Buzkashi, the name of Afghanistan’s national sport, translates literally to “goat pulling” in Persian. Which is exactly that: running furiously with a lifeless animal carcass and dropping into a goal. It’s a game played all across Central Asia, originated among the Turkic people centuries ago, from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, but it was here, high in the Hindu Kush mountains, that I was able to experience the game for myself.
We were in Afghanistan outside of Buzkashi season. The game is usually played in winter, from November to March on Fridays after prayers. The extreme heat throughout the rest of the year is too much stress on their horses (prize possessions, and able to play for up to 20 years.) The high altitude desert at 3,000 meters gets down to 0-10C in winter, but this climate is much more ideal for the horses.
Governor Yakafblang heard I was a photographer coming in and offered to set up a game for us.
Like any sport played in the West, buzkashi draws a huge crowd of passionate fans As we arrived, men from the surrounding villages came to watch with us. 200-300 spectators lining up on small bunks of grass in a big beautiful field with the mountain range eclipsing the horizon in the distance.
The riders arrived, many dressed in polo boots and began to warm up the horses, going zero to full speed. One of the men dug the goal: a 40 cm hold in the ground, and the “ball” was brought out. Here it was the carcass of a sheep (apparently goats tear apart too easily) and the game commenced.
In the days of Genghis Khan, buzkashi was actually battle excercies disguised as sport- it was war training. Today, it resembles more of a bloody version of polo, The riders with a field of almost a kilometer ran around furiously after one another, flocking around the sheep hide. One of the riders got a hold of it, took it under his right leg and dragged it into the hole. Goal!
It was chaotic, exciting and for someone shooting with a long lens 5 meters, away, terrifying.
Beyond sport, buzkashi is a ritual, a lifestyle, and a test of courage among these men high away in the mountains. For many young Afghan boys, growing up to be a champion buzkashi rider, or chapandaz, is the stuff of dreams.
At the end of the game, the governor apologized that the game was so small- the Taliban had killed so many people and their horses were either stolen or killed. We were just happy to have witnessed it.
Have a look the rest of my Afghanistan gallery here.