goat games, etc.
Nauriz, the Central Asian new year, was March 22. Karen, Dawn, Amber, and I took a taxi to downtown Turkistan, never doubting that there would be stuff going on there. A chilly wind was blowing through the center. Empty. So, there we were, in something a little like sleet. Somehow, three of Karen’s students spotted us from across the street. The crossed over to us and suggested we go to the hippodrome. But at this point, the conversation broke down, and the girls stood there, looking around. They were waiting for someone else to make the first move. But to where?
So we started walking in a direction we thought might be good and stood at the bus stop for a few minutes before Karen suggested we first go to the bazaar and try to find a shuttle. It worked.
We got off at the bazaar and went toward the taxi drivers shouting “hippodrome!” Apparently, all the vans were going to the hippodrome instead of following their routes. We got in a van and waited for a few more passengers. I realized, as I hadn’t in my frustration at the empty city, our inefficiency, and the weather, that the girls were about to burst with excitement. It turned out that none of them had ever been to the traditional horse games. They always had to wait on guests at home. I don’t know how they’d escaped, because one of them said she was supposed to be helping out at that moment, but I have a feeling that they all went home to piles of dishes and drunk old ladies playing cards.
Our van joined a long chain of white vans off-roading toward a scooped-out green field below a hill. The hill was full of people – the whole city - the young men wearing jeans with black leather jackets and black hats, the few women who were there mostly wearing long skirts and scarves. We sure stood out in the crowds of dark-haired, black-eyed people. They were selling shashlik and pilaf at giant tables (it looked a little like those festivals in Breugel, but Central Asian) We spread ourselves wide and thick, taking photos with people we didn’t know, pretending to stir the pilaf in giant cauldrons, petting horses.
We went up and stood on the hill to watch the first races. The only clear sounds were the wind and the samachki (sunflower seeds, sold on every street corner, eaten in bushels by Kz nationals). The horses raced. An enthusiastic dog beat a few of them. This isn’t the pros, after all. The horses generally hadn’t been washed or brushed; some of them had blankets for saddles. I suppose some of them had just been taken out of the herd for the event. We watched kokpar, the game with the goat carcass. From a distance it was much slower than I’d imagined. At the center of the field, the horses would be close together, not going anywhere. What was going on is that the guys were beating each other with their riding whips and fighting over the carcass. Then, one would break away with the carcass, riding toward a pole, and maybe one or two other horsemen would follow him. One of the winners rode past us. He was sitting sideways on his horse, his feet hooked under the carcass to hold it up, his riding whip in his mouth and a felt and fur hat on over one eyebrow. But we had had enough fun; we were cold and went to the bazaar, where I made the first of several wise but unweildy purchases.