If you thought that equestrian sports were for upper class twits and the nearest the working classes should get to them is putting a tenner on the 3 30 at Chepstow then you ought to get yourself to Central Asia. Here in Uzbekistan, kupkari, the local variant of the traditional, regional game more commonly known as Buzkashi, is a sport for real men, on the kind of tough horses, which, if in England, would probably call your horse a poof, give it a headbutt and shag the nearest filly before going down the pub for a few pints of lager for breakfast. For starters, unlike the sanitised version of polo that we inherited from the Persians, kupkari doesn’t use a ball, it uses a dead goat or a calf, which is sometimes decapitated and marinaded in brine for a few days to make it really heavy. The carcass is disemboweled and sewn back up, if not they would certainly be leaving entrails all over the pitch by the time a few horses have trampled over it.
Arriving in Samarkand in time for Navruz (Persian new year) guaranteed a game would be found somewhere, as it is an essential part of the seasonal celebrations. If the locals were not going to be put off by the freezing temperatures and relentless drizzle I could not afford to wuss out so I found myself on a muddy bank at the edge of a field near Urgut, overlooked by time-worn rocky hills whose grass is kept uniformly, bowling green short by hungry ruminants.
Despite the appearance of having a set of rules more characterised by their absence, a duty of fair play is demanded of the riders, so no thumping other players or pulling them off their horses. The aim of the game is fairly straight forward: grab the goat, hang it over the saddle and get it to the preordained spot, in this case in front of the truck which served as a grandstand for the judge and master of ceremonies. Simple! Although my equestrian career started and finished at the age of three when I fell off a horse at the local fete I can say with reasonable confidence that even hanging out of the saddle to reach down to the ground on an average size and stationary horse is not that easy, but to lift up a bloody great goat carcass whilst being buffeted by a horde of crazed horses and riders all trying to do the same thing seems not only next to impossible but an ideal fast track appointment to the spinal injuries unit. Just to make it a bit more difficult the lower halves of the goat’s legs are hacked off to give you even less to grab hold of.
At the end of an hour of warm up games I had lost count of contestant numbers after getting to well over a hundred and things started properly when for each game the goat is heaved off the back of a moving trailer pulled by a tractor which looks as though it came fourth in the regional, Soviet, agricultural vehicle design awards some time in the late sixties. There follows a chaotic scrum of goat trampling as billowing clouds of steamy horse breath almost obscure the riders in the icy air. Out of this melee a rider will eventually hurtle at sufficient velocity to prevent anyone stopping him reaching the goal and claiming a wad of cash. The term “wad of cash” may give the impression of untold wealth but with the value of the Uzbek Som changing a $100 note makes it looks as though you have just robbed a bank. Nevertheless dozens of goals are scored throughout the afternoon so a fair quantity of prize money is dished out.
The concept of a pitch for the game is rather fluid notion, the steep bank on one side being the only real hinderance to movement. Even standing behind a couple of cars didn’t qualify as a spectator’s area, as at one point we had to run round to the opposite side and then huddle between them as a score of horses thundered by each side, smashing tail lights and removing paintwork as they went: how we all laughed at the prospect of being trampled to death in the name of entertainment. At another point, whilst distracted by yet another group of men whose command of the English language embraced only two words, Wayne and Roony, we had gone from being at the edge of the pitch to being in the middle of it, as dozens of players swarmed around us. A return to the muddy bank seemed an eminently sensible option at this point, certainly more sensible than the offer to have a go myself which I declined, knowing full well that whatever happened I would not have ended up in a position of being able to write this post. Sitting on some old nag trotting across the Steppes was what I had in mind for a reintroduction to horseback not the equivalent of going a few rounds with Vladimir Klitschko.
After four hours, the handful of other tourists long since departed and the end of the game in sight, people had started to drift off, so as the last, soggy, chilled to the bone representative of western civilisation I felt I could call it a day and leave without shame. My confidence in Uzbek hospitality was rewarded with only a two-minute wait before some kindly, but of course incomprehensible fellows secured me a lift back to Samarkand.