Day 04 – It’s Independence Day, but who’s got the goat?

Sunday 31 August

Had a quiet morning catching up on stuff and procrastinating. You’d have thought I’d have done my travel diary updates. Well this is exactly why I’ll never be a travel writer and will spend the rest of my life shouting silently at people who just don’t understand the concept of ‘you pay for what you use, your meter is not faulty, and you don’t have a right to free energy’. #Rant
Anyway. As expected, the folks from yesterday didn’t get a chance to e-mail me, so I was left to my own devices.

My being here in Bishkek was a bit of an accident, as I’ve said before, but when I looked more closely into it, I discovered that I would end up being here for Independence Day. This was going to give me further impetus to go to Tajikistan earlier, as not only would I have met my old boss in Dushanbe on 7th (how surreal would that have been? She’s been in the High Pamirs, really doing ‘The Great Game’, since mid-August), but I’d have been able to stick around for their Independence Day on 9th. I also just missed Estonia and Latvia’s Independence Days (Estonia’s being the day before I arrived there), and Uzbekistan’s is tomorrow. The other two ex-Soviet ‘stans are much later in the year.
(As an aside, Afghanistan’s independence day is also my Birthday, and occurred just before I left for this trip, although it was much earlier in the 20th century, and it was from the UK not the USSR – one of the final acts of ‘The Great Game’ in fact).
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country during an Independence or National Day celebrations (it’s possible I’ve been in France on Bastille Day but I couldn’t honestly say for certain) – the UK is one of the few countries that doesn’t have either (the only other country I can find that doesn’t is Denmark) – so I wasn’t sure to expect anything. That said, I’d seen posters up proclaiming something about 31 August, and they were certainly setting up something on the main square yesterday, and then yesterday on the hike, there was talk of some ‘games’ going on at the hippodrome, so that’s where I headed first.

In actual fact it turns out that I did it in the wrong order by going to the hippodrome first, as by the time I got to the main square (Ala-Too) in mid-afternoon, all the dances and speeches and whatnot had finished, and there was just general merriment and milling about. That said, there was a lot still going on there, with lots of food and small fairground-like stalls, including ‘throw darts at balloons to win a prize’ and the ‘how long can you lift yourself up on this beam’ task. It being a hot day (about 37 degrees Celsius) there was a lot of splashing around in the many fountains around the square, and generally everyone seemed to be having a good time.

But first to the hippodrome. It’s quite a way from the hostel – about 7km – and due to traffic it took nearly an hour to get there, although obviously even in this heat, an airless marshrutka is still better and quicker than walking it. The bus stop was close to the hippodrome but the actual venue wasn’t obvious, until I came upon a long stone wall that teenagers were clambering over to get a closer look at what was beyond – which at the time was horses racing.

The outside of the arena was full of stallholders selling a variety of, mostly, foodstuffs, including pastries and shashlik kebabs – and indeed on my way out back to the town I had a very nice and filling shashlik for 100som. There were also lots of water bottles being sold, useful in this heat but which meant weapons for a boisterous crowd.

After wandering around for a bit, I did eventually manage to find the way inside the actual venue. It was pretty crowded; the arena is absolutely huge but there’s only really one ‘stand’ along part of one side, the rest of it is all open scrubland. Opposite the stand, on the other side of the ‘track’, were a line of people of the crowd, the officials/dignitaries in their tent, and behind them were horsemen warming up. As I made my way to a spot at the far left front of the stand, the action in the arena was a series of horse-races with what definitely seemed like children riding. The races appeared to be around 3 laps of the arena, and by the end the field was incredibly spread out. The noise from the crowd was quite immense though.

In between races, there was a machine on the area of the track between the stands and the dignitary tent which kept driving around and watering the stony, dusty, ground, in the same way that is done at ice-hockey matches. Occasionally he’d drive along the stand wall and spray everyone in the front of the stands with water, which was refreshing.
Also at intervals, the crowd behind me would get loud and then an empty water bottle would be flung through the air. The police at the front of the stands didn’t seem interested in this, even when one very-well-aimed bottle hit the chap who was driving the water machine.

When the horse-racing was over, the people who had been spread out around the arena area all bunched together and effectively created a large rectangle between the stand and the opposite side. This was in preparation for the main event: Buzkashi.
The best way of describing Buzkashi is: like a much rougher version of polo, say a cross between polo and ice-hockey, except played without sticks. So how do you hit the ball – well you don’t, as there is no ball. Instead they play with a dead goat.
Now, to be entirely accurate, it’s not a freshly dead goat, rather it’s a goat’s headless body that’s been left to dry out and toughen up, and it needs to be tough as it’s basically dragged around a dusty stony ground, or stamped on by horses. But it is still a dead goat.
The idea of the game is to carry the goat and drop it into a raised crater/well deep inside your opponent’s half. There appears to be no concept of a ‘foul’, and in the goalmouth scrambles, the horses were practically shoulder-charging and pushing into each other with great roughness. Where the goat is deemed to have ‘gone dead’ (so to speak), play is brought back to a circle halfway in each of the halves of the field, and one rider from each team fights each other to try to drag/carry the goat out the circle. This can take a few minutes.
I have no idea who the teams were, how often it’s played (though the players and horses did look fit and that they knew what they were doing), or indeed what the score was, or even if the game was over when I left (I assumed they played two ends, like most ‘ball’ games), but it was definitely worth watching once.

Caught a marshrutka back – helped a couple of Brits with the concept of them; they were on an organised tour group doing the whole of the Silk Road from Xian in China to Istanbul in Turkey, and had had some time to kill in Bishkek so had decided to watch the games too.
This then got me thinking about me and the way I travel; everyone says I’m brave to do what I do, but really, I’m just doing what the locals do, and they don’t consider that brave. It’s no different from me getting the ‘threes’ from Kirkby to Nottingham and watching an ice-hockey match. That I’m doing it abroad doesn’t really change that. ‘Brave’ to me would be something like potholing, something I don’t feel I could ever do. It also made me wonder if people meet me and assume I’m much more self-confident than I really am, because I appear so comfortable doing things like taking marshrutkas. Well, everything’s nervous the first time; I guess once you know how things all work, how much things cost, and what you do, then it becomes ‘easy’, or ‘normal’.

Wanted to go out to a local restaurant recommended by the lady at the hostel tonight, but it was closed for the holidays. As I didn’t fancy a hamburger or kebab from the local stalls, I cooked pasta again. Still haven’t really had any proper local foodstuffs; I must change this.

No idea what I’m doing tomorrow; there is room for me still at either this hostel or the related hostel, but what I do largely depends on if/when I can get the Afghan visa. Wish me luck.

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