Checking Off My Bucket List: Buzkashi

By GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member, Jennifer Ciochon

Bucket lists, we all have one, right? Before setting off for this adventure, the three of us had a frank discussion about what we wanted from this experience. We mainly talked about our own professional goals (for ourselves and for GIRLWITHABOOK), but naturally we each had our own personal bucket list, things that we just had to do or see while on the road. One of mine: to see a buzkashi game.

So what is buzkashi? Well it is kind of like polo, where men on horses divided into two teams hit a ball around to get it into their goal on the field… except, instead of a ball they use a decapitated goat or sheep. And sometimes they even maim the legs to make it harder for the players to grab hold of as they wrestle each other for the carcass. This game is played across Central Asia, and is most commonly known as buzkashi (what they call it in Afghanistan). In Kyrgyzstan, they call it ‘kok-boru’.

I do have to add for those who might be squeamish or disturbed by buzkashi, the animal is slaughtered in a humane way (in accordance to Islamic tradition) and the meat is eaten after the game so nothing is wasted. In other words, the game just tenderizes the meat.

But of course, why on earth would such a brutal game be on my bucket list? And I don’t even like sports! Well this may sound like a bit of a cliche, but it began after helping to clear out my grandfather’s house in 2011 as he was finally (begrudgingly) moving into a nursing home. It had been years since my grandmother had passed away, but much of her stuff was still in the house.

My mom had found some of my grandmother’s old letters, including one written to her sister. She wrote: “I just need to get away from Leonard [my grandfather] and the kids.” And of course, of all the places one would chose to go for their grand escape, my grandmother wrote she was off to Afghanistan. Yes, you read that right. My grandmother, a traditional southern-belle and apparently bored housewife, went off to Afghanistan for a little getaway.

Granted, she had some friends in Kabul at the time and she knew she would be comfortable with them (this was the 1960’s but she was no hippy and she knew she would travel in style). And of course the point of all this is that she saw a buzkashi game, normally prohibited to local women from watching. But she got it all on tape.

This wasn’t my first time hearing about buzkashi and I remember my grandfather had told me way back in the day that my grandmother had gone to Afghanistan and saw this game. But truth be told, I hadn’t fully grasped just how unusual that was at the time. And she passed away before I had the chance to really ask her about it, and of course to know why she needed to “just get away.” Parts of my grandmother’s life will remain a mystery to me as her conservative upbringing meant she didn’t open up about her personal troubles to too many people around her. And early on in my childhood she suffered several crippling strokes that left her speech impaired, so I confess I never really got to know her well before she did pass away.

After reading her letter and watching the silent video of her time in Afghanistan (which included the game), I knew this was something I wanted to see for myself. While I think the game is truly fascinating, I realize now that maybe part of my desire to see the game was a way to have something in common with my grandmother.

Which brings me to my bucket list. When I discovered that they played buzkashi in Kyrgyzstan, I was thrilled! But when I asked a Kyrgyz friend who was helping us in the country, she told me the game was usually only played for big events. I felt a bit crushed at the time but I had accepted that maybe I won’t get to see buzkashi on this trip.

We were in Naryn province near the border with China. It had snowed in the mountains surrounding us, and it was freezing. I had gotten a cold a couple of days before, and was feeling rather drained so I was happy to close my eyes for the next couple of hours while on the road to our next destination. But with the landscape being what it was (aka incredible and epic), this was hard to do.

Then we saw a horde of men racing across the field on their horses. I asked what was going on, and our fixer told us they were playing ‘kok-boru.’ Kok what? Then he explained it, and said it was like buzkashi in Afghanistan. I instantly shouted “STOP THE CAR” and probably gave everyone in the car a heart attack. The excitement gave me a bit of an adrenaline rush and that cold was suddenly forgotten.

Our fixer stopped the car and I instantly grabbed my cameras and headed out to the field to see how close I could get to the game without being trampled. Needless to say I was one happy girl. It was exhilarating to see buzkashi in action and I was definitely lost in the moment with my cameras focused on the game.

The teams had somewhat color-coded themselves (pink and blue) to distinguish themselves on the dusty field. A dog ran around alongside the horses, happily oblivious to the idea he might also get trampled. Seeing the game up close I didn’t realize until then how much physical wrestling was involved among the players while on top of their horses as they struggled to grab the carcass.

Once we hopped back into the car and the adrenaline rush subsided, my thoughts immediately went to my grandmother, wondering what she would have thought of all this (and I suppose of my life which for the past several years has been moving from one country to another). I am sure she would have been thrilled. But of course, I still have to see the game played in Afghanistan, just as my grandmother had once done.