Have you ever watched or played Ulak Tartysh? No? Well. You´re far from being the only one. In English it is “known” as Dead Goat Polo. After watching one game, I´d say four things are required of the player. You are a man. You are an excellent rider. You are a team player. And you have the strength to lift a beheaded goat from the ground and ride with it whilst being under attack. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan´s Independence Day.
I liked Bishkek already the first time I was here 2012. One of the reasons is that there aren´t really that much to see. Apart from a great museum and a number of statues that reminiscence the countries part in the Soviet Union (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin to name a few) it is a city that allows the visitor to see what he or she wants to see, and therefore make it entirely his or her own city. But for a traveller in Central Asia, it doesn´t get much better than this. No red tape to clear before arriving, no visa requirements, exchanging money is easy and so is getting around. If your country has an embassy in Central Asia, this is where they are located. Bishkek is a visa heaven in a region where it sometimes seem a visa is required for every step you take. It is also a great base for hiking in absolutely stunning surroundings.
A country´s 25th Independence Day is a big thing. Therefore the country arranged a military parade. As military parades go, it always starts with rockets, then missiles, then canons, then machine guns and so on. In other words, the bigger the weapon the closer to the front of the line. Who ever said that size didn´t matter?
Due to the national holiday we weren´t able to see neither the museum nor the statues (I went to the museum and saw the park in 2013, on my last visit). Independence Day this year was special in a few ways. To begin with, it was the nation´s 25th anniversary as an independent nation. Also, in the days leading up to the 31st of August, two fatal incidents occurred that both involved Kyrgyzstan. First the fire at a factory in Moscow that killed 17 women, all from Kyrgyzstan. Then a suicide bomber drove a car into the Chinese embassy in Bishkek just the day before Independence Day. He died, three of the staff at them embassy were injured.
It was impossible to find a schedule or a webpage for the celebrations. After a short discussion we jumped in a taxi hoping that we weren´t too late for the game. If there even was a game. No one really seemed to know. We got there by one o´clock. We learned that we came one hour before the game was scheduled to start. But in the scorching sun, the stands were already overcrowded; people were sitting and standing on top of each other. Plastic bottles were thrown from the rows higher up, hitting those of us sitting below. Lots of yelling, and lots of cheering. And that just got louder as the afternoon went on.
Around two o´clock, the players/riders got out on the field and got introduced one by one. They were heckled and applauded at the same time. And there was a referee! We quickly got the game explained too us by a local man. He said that it´s like rugby, but the players are riding and the ball is a beheaded goat. The aim is to do a touchdown by putting the goat on the circular platform. It is as simple as that. The game started and the crowd went absolutely wild. I tried to film but my camera was hit over and over by the people next to me.
To be honest, I don´t believe I have ever had a sport experience like the one I had on August 31st, 2016. Me and Tomas had made our way out to the Hippodrome in Bishkek for one of the highlights on this, the country´s 25th Independence Day – the Ulak Tartysh. And as weird as it was, I loved being there.