Generalisations are often prone to error and misrepresentation, but – sometimes – they do hit the mark. I, for instance, always attached an aura of upper class, or in other words a certain whiff of snobbery, with all activities performed on horseback. Lancelot, and not the dirt-poor peasant archers of Crécy, rode a horse. Dressage, show-jumping and polo aren’t exactly the sports played by the masses in a Rio favela. That horse-box you can’t overtake on a country road will be drawn by a late model Range Rover. You get the idea.
I’d held this belief for a good thirty years. Until one sunny morning, 4thof September 2018. The place was Cholpon-Ata, the game was kok boru.
What is kok boru? For starters, it’s a game with different names depending on where it’s played. Buzkash in Afghanistan, kokpar in Kazakhstan, gögbörü in that corner of Turkey, around lake Van, where communities from Kyrgyzstan migrated centuries ago. Whatever the name, the substance is the same: two teams on horseback, whose aim is to deliver the headless carcass of a sheep (or goat) into the opponent’s goal. If there was a horseback game that is not evoking images of gentlemanly piss-ups at the country club, it’s got to be this one.
It was with this thought in mind that, on that morning, we approached Cholpon Ata’s Hippodrome. It was our first day at the 2018 World Nomad Games and, fresh as we were, we turned out at 09.00 for a scheduled 09.30 start. It was, after all, Central Asia and we should’ve known better. In fact the place was almost empty, the other spectators – evidently more used to the elastic timings – trickling in little by little, so that when we eventually started, at 10.30, it was almost a full house. In the meantime, we worked on our suntan and watched a few jockeys jogging their horses at various paces.
Once everyone was seated, and a rather bombastic overture played on the speakers, Mongolia and the Russian republic of Altai were invited to the pitch to fight. Please note the choice of the word fight: it’s used for a reason.
Kok Boru roughly translates, we were told, to Grey Wolf; the story is that the game, originally, was borne out of the habit, followed by Kyrgyz herders, to chase the wolf packs that threatened their herds: when they caught them, they’d kill one wolf and then throw its dead carcass to one another, whilst still at gallop. With such a pedigree, however apocryphal, how could the 24 men (12 per team) and horses be settling in for anything but a brawl, or the equine equivalent of a knife fight?
We were, however, in for yet another surprise. Kok Boru is, there’s no denying, a violent sport – it features a dead animal, at the end of the day – but the level of technique and strategy, as we were to find out, was off the scale.
The starting point of every action, after an interruption, is a sort of Mexican stand-off. The referee would choose two players from the two teams: they’d be tasked to pick up the goat. A delicate dance ensues, with each player carefully manoeuvring his horse, within a confined pocked of pitch, to stop his opponent and, at the same time, give himself a chance to pick up the carcass. The referee, stopwatch at hand, is timing them. Eventually, out of this tangle of men, whips, legs and tails a winner will emerge. He’s succeeded in putting his horse in the exact sweet spot: the other player’s moves are limited, and the dead, headless lump of meat and hair that once was a goat is there, ready to be caught.
Yes, but how?
A dead goat lumped on the ground is no taller than 30, 40 cm. The withers of a horse is, well, some 120 cm higher. A rider, no matter how Lilliputian, will be taller still. How can a kok boru player pick up a dead animal weighting some 30-35kg, all without getting unsaddled, or losing his kamcha, or whip, and whilst keeping the other player at bay? The answer was, simply and astonishingly, by bending over so much that the head is on par – or below – the horse’s belly, one leg is up in the air, one hand is holding the bridle and the kamcha is serrated between his teeth, much like a charging pirate would do with a blade. And that’s precisely what the riders did.
Now, assume you’re a kok boru player. You picked up the goat, and its lumpy body is now in your hand. What are you going to do with it? You can drop it astride the horse, across the neck of the animal. Or perhaps you can keep on holding it with your hand (but, mind you, you’ll have to keep holding the kamcha in your mouth, and you need it to kick the horse). Another option is to put a leg over the goat, and ride as if you were a passenger on the tube of a bicycle. You can’t, remember, wedge it underneath your saddle, because that’d be cheating. Ok, whichever way you choose, holding is taken care of. Now what?
