Kopkari - Uzbekistan, 2009

At the first heights of the Pamir Mountains, where borders get blurry – may they be Tajik, Uzbek or Kirghiz-, where despotic Central Asian regimes don’t rule anymore, there are men from all walks of life holding on to their horse’s bridle, contesting a dead beast for the sake of honour, for the game. Kopkari’s game rules look like they are only to be understood by initiates. Varying from one region to another, Kopkary is the Central Asian version of the Afghan Bouskatchi. Although some would relate it to polo, Kopkari is far from comparable. Bamboo sticks and wooden ball are replaced by a sheep’s carcass that has to end up in the middle of a circle. No team, no limits: no holds barred. This traditional sport is like the Central Asian peoples : fascinating, wild, sometimes violent.

Higher on the mountain’s slope, a referee surrounded by relatives and curious by standers comments the game with a loudspeaker fuelled by a generator as old as the hills. Sputtering, the mighty voice echoes through the valley in an imprecation fashion. The audience -sometimes more concerned by the victuals than by the game itself- stays vigilant and ready to leap in case the hundred horses should lead the game towards the midst of the feast. As the day goes by (Kopkari can last for hours), the effects of vodka are to be seen on the participants and the mass of spectators. The once immaculate snow becomes brownish while people numbed by extreme cold and never ending alcohol exchange their horses in a great confusion. After a few hours, the game ends at last. Walkers and riders go side by side down the slippery track that leads to the valley, which is filled with Ladas parked on the stony path.