Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Dodging horsewhips in Kyrgyzstan (+photos)


Three days ago I was eating horse, now I'm riding one across a meadow in Kyrgyzstan.

In front of me are mountain peaks clad in spring snow but I'm watching my horse concentrating on not putting a hoof into one of the myriad of holes that pockmark the grassland. These hills are alive with marmots.

Kyrgyzstan is wedged between China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It's a mountainous country but also contains the world's second largest high-altitude lake (the largest is Lake Titicaca in South America). This is Lake Issy-Kul.

I'm riding in the Semenov Gorge, a 30-minute drive from the lakeshore. My gentle pace among the marmot burrows is in dramatic contrast to the daredevil riding I've just witnessed.

Local village men and women have congregated here to demonstrate the ancient Kyrgyz sport of horse games.

Clearly, the marmots' diggings didn't worry the participants in the bride-chasing event. Two girls in flowing dresses thundered across the meadow on their horses, while being pursued by two young men, also on horseback.

If the boy can reach out and touch the girl she has to kiss him. If he fails, she's entitled to whack him with her horsewhip.

No one won a kiss on this occasion.

There seemed to be even more enthusiasm for the free-for-all game of men and women on horses who attempted to snatch off each other's hats. If your hat was lost, you had to dismount and walk home.

The wildest and most physical of the games was the Kyrgyz equivalent of polo. Cream riding breeches, plummy accents and Pimm's in the marquee it was not. Instead two teams of riders fought over a sack filled with sand (traditionally this would have been a goat carcass).

Once one team member had wrested the sack of the opposition he would belt towards the goal line, being pursued to the bitter end.

Early in the game one of the riders was pulled off his horse, which literally took off for the hills. Undeterred the rider simply requisitioned one of the two mounted referees' horses and plunged back into the melee.

The horses seemed totally unperturbed by the wrestling at close quarters, the shouting and scrambling limbs.

In between events, three teenage Kyrgyz girls entertained with traditional dances, against the mountain backdrop and occasional passing horse rider.

In the distance, out of range of the lethal hooves, marmots were poking their furry noses out of their burrows to check if the coast was clear.

Click here for photos.

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