on chasing a headless goat

On Nooruz (March 21), I had the opportunity to tag along with a group of friends to the Bishkek Hippodrome to watch a game of kokboru. (Quick playing instructions: two teams try to snatch a dead goat from the ground and transport it on horseback to their respective goal.) It was a complete assault on my senses.

What did it look like? It was a bright and cloudless sky, rickety and faded green planks made up the stadium seats, the ground was golden and well-trodden. Bright plastic signs advertised political parties, banks, bread, alcohol, and congratulatory messages for Nooruz. Lots of gold teeth, waves of kalpaks. The goat was floppy with matted black fur and bright pink stumps where its head and hooves were. There were lots of men.

What did it feel like? The sun was direct and I cooked for the first few hours, and I’m sure the gradually filling stadium also helped to insulate me, but a well-timed breeze was enough to keep me from steaming inside of my huge winter coat (which I’m finally able to retire for a few seasons). I bumped elbows and backs and feet and kalpaks as I tried to swerve my lens around so many obstacles. I felt completely stunned that people willingly jump on a rowdy horse for the purpose of wrestling a decapitated goat carcass away from another person. If it were me, “You know what? You can have it.”

What did it taste like? Deliciously greasy pirozhki (fried dough with bits of mutton fat tucked inside), carbonated water (a byproduct of attending with Europeans), and defeat. One girl in the group had decided we should cheer for the black team (a union of players from Issyk-Kul) because of a particularly handsome player she saw before the game. But they lost against the Ministry of Interior players, 6-2.

What did it sound like? Dut-dut-dut-dut-dut. The combination of the overly-excited announcer speaking too close to a blown-out microphone and the way Kyrgyz sounds to my ears, all I could hear was varying pitches and speeds of dut-dut-dut, pah-pah-pah, jagh-jagh-jagh. The horses pounded the field, people hollered and whistled, simultaneously gasping and sighing and cheering. There was Russian and French immediately surrounding me, but there was mostly Kyrgyz.

It’s completely foreign to me, but I didn’t need to understand every word to know that people were having a good time.

Questions popped up throughout the event. When was the goat killed? What’s the prize? Why aren’t there more women here? Wouldn’t it be cool if we started a women’s league? (quickly answered once the game started: no, not at all) Why does Lonely Planet call it buzkashi and the Kyrgyz call it көкбөрү (kokboru)? Why did we show up at 10am when the game didn’t start until 12pm?

Many lessons were learned from the day. In Kyrgyzstan, nothing ever starts on schedule. The best seat isn’t necessarily in the stands, but down closer to the field, and arriving “on time” (or extremely early) landed me stuck in the middle of a tight crowd, a radius of 15-20 stocky Kyrgyz men on all sides.

Most importantly, keep your eye on the goat.