Buzkashi by the Oxus

It took 10 days to reach Lake Zorkul. Our small group had experienced and endured day-long drives in over-full, increasingly decrepid four-wheel-drive vehicles on decreasingly bearable roads. We had crossed icy meltwater streams on the sometimes manageable horses of our various village hosts. We had trekked long, hard miles at altitudes over 4000 metres, and suffered for it, then been rejuvenated by chai and yak's milk yoghurt, bread and rice and a good night's sleep in a fire-warmed yurt at the next tiny village.

Lake Zorkul lies at the the most north-eastern extreme of Afghanistan's wonderfully mountainous Wakhan Corridor, and is the source of the Oxus, or Amu Darya, River. Today it forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In the 19th century it had marked the extremes of influence between the Tsarist Russian empire to the north and the British Raj far to the south. Despite being at the epicentre of a century of political maneuvering, few Westerners had ever visited it.

So it was with something of a sense of history that the seven of us stood on the south-western shore of the clear, icy-blue lake, and gazed at the calm surface in the thin early morning air.

Or we would have if it wasn't for the furious, unbearable swarms of tiny black insects which immediately engulfed each of us. Neither any gazing nor even standing still was possible. Having reached our objective we were now unsure what to do with it. After a brief team discussion, we decided a quick dip was necessary. We were shocked but hardly surprised to find that it was every bit as cold as it looked. In minutes we were dressed again, and back on our horses, both us and them glad to retreat to our nearby camp.

Although it was unspoken, our sense of achievement at having successfully reached our goal was tempered with mild disappointment at the brevity of our visit. Back at camp we ate and lounged about, not sure how to fill the
rest of the day.

Our guides, the proud, nomadic Krygyz horsemen who inhabit this part of the Wakhan in sparse numbers had a solution to this problem. Expert horsemen, they had been doing little more than guiding and portering for us for several days. They were bored. Therefore sport was called for.

Buzkashi is the ancient national sport of Afghanistan. Some accounts say it even originated along the banks of the Oxus. It requires little more than plenty of open space, a sheep's carcass or skin, and as many willing riders and their mounts as can be found (half a dozen in this case). These we had.

The carcass or skin is dropped on the ground. The riders gather around and attempt to pick it up from the dirt. Invariably a mounted tog-of-war develops between two or more riders until one can break free with it and gallop off a short distance before throwing it down for the contestants to gather again for the next round.

That is how it is played, but not how it is experienced. In a country with little to bring joy, the Afghans are passionate about their Buzkashi, and the Krygyz are masters at it. They rode past, about and around us, their previously staid demeanours now replaced with beaming grins and whoops of excitement. The sheep's skin was repeatedly cast dramatically to the ground before the scrum of horses and riders would jostle around it. To pick it up required leaning far past the horizontal, so that at times only the sole of their opposite boot was visible above the saddle. For a minute or two nothing would seem to happen. Then two, sometimes three riders would break away at speed, reins in one hand, grasping the skin with the other, short whip between their teeth, leaning away
out of the saddle again to counterbalance each other. When one rider managed to wrestle the prize from the other there would be a whoop of joy, a short victory gallop, and a cry of challenge as the skin was hurled once more to the ground. Again and again this was repeated, they never tiring of the game and we never tiring of the
spectacle. Only the fatigue of the horses finally ended the sport near sunset.

A short distance from the shore of Afghanistan's Lake Zorkul, we found that it's not the destination itself, it's what happens there that defines the journey.

G Downton

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