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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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