A wide and fast-flowing river at the bottom of the pass snakes along a lush valley. Men methodically scythe the long grass, backbreaking and slow work. Sheltered and hidden away at a bend in the river, shaded by trees, stands a yurt in one of the most beautiful locations in a country of beautiful locations.
I step off the path to have a look and am greeted by an old man in a kalpak, the traditional Kyrgyz hat. He has been busy making rounds of hard sheep’s cheese and insists on inviting us into his yurt. Although the man and his wife are fasting because of Ramadan, we are offered cheese and bread and cream. The man tells me that his name is Raidan – Paradise Soul – and introduces me to his five-year-old granddaughter Nurgul – Light Flower. The little girl is the daughter of the youngest of eight sons, and is being brought up by her grandparents, who she will look after in their old age.
Raidan tells us that, as well as sheep, he has five cows, mares to milk and a horse to ride – but life is difficult. All of his sons are unemployed and have gone to Bishkek to look for work, sometimes returning for a little illegal fishing in Lake Song-Köl. ‘In the old days it was hard but we earned money. Now there is no money.’ When we leave, he presses a bag of cheese upon us and indignantly refuses payment.
Journeying on, we reach the collapsed wooden bridge on the other side of which a driver waits patiently for us. Even by car, the remainder of the journey to the games is a rough ride over potholed roads that run out into a bewildering array of unmarked tracks and ruts.
Our destination turns out to be a single yurt in wild country beside an old Russian railway car with ‘welcome’ printed on it in English. The family organising the games are busy putting up a second yurt for visitors, which fills up as the evening wears on. By nightfall there is a full house, and I sleep cheek by jowl beside a variety of strangers.
First light reveals a bleak picture of cloud and sudden gusts of rain. A sheep is removed from the flock for lunch and, after its executioners have turned towards Mecca, has its throat cut. It is a long, bloody and botched business and I turn away. The camp dogs greedily lap up the blood from a bowl, while the men skin and gut the butchered sheep. A man who has witnessed my squeamishness says disdainfully, ‘Ah, you eat prepared food… less trouble but less fresh.’
The weather does not improve throughout the morning. Low cloud sweeps across the mountains followed by squally rain. Even so, we are treated to a display of the full gamut of traditional horse games: horsemen galloping at speed stoop to pick up coins from the ground; men chasing girls on horseback – if the girl is caught, she gives the man a kiss; if not, she whips him in scorn. Men stripped to the waist wrestle, attempting to pull one another from the saddle. ‘Would you like to wrestle the winner?’ the organiser of the games asks. I politely decline.
The king of the traditional horse games is Ulak-Tartysh, in which two teams of up to ten players attempt to score goals using the carcass of a decapitated goat. The players clamp their teeth down on strands of wool so that they do not cry out – Kyrgyz men do not show pain – and more practically don’t bite off their tongues. Amateur games are inordinately dangerous to participant and spectator alike, as the teams rarely keep to the designated pitch and have a tendency to overrun onlookers. And in this particular game a number of riders seem to be drunk. I point this out to a local watching beside me. ‘Oh, yes – it is less painful if drunk.’