Five autumns ago, on a quiet Monday afternoon in Barskoon, a village on the shores of Issyk Kul Lake in eastern Kyrgyzstan, Ishen Obolbekov was lounging in his backyard yurt when he heard what sounded like the clackety clack of horse hooves smacking asphalt.
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The noise appeared to grow louder.
Obolbekov, who is six feet tall and cuts an urbane figure, walked outside and saw the snow-capped Ala-Too Mountains that tower above his village. Then he watched as about a dozen horse-mounted teenage boys stormed his front yard and presented him with a headless goat.
They didn’t need to explain. Obolbekov, 49, co-owns a horse-trekking company and hails from a family of shepherds. He knew the teens had come to re-enact the post-game ritual that traditionally accompanied kok-boru– “blue wolf” in the Kyrgyz language – a popular horse game in which two teams of riders face off in a field and attempt to carry a goat or calf carcass into the opposing team’s end zone. Obolbekov says the game may have evolved from informal competitions among shepherds who hunted wolves that threatened their flocks.
Times have changed, but variants of the game are still played across Central Asia under several names, such as ulak-tartysh in other regions of Kyrgyzstan, kokpar in Kazakhstan and buzkashi in Afghanistan.
The young men at Obolbekov’s gate had just won a kok-boru match, and they hoped their host would honor tradition by giving them a prize. A century ago, a typical kok-boru prize would have been a feast, but today it can be cell phones, televisions or even a Mercedes Benz, according to Obolbekov. He gave those teen riders bread, sweets and the equivalent of $100.
“The Kyrgyz people used to be nomadic, and the horse was our closest friend,” Obolbekov told me. “Horse games are the way we show our identity and traditions.”
He was speaking on a scorching summer afternoon at a bus station in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. I had traveled to the land-locked ex-Soviet republic to find out why kok-boru and other horse games are so important to Kyrgyz people, and what today’s games teach us about the pre-Soviet era, when millions of people across Central Asia were nomadic shepherds who depended on horses for basic survival.
I squeezed into a crowded minibus as it rattled east toward Issyk Kul Lake. Kyrgyzstan is slightly smaller than South Dakota, and its mountainous landscape reminded me of the Rockies. But instead of the farmhouses of rural America I saw yurts – the circular, portable homes that have for centuries helped nomads survive harsh Central Asian winters.
Six hours later, the minibus rolled into Barskoon, Obolbekov’s hometown, and I checked into a family guesthouse staffed by his wife and brother. The next morning I hired a taxi headed for Jolkolot, a village where the community-based tourism company CBT Kyrgyzstan had organized a one-day horse games festival.