jailoo.

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The final game was kyz-kumay. Kyrgyzstan has a  tradition of bride-napping (ala kachuu)  made illegal by the Soviets and not altogether approved,  it remains practiced in isolated communities. Kyz-kumay is the theatrical version whereby a man on a horse has to chase a woman on a horse,  put his hand round her waist at full gallop and kiss her. The woman has a head start of a hundred or so metres. Then the reverse happens indicating her acceptance or otherwise. The man does not have a head start. The kyz-kumay we watched was hilarious as local dignitaries obviously had had to pressurise a trio of couples to make a show of it. The women were of a certain age and shape and the men took care not to catch them. The women saw it as a rare chance to kiss some eye candy. So the men went as slowly as possible to avoid catching the women who slowed so not to escape. When they turned round to go the other way the men galloped off furiously so the women couldn’t catch them. Finally a younger couple managed to look more convincing. It was a cheerful end to the official programme and everyone was laughing as they left the hill in search of lunch.

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Although we were among the first foreigners to have attended the games, nobody took any notice of us. It wasn’t that we had been ignored; we had been accepted. We had  wandered among the crowd, taken photographs, smiled at children and looked closely at horses, which was what everybody else did. They had treated us as they treated each other and we moved off the hill to lunch with them. We had been invited to a yurt. A real treat. Beside each yurt comely mamushkas  sat at low tables chopping onions and tomatoes. Food in kazans with 3 or 4 ft diameters, bubbled on wood-fired stoves. Galvanised buckets, samovars and crockery of all shapes littered the grass beside them. Feasts were in the making.

We left our shoes, beside the neat rows of other shoes, at the door to the yurt and were welcomed inside. Marat had discovered common ground. Our host had taken the Kyrgyz horse-ball[1] squad to the international championships in France the previous summer. Sue was a mover and shaker in the UK horse-ball team of which her son was a member. Sue instantly gained enormous jailoo cred. Horse-ball is a tough game and unlike polo not regarded as ‘for girls’. It was banned in the Argentine at the end of the 18th century for 150 years because of the high mortality rate. Admiration for Sue rubbed off on us and once we had sat beside the beautifully laid table, glasses of some unidentified liquid were offered to us.  On Marat’s advice we sipped and passed on. Our hosts looked after us tremendously well and, having done justice to their feast as best we could, we staggered out of the yurt. Others did the same from other yurts. 50 yards away a multigenerational family of 30 were sitting on the grass by their dostorkon enjoying a  picnic.

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A crowd had gathered to watch oodarysh for the over 14 stone. Although the shuddering stomachs were strapped up by the same red and blue cummerbunds it was a less formal contest and the onlookers crowded round in a circle. Those in the front two or three rows sat on the grass, those standing behind peered over shoulders. When the horses cannoned within inches of them they leapt to their feet to avoid being trodden on, As the horses moved away they resumed their places. Nobody was hurt. It was interesting to see how the horses really became involved and would stick their heads over the opponent’s horse’s head or neck to hamper use of the reins or wedge the opponent’s arms.

All too soon it was time to go as we had to reach Naryn for the night. We joined others heading off. Babushkas went hand in hand with small children; mamushkas packed cooking pans and crockery; horses were tied to yurts while the men helped to dismantle  ovens. Two youths, out for the count, lay head to hip in the main thoroughfare. Everyone trod carefully round them.

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It had been a wonderful three days for everyone; catching up with friends and  relatives; settling competitive rivalries for another year; discussing the problems of lambing and wolves. It was an unique experience for us. How lucky we had been to be at the right place at the right time – and to have Marat.

[1] Horseball is played by two teams of four mounted players. Originally played in the Argentine in the 18th century with a dead duck, it is now played using a netted ball. A goal is scored when the ball is shot through a vertical hoop.

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