Buzkashi: Experiencing the World's Deadliest Sport

Buzkashi: Experiencing the World’s Deadliest Sport

January 8 | 6 Comments

A rough game of the Central Asian Buzkashi sport

What is Buzkashi?

Buzkashi, known as kokpar in Kazakhstan, is described on Wikipedia thus: “Buzkashi is often compared to polo. Both games are played between people on horseback, both involve propelling an object toward a goal, and both get fairly rough. However, polo is played with a ball, and buzkashi is played with a headless goat carcass.”

Buzkashi…is what polo might look like if it was played in prison.

This I feel nicely encapsulates both the game and its bizarreness in western eyes. I can say though, that the game doesn’t really make sense until you see it yourself but I think the polo comparison falls short (for more, see the rules of Buzkashi). It seems more appropriate to say this is what polo might look like if it was played in prison.

The riders virtually wrestle on horseback to get hold of the kokpar, and it is not uncommonly fatal for the riders and the horses that participate. The version of the game we saw had no goals, instead it was more of a game of ‘king-of-the-hill’ where the last rider standing with the carcass was the winner, earning considerable respect and material rewards. It’s probably no surprise that this grueling sport is the national pastime of tough-as-nails Afghanis.

Let the Buzkashi Sport Begin

Following a friendly but fiercely competitive horse race that took up much of the morning, the game of Buzkashi began, erupting into a frenzy of excited yelling, thundering hooves and the muffled fusillade of many whips cracking.

The game of Buzkashi begins as the goat carcass is retreived

Scrum in full motion. Taken right outside our yurt. Credit: Olle Axmark

The riders would struggle to grasp the carcass, congealing into a swirling amoebic scrum of muscled equine and impeccably groomed mustaches. The scrum would drift slowly in one direction as each player tried in turn to push to the core of the unit and grasp the prize.

Watch a video of Buzkashi being played in Xinjiang here…

Eventually a daring rider would successfully claim the kokpar from the maw and race away from the pack, trying to put as much distance between him and the other riders. The realization that the goat had been seized would take a few moments to filter through the blob, after which it would explode into a full-on race to catch the escaping chapandaz.

These transitions between the scrum and chase phases were jarring and seemingly random with the arbitrary timing of a game of musical chairs. This made the game difficult (and even dangerous) for spectators. At one point the scrum literally engulfed our yurt, with my uncle jumping inside just in time to avoid becoming roadkill à la Xinjiang.

This game of Kazakh Buzkashi seemed to have no boundaries, and the riders would forge far into the grassland to tire down their opponents, in the process shrinking down to small brownish shapes, not dissimilar to how I imagine a Mongol raiding party would have looked back in the day bearing down on some poor unsuspecting farmer.

A Familiar Tradition: Sport and Beer

After a few minutes our Kazakh friend Mulaty invited me and my uncle to go further up into the grassland and share a few beers with his friends. He shuttled us one at a time on the back of his 125cc Honda. As we careened over the grassy bumps up the hillside I could see the Buzkashi way off to the left, spread out like a comet-tail across the plain as the lesser horses struggled to keep pace with the still-dense core of the lead pack.

A game of Buzkashi as seen from a distance in Xinjiang

Below them Xinjiang’s Sayram Lake (Salimu) had taken on a pelagic blue, stretching out to the snowy peaks on the opposite shore, where small rain clouds were sprinkling their way towards us. Bottles of Sinkiang beer were perched precariously between my legs, but Mulaty clearly knew the lay of the land well and we made it with no issue.

When we arrived his friends were arranged in a circle sitting indian-style on the grass, a few hundred meters up from the cluster of yurts by the lake. The remains of a case of beer were already strewn about, along with a half-eaten watermelon that had now been commandeered as an ashtray, judging by the several squat cigarette filters sticking out of it.

Our group of 8 had gone through over thirty 25 oz. bottles!

We were welcomed into the circle and the additional beer was placed in the center. The group spoke no English, but we were able to communicate in Mandarin with no problem.

We were shown the etiquette of Kazakh drinking, which involves appointing one member of the circle to pour beer into one communal cup. This cup is then handed to a member of the group, who quaffs it down briskly then returns it. The cup is then refilled and moves to the next drinker. Only the person with the cup can drink.

They explained that this was a gesture of friendship and bonding for the group, but I quickly learned not to idle with the cup. In fact, this seemingly inefficient way to drink was surprisingly intoxicating, driven by the peer pressure to chug and pass it back, and after an hour or so I was surprised to see that our group of 8 had gone through over thirty 25 oz. bottles.

