Thursday, 24 September 2009

Not a good day for goats

This morning was crystal clear, perfect blue sky, snow on the mountains, a chill in the air - the perfect weather to go and watch some outdoor sport, and luckily it fell on day two of the National Kazakh Kokpar championships which is held at a ground on the road to Bishkek. Kokpar is Kazakh polo. Teams have ten members, with four players from each side on the field at any time. The field is about 200 metres long and 100 metres wide, and marked with two large circles and two smaller ones. At either end, there are some built up "goals", like giant, flat, doughnuts, made of straw, I guess, and covered in a tarpauline.

The game begins with the "ball" - a headless goat, its legs also removed below the knees - being chucked into one of the larger white rings. A player from each team then enters the ring and they jostle and wrestle each other to try and pick up the goat. The horses lean right into each other, trying to push the on-target player away. The on-target player is trying not to be pushed away from the goat so he can get a chance to reach down and grab the dead beast. The horses are literally wrestling, I have never seen anything like it, they are really feisty and it is a real tussle to get the goat. They have two minutes to succeed, and if noone can manage, then another two players have a go.

Once someone has managed to grab the goat off the ground, they stick it under one leg, or hold it under an arm and gallop off as fast as they can away from their immediate opponent and towards their goal. The rest of their team members gallop along as fast as they can and try to block the opposition from coming in and pinching the carcass, or prevent them from making their way to the goal. Once they get around the circular goal stack, there is a massive blocking action from the defending team and the play can move backwards and forwards a lot. Sometimes the goat holder is so fast that he gets a break away score, hurling the goat into the centre of the ring and then riding back towards the commentary box, where he raises a hand triumphantly to claim a point. At the end of the game the teams do a canter past each other (riding towards each other in two columns) and touch hands.

It is an amazing spectacle - really physical, fast and exciting to watch, actually a very good spectator sport. The goat looks more like a fluffy sack than a dead animal, although by the end of a few games the "ball" was decidedly the worse for wear, having become more elongated and with traces of entrails hanging from its arse! Poor goat, it is not a noble way to go!

We met a guy who manages one of the teams and who was very keen to help us understand what was going on, which was brilliant. His name was Nurlan and he manages a team from the Almaty region which had jusy won its game in the tournament and so will play again tomorrow for a place in Sunday's final. He was filling us in on lots of details which were all very interesting.

"You may wonder why we use a goat?" he mused.

I almost snorted with laughter, thinking "Nah, mate, didn't even notice that you were using a headless, footless, farm animal instead of a ball!" but instead I merely nodded politely, and said, "Yes, we had wondered that."
"Well, the goat skin is thick. If we use a sheep it doesn't work. how do you say?"
"Falls apart?" I hazarded.

"Yes, it falls apart," he concluded.

I smiled, and admitted that actually, we were quite curious about the goat thing, because in England where I come from, people also play polo, but they tend to use long stick-like implements to knock a small ball around.
He smiled back and nodded, clearly thinking that English polo is only for poofs!

As well as the horses and games to watch, there were some classic people kicking about. I talked for a while to an ancient and grizzled old Dombra player. A dombra is a two stringed instrument which is the national instrument of Kazakhstan and which is a very fantastic instrument to hear being played, as they tend to play it incredibly quickly and it has a very pleasing deep resonant tone indeed. This old geezer claimed to be on very good terms with Vladimir Putin, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Dimitry Medyedev among others! And as well as the spectators, there are plenty of horsemen kicking around between games wearing enormous leather boots up to their knees, then jeans, a team top and some kind of funky Central Asian head wear on top. They all look a bit like you imagine Ghengis Khan's marauding horsemen might have looked as they streamed into a tiny settlement to raze it to the ground. I found it all extremely dramatic.

It was a Wow day today. A "Wow, I can't believe I am watching this" combined with "Blimey, I can't believe that I live here," and with a hint of "I wonder what everyone is doing in England," sort of day. And for my youngest daughter, who is nearly two and came along for the fresh air and the "horsies" it made a total change from her usual Thursday routine of Playgroup! She spent the whole of the journey to school later making horse noises and bouncing around in her car seat in a state of high excitement!

1 comment:

  1. Well, I went to the supermarket and the play park. I think you had the more exciting day.