On 31st August, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence from a collapsing Soviet Union and one of the worlds most difficult to spell countries was born. Kyrgyzstan. As a result each year the day is celebrated as Independence Day, with the added twist that as it happens on 31st August, it effectively marks the end of the Summer break, with children returning to school on the 1st September.
Getting any information though on what this would involve this year, was practically impossible though. There was a general opinion that it would involve horse games, at the Hippodrome, (a place most people in Bishkek didn’t seem to know the location of) and events at the cities main Ala-Too Square. Refusing to be put off by lack of information, myself and several others set out on the morning of the 31st to try and find the elusive hippodrome. This didn’t actually prove to be that difficult as Google Maps seemed to know where it was even if most Kirghiz didn’t so, just before half 10 in the morning, a little late, we walked into the main stand of the Hippodrome.
It’s fair to say the concrete Hippodrome of Bishkek is perhaps not quite up to those of the Ancient world, I’m also not exactly sure that in the ancient world half the audience wore newspapers on their heads to keep the sun off. But that’s not what I was here to see, I was hoping to see horse games, in particular ‘Ulak Tartysh‘ better known as goat polo. Although goat polo isn’t really a great description of this game. Its more like a cross between American Football, Ice Hockey and Rugby Union. And it’s played on horses. And the ball isn’t a ball, it’s a dead goat. Oh and the dead goat is headless.
It’s a team game, the object is to pick up the goat carcass from the floor, and ride down to the other teams ‘goal’ a round mound of dirt and deposit the goat on top of it. In the mean time the other team will try their hardest to yank the goat away from them whilst team mates act almost like blockers in American Football trying to stop them to getting to the ‘ball carrier.’ Meanwhile a commentator would make observations on the game, and tell a number jokes seemingly at the expense of the many Police Officers in the ground, much to the appreciation of the audience.
Oh except that unlike American Football there’s no padding. Or helmets. unsurprisingly this results in injuries. Two players were taken away in an ambulance after falls in the one game we saw, one of which appeared to have been knocked unconscious.
For all the weirdness of how that sounds, it’s actually a pretty awesome game to watch. If you get the chance do so! When I get back to the UK I may have to try start-up a domestic league. Although I might need to learn to ride a horse first…
The game of goat polo finished, on came a Zamboni to relay the ice. Or at least the Kyrgyz equivalent did, by which I mean, on came an old soviet truck spraying water on the dirt playing field to try to keep the clouds of dust kicked up by the horses under control. Meanwhile the crowd were kept entertained by a recitation of part of the epic poem Manas.
Next up was a horse race, with about 20-30 horses, with no saddles, ridden by kids. The race distance was 4 laps of the full Hippodrome, making it a rather long 8km+ race. This proved to be a lap to far for one horse, that literally collapsed in front of us after 3 laps, and was clearly completely exhausted in the heat, which was pushing 36+ Celsius.
Lying on the finish line of a horse race when there is still a lap to go, is not a good place to be, but the horse would not get up despite the attempts of the people to get it to move. Particularly ineffective appeared to be the rider of the unfortunate horse’s attempt to get it to move by whipping it. I was a tad nervous I was literally about to see a dead horse being flogged. Just as I was about to openly question why no one seemed to be trying to cool the horse down others in the crowd obviously were obviously thinking the same thing, as soon bottles of water were raining down from the stand to help (there was even laughter as one joker decided to launch a large bottle of Fanta into the fray.) By this point several crowd members had pushed past the police who had been lining the whole front of the stand to jump down to help. The attempts to move the horse continued to prove fruitless, but the remaining riders were diverted around him as they took the cheers of the crowd whilst the attempts to cool the horse down and get him back to his feet continued, with the water spraying truck also getting press-ganged into the attempts.
Finally, to the cheers of the crowd, and supported by half a dozen guys on each side acting almost as crutches, the horse was got to its feet and led shakily away. I rather hope it made a full recovery.
The experience with the horse rather put us off the idea of staying longer, so we left and took a trolleybus ride back to the city centre, where we had a brief bit of excitement of the pantograph losing contact with the overhead wires. The swiftness in which the driver swung it back on again suggested this might happen quite a bit…
In the city centre, the main square was starting to fill with people, meanwhile in Panfilov Park, throngs of people threaded themselves in-between food and souvenir sellers, heading towards various amusement park rides, and trying to avoid manic Segway drivers. Well I say Segway. But this must have been a local Kyrgyz take on it. With 4 wheels…
After popping back to my hostel to recharge batteries, it was time to head out again as darkness fell, the main square was now much fuller and there was a hint of romance in the air with flower sellers dotted everywhere seeking to take full advantage. At the Square itself a concert was going on in front of the State History Museum. Unfortunately it was difficult to get close to watch. Not because of the mass crowds, but because someone had set up the lighting rig to make regular sweeps directly pointing at the audience, acting like a giant laser pen and generally blinding you for a few moments. Still retreating further back gave an opportunity to admire just how many shiny lighty upy things were on sale, and to observe, perhaps for the last time as I soon head to China, the bizarre sight of Central Asian parents putting their kids in large remote control cars and then driving them around at speed.
The evening drew to a close surprisingly early, with a firework display bringing the festivities to an end, on the dot at 9pm. Well I guess the kids had to go back to school the next day. But I didn’t, so there was still time to pick up a beer to drink to the health of Kyrgyzstan and Bishkek before heading off to sleep and dreams of China…
NOTE! Most of the photos in this blog post have been kindly stolen from a fellow student, Jess at the London School, in exchange for a slice of apple pie and the fact I accidentally stole someone’s sunglasses for her…She has a blog on studying in Bishkek here.