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The wings of the Kyrgyz people

15th October 2019

“Only a horse and an agreeable conversation can shorten a long journey”

Last days riding and we make the most of the exit from the mountains and embrace the flat landscape with our longest gallop yet and for all of us ever. We covered 30 km in less than three hours, making our total riding expedition 220 km over the most spectacular and varied terrain I have experienced yet on horseback. We were all in such awe that these horses can ascent mountain passes of upwards to 4200 m, traipsing over slate and granite rocks for hours and still have more than something left in the tank. Their strength and endurance over the centuries became the stuff of legends and tales and feature almost as prominently as people in Kyrgyz sayings. "Its muscles ripple as the waves of a great mountain river, it's eyes are keener than a raven”.

Not expecting anymore highlights to feature at the end of our trip,a surprise was waiting for us as returned to the village of Kyzzyl Tuu to give back our horses. A game of Kok Boru was going to be played in our honour. Kok Boru is a traditional equestrian game involving two teams of four on each side. It is traditionally played with a headless goat or sheep carcass that typically weighs 35-37 kg. The carcass is held firm beneath a riders leg and carried to a well at either end of the field to score a goal. Our closest similarity would be polo or rugby on horseback. It was originally played with a wolf carcass and was to train young men to be courageous, brave warriors. 

The young team members bring a sheep over and we all form a circle around it and make a blessing before it is taken aside to be killed. It was a clean kill with the blood drained precisely into a large bowl, its limbs cut off below the knee. After the game it will be presented in honour to a woman in the village who is due to get married in a fortnight. Watching it being played out today those warrior skills can still be witnessed. Battling to try and pick up the carcass from the ground, half out of the saddle whilst trying to block the opposing team and hold onto your horse is a very impressive skill. Flat out galloping in chase ensues locked in battle trying to pull the carcass over the horses neck, whilst the rival loses their grip to much excitement of the crowd. The excitement is culminated in the fact that some of the horses participating were ours. To see their responsiveness to the riders as they are pushed into the pack, the men yelling and grunting, horse and man moving as one body before being whipped around into a tiny circle and galloping off at breakneck speed makes us very proud of them.

Another treat is in store for us. We are to witness Er Enish or Oodarysh, wrestling on horseback. The two opponents strip down to their waist and enter a circle of 30 m diameter with a mounted referee. They ultimately have to pull their opponent off their horse with various points accumulated along the way for different holds. This is a very old sport that was mentioned in the Epic of Manas, a long epic poem that would have been passed down orally centuries go. By now word has got around the village and more and more locals arrive to watch the games, clearly very proud of their youth. Kyrgyzstan has hosted the world nomadic games three times in a row and is currently the national leaders with Kok Boru and Er Enish featuring, along with thirty other disciplines.

After the great excitement of these tough sports we go to the house of the bride along with the rest of the riders. The strongest rider of Kok Boru and Er Einsh bestow the carcass to the elder of the house. This elderly lady makes a speech and awards a kalpak, the traditional Kyrgyz felt hat to the winner. As we are foreigners to their village we are kindly invited in for some tea and vodka. It is customary for the elder in the group to make a toast along with other important people. Being the tour leader I am called on to make a toast. I attempt to articulate the great hospitality and generosity we have experienced on our travels and the beauty of the Kyrgyz people, land and horses. Still touched by the sacrifice in our honour and the games, I thank profusely the lady of the house and honour the bride to be. Four toasts later we set off on our way back towards the capital with the fondest of memories. Interacting as we have been able to do with the locals has provided a great insight into the lives of a Kyrgyz man and woman, of the changes they have gone through and will continue to go through as they move further into their independence from Russian. The horses truly are ‘the wings of the Kyrgyz’.

Cally Savage

Since learning to ride at the age of 7, Cally has grown up with a love of horses and travelling. She has worked in stables around Ireland as a groom, …

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