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Archive for March, 2010

I have one more full-length buzkashi-in-Gharm post waiting to be written, but probably not today.  So, in the meantime, a photo of me with one of the buzkashi riders, called a chapandaz.

Culture clash much?

Yes, I wore an orange baseball cap to buzkashi.  I was going to say that it made sense at the time, but no, it never made much sense.  Of course, the chapandaz is wearing a plastic bag over his tuppi hat, so there was bad haberdashery all around.

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From my weekend in Istravashan:

On the moonlit shore of a silent lake . . .

Happy Persian New Year to everyone!

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Ever since I entered South Junior High in 1986, my school teams have always worn Red, and it was a big sports week for the Red teams.

Hingham High boys ice hockey won the Eastern Mass Super 8 tournament, and thereby essentially the Massachusetts state title, beating Catholic Memorial 1-0.  I watched HHS beat St. John’s Shrewsbury for the DII crown my senior year at the old Garden, but a victory in the Super 8 against the best other seven high school teams is even more than that.  It means going up against the private schools, the religious high school behemoths like CM and Archies, and the prep squads too.  It’s the big time, as much a schoolboy hockey can be big time, and it’s a heck of an achievement for a bunch of young guys from 02043.

Meanwhile, the Big Red, the jump shooters from Cornell continued their Cinderella run in March Madness beating the University of Wisconsin 87-69 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament.  I saw the Red get licked in Anaheim two years ago by the Lopez brothers and a much stronger Stanford team.  Although this club has some of the same players, they are now seniors and seasoned and making their run.  Now if I can just find a way to watch the game against Kentucky on Thursday, I’d be stoked, though listening to it on ‘VBR isn’t half bad.

A great, great week for my teams, and even though I missed much of it — sumalak and Navruz vacation got in the way — I can’t wait for their next act.

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Although this is not what Dionne Warwick had in mind, I don’t think.  Tajik kids are weirdly photogenic, especially when they refuse to smile.  Allow me to present some of the children of Gharm as seen during my trip up there for buzkashi.  If I was even more pretentious than usual, I’d call this “A Photoessay of Gharmese Youth”.

Such a look of consternation from such a young child

Sporting the style of the typical Tajik male

Kids at buzkashi, learning and growing

Wishing they could join us on the flatbed trucks to watch the match

There's a smile! An impish one at that.

Holding hands, holding their breath

Okay, so this is A.Banana and not a Tajik child (with Bakhtiyor our driver in the background), but we'll throw it in anyway.

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Buzkashi is a Persian word, Tajik being a Persian language, meaning approximately “goat grabbing“.  For those of you who have not seen Rambo III, let me paraphrase Wikipedia to describe the game:

People on horseback try to pick up a headless, disemboweled goat carcass off the ground, or away from the other riders, and throw it into a scoring circle (the “Circle of Justice”).  The riders will carry a whip, often in their teeth, to fend off opposing horses and riders.

This anodyne description cannot do justice to the violence, aggression, and oddity of a buzkashi match.

Battling for the goat in a dry riverbed outside of Gharm

In the scrum, whips flying, blood flowing

The setting for the two-day buzkashi match I saw was idyllic.  Not idyllic in the sense that I’d want to build a vacation home there, but perfect for hosting a seething mass of horsemen struggling to scoop a dead goat stuffed with sand off the ground and toss it into a truck tire so to win prizes like a garishly-colored comforter made in some nameless Chinese factory city that is home to 8 million people.

Mountains stood as sentinels on either side of the river Surhob, which itself shifted back and forth like an oversized snake covered in mud.  The river only occupied a small portion of the bed, leaving exposed a kaleidoscopic variety of mini-boulders half-wedged into gray grit masquerading as sand.

Three yards and a cloud of dust

With the mountains looking down . . .

The riders kicked up a cloud of dust wherever they went, even when they seemed to be barely moving, which was often.  In some way, buzkashi is a cross between polo and rugby, with frequent scrums, horsemen shoulder to shoulder, whacking each other, clawing and grabbing for the goat.  But every so often, a rider would break free, goat in hand or splayed across his saddle, players in furious pursuit.

