Buzkashi (2002 Essay)

The following piece was commissioned for Gear magazine—which went out of business while I was in Tajikistan doing the work. It did appear in Drill magazine, which also went under, but not before publishing it with a cool photo spread:

The Ultimate Extreme Sport at the End of the Earth
by Ted Rall

A few seconds ago, you were just another dirty face in a crowd of sweaty wannabes gussied up like Hans Solo. Now you’re the center of attention. This, you know now, is a very bad thing.

Two or three hundred pumped-up, pissed-off horsemen—who can count all these lunatics?—are chasing you at full gallop. You’re dragging a hundred pounds of dead goat with your left hand and pounding the crap out of your panicked horse with your right as you charge through a storm of dust in a mad dash for glory and survival.

Suddenly two guys catch up, one on each side. One smacks you hard across the face with his riding crop; a blot of blood splashes across an eye. His scumbag friend lets out a spine-tingling rebel yell as he gleefully wraps his whip under your stallion’s testes. You’ve trained your animal to continue running through such shocking pain, but one hoof nonetheless catches a rut in the fog of distraction and you both go down. Something feels broken; anyway, it doesn’t matter since you’re trapped under your impossibly heavy horse. A thousand pounding hoofs pass overhead as you tumble down a well of unconsciousness.

Victory or death is the choice when you sign up for buzkashi. Today, regrettably, victory belongs to another man.

Forget Thai kickboxing, NASCAR and skydiving; buzkashi (buz is Turkic for “goat” and kashi means “bashing”) is the bloodiest and most anarchic sport currently played by the human race. Buzkashi meets occur at local, regional and national gatherings all over Central Asia, but the biggest, most violent tournament in the world takes place on two dusty fields on the outskirts of Dushanbe, the hardscrabble capital of the Republic of Tajikistan. It all goes down the first two days of spring, first at a sort of semi-final at an old garrison town named Hissar and then at a final event at the Dushanbe Hippodrome. Officially these flamboyantly-dressed brutes risk life and limb for carpets and cheap TVs and the occasional car, but everyone knows the truth: buzkashi is about pride—national and personal—fueled by the foolhardy bravery that only testosterone can provide.

Thousands have turned out for this year’s two-day competition; the streets of this mountainous former Soviet republic’s cities and villages are completely empty of men and boys. (Females are deemed too delicate for the brutal spectacle about to ensue, though a few brave souls attend.) Anticipation is particularly keen this year for several reasons. The uptight Taliban, who had banned buzkashi as pre-Muslim and thus pagan in neighboring Afghanistan, are finally out of power. The Afghans are well-remembered from the early ‘90s as lousy, but insanely vicious, players—everyone wants to see what they’ll do this year. And last year, in 2001, 22 buzkashi players met death. Hundreds more lost limbs or assorted motor functions. Most of all, though, this year is all about an old-fashioned grudge match.

“From the 1970s on, we Tajiks were the best buzkashi players in the world,” notes Buzkashi Federation of Tajikistan president Mousso Ahyoev as we walk together in the shadow of the snow-capped Pamir mountains. 1998 marked the beginning of a string of victories by horsemen from neighboring Kyrgyzstan. “The Kyrgyz are best now,” the 43-year-old native of the Tajikibadi village of Karatigen allows grudgingly, “but it is not right.”

What went wrong in ‘98? “The Kyrgyz horses somehow became stronger,” Ahyoev glares insinuatingly. “Kyrgyz horses and Tajik horses used to be basically the same in size and strength. Who knows what those people feed their horses?” A fierce expression of disgust darkens his face at the phrase those people.

Buzkashi connoisseurs agree that a horse’s overall strength—a combination of agility, speed and brute force—is the most important, if not the sole, predictor of success in this no-holds-barred, high-speed rumble on horseback. Everything boils down to two essential objectives: securing the buz and dragging it through the goal—gambits in which a powerful horse often means the difference between victory and death. Whether the Kyrgyz have stooped to pumping up the equine side of the equation with steroids remains an open question.

The Rules: This Won’t Take Long.

Experts agree that the history of buzkashi dates back thousands of years, but because most Central Asian cultures didn’t have written languages until the 1920s its exact history is unknown. Genghis Khan’s armies spread the game as they conquered lands to the west; the Golden Horde, however, preferred to use the headless body of an executed—or pre-executed—enemy soldier as the buz. This gory practice continued in some corners of Central Asia until the 19th century, and according to some reports made a comeback last fall in northern Afghanistan. Nowadays, the body of a goat is decapitated, drained of blood and soaked in salt water the night before a game. (A sheep or calf carcass may serve as acceptable substitutes.)

