The 25th Anniversary of Kyrgyzstan’s Independence from Russia dawned bright and sunny and the Asia Mountains Hotel, a place that sees the start and finish of hundreds of tourists’ holidays, was in extra special holiday spirit. We decided to miss President Atambayev’s speech in Ala-Too Square and head straight for the National Hippodrome. This was a wiser move than we realized at the time. He spoke so long that one soldier, in the seried ranks of military drawn up to bolster the occasion, had fainted and had to be carted away. To the surprise of many instead of celebrating 25 years of freedom in party mood, he decided to attack the opponents of his proposed constitutional changes. This he did with such vehemence that the former president, Roza Otunbayeva, stomped off the stage while he was speaking. Of this we were unaware as we drove through the traffic-free streets towards the honey shop on our way to the hippodrome. Although a suicide bomber had attacked the Chinese Embassy the previous day, Marat assured us that the drama was over and anyway the embassy was the other side of town. All was festive.
Larger than life fibreglass bears with daisies at their feet, parked on the pavement, advertised the entrance to the honey shop. It was barely big enough for the four of us to squeeze into. A dozen 8 gallon vats of honey sat on the L-shaped counter. On each was a colour photograph of the meadows where bees had collected that particular honey. While Marat translated, telling us about the respective regions, the woman behind the counter dipped little wooden spoons, like those for iced cream tubs, into the vats and encouraged us to taste. The pile of discarded spoons mounted. We selected honeys from the places where we had ridden – all tasted sweetly of wild flowers. We chose half kilo and kilo jars that she filled and weighed. She explained that the candles and what looked like bars of soap, ranged on the shelves behind her, were various unguents used by shamans, especially for the treatment of children. Still wondering whether our luggage would ooze honey over Heathrow’s luggage carousel, we stopped off at a large, impressively stocked supermarket.
Yards of aisles of shelves and freezers were packed. Islands groaned under pyramids of lustrous vegetables; exotic fruits; nuts; breads of every shape and even shellfish. We could have bought lobsters, crabs or oysters despite being in double-landlocked Kyrgyzstan – possibly not wise. There was an excellent delicatessen. We had come to buy the wherewithal for lunch that we could eat with our fingers in the hippodrome. We designed our own pizzas, fell for bulging samsas; bought bottles of water and Coke. It was going to be hot, thirsty work. As we neared the hippodrome Pyotr looked for somewhere to park. We zig-zagged between Gagarin and Tolstoy streets, but there wasn’t room for so much as a tricycle, anywhere. After a number of exacting five-point turns in dusty residential streets we decided to walk. It had been striking how many 8 story blocks of flats with ornate gilded balconies had been built in the centre of Bishkek. Now we walked past as many houses being enlarged and modernised. 7 feet high solid metal gates protected them all. They had elaborately wrought iron tops that were still an oxidized orange, waiting to be painted. Bishkek was on the up.
With carrier bags full of food and bottles in one hand and cameras in the other, we joined the growing, buzzing crowd. Mostly male, they sported kufi, kalpacks, baseball caps and every brand of western tracksuit. There were also T-shirts with legends in English such as “I may be wrong but it’s highly unlikely”; “With a body like this who needs hair?” and “I didn’t fart – my arse blew you a kiss”. I wondered how many of the men wearing them – or their wives – understood what their chests proclaimed. The hubbub of humans amplified. As we turned into the wide, tree-lined road leading to the hippodrome’s impressive gates the smell of barbecuing shashlyks wafted under noses. Marat told us to stick close and we crushed into the disorderly queue trying to enter by a side gate. It was the only way in and it was energetically protected by police. People were counted in as others were counted out. Marat’s height helped him wave our tickets above heads but we still had to push. Through the iron gates we could see two policewomen making those who had managed to enter, discard their water bottles. Piles of them littered the ground. Even plastic bottles were no longer allowed as they prove useful missiles to throw when an umpire ‘gets things wrong’. We just had time to sandwich ours between the pizzas and we got through with them.
