You have probably heard about Polo, a team sport played on horseback. Some people refer to it as “The Sport of Kings” and consider this game to be one of the most dangerous in the world. We’re sure that they have never heard of or seen the Kyrgyz traditional game called Ulak-Tartysh or Kok-Boru. If you wonder why we think so, look at the picture below and decide for yourself whether it looks dangerous or not:
Yes, you are right, players compete for a headless and disembowelled goat carcass that has had its legs removed to the knees and has been soaked in cold water for 24 hours. Sometimes sand is packed into the carcass to give it more weight. The weight at official competitions is between 32 and 35 kilograms.
This game is played on a field that is about 200 meters long with two round gates “Tai Kazan” (a big round basin) at opposite ends. All you need to do is pick up the goat carcass and carry it down the field and throw it into the gate. A piece of cake, isn’t it? Wait, the fun part starts when your rival team of horsemen try to stop you and grab the goat for themselves to race back to the opposite end to score a goal.
“Kok-Boru” from Turkic languages means “Grey wolf”. What does the wolf have to do with the game? There is an explanation written in the 80s by a Soviet ethnographer:
“The old Kyrgyz men repeatedly told us about a certain type of wolf hunting which is popular among south and north Kyrgyz. According to which, a group of horsemen on strong and hardy horses chase a wolf in the snow and once they reach it, they kill it by hitting its head with heavy batons. After that, the person who killed the wolf places the carcass across the saddle and on the way back to the village other riders try to get the carcass, some sort of a game or tradition”.
So that’s the reason we call it Kok-Boru or Grey wolf, however nowadays as you can understand it is not an easy task to get a wolf carcass, so we use goats’. As for the gates (round basins), they appeared later according to another legend:
“Kyrgyz people used to live in Yurts (or Boz Uy in Kyrgyz). So locals used to play Kok Boru with the goal of putting a goat in their own boz uy. At that time it was not a team game: each person played for himself. Some strong men could throw a lamb’s body into a boz uy and the host of the boz uy would have the right to keep the body”.
There were no particular rules until 1996 when 4 countries (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan) founded the Kok-Boru International Federation and agreed on rules and other requirements. China and Russia joined later.
Basic rules require each team to have 12 riders and 12 horses, but only 4 riders from each team are allowed on the field during the period. Members have the right to change the riders or horses. The game has 3 periods, 20 minutes each. You score if you throw the carcass into the opponent’s kazan (gate).
As you can understand this game requires considerable strength and skills and the average age of participants (at the official competitions) is about 22 years.
The season starts in March with the official opening on March 21st when we celebrate “Nooruz” (New year). If you wish to see this game you should contact your local friends or Nomady as there is no website that can give you the full schedule/information. However, for most major holidays on the Kyrgyz calendar, one can reliably expect to find a game or two going on out at the city’s Hippodrome stadium.
Do not miss a chance to see Kok-Boru and other fascinating, mysterious nomadic games, come to Kyrgyzstan this September to be part of the World Nomad Games: http://worldnomadgames.com/en/