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  • Jerome Kocher

65. Kyrgyzstan - The Horse Games


People come to Kyrgyzstan for its natural beauty, a mecca for mountaineering and treking. Missing are the round Mongolian facial characteristics found in the Kazakhs futher north, but like all its neighbors it's a mixture of ethnicities including Ukrainian and Russian. It’s language is more Farsi, that of ancient Persia and current Iran.


Walking the park here on the first day in the capital city of Bishek I was struck by all the school children out in the early evening, running through the Manas Park fountains or sitting with friends on the grass. They are all in black and white, white top with black pants, a uniform look. I was witnessing the end of the afternoon shift, elementary school from 2-6pm, and high school from 2-7pm. The other morning shift allows for an efficient use of school resources with two student schedules. It’s a common schedule to manage resources where I live in Mexico as well. Many of the students here speak English so I inquired about sports. Volleyball, basketball, soccer and gymnastics were mentioned the most.





One of their national sports is Kok-Boru, which you won’t see it at the Olympics. Played on horses, it’s like polo, but without the sticks. And just as ice hockey drops the puck at center ice, here a goat carcass is dropped at center field. While riding on horseback the goal is to capture the carcass and score. Sort of like “capture the flag” that we played as kids. The game begins with a flurry of horses jostling each other until one rider reaches down to the turf to capture the goat. The opponent will try and pull you off the horse or steal the goat.



While riding and fighting each other, a goal is scored by successfully escaping everyone else and throwing the goat into the opponent’s round shaped well pit at either end of the field. There was one referee with whistle on horseback and two local German Shepherds who also ran with the action. Before you think this may be easy, consider the goat weighs about 50 pounds. That’s like picking up my luggage at a dead run while others try to rip it out of my hands. And before we bring our own ethical bias, consider that the goat becomes tenderized by this turf war, and after the game it’s prepared as a meal for both teams to enjoy. Just because we like ours shrink wrapped doesn’t make it better. Obviously born out of nomadic life it practices the needed survival skills needed on the steppes of Central Asia.



Yurt construction is another steppe and mountain life skill, taking 20 to 120 minutes to construct depending on the size. There are three steps. The outside wall is a wooden accordion lattice work that folds up. Then sticks are positioned for a ribbed ceiling. This is topped off with a cross-hatched circular top like a keystone holding it together. Felt and ropes provide the outer shell and insulation. In a Muslim world, men sit on the inside right and women on the left. 




Their money is called Som. The paper bill denomination of fifty Som is a tribute to the Southern Queen. History says that as a teenage Muslim girl she refused to be married off in an arranged marriage. She was bright and articulate - an anomaly among Muslim women, especially then.



She became educated and later attracted the attention of the local ruling Khan. He was so taken by her intellect and independence he offered marriage. She accepted. When he later was killed there was the question among his military who would be the next leader. She insisted she was the rightful heir after her husband and was given the title of General. Now she is a national heroine and takes her place among other heroes on the Kyrgyzstan national currency. In the States we may have dedicated some coins to the likeness of historical women, but Muslim Kyrgyzstan is ahead of us in honoring women on their paper currency.


Horses and yurts are the iconic symbols of Krygyzstan. On the move and on the go, mobility and flexibility make all the difference. But don't be fooled by the simplicity. Step inside a yurt and you enter another world of color, decor and geometric symbolism with an opening towards the sky. Just as infants have a tender fontanelle opening on the top of their skull, still open and connected to the cosmos from which they came, the nomads were connected to the heavens and spirits that animated the world around them.






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