Down by the Buskaschee Field

Travel Stories: Friends couldn't understand why David Raterman endured war-ravaged Tajikistan. But they never chanced upon a good game of goat-carcass polo.

05.03.02 | 12:40 AM ET

sport, tajikstan-stylePhoto by David Raterman

So the guy who just threw that decapitated goat against a pile of rocks won a carpet?” I asked. “You got it,” my driver, Komil, answered. He sounded pleased. I smiled and shook my head. For almost a year, I’d been working in emergency relief in Tajikistan in Central Asia. The only local sports I’d seen had been the Sunday dogfights in a schoolyard and a few soccer matches and basketball games. The war didn’t count.

But that day, several hundred horsemen had gathered on a field outside a vacant Soviet industrial complex. It was a cool spring day and the men were wrapped in chapans—dark quilted jackets tied with colorful cloth belts. On their heads they balanced any one of a number of items: colorful turbans, square caps with black and white stitching, khaki tank helmets, black Russian fur hats. A few thousand spectators with raven hair and skin the color of black tea squatted on a nearby hill. “Buskaschee,” Komil said. We were speaking Russian. “The goal is to fight for the decapitated goat carcass, then ride with it around that post and back to that pile of rocks. The contest lasts for several hours, with a rider winning a prize like a carpet, radio or chapan for each time he throws the carcass against the rocks.”

Komil patted my shoulders. “It’s a traditional Tajik sport,” he said, his grin full of gold-colored teeth. “We used to win wives this way.”

I grinned, too. I had come to Tajikistan because I was a traveler who loves challenges. As a result of the post-independence war among communists, Islamic fundamentalists, democracy advocates and regional separatists, the country was forlorn and dangerous. A number of expats had been killed. The American Embassy and many humanitarian organizations had evacuated their staffs. But I didn’t want to leave. I loved being here. Friends and family had a hard time understanding this. The truth is, I lived for days just like this, simply exploring the country, stumbling across something utterly surprising, with Komil.

He was one of 75 local staff members at the emergency-relief organization I worked for. Because he and I were the same age and much alike, he was often assigned to be my driver. He had fought for the government against the Islamic fundamentalists in Tajikistan’s civil war and earlier had been a Soviet paratrooper. But no longer. Over the last year, Komil had seen me drunk after the occasional Red Cross Happy Hour gathering. He had introduced me to a female friend of his. He had even driven me to rescue the office handyman who was to be shot by the army. While our personalities were much alike, however, Komil and I came from vastly different cultures. He knew it, too. He had watched the pirated American films like Tom Cruise’s “Risky Business” and Tom Hanks’ “Bachelor Party.” He knew what exotica Tajikistan was for an American, and he loved to play it up. In fact, Komil enjoyed sharing his country’s culture with me as much as I loved learning about it from him.

“Hey, are those Arabian horses?” I asked, pointing to the absolutely gorgeous, but emaciated, creatures galloping across the field. “Yeah,” Komil said. “They’re Arabians that have adapted to the local environment. To the colder environment and higher altitude.”

And scant food. We sat together for a long while, Komil and I, quietly watching the action.

The horsemen rode to the center of the field where an official held the goat carcass to commence the next round of play.

He lifted it into the air, dropped it and galloped away on his horse. The other horsemen went into a frenzy of whooping, beating their animals and each other in attempts to grab the goat. A scrum of horses and men pressed against each other, forward and backward. Steeds reared up and like pugilists fought each other, neighing in pain and fear as their riders beat them onward.

One horseman finally grabbed the goat carcass and raced away. The others gave chase.

“Hwooop! Hwooop!” shouted the escaping horseman, dragging the heavy goat across the field. “Hee-yaaah! Hee-yaaah!”

The horseman threw the goat against the pile of rocks and we in the peanut gallery cheered.

“This is polo-meets-ice-hockey,” I said. “It’s a great game.” “It’s the best,” Komil said. The action came to a pause and an old man on horseback sauntered past us. I have brown hair and northern European features so I could have passed for a Russian, but my mannerisms probably gave me away as something else: a foreigner. He stopped and dismounted. With visions of glory still in his eyes, but not in his body, he pressed his right hand against his chest and bowed. Then he motioned for me to ride his horse. I pressed my own right hand against my chest and shook my head.

Rakhmoty kolon,” I said in the little Tajik-Farsi I knew. Thanks but no thanks.

I’d ridden horses a few times in this country, but no way was I going to join these crazed equestrians. He smiled gently and then rode off, and we followed with our eyes. The action picked back up. “Look!” I shouted. “The goat’s leg just broke off. That guy’s riding around with a severed goat leg.”

“From a goat whose head has been severed!” Komil shouted, the sun glinting off his teeth. The spectators began shouting. I heard fear in their voices.

“They’re coming this way!” is what I assumed they were yelling in Tajik.

And they would have been right. Dozens of horsemen pursued the escapist, and in the heat of competition, with no boundaries to restrict them, they were racing directly toward us. Running higher up the little bulge of a hill, several of the spectators knocked each other down. A few boys narrowly missed being trampled by the crowd.

The horseman with the goat stopped halfway up the bulge. The others surrounded him. Then the goat carcass fell to the ground.

One horseman finally dismounted to grab the goat. Being squeezed and almost trampled, while riders whipped his hands and head, he grabbed the carcass and remounted. He bent forward and furrowed his forehead, then burrowed through the confused mass and galloped away. The others chased for hundreds of yards, but once near the pile of rocks he emphatically threw down his plunder. He pumped his hand into the air and shouted, “Hwooop! Hwooop!” The spectators erupted.

Komil hollered. I cheered, not just for the competitors, but because I was happy to be out here, happy to be taking in a good game of goat-carcass polo with a friend. I couldn’t imagine feeling any more alive or any more fortunate.

I looked at Komil, and he smiled his golden smile. “Buskaschee,” I said. “Cool.”

After graduating from Ohio University's journalism school, David Raterman spent seven years backpacking around the world, working odd jobs. He's now a writer based in South Florida. He has written extensively about South Florida for National Geographic and currently edits South Florida Adventures magazine.

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