Deep in the Pamir Mountain range lies the town of Murghab, a harsh frontier type town in an unforgiving environment. A 19th century military outpost, Murghab is over 3,500 meters above sea level, making this town the highest in the entire ex-Soviet Union. It is part of our route which we cannot avoid as it is the only passage through this region.
In a strange twist of fate Josephine’s (my bike) problems , and the resulting delays, have favoured us. We arrive at Murghab to find that a horse festival is about to happen the next day. A weekend in a town that might as well be on the moon is as good a way as any to celebrate the resistance, endurance and sobriety of the Kyrgyz horse.
For the last 3000 years Kyrgyz nomads have bred a very special horse to adapt to this harsh environment.
And the festival is a celebration of this remarkable and hardy animal.
It is important to take a moment to celebrate the Kyrgyz horse. All of these games were played on an ever diminishing number of horses. Difficult winters and an encroachment of 20th century “values” are depleting not only a cultural inheritance but also a genetic pool.
The horses showed extraordinary grace and aptitude, being paraded by children at one minute, at a full gallop the next, and being wrestled on after that.
Beneath all of the joy that the day brought, there was some sadness:The national pastime couldn’t be played because there were too few horses. Ulak Tartish or buzkashi as it is more commonly known as, is a cross between polo and basketball, where two teams compete to put a decapitated goat carcass into a goal on either side of a 400 meter long field.
The absence of the game was missed but by no means detracted from a very memorable day for Linda and I.
Here are a few pictures:
The setting for the horse festival outside Murghab
Which is transformed into this hive of activity once every 2 years
Fires are lit for meals. At this altitude there is no wood for fuel, only dry shrub
The entire village & surrounds turn out for the higlight of their year
And wait patiently, including the local police chief. Woman cover their faces for protection from the harsh enviroment.
The horses and participants start to arrive from the hills
The dignatories are met with roars of approval from the locals
For the handful of foreigners though we have to work for acceptance from these locals
Which actually is not very hard. Wherever we go they are loving and kind.
still working at it here however…
Finally proceedings start with a parade of participants
The first contest with the objective of picking up as many of the red pieces of cloth as possible. All this while at full gallop!
Under the watchful eye of a referee. Not galloping when trying to pick up a red cloth disqualifies you.
How they manage to stay on defies logic
At times you cannot even see the rider
They are there somewhere
And when you come this close and miss
The disappointment needs no words
Amongst the dust there is a winner
The horses are given a chance to rest and it is time for a poetry recital contest
Under the watchful eye of the village elders
Every village has its crooner
Which some prefer to avoid
The next contest is wrestling on horseback. The players size up their opponents
Before moving in
It then becomes a contest of who can hang on the longest
Surprisingly he did not fall off
But in the end there is always a winner
The next contest is catch the bride. She is given a head start. If he cathches her then apparently he keeps her
One that did not get away
They ride off into the sunset….
While others reverse the tables and do not give up