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Asia Travel

Accidental Buzkashi Tajikistan and the elusive Tajik Sheep Horse

Buzkashi Tajikistan. It’s not something I plan. I don’t even really know what it is before seeing it. I’ve read about it, somewhere, but managed to store away the information in the forget file. I do that with many things. Learn about them, then forget that I have learned about them, then encounter them and remember that I know about them. I’m very curious. And I’m a stoner.

I’m in Tajikistan with DH, because I am visiting the Stans and because it’s one of the few places he can go. It turns out that Tajik is akin to a dialect of Persian, which DH finds very cute, and that gets us far in Dushanbe. He’s been a drag to have along lately so the shared language is a welcome lift for the experiences it draws in.

This experience, though, is all mine for the catching. It’s a friend of The Plant Whisperer. The friend is, well, a sweet and weird woman, who mostly is obsessed with horses. Anywhere I go in the world – she is asking me about horses. 

Let’s unpack that. I can be in, say, Lagos. Learning about slavery from the small end of the telescope. Encountering a culture so foriegn it shocks me. And I’ll post a photo of something exotic to my social. And she comes back…

“Seen any horses?” It’s actually super endearing and a weird part of my travels. Always an eye to the horses.

At about age 8-10 I rode horses. I loved it. It was a great part of my childhood. I am familiar with horse things, but not one of those horse girls. They’re cool, but I don’t seek them out.

Before I go to Tajikistan, she engages me in a horsey mission. If I can meet with her contact and get some samples from a rare breed of curly-hair horse, I might be able to prove something about the migration of humans and the horses they brought with them. I can’t remember exactly what it was (see first paragraph), but perhaps something about Chinese getting to the US before Columbus. 

So, DH speaks Persian, which is close enough to Tajik, so this mission seems really doable. He calls the dude, we set up a meeting. Dude tells us to hand the phone to the cab driver, so we do.

We ride about 45 minutes outside of Dushanbe. I don’t recommend it. 

I see crops being watered with raw human sewage. It’s not as if I was eating much of the local food anyway. No matter what you order in Tajikistan, you always get plov. And I’m a vegetarian, which is an ordeal. Even if I weren’t a vegetarian, in the immortal words of my brother from another mother:

“Meat on sticks does not qualify as cuisine.”

It doesn’t take me but one disappointing, bland, vegetarian plov experience to start eating packaged food. It’s a sad reality when packaged, imported food is more healthy than what can grow in the ground.

Buzkashi Tajikistan
Buzkashi Tajikistan

We’re still driving. Passing identical track homes for many miles until we start to just see, well… Land. Just, rugged, empty, sparsely grassy, dusty land. The roads aren’t bad, but the landscape is brutal. Third most mountainous country in the world. Resources are scarce up here.

It’s a quiet ride. The longer it goes, the more DH and I wonder what the hell we have gotten ourselves into. 

Finally we pull up and it’s a field. Looks like a sports field of some kind. There are a lot of other people parked lining the field. We realize we have no way to get home, and DH negotiates with the cabbie to wait for us while we find our guy and get the curly horse hair samples.

When we cross over to the field I see that there are horses, and at first I think it might be a polo field. But then we get closer.

I see what looks like a stampede of horses chasing after one horse. 

Buzkashi Tajikistan
Buzkashi Tajikistan

“Are they chasing him?” says DH.

“Yeah. Old habits die hard.” I say, thinking of how long horse culture has been around in Central Asia

And then I see it.

“Is that a fucking dead goat hanging from that horse?” I exclaim. 

“What?!” asks DH. I point to the horse that the other horses are chasing. He sees it. Indeed, there is a dead fucking goat hanging from the horse.

Buzkashi Tajikistan

This is where I thank the stars for my reception, and look it up, and realize that I am watching buzkashi in Tajikistan. I become completely uninterested in my primary mission, and get sucked into the game.

I am the only woman anywhere near the field. There are over a hundred Tajik men. They slowly realize I am present, and parade their horses in front of me.

Buzkashi Tajikistan

I smile and take photos of them. They are nice horses, but something about these mountain men trying to woo me with “look at my horse!” is, uh… primitive.

Horse and Rider
Hey lady, look at my horse.

I get a distinct Marlboro Man vibe from them. They are trash-talking dudes who live for this game. The riders are professionals usually, but sometimes just someone’s cousin. The horses are generally owned by the people who are betting on the game, and the goal, well, is for them to get that fucking dead goat. 

It is a serious sport in Central Asia, and certainly buzkashi Tajikistan is like, a true, authentic representation of buzkashi. I had no idea, but here I am. There are people hang gliding onto the field to see the game.

Buzkashi Tajikistan Hang Gliding
Hang Gliding into the Buzkashi game

DH is thoroughly amused as well. He starts translating the shit talk:

“You can’t even wipe your ass and you’re riding.”

“Fuck you, I’ll fuck your wife 1000 times”

I am dying laughing at this for a while, and then the game gets super serious, and I realize that none of the horses on the field have curly hair. There are some beautiful horses, for sure. I worry about them constantly, the sport doesn’t seem safe for them. 

The riders wear special buzkashi Tajikistan pads. Long leather boots to keep their shins from getting busted. 

The game goes on, and then suddenly, there is cheering. People walk up to DH and shake his hand. Everyone is smiling. DH looks at me.

“We won.” he says, with lovable mirth in his voice.

Buzkashi Horse
Buzkashi field

We call the horse guy a few times, but no answer. DH figures he might as well quest while we’re on the field and starts asking the buzkashi Tajikistan guys if they have any curly hair horses. The word for “curly” though, is not the same in Tajik as it is in Persian, so much hilarious pantomime goes into it, until one of the Tajiks is like “Ah! The horse that is like a sheep! Yes! We know!” 

However, none of them have any leads. They all name some village or region that they live in, which roughly translates to “the mountains”. Remember: entire country is mountains.

Luckily the cab guy patiently waited, out of little more than simplicity. 

Back to Dushanbe for us, but it’s not the end of the story.

We finally do meet the horse guy, who takes us in his car another 45 minutes outside of Dushanbe (again, do not recommend. Perhaps further is beautiful, but not 45 minutes). I think that we are going to see the curly horses and get their hair, but dude simply takes us to the buzkashi stables.

I sit with flies on me as they bring the horses out one by one, tell me the breeds (half Tajik, half Turkish, full Tajik, full Arabian)… yet they have none with curly hair. DH questions our contact, who tries to claim that one of them does have curly hair. DH is like no. Not sheep horse. 

I take hair samples anyway. Watching the buzkashi Tajikistan stable boys pull the hair from the manes of the horses is kind of hot, but also makes me feel bad for the horses. They react, but recover quickly.

I then carry the horse hair through 7 more countries before finally mailing it back to the United States, probably illegally.

Later, I look up buzkashi Tajikistan and learn that games are often thrown by the father of the bride, and are often a wedding festivity. I know that the game I saw was not, but given the super butch, primitive, horsey, rodeo culture thing I witnessed, I now am awfully curious about Tajik weddings.

Still haven’t found the elusive Tajik sheep horse. But I know they’re out there. 

In the mountains.


Another story about the Stans


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