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The Tajik horsemen

TAJIKISTAN | Thursday, 15 May 2014 | Views [1595] | Scholarship Entry

I saw them from the road for the first time. The horsemen were gathered on a strip of land covered with yellow grass and hot dust. Had I seen them as a small boy, I would no doubt have wanted to be one of them: majestically sitting on their horses, each rider holding in his hand a whip and each one crowned with a Central Asian embroidered pillbox hat (or an old Soviet tank helmet). Walking closer I could hear the horses' breath like someone revving an engine. Tiny drops of sweat shone at me from a muscular chestnut stallion as I walked by.

I was in Tajikistan, not far from the Afghan border. And I was just about to watch my first Buzkazhi match. Buzkazhi is an ancient game played in Central Asia where horseback riders battle for a goat cadaver. The game is beautifully depicted in the 1971 movie “The Horsemen” with Omar Sharif.

The game was played on a vast field edged by a gentle slope. From the edge of the slope someone threw a dead goat off the back of a truck, and thus the game was on. The fifty or so horsemen billowed to and fro on the field as the game developed, never leaving the dust a chance to clear or their horses a second to breathe; soon scrambling for the goat cadaver, conveying in a pulsating mass of horses and men; soon galloping in wild flight across the field as one emerged with the dead goat in one hand and the reins and the whip in the other.

From time to time the sea of horses would erupt in a foaming storm with waves splashing onto the shore, and the riders charged through the crowd. The bystanders scattered away screaming as cheerfully as only people under the imminent threat of being stampeded to death will do. Needless to say the experience was quite different from watching the Sharif movie from the comfort of my sofa. The real life Buzkazhi game didn't give you the breathtaking bird's eye perspectives of the film, but it had all the rip-roaring adrenaline of hoofs coming at you full speed. One second I was photographing the riders pacing down the field, the next I was running for my dear life with ten or so riders coming up behind me. For the first time in my life I was experiencing unadulterated panic as the horses were (almost) literally breathing down my neck.

Things tend to end well, and so did this. As the dust cleared around me I noticed the Afghan mountains rising in the east and the tender green hills softening the view to the west. I lingered on the beauty of this a few seconds before a new rider pinched the goat.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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