Kyrgyzstan, known as Switzerland of Central Asia due to its mountainous location, is one of the countries where nomadic life prevails. Ancestor sports and horse games are the symbol of their devotion to tradition.
While the high mountainous area surrounding Kyrgyzstan’s Song-Köl lake leaned against the rising sun, Urmat Bekkaziev came out of the little felt dorm where he lived with his wife and son, walking on the still frozen ground, on his way to the poultry where his sheep are waiting. She gives them and their cows water, expresses their milk, and sits down and starts the annoying cream separation process. Meanwhile, his wife Asel is burning the hearth in the country. It uses cow dung dried in bricks as a heat source. Using the stove, he cooks the bread they will consume that day. The nomadic tradition of raising animals in the mountains in the summer and returning to the plains in the winter is a process that has not been interrupted for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. In winters, they return to the small market town called Kochkor. This place is a 3-hour drive away on roads without asphalt and often difficult to pass. However, it is possible to encounter strong and frequent winds even in summer in this geography above 3000 meters. Weather is highly variable; the nights are cold enough to hurt a person. The nomadic lifestyle has disappeared all over the world, but is still alive in Kyrgyzstan, in part due to the difficult economic conditions experienced. But Urmat, 32, is quite happy with his condition: “Yes, it may be a bit difficult, but it has always been the case. I find the city very noisy in winters; there are a lot of people. It is peaceful and very beautiful.” says.
The least known country in the world
The mountain and lake-themed landscape is indeed peaceful. Just like hundreds of years back in time, it has an untouched beauty. The attractive and shy claim of Kyrgyzstan is that it is the least known country in the world. A Chinese monk who was passing through these lands in the 7th century warned visitors against dragons by talking about the mountains rising to the skies. Today, too, most people know so little about it that the Chinese monk’s warning may still hold. However, the economy of the country is on the toes. Their only assets are gold, an American military base and sheep; the tourism industry is still waiting to recover.
Old soviet traces
Almost everyone I meet has a nostalgic feeling for the quiet days of the Soviet era. Unlike many other former Soviet countries, Kyrgyzstan has not yet removed the Lenin statues in its squares; he just moved to more secluded spots quietly. The hammer and sickle mosaics decorating the bus stops are still in place. However, it is surrounded by Nescafé ads on both sides. The National Museum in Bishkek continues to display a large number of Soviet-era items.
Among them is a ceiling painting depicting President Reagan, whose name is associated with the devil, wearing a cowboy hat. It’s like the Sistine Church of Cold War propaganda. Dim light at the end of the economy tunnel can shine with tourism. While families open their homes to guests, shepherds in remote mountain regions set up tourists in dormitories; It’s like setting up a tent on the Silk Road. As soon as this idea emerged, guides and interpreters spread across the country.
Evening in the tent …
In the tent, a table was set with various homemade jams, a bowl of fresh cream and a basket of homemade bread. Joining Urmat and his wife I had my dinner consisting of Laghman, a noodle and lamb dish eaten all over Central Asia. They both have a playful and flirty attitude towards each other. Obviously, this is a love affair. Umat said he paid his wife’s family with two sheep and a horse during the engagement. These animals were later sold, creating funds for the celebrations. He also set aside some dowry money. Her mother-in-law has prepared rugs and blankets for this couple. Urmat dignifiedly said that marriage was a serious and expensive affair that cost him over $ 1500. After dinner, the table was cleared and moved out. A mattress was laid in its place. When it came to 21:00, it was getting dark. There was no other option but to sleep as there was no electricity. The smooth mountain air makes all the sounds outside sound much more exaggerated. So the sheep in the pen 100 meters away sounded close, as if they were surrounding the country. The painful braying of a donkey is as if it were inside the country … The occasional hoof sounds from the horses also create the feeling that a horseman is attacking by using the money. Then all of a sudden, like birds falling asleep, all the animals retreat to their corner, and a deep silence with not a single click prevails.
