A rider demonstrates his skill at tiin ilmei (catching the corn).
You can’t travel too long through the Kyrgyz heartlands without coming across some horse games. Recently the eastern Tajikistan town of Murgab, a region dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz, hosted a festival to celebrate the games.
The two-day event featured four traditional horseback standards: tiin ilmei (catching the corn), in which riders attempt to snag balls of cloth off the ground while riding at top speeds; kyz kuumai (catching the bride), where men on horseback chase female riders hoping for a kiss (if the male fails, the woman gets to chase and whip him); an all-out long-distance horse race; and er odarysh (flip the saddle), a wrestling match in which two riders each attempt to pull his opponent off his horse.
Although organizers had hoped to have the traditional goat polo game of ulak tartysh, only seven horses were available and thus it was cancelled. Still, the crowd of more than one hundred onlookers -- Kyrgyz fans, foreign travelers, and expat aid workers -- at the internationally sponsored festival last month, remained enthusiastic throughout the event.
Well, mostly. One local Kyrgyz man carefully eyed the horses like a connoisseur, noting that the riders were good but the horses needed more experience. As he spoke, the crowd was cheering on a few competitors galloping to the finish of a long race around a nearby hill. One of the horses came to an exhausted standstill about 50 meters before the finish and refused to continue.
The man continued, “You see? Ha! He can’t even finish. Good for him to stop!”
While light rain and sand blew through an awards ceremony concluding the weekend, the crowd applauded as young victors received prizes such as mobile phones, DVD players, and televisions.
“Khorog is safe now. You will have no problems going through there. Please send me a message after you get to Dushanbe so we know you are safe.” Twenty-two-year-old Matrop didn’t blink an eye as he offered this subtle contradiction and poured me another bowl of green tea.
Midway through a four-week journey across Tajikistan, I had stopped on July 27 to spend the night at Matrop’s family’s home in the Wakhan Corridor village of Darshai, across the river from Afghanistan. After learning that I spoke Russian, one of Matrop’s friends anxiously informed me that Khorog, four-hours drive northwest, had a “war raging in the streets.” Huh? The fighting had already been going on for three days, but out in remoter parts of Gorno-Badakhshan province I hadn’t heard a thing.
He cursed the situation with an anger I’d find common among 20-somethings in the region over the next few days. The fighting had rekindled divisions and resentment lingering from Tajikistan’s 1990s civil war, when the Pamiri minority in mountainous Badakhshan found themselves fighting Tajiks.
“How many of our people have died already over the years? For what? Our country has been peaceful a long time, and now a new war is happening. The president’s special guard has been sent in,” he said, repeating a blend of concerns and rumors I would hear again and again. “Maybe a civil war will start again.”
Matrop’s uncle, Mubaraksho, a Russian-language teacher and avid ibex hunter, took the lightest attitude. “It’s fine,” he assured me. “You will be fine. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I think it is already peaceful. That’s what people are saying.”