Goat polo in Kyrgyzstan

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October 1st 2015
Published: October 1st 2015
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In Bishkek's Osh Bazaar you can buy a phone, some clothes, shoes or even gamble at a set of crude roulette wheels. But really it is a food market. There is a huge selection of fruit and veg - most recognisable, some not - plus a wonderful array of dried fruit and nuts. Breads, too, golden and plain, perhaps covered with seeds or nuts, or sticky with a generous covering of honey!

And rice, by the sack and maybe 20 types, colours ranging from pure whites to pale pinks and chestnut browns. Flour is also sold by the sack. Wheat flour and rye, semolina and tapioca, cornflour and so many more.

Walking across Bishkek, it is clear that Kyrgyzstan is not as wealthy as its neighbour. Less cars, less high rises, more dilapidated blocks of flats. But the people are just as friendly and we are befriended by some college students studying English. Conversation is tricky but they are keen to try out their limited vocabulary. Later we meet an old couple out for a walk in the park, they are clearly fascinated to see foreigners in their park. He is proudly wearing a traditional Kyrgyk felt hat. They talk to us in Russian ... it is a bit tricky but we all end up smiling.

Monday morning and time to join our group of 12 and our truck, "Archie". We had been enjoying lovely autumn sunshine but light rain is falling. It clears as we start to climb into the mountains but at around 2,500 metres, it starts to snow, heavily. The two crew and the guide look worried. The road keeps disappearing under snow and eventually they decided we must turn around. After a brief, cold, snowball fight, we carefully descend back to Kochkor and spend the night with a local family. Snow covered mountains surround the village, the sun is out again, the air is cold and crisp.

The next day we shop for dinner. We buy vegetables, a huge melon, pomegranates and meat. It is beef, we are told, horse is more expensive! We camp on a plain between streams, surrounded by more snowy mountains and ride horses along the valley. The next day, a walk takes us above the tree line to the top of a pass south. It is extraordinarily quiet, the only sound is that of the waterfalls.

Elections are to happen soon in this young democracy. To garner support, the party currently in government is sponsoring a goat polo tournament - on the field next to our camp. Goat polo uses a dead goat torso as the "ball". This is less gruesome than it sounds as the goat has been beheaded and looks like a bundle of wool - a very large and heavy bundle of wool. The goats here are a fat as our sheep.

There is a metre high dirt mound at each end of the pitch, circular and flat topped. The "goal" is to get the goat into a dip in the middle of the mound. Teams are of 20 players on horseback, with just 4 players on the field at any time and frequent substitutions. Players try to pick up the heavy goat and ride off but others try to do the same or block them. This results in a horse-scrum, with the goat lying on the ground under the scrum or in the hands of a rider in the middle of the scrum.

It is very dusty - scrums, high speed runs and substitutes galloping in and out to the sidelines. dominate play. The final score? Nil all! A penalty shoot out ensues - high speed gallops, carrying the goat the length of the pitch. Eventually the blues win the 60,000 som prize money (£600), the whites lose gracefully. The last horsemen really do ride off into the sunset.

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