National sport: Horse games
The next day, our conversation shifts to horse games, the national sport of the Kyrgyz. The region will host games in the coming days. Umat is also keen to participate. It remains unclear how far the area where the games are held is and how to get there. I also get a better understanding of why the Kyrgyz people use the definition of “comfortable” in reference to the concept of time and distance. “Maybe it will take three days,” says Urmat. “Something around that.” It is a three-day road… It is not possible to drive with a four-wheel drive vehicle; because the bridge has collapsed. This is the perfect time for me to admit that I am not a good horse rider. My confession is greeted with a blank face mixed with surprise. Shrugging your shoulders, Urmat is content with saying “you come on foot”. Although I am not a rider, I prefer horse riding. After I have settled on my Kyrgyz horse, I set out with the confidence provided by my guide. We descend from a steep riverside, use a shallow crossing point, cross the other side and arrive at the edge of Lake Song-Köl. We don’t come across a single plastic bottle or a piece of garbage along the beach. Kyrgyz people consider water sacred and act accordingly.
When I get off the path to take a look around, I see an old man in a traditional Kyrgyz hat wearing a kalpak. This man, who spends his whole day preparing sheep cheese, invites us to his home. The man and his wife are offering us cheese, bread and cream. We learn that his name is Raidan (Heavenly Spirit). Raidan tells us that besides sheep, he has five cows, mares he milked, and a horse he rides. However, life is still difficult for him. All his sons are unemployed and went to Bishkek to find a job. Occasionally they return to Lake Song-Köl for poaching. “In the past, we were making money, albeit hard. Now there is no money. “When we leave, he hands us a bag of cheese and, despite all our insistence, he does not receive any money. In the later stages of his journey we reach the collapsed wooden bridge and the driver patiently waiting for us on the opposite side of the river. Even by car, the rest of the road is vaguely full of holes. At our destination we are greeted by a single dormitory located in the middle of a countryside, next to an old Russian wagon with the words “welcome” in English. The family holding the games is busy building a second dormitory for the guests. The dormitory starts to fill up as the evening hours approached.When night falls, I fall asleep with people I don’t know, in a house full of stuff I don’t know.The first lights of the day bring gloomy clouds and sudden torrential rain. Low clouds sweep the mountains and rain. They keep bringing ur. Still, we get the chance to see all of the traditional horse games. Men descending and picking up coins while galloping at speed; skip girls chasing guys; if the girl is caught, she gives a kiss to that person; if not caught, he throws down glances at him. Men who stripped to their waist and wrestled to bring each other down. The organizer of the games asks “Do you want to wrestle with the winner?” I refuse politely.
Ulak-Tartysh the king of games
Ulak-Tartysh is the king of traditional horse games. In this game, two teams of up to 10 people try to score goals using a beheaded goat carcass. On the one hand, the players are biting the woolen threads because the Kyrgyz men should not express the pain. They also bite the wool to avoid biting their tongues. Amateur games pose a great danger for both the participants and the audience. Because the teams often go out of the game area and walk on the audience. I think some of the players in the game I witnessed were drunk. I told this situation to someone watching the play next to me. “Yes, it hurts less when drunk,” he replied. Days later, I watch the final of Ulak-Tartysh, where the most professional teams of the country, Bishkek and Talas, face each other in the stadium in the capital. A truly amazing experience. I come across high-level riding techniques that require incredible strength and endurance in the fight of fast, skilled and tough players. The decapitated goat weighs 45 kg and it takes a single arm to be as strong as Hercules to lift it off the ground. This sport, which is very challenging for both the rider and the horse, stands out as a process in which the riding skills are tested at the highest level and really gives the viewer a strange joy. Just like the nomadic lifestyle, this sport dating back to ancient times has come to this day without changing for centuries. Both elements have managed to stand up to years of Soviet rule and even modernity itself. Eventually it reached the point of symbolizing Kyrgyzstan in all its glory.