August 10: Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan
9: 20. We’re on the truck after a great breakfast of yogurt, semolina porridge, sourdough bread and three types of homemade preserves. Most of the people are headed to a three hour demonstration of traditional felt making techniques. Rodney and I opt out. If the local butcher will do it, we both may go for root canals. Actually we plan to wander the market. We’re not that i retested in felt and there is delays the chance that I’ll get to take a Lada for a spin.
12:30. The felt making ladies have prepared lunch so Rodney and I return join the rest of the group for beef vegetable soup with dill, sourdough bread, dumplings with mutton, blintzes, preserves, dried local fruits, and tea. It was free.
14:39. We are about 2 km from the yurt, driving on the main road when were pulled over by a cop with a radar gun. When Duncan tells him the truck has a regulator and could not possibly have been going as fast as he claims, the cop changes tune and says that we didn’t come to a full stop at the intersection in town. That may have been true but he certainly didn’t see it from 2 km out of town. The matter is “settled” within five minutes and we’re on our way. Many cops have large families to feed and clothe, you know.
16:10. We’re at an elevation of 3370 m and climbing. Duncan stops the truck and gets two plastic buckets and shovel out the back locker. Fifteen minutes later he and Birtger return with two buckets of ice. Duncan had noticed a large patch of snow and ice on a hillside as we wound our way up a dozen switchbacks from the valley floor. We’ll have cold beer in half an hour!
16:55. Rodney’s playlist is playing on the truck stereo and our unofficial trip theme song comes on: Dwight Yoakam’s A Thousand Miles From Nowhere. Even those who claim to loath country music are singing along by the second verse.
16:59 Next up on the playlist is Rodney’s all-time favourite,Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar. I’m seated closest to the bucket of ice and beer so I crack two open for Rodney and myself. We’re the only two who know the words to this country song so the Europeans just sit back and enjoy the show, snap photos, shoot cellphone videos, and generally look at us as if we are freaks.
17:02 At precisely 5:02 pm the next song comes up. It’s Jimmy Buffet singing It’s Five O’clock Somewhere. I still don’t know if Rodney pre-planned this, but if he did it was perfectly executed.
17:40. We arrive at Song-Kul Lake and get our things off the truck as soon as possible. It’s almost time for Ulak Tartysh!
18:10. About 20 men on horseback have assembled down by the lake. One man who is not on horseback is wearing a two-tone striped shirt and holding a brown lamb by the collar. When the crowd is in place he leads the lamb to the other side of the road, pulls a 6″ knife from his belt, and within 2 minutes he has produced a warm and wooly but headless and footless sheep carcass to be used in tonight’s game of Ulak Tartysh, otherwise known as Sheep Polo.
18:20. The polo match is set to begin. The man in the striped sweater is the referee. He picks up the carcass, mounts his horse and rides to the far end of the field where he drops the carcass on the grass. Two teams of five — hats and heads as it’s too cold for shirts and skins — then race down the field and attempt to pick up the sheep without dismounting. These guys are full-time shepherds/cowboys and obviously very skilled trick riders. Once someone grabs the sheep he races up the field and attempts to drop it on a designated “goal” spot. His four teammates act as blockers while the five opposing players attempt to wrestle the still warm carcass from his grasp. At the end of one hour of play the team with the most goals is declared the winner and presented with the now well tenderized makings of tomorrow night’s dinner.
19:20. The match is over and as best I could tell it ended at 7-6 for the hats. But then it might have been the heads. The hats kept losing their hats and you have to remember who was who, plus whenever a team scores they loan a player to the other team for a few minutes. Those players rarely add or remove hats when they temporarily switch sides. And some people think horse racing is confusing!
19:40. Apparently it’s not too chilly for shirtless riding. Two guys take off their shirts and engage in a wrestling match… while mounted on their horses. The skinnier guy puts up a good fight for at least 10 minutes but in the end the one with the 6-pack wins (as I predicted). I find it’s a little easier picking the winner of a lopsided two-man wrestling match than a 10-horse field of trotters. The “scenery” is better, too.
(Sheep Polo photos compliments of Jill Potter. Thanks, Jill!)