In every other respect buzkashi remains the same festival of orgiastic ultraviolence that broke up Mongol monotony during the 13th century. The playing field on the Hissar plain is a standard 200-by-200-yard square surrounded by 15-foot walls sloped at a 45-degree angle. Hundreds of horsemen congregate on the opposite corner of the field from the goal, which is indicated by a 10-yard gap in the crowd of spectators. An official chucks the buz onto the field. A circle of contestants forms instantly.

If you ever find yourself playing buzkashi, never take an early lead. Whoever first gets to the buz must do so by half-dismounting, keeping his special knee-high high-heeled boot hanging from one stirrup while yanking a buz leg half off the ground with one hand. Immediately surrounding that sap are dozens of men rearing their horses onto their hind legs to try to push forward through the crowd; the idea is to prod your horse to drop down hard, using his chest as a battering ram to create a gap between the animals to your left and right, like an icebreaker. Everyone rains their whips down frenetically, over and over again—on their steeds, on their neighbor’s heads, and most of all, on the guy with the buz to make him drop it. And surrounding them, forming a perfect circle of rearing horses and whip-flailing men 50 feet in diameter, is an outer ring of frustrated contestants. No one gets out of there alive—not carrying the buz, anyway.

Buzkashi is primarily an every-man-for-himself game, but horseman can and occasionally do form alliances. Sometimes one man will defend another from those trying to separate him from the buz; alternatively, others will work together to attack another.

Watching the harrowing proceedings from a viewing stand at the 100-yard line are two dozen local dignitaries led by Abdurohid Karimov, Hissar’s Tajik tribal chieftain. Theoretically, Karimov’s deputies are supposed to prevent outbreaks of violence. “They are only allowed to grab the corpse,” Karimov intones solemnly. “No kicking and no fighting, or the game will be stopped.” In practice, buzkashi stops for no man. He awards the best prizes to the most bloodthirsty players while an official brandishing a megaphone barks at a mob of horsemen bogged down in one spot while they pound the stubborn buz-holder for 10 minutes: “Quit messing around! Come on! Get it! Don’t grab your dick—grab the buz!”

Later this afternoon a man will lose both of his eyes to a guy infamous for his two-fingered poking technique; the Pokerizer, as I call him in homage to Stephen King, will be rewarded a minute later with a new green carpet. There are no rules in buzkashi. Whatever it takes to get the buz—punching, whipping, biting, stabbing—is acceptable. Afghans are famous for packing AK-47s; though gunfire is considered poor form, it doesn’t necessarily result in disqualification.

Winning is everything in this Central Asian polo, demolition derby and mosh pit from hell. A row of ambulances waiting behind the crowd sends a clear message; by the end of the day they’ll all have plenty of customers.

Suddenly, impossibly, someone breaks out of the circular mob. Leaning slightly backward in his ornately-stitched saddle to balance himself against the weight of the buz and frantically smacking his horse, he heads for a wall to shake his pursuers. Fans run for their lives as hundreds of thundering horses shoot up the ramp after the escapee, through a gap in the crowd and back down again. Sometimes the breakaway is intercepted and the circle of death descends upon him, but ultimately a new rider steals the buz and makes it across the goal. After the buz is recovered, everyone returns to the other side of the field and the game begins anew.

Minimum prize at Hissar, for dragging a buz across the goal line once, is a green synthetic rug. Exceptional performances, as determined by the panel of slightly tipsy judges, score a hand-made carpet from Turkmenistan or Afghanistan. Repeat winners vie for various major appliances such as televisions and washing machines made by local Soviet-era factories. Champions go home with live calves and donkeys. A shiny new Volga sedan awaits the grand-prize winner.

What It Is; What It Was

In many respects, the world is becoming increasingly homogenous. Whether you’re hanging out in Istanbul, Beijing or Chicago, you can eat a Big Mac, listen to the Backstreet Boys and catch the latest Mel Gibson flick at a strip mall indistinguishable from any suburb in America. The flip-side of globalization is entropy; there have never been as many countries on the planet at one time as there are now. For instance, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union freed up two dozen new nations to explore their traditional cultures. Nowhere has this transition from Soviet oppression to anarchic independence been more chaotic than in the breakaway republics of Central Asia. From that chaos have reemerged ancient spectacles that had long laid dormant under communism—like buzkashi.

In western Central Asia near the Caspian Sea are despotic Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, each dominated by scorching deserts. In the middle are the grassy steppes of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—terrain familiar to anyone who’s ever driven across Montana and Idaho. And tucked away in steep snowy mountains adjacent to the Himalayas are Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Dozens of languages and religions are spoken and practiced in these countries, but they all have one thing in common: they’re horse peoples. Outside the major cities horses remain the basic mode of transportation. In Afghanistan, horses are still so vital that a 2001 battle over the strategic center of Mazar-e-Sharif was won by a Northern Alliance cavalry charge against Taliban tanks.