We found a gap big enough for the four of us to stand together a couple of rows from the front. There were dozens of tiers rising steeply to the roof above and they were sardine-packed. The bottom of the stand was a few feet higher than the arena and a breezeblock wall about 4 feet high kept us in place. Police lined up with their backs to the arena, facing us, in case we had any ideas to jump it. There appeared to be four types of police: male, female, those wearing Russian flying-saucer hats and those wearing baseball caps. Seniority of ‘regiments’ was not clear but occasionally an officer appeared. The tiers of medals on his chest indicated his importance. Other ranks jumped-to.
We were there for Kok Boru but hundreds were already screaming encouragement at the flat racing. The track scribed a wide oval to the far side of a flat area of rough grass and returned to the arena for the finish. We watched as 8 horses galloped past the distant high-rise flats in a moving dust cloud. The races that we saw lasted two circuits and ended out of sight to our right somewhere near the start. The winner re-appeared in the arena to much much applause and to collect his prize, or the token for it.
Racing over for the time being, two ancient Russian fuel tankers with water jets fixed to their front and rear bumpers, did a lumbering dance round and round the sandy arena to lay the dust. Then a man appeared with sacks of wood shavings to mark out the circles for Kok Boru.
On the opposite side of the arena a stage flanked with flags and scaffolding, that was hung about with banners advertising the up-coming Nomad Games, was the hub of operations. 14 horsemen in red and white team strips, new white kalpacks and scarlet saddlecloths entered the arena and lined up facing the stands with their backs to the stage. One by one they were introduced to the crowd that reacted with much cheering. This was the Kok Boru team selected to represent Kyrgyzstan at the Nomad Games. After much clapping and whooping they peeled off in sequence and did a couple of circuits cantering abreast around the arena. Acknowledging the crowd like Roman gladiators they looked supremely confidant. Rightly so as it turned out: a fortnight later they beat Kazakhstan in the finals 15 – 3.
On either side of the stage a sturdy 6ft wall, also covered in banners, marked the other side of the arena. At a signal only witnessed by those waiting for it, a hundred men ran across the sand to the wall, dodging the police that tried to stop them, and scrambled up it. A couple of mounted policemen (baseball hats) cantered after them and remonstrated with them to get down but the men were unimpressed and remained where they were, lifting their legs just out of the policemen’s reach. They were in prime position to watch the Kok Boru without, it seemed, having paid to do so. The police gave up. More men scrambled up from the blind side. Soon there was a row of men sitting on the wall with their legs dangling down and a row of men standing behind them. It seemed likely that they hadn’t paid but those in the stands, who had done so, didn’t seem to mind. There’s implicit approval of outwitting the powers that be in an ex-Soviet satellite and as an unscheduled warm up act for the big game it couldn’t have gone better: Spectators 1 – Police 0.
By the time the two teams entered and paraded with the two mounted umpires the crowd was screaming and whistling. We were lucky to have been to the Naryn Shepherds’ Games three years earlier as we already had a reasonable grasp of Kok Boru. This was to be more fast, furious and merciless. There were 12 players and horses in each team but only four allowed to play at once. Men and horses were substituted at the will of the team coach. The pitch was about 650ft by 230ft with a kazan at each end. The kazans were circular about 12ft across and 5 ft high. The kok boru – literally translated Grey Wolf – weighs between 70lbs – 77lbs. Anyone who has watched polo soon appreciates that polo is croquet in comparison. People get killed playing kok boru which is not surprising as in order to pick the heavy pelt from the ground, there is a tremendous melee of human skulls with equine hooves and knees. The equally skilled but gentler game of polo ‘just’ involves hitting a 4oz ball with the 7oz head of a 52” stick. The other big difference is the rule of ‘challenge’. In polo Right of Way (ROW) takes precedence and any riding-off must be done shoulder to shoulder. In kok boru nobody has precedence and it is full impact horsepower at 90 degrees. The game originates from the nomads’ necessity to protect their stock from wolves when it was common to ride down wolves unto death. It became a training ground for fearlessness.