The chase is on, though the goat seems not to notice

There are no boundaries in buzkashi, so the riders can and do go everywhere.  Several times they came up the gully and onto the ridge where the spectators were, galloping amongst people, cars, and whatever else was in the way.

Battling over the goat, up on the ridge

At the time, there was a lot of downtime and I felt like I took too many photos (465) of the same scene: guys on horseback with antiquated Soviet tanker helmets battling over a dead goat.  But looking back on it, with perhaps some early onset nostalgia thrown in, it was a real cultural experience and fascinating.

Over the next few days, I’ll put up some more Gharm and buzkashi photos and posts, which will hopefully give you a sense of what it was like to be at the back of beyond watching buzkashi.

Off in the distance

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The center of Gharm

Gharm is nestled in between the mountains, 200 km east of Dushanbe and essentially half-way down the Rasht Valley.  The town is known for being conservative, both socially and religiously, and for being independent-minded.  Most of the worst fighting in the Tajik Civil War in the ’90s took place around here, and the area is still only tenuously under the control of the central government.  This lack of actual control may be the reason for the ostentatious displays of state authority all across Gharm, including the de rigeur and ubiquitous photos of the President throughout the town.

At least the backdrop is nice

Although the town center was relatively bustling when we arrived just after noon on Friday, it was because the shops and offices emptied as the men (and it is only the men) walked to Friday prayers.  The mosque on the edge of town was perhaps the nicest building in the settlement, with a burnished dome but no minarets.

The mosque in Gharm

With all the development problems in the Rasht Valley and Gharm, it was disappointing to see how much money was invested in religious structures rather than into people’s lives.  Gharm was not the only town I’ve seen where tens of thousands of dollars were spent on a religious building while people within a stone’s throw didn’t have enough to eat.

After we poked around for a hour or so, we saw pretty much all there was to see of the sights of Gharm.  We were ready to get onto the road east of town and head to the buzkashi match.  But that had to wait for Saturday.

The road to buzkashi . . .

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The road to Gharm from Dushanbe divides naturally into three parts: good, bad, then good again.

From the capital to Obi Garm, the spa town, the road is paved, has guard rails, and is generally quite civilized.  Once you get beyond the Obi Garm town limits, however, it is a different story.  Pavement gives way to dirt gives way to mud.  And pot holes, don’t forget the pot holes.  There are also, in fairness, quite a few stones along the route, ranging in size from pebble to boulder.   Complicating matters, or maybe simplifying them depending on your point-of-view, are the sheer drops from the edge of the road into a stunning gorge through which the Surhob River flows.  No guard rails, remember.

Then there are the mud- and rock-slides that apparently occur with regularity to block the way.  This leads to back-ups until the road can be cleared.

The back-up following a mudslide near Nurabad

And sometimes, vehicles, like say our Prado, doesn’t wait for the blockage to be removed.

Backhoe? Who needs a stinking backhoe?

Sometimes on the rough part of the Dushanbe-to-Gharm road, streams decline to respect the boundary between nature and man.

Bridge? Who needs a stinking bridge?

The bad part of the journey lasts for 55 km, or an hour and a half.  On the way out to Gharm, I was in the way back of the SUV, so this wasn’t super-fantastic.  But eventually, you do clear the mountains and come into the Rasht Valley proper, which is where Gharm is situated.  And once you do, the dirt track miraculously transforms into an shockingly straight piece of tarmac all the way to Gharm town.  Thank you Chinese development aid!  (Well, it’s actually loans and most of the work is done by Chinese convicts trying to reduce their sentences through labor so not too many local jobs are created and who knows what the PRC will ask for when Tajikistan defaults on these loans as is probably inevitable, but hey, this was supposed to be a light little travel post, so I’ll leave it to someone else to cogitate on these issues.)

Just before you reach Gharm there’s a natural spring, a place for travelers to sip some water and be refreshed before traveling on.  We took the opportunity to pose as a group, the sistrabrathood of the trip to Gharm for buzkashi.

Polarizer? Who needs a stinking polarizer?

Now, for the buzkashi.

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