Run, Forrest, run.
Each side of the field has one big doughnut of clay, called a kazan. To me, it looked like the head of a large amphora, buried up to the neck in the sand: that’s where the goat carcass needs to be thrown in order to score a point. Sylvester Stallone, in that scene of Rambo III where he played the Afghan equivalent of the game, made it look all simple but – believe me – it’s anything but.
The first thing to consider, as we already briefly discussed earlier, is that goats haven’t been designed to be decapitated and transported at full gallop; on the other hand, it can also be argued that men aren’t designed to be handling, at the same time, a running horse, a thick whip and a dead animal. Lastly, there will be 12 people trying their damnest to stop you.
Suppose that a player, goat in hand, makes a dash for the opponents’ kazan, like it happened at least a dozen times just in the first half of Mongolia-Altai; let’s also suppose that it’s Mongolia doing the honours, as it indeed happened almost every time. The entire Mongol team would kick their horses in the same direction as the one of their team mate (in a charge that my fervid imagination didn’t need much to liken to one of Genghis’ hordes). But so would do the whole Altai team, one thought in mind: wrestle the sodding goat out of the hands of the Mongol rider; failing that, drive the sodding Mongol rider away from their precious kazan.
It was a display of skill like I’ve seldom seen before. Whilst the goat holder sped towards his goal, an Altai team member would flank him; then he’d all but leap from his saddle, throwing the upper part of his body on the Mongol horse (remember, they’re galloping). The Altai would then reach to the goat and try, with almighty pushes and shoves, to wrestle it from the Mongol’s reach, whilst the latter would try and hold it. This manoeuvre succeeded in a couple of times, ending with one player with the animal, and the other more or less unsaddled.
In other occasions, instead, it’d be a group effort. The Altai players would mob the goat holder and the Mongols would do the same. What would ensue reminded me of those rolling mauls you see in rugby, with the advancing team pushing towards the kazan and the defending one trying to steer the whole pack towards the side lines, effectively sending them offside.
It was an incredible spectacle to watch, a sight to behold. Picture a dozen, if not more, of horses and riders in tight formation. Close combat. Dust rises, men shout commands, exhortations, insults or all three at once. Whips piston down. A jumble of legs, horses neighing, all accompanied by throat singing diffused by the stadium speakers. It was primordial, visceral. The climax would climb to its apex, broken only by the pack reaching the sideline, or a horse rearing up. The pack would dissolve, only to re-start again soon afterwards.
Then, it happened. Mongolia’s Number 9 –Nauryzkhan Khajnabi – made a clean break and threw himself towards the Altai kazan, his horse running for Queen and country, if only Mongolia was a monarchy.
A nearby Altai defender tried to grab him, but failed. More joined in, mobbing Khajnabi from all sides, but it was for nothing: he still led the rumbling group of men and quadrupeds as they tumbled before the kazan.
Horses mightn’t be the smartest of animals, but stupid they ain’t. Ask them to gallop head over toe into a hard obstacle, with no way to jump over it, and even the dumbest horse in the house will do what’s sensible: it’ll refuse. So did Nauryzkhan’s ride, braking with his front quarter so hard that the back legs almost buckled and gave way; that, I guess, was what Khajnabi was waiting for. He stood on the saddle and, propelled by the kinetic energy of the stopping animal, threw the goat carcass in the kazan. Perfect centre. Mongolia 1, Altai 0.
The game was over in a heartbeat, Mongolia the deserving winners. We left, mesmerised by the skills, bravery and utter violence displayed in those 40, dense minutes. Kok boru, the legend said, was a divertissement for pastoral societies, but we couldn’t fail but notice how the talents required for this sport (horsemanship, group coordination, the intimate bond between mount and rider) could very well be used in battle. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to think at Genghis Khan’s generals sitting on the sidelines of one such game, choosing their lieutenants amongst the most prominent players on the field.
We left the Hippodrome, but the excitements for the day weren’t quite over yet. A van waited outside, his driver screaming “Kyrchyn jailoo, Kyrchyn!”, the two yalmost breathed and a rich, rolling r.K’rrch’n.we boarded, and drove towards the biggest yurt camp we’d ever seen.