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A game of polo with a headless goat

In a wide valley I passed a swastika-shaped forest on a distant hillside, thought to have been planted by German POWs unbeknownst to their Soviet guards. Shortly after, the road tumbled into the town of Naryn which was bathed in warm sunshine. I allowed myself a day to rest, eat, wash and succumb to a cold.

From Naryn I was treated to a day of paved road before returning to corrugated gravel tracks once more. A herder insisted on struggling up a gentle incline on my bicycle for a couple of miles while I ambled happily alongside on his donkey. Soon I was rounding hairpin turns on a series of switchbacks that took me, at length, up and over a 2,800m pass. I camped among vibrantly orange-leaved trees before attacking another climb. As I neared the pass my stamina fizzled out and the sun set forcing me to camp above 3,000m, using snow to insulate my tent. Another long descent brought me to a welcoming but extremely poor family who invited me for a potato lunch in their tatty yurt. The mother was only two years my senior but looked closer to 40 and had five young children.

Apple orchards and walnut groves lined the road for a stretch before wheatfields, mid-harvest, replaced them. Two donkeys reared and hoofed each other ferociously on the road in a village where tarmac began again. I cycled through the city of Jalalabad en route to Osh but, due to absurdly complicated Soviet border demarcations, I had to make a three-sides-of-a-square detour to avoid riding through Uzbekistan.

During this detour I saw a billowing dust cloud a little way from the road with a small crowd gathered beside it. Scrambling down a slope I discovered it was a game of Ulak Tartysh (known in surrounding countries as Buskashi). This “sport” simply defies belief: loosely akin to rugby on horseback with no teams, no boundaries and a headless goat carcass for a ball. The rules eluded me but the gathering I saw had about 50 horsemen all thrashing their mounts (and often each other) with whips in the frenzy to get hold of the buz (the goat) and make a break from the mob. The prizes included carpets and Chinese televisions. Some men wore homemade, padded head gear and several had bloodied noses. There wasn’t a woman in sight.

I was offered a horse and declined at first but soon climbed into the saddle after my brain was flooded with a heady mixture of adrenalin, testosterone and a ‘now or never’ reasoning. I drifted around the fringe of the violently seething throng, reigning in my foaming-mouthed mount, with no real intention to actually get involved. However, someone must have spotted the hesitant white man at the melee because suddenly the fracas engulfed me and the buz was plonked across my lap. The carcass was unexpectedly hard with a mud-matted fleece and I looked up with terrified eyes as the frenzied horses and their indiscriminately whipping riders closed in on me. I believe another man must have whipped my horse’s hind because he spring into action, and charged through a gap in the mob. After only a few yards I had space to hang the surprisingly-heavy headless corpse down by my left side before swinging it up and flinging it over my right shoulder. I didn’t look back but galloped on, regaining my lost balance, and looped back around to the crowd where I thankfully returned the horse to his owner.

People seemed amused by my unmanly conduct and I received a good-natured jocular cheer before having to shake many hands and pose for many camera phone photos. A little group of men sitting in the shade of a tree waved me over and I sat down to drink beer with them. Ibek (22-years-old) was getting married the next day and we all toasted him several times. A friend of the group walked over leading a limping horse. A deep gash above its front right hoof needed attention so the men took turns to hose the muddy wound down with their sterilising urine. I was asked to do my part and, having just drank a couple of beers, I was able to oblige. Ibek then invited me to be the “official photographer” at his wedding and we were soon loading my bike into a car to go and wash up for his bachelor party. While doing this, an intimidating man with semi-Slavic features arrived and asked in barked Russian who I was and what I was doing.

“I’m a tourist. I’m going to Ibek’s wedding.”
“No. Where are you going with your bike?”
“No! Where to on your bike?”
“Lon-don. I am cycling to London.”
“Osh next, yes?”
“Go now! You are not welcome here.”
“What’s the problem?”

He scrutinised me through his mirrored glasses but decided to say no more and simply stare impatiently at me. My new friends had fallen submissively silent and Ibek whispered in my ear that the man was secret police. I was left with little option but to say an apologetic farewell and good luck to Ibek before riding away. It was a sour ending to an interesting day but I was in formerly Soviet Kyrgyzstan; paranoia and distrust of foreigners from the authorities was to be expected.

Much more by Charlie Walker on his very excellent blog, or donate to his chosen charities here.

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