Sitting down to drink near Xinjiang's Sayram Lake

The group was all in their early twenties, and all but two were already married with kids. Despite this, the atmosphere among the guys would be familiar to any American as typical bawdy frat-boy humor, centered on sex, drinking, and the naïve Chinese tourists that they cater to.

Cigarettes were passed around generously and though none of the three of us smoked, after several drinks we could have held our own with movie stars from the 40’s.

We were also invited to spar in Kazakh wrestling several times: where you hold your opponent’s waist and try to bring him to the ground. Though I fared miserably (promptly getting a faceful of dirt), Will had some success, earning some respect from the group. I found it much easier to converse with Kazakhs in a casual setting than Chinese, exhibiting none of the posturing and face-saving that exemplifies the latter.

We bonded in skewering the often-ridiculous behavior Chinese will demonstrate to save face, and after considerable alcohol intake Mulaty dove into an idealistic if slightly incoherent vision of autonomous rule in Xinjiang, China’s largest province which borders Kazakhstan and many other Central Asian countries. He was proud of Xinjiang’s robust economic growth in recent years, and with certainty told us how it would become a vital part of China.

I found it inspiring to hear an optimistic view of the region’s future from a local, free from the finger wagging of the foreign media on the region and Chinese worries of stability.

He had won the…5,000 RMB prize purse…

Outside the circle stood one guy smaller than the rest, holding a large, athletic-looking horse by the reins. He declined to drink and didn’t say much, instead looking stoically out between the lake, the group, and the Buzkashi zigzagging its way in the distance. Mulaty told me he had won the grueling race earlier in the afternoon, along with a 5000 RMB prize purse, accounting for his exhausted appearance.

As we sat and drank, the game continued. When I asked them why they weren’t competing in the Kokpar itself Mulaty explained, “It is an incredibly dangerous game, and our horses are not trained and might run themselves to death.”

The Kazakh Horseman

To the Kazakhs, a good horse is today still a man’s most vital asset and not to be squandered.

There were [Buzkashi] riders who had climbed mountains to elude their competitors.

The game of Buzkashi was apparently for the older men, requiring many years of experience on the saddle. It seemed these young mens’ Buzkashi careers still lay ahead of them.

They told us that games could last several hours, even going into the night, and there were riders who had climbed mountains to elude their competitors.

We never saw the end of the game that day, which continued past dusk and presumably until one rider eked out the rest. The grit required to ride for several hours carrying a 100 lb goat carcass (tying it down is forbidden) over treacherous terrain must be considerable.

A Kazakh Buzkashi horseman

The actual origin of Buzkashi is uncertain, beyond its roots in Turkic-Mongol cultures across Asia. One theory is that Buzkashi dates to the 13th Century, when nomads in modern-day Afghanistan had to figure out how to recover stolen livestock from unfamiliar yet formidable horsemen coming from the steppe . If this is indeed the case, the game can be considered a cultural adaptation to the Mongolian Empire.

As a school child, I remember seeing a map projection of the extent of Chinggis Khan’s empire across Eurasia and being filled with wonder at the power of one man’s will. My teacher then overlaid a sheet of transparency film showing where modern borders stood on the map, and I distinctly remember being disappointed, as if something had been lost that could never be recovered.

Over time this developed into an assumption that the modern age had carved up all the history and culture and built over it, homogenizing — or in Beijing’s terminology harmonizing– the disparate elements of a place into some big faceless thing.

But when I saw the look of excited focus on the face of a speeding chapandaz and a roisterous pack thundering behind in a game of Buzkashi, a scene unchanged for centuries, I questioned that assumption. The world is more complex than the lines we learn in high school history, where trends must be assembled into bite-size chunks for testing purposes. A patient observer will realize that history is still alive all over the world, and see the blurring lines between what are just echoes of the past and the real thing itself.

Guest article by Robert Warnerford-ThompsonThis is a guest article by fellow Xinjiang traveler and Princeton in Asia Fellow Robert Warneford-Thomson. You can find him on Google+.

If you enjoyed his writing, feel free to thank him on Twitter!

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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  1. I believe there was a novel written several years ago called ‘the most dangerous game’ (author unknown) that featured a horse game that sounds a lot like buzkashi but using the bow and arrow. I read the novel but the details elude me. Do you know of such a novel.


    Josh Summers on November 14th, 2017 at 7:18 am

    I’m sorry…not familiar with the book.