Goat Polo

The man cut the goat’s throat with a swift movement. I winced at the gargling sound, yet was unable to look away as blood streamed into a bucket. Death came quickly. Within seconds, the animal stopped struggling.

The Kyrgyz girls continued playing, not bothering by the scene unfolding next to them. It wasn’t until one of the horse man picked up the goat’s body and called at us to follow that they interrupted their play and tagged along as we made our way to the neighbouring yurt camp.

Lake Song Kul, situated at an altitude of more than 3000m, was described in our guidebooks as a place “too perfect to be true”. The lake glistened in the distance, the snowcapped mountains on its other side barely visible from where we stood. The hills had exploded in colours, with dots of yellow, white and purple spreading out as far as I could see. I walked carefully, trying not to crush the flowers underneath my feet. I wrapped my arms around me, wondering if it was the cold wind or the goat’s death that made me shiver.

The horsemen were not nearly as careful as me. They whipped their horses, pushing them forward and crashing into each other along the way. Playfully, they tried to steal the goat’s body from each other, until the judge’s whistle made them stop.

We had arrived at our goal. A player dropped the goat in the middle of the meadow and we retreated behind some tyre tracks that formed the edge of the field. The goat polo was about to start – or so I thought.

What started was a wrestling game between two of the men. They removed their shirts and grabbed each other, trying to pull their opponent to the ground. The horses danced underneath them, crashing into each other and whirling across the meadows. I glanced at the goat, its body seemingly forgotten as all eyes were turned towards the wrestlers.

The game ended with the blow of a whistle, leaving us unsure about who had won. None had fallen to the ground, not like in the tug of war that followed and that was far easier to understand.

More and more spectators joined, locals and tourists alike. A young boy cried and was swiftly swept up on a horse by his father. The crowd was getting restless. It was time for the goat polo to start.

From where I sat, the animal’s body was a mere white dot in the meadow. At the blow of a whistle, eight horsemen raced towards it, clashing together right above the white dot. For a few seconds, nobody seemed to get ahead, then we heard shouting and the next moment, someone raced away, carrying a white body.

I held my breath as the player left the group behind and dropped the goat into a hole at the end of the meadow. The shrill sound of a whistle echoed through the air and we started clapping. The referee announced what had to be the score, his voice loud enough to echo across the meadow. One team was in the lead.

“The local team scored,” a male voice explained from behind. I turned around to see a man holding himself upright on his black horse. A faint smile played on his lips and I briefly wondered how old he was. Maybe my age, in his early thirties, I guessed, though I’ve never been good at estimating ages.

“Against whom are they playing?” I inquired, the game briefly forgotten as I examined his elegant features.

“A team from Kochor,” he replied. I turned back to the game that had started again. The ground trembled with the thunder of hooves as the players raced across the meadow. Horses smashed against each other and from the distance, I could see the players fighting over the goat.

Soon, the whistle echoed once more across the meadow. Two – zero for the locals.

The spectators cheered and I held my breath as the horses raced once more against each other. The fact that they were playing with the dead body of a goat was almost forgotten.

This was their way of life, I guessed. They had once been nomadic horsemen and shepherds, now they played polo with goats. There was a certain elegance about the game, the players completely unbothered by the galloping horses, fighting over the goat as if they were standing on firm ground.

“I would have fallen off after the first two seconds,” I muttered more to myself than to anyone else, before turning to my travel companions. “What’s the score now? Was that a goal?”

Everyone shrugged. We had lost track of the score. When the whistle finally announced the end of the game, I estimated it to be 3-3. It turned out to be 6-1 for the local team.

The spectators cheered. Locals joined the players, celebrating with them. They would get to take home the goat. Because as much as they enjoyed playing with it, there is no waste in Kyrgyzstan. Meat and fat are too valuable in this harsh country of endless winters and cold summer, the home of the people who can ride before they can walk.

Inside a yurt

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