The teams and umpires lined up in front of the grandstand and pronounced the traditional oath. The referee began
“Oh Great Maker take the oath of players, your children, the mighty and strong men, heroes who come into play who continue the ancient tradition.”
To which the players replied
“I swear before the people, starting the game kok boru inherited from our ancestors, and before the audience and before the Creator to behave honestly, to strictly follow the rules of the game.”
After drawing a lot to decide ends, the goat was chucked into one of the sawdust circles about 50 feet from the grandstand. The teams stood to one side until the whistle was blown and then they all rushed to try to scoop it up. After a few minutes of horseback scrum and no resolution the players were dispatched to the sides and the goat was thrown into a middle circle where one player from each team went for it. There seemed to be two critical elements in picking up the goat. One was having a horse that would prevent the opposition’s horse getting near enough, either by standing over it or barging the other off, and the other was being able to lean over to reach ground but stay aboard while doing so. This was managed by hanging onto the pommel of the saddle with one hand and the back of the saddle, or rump of the horse with the opposite heel or foot. It is against the rules for the player trying to pick up the goat to be attacked by the opponent’s horse! The horses were amazing and stood their ground like tanks before accelerating off at impressive speed when asked. Top horses such as the famous Achilles, change hands for $100,000. Once gathered, the goat, all 75lbs of it, had to be lifted, held, and carried ,to the kazan. Then an almighty tangle of horses and men fought to score and defend. No holds were barred and frequently a man or horse would hit the deck. Occasionally the goat was lost on the edge of the kazan and a defender would manage to grab it and then the melee took off at full gallop to the other end of the ground and the other kazan.
The game lasted for three 20 minute periods with a 10 minute break between each. A High Goal polo match is usually 6 chukkers of about 7 – 8 minutes with five minutes between each chukka.
During the breaks vendors came round with ice creams, samsa and paper kalpacks for those whose brows were starting to burn in the hot sun. The lorries sprayed the arena again and details of the Nomad Games were relayed over the loud speakers. Those standing next to us were delighted to discover that we had come from England and that we loved their country so much and had ridden in the Pamirs, Tien Shan and Talas Mountains. We qualified as ‘horse people’ not tourists. We shared our pizzas and samsa with them. They encouraged us to squeeze in this way or that to get better views, take better photographs. We reciprocated, pulling small boys up beside us so they too could have a better view.
It had been clear that no one was impartial and that we had to join in. Having stayed in both Talas and Osh the previous year, loyalty was not immediate. I decided to scream for Talas as with a population the 15th that of Osh, therefore with a smaller pool of players and horses, I assumed they would be up against it. Wrong. Talas won 4 -1. By chance I had supported the right team.
We left the stadium with flushed faces and hoarse voices. It had been a wonderful day of spontaneous rapport, excitement and adrenalin rushes. We walked with the flow towards Tolstoy Street where Pyotr was waiting for us. Every now and again the crowd parted to let a lorry with a couple of horses, still saddled and tied to a bar above the cab, go past. These magnificent beasts that had just fought without fear were traveling in the open as peaceably as those we had seen leaving the market in Karakol.
That evening we supped in an outside restaurant under the stars. A cinema-sized plasma screen on the wall of the main building relayed videos of dancing to the latest pop music. Shuhrat inspected the kitchen to make sure it came up to his standards and borrowed a tea-towel to polish our plates. Pyotr supped his beer and looked on in a slightly bemused way. Not having ridden with us he could only gauge us from the 48 hours he’d driven us and we must have been a total mystery.
Families wandered along the avenues and one could hear their incessant chatter as they came and went; fireworks swooshed into the black sky. Kyrgyzstan might be struggling to repair its infrastructure and its miles of irrigation channels; 63% of the population might be drinking polluted water and the national flock might have decreased by 60% after the breakup of the Soviet Union but that night the people of Bishkek were celebrating 25 years of freedom. It was joyful to be there with them.
At 5 am the following morning we were at Manas airport for our flight back to Istanbul. We exchanged bear hugs with the guys. We had persuaded Novi Nomad to start planning for next year. It made the goodbyes easy to handle.