The first order of business for rulers of the “-stans” after independence in 1991 was the creation of distinct nationalities where the monolithic USSR had once stood: money, postage stamps and mythic historical figures meant as much to these new entities as borders, armies and new passports. Now it’s on to phase two: they’re defining themselves by comparing themselves to their neighbors. This is, as it turns out, where the ancient sport of buzkashi is becoming an increasingly important barometer of national identity.

Tajikistan and the other new Central Asian republics celebrate the ancient Zoroastrian festival of Navruz to celebrate the arrival of spring on March 21-22. With the exception of Afghanistan, Tajikistan is the poorest “-stan”—and a civil war between the old Soviet regime and a radical Taliban-backed Islamist movement during the ‘90s ruined what little infrastructure the place had to begin with.

The region’s status as a Fourth World backwater has increased its isolation since independence. Only one carrier, the Aeroflot-breakaway Tajikistan Airlines, flies to Dushanbe. You can catch the one flight a week from Istanbul, on Saturdays, or fly daily from Moscow, like me. Because Tajik Air flies out of a different airport than Moscow’s international Sheremetyevo 2, though, you have to spring for a $600 Russian transit visa merely to change planes in Moscow. Just to make things interesting, impoverished Tajikistan can’t afford consular representation in the West, which means you can’t get a Tajik visa in the United States. Tajik Air’s ‘50s-vintage Tupolev 154s have pioneered the art of negative leg room; anyone over five feet tall has to sit with his legs on his chair to avoid suffering a broken knee. Seats are broken. Ice forms on the windows. Upon arrival in Dushanbe, the hotels are all squalid Soviet shitholes. Unsurprisingly, few tourists are willing to make the trek to the Navruz buzkashi festivities, but that’s their loss: buzkashi is more than worth the fleas and the diarrhea.

Despite earning an average income of $12 a month, the eternally broke Tajiks always manage to scare up enough donations from wealthy fans to host the biggest buzkashi event in Asia. Buzkashi horses are pricey; you can’t find a horse worth its name for less than $10,000. Organizers sponsor players, maintain and replace horses and come up with prizes good enough to lure players across war zones, 15,000-feet mountain passes and 135-degree deserts. We may not have Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan’s massive oil reserves, the Tajik message seems to be, but we can still raise the 100,000 somoni ($35,000) it takes to put on a buzkashi meet—and kick your ass in the bargain.

Until 1998, anyway.

Ethnic stereotypes are a big part of debates among buzkashi players and fans. Kazakhs and Mongols are renowned horsemen but tend to come in third or fourth at international match-ups because their approach is considered pedestrian next to the lyrical Tajiks and Kyrgyz. The Uyghurs of China’s Muslim West are well-respected—because they use baby camels back home, the lighter Tajik buz is easier for them to handle—but few make it across the heavily-guarded Xinjiang-Tajik border to compete. “Turkmen have the best horses, their Akhal-Tekes are second only to Arabians,” smirks Junadulo Telove, a 22-year-old Uzbek who with his small horse Zaychik (Kyrgyz for “rabbit”) has won Dushanbe’s city-wide competition every year since he turned 15, “but Turkmen are too dull and dimwitted to ride them correctly.” Perhaps the Turkmen are simply tired because they travel the greatest distance to Dushanbe, I suggest. “The Kyrgyz have a shorter, but much harder, ride across the Tian Shan mountains,” he insists, “but they are still OK.” The highest compliment members of any tribe can muster for their rivals is grudging respect.

This year the man to beat is Ahmon Khalimov, a homely 62-year-old Kyrgyz who claims to have won 36 national buzkashi championships. Buzkashi is a young man’s game—most of those trampled to death last year were over age 30-—but the 4’10” Khalimov has brought cars and horses home to Kyrgyzstan every year since the ‘98 sea-change. He has spent so much of his life riding horses that he can hardly walk. Khalimov could easily pass for 90.

He’s a natural.

He hovers between the inner and outer rings when the buz first hits the ground, conserving his horse’s strength for the combat yet to come. Other riders avoid him. “That old man, he looks like nothing. Last year his horse killed three guys,” shudders newbie Yormakhmat Yonosov, 21, from a backwater called Nagorne.

Khalimov hangs back, waiting for an opportunity to strike. He’s a thief; rather than beating his opponents senseless, he opportunistically waits for someone to break out; it’s easier to pound a single buz-laden individual than a hundred. Then he swoops alongside like an avenging angel, nips off an ear or nose with savage precision and snatches the buz away from his bleeding victim as his horse dashes away with a dancing side-step. Sometimes he crosses the goal line before his prey realizes he’s lost a hundred pounds of dragging carcass. Khalimov holds his whip in his teeth to free a fist for fending off other would-be usurpers as he dashes into the screaming crowd. He’s graceful, playful and a bad sport to the point of cruelty. Genghis would have loved this guy.

“I have fallen from my horse many times, but I have never been hurt in 22 years of playing buzkashi,” Ahyoev, the Tajik official, claims. Not so Khalimov. “I break my leg almost every year,” he grins, “always along the same place, just above the knee.” Taking those extra risks makes the difference: Ahyoev lost the 2001 championship to Khalimov by a single buz; this year, the Kyrgyz drives the Volga sedan home from Hissar.

No one dies, and except for the dude double-blinded by the Pokerizer, no one gets maimed. Twentysomething Hissar native son Homid Lugayev cites this year’s picture-perfect weather for the disappointingly rock-bottom casualty rate. “It rained so much that all the horses were slipping and falling. That’s why 22 people died last year. Now it’s dry, and there is no wind storm.”

But Hissar is a mere PSAT next to the main event, which takes place the following day. Even more horsemen—an estimated 500—gather at the Hippodrome in Dushanbe proper. President Imamali Rakhhmanov will personally supervise the internationally-televised must-see event of the year.

The Tajiks Strike Back

Rumors abound that a radical Islamist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is planning a terrorist attack and/or assassination attempt at the Hippodrome for buzkashi day two, and the atmosphere is tense. Fire engines line the running track surrounding the field. Every spectator is subjected to a documents check and a thorough pat-down, and more than a thousand heavily-armed military police are on hand to separate the 99 percent male crowd from the playing field. (Bleachers remain half-finished, construction equipment rusting away, from Soviet days.)

Anyone on horseback, however, is waved through the checkpoint. Even a Tartar woman wearing lipstick and make-up is approved for play. It never occurs to anyone that even ruthless IMU terrorists would defile the sport of buzkashi by posing as a player.

Light intermittent rain and a long wait to get in makes the crowd edgy. The layout sucks; unlike the ideal set-up at Hissar, the Hippodrome’s terrain is flat, so there’s no ramp separating the horses and no height to allow good visibility. To make matters worse, the police keep people so far back that they can barely see the field or their president, who sits on a reviewing stand on the far end of the field. Every few minutes the crowd surges against the line of cops, who respond by pounding heads with rubber truncheons.

Then the action shifts from the other side where most of the players had been showing off for President Rakhhmanov. One man—it’s Ahyoev!—breaks free of a circle that had been bogged down for nearly 15 minutes. His ally stabs at an immense Kazakh with his whip to keep him at bay. The earth pounds as 500 horsemen head straight for where I’m standing. There’s no place to run, so I stand perfectly still.

The crowd lets out a roar as the horses pass through us, between us, on top of us. Buzkashi has left the field, the police are in disarray, the crowd is running along with the horses. The crowd turns brazen—one man steals an officer’s cap and runs. A few guys lie injured in the field of battle, but even they’re smiling: in this one-party dictatorship run by the same guy who ruled here under the Soviets, where the KGB still exists and the police are forever checking up on you and hitting you up for bribes, where there are no jobs to speak of and you’ll likely die before you make it to age 50, people have breathed the freedom that comes with rules being broken. Two kids find a loose buz leg and swing it around, spraying blood on police and civilians alike. The cops try to restore order, but it’s no use—you can’t control anarchy.

Ultimately, the day belongs to the people, but the grand prize belongs to a newcomer, Farydun Zangynov. His approach is workaday, methodical, almost boringly thuggish, but it’s effective. Time after time, he wades into the mob, beats the crap out of whoever has the buz, and drags it across the goal line. “I played to win,” Zangynov, 20, says from atop his perfectly-proportioned Arabian Malesh (“baby”), “so I won.” Something is bleeding under his white shirt, but I shut up. Why ruin the moment? People gather around as he guides Malesh to the reviewing stand to collect the chit for his car. “Where are you from?” the president’s aide asks this year’s champion. “I’m from Dushanbe!” A triumphant cry goes up as the word spreads.

The losing streak is over. A Tajik has reclaimed the long-stolen buzkashi title. Ahmon Khalimov, the ancient Kyrgyz champion, looks on: “That boy, he played well, but I will be ready for him next year,” he promises.

Blood gushes down Khalimov ‘s scalp as they load him into an ambulance.

(C) 2002 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.