The Weirdest Game to Be Seen at Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan

The New York Times profiles the city of Astana, Kazakhstan. In the article, we learn about the national sport of the country called kokpar (which is equestrian in nature, but… played with a carcass of a headless goat). Also known as buzkashi:

Recently, on the outskirts of the city at a stadium slick with rain and mud, the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, an equestrian sport, was in full swing.

Mr. Nazarbayev’s capital seemed a world away. Kokpar, known as buzkashi in Afghanistan, is a tough version of that gentlemanly game, polo. Instead of playing from the back of a horse with wooden mallets and a ball, riders use their bare hands and lean to pick up a headless sheep or goat from the ground. They then race to the goal clutching the dead animal.

Instead of goal posts, large caldrons, a bit like inflatable backyard swimming pools, serve as goals. Riders score by heaving the dead animal over the rim of the goal.

Each team plays four riders on horses, and the scrum of horses and riders pushing, colliding and surging around the goal with whips cracking creates a rough and violent contact sport.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

“It’s a kind of cruel game playing with a dead sheep, but in our country it’s normal,” said Marat Baytugelov, a retired player, who was watching from the stands as the home team routed the players from Tajikistan. (In the old days, villagers would cluster on hilltops to get a better view.) “The most difficult thing is getting the goal. You have to have strong arms, strong stamina, and you must ride the horse well.”

The animal carcass, he added, cannot be just any weight. Heft is mandatory. It must weigh at least 30 kilograms, or 66 pounds.

The Central Asian tournament was organized as a prelude to Expo 2017, when Astana will be the host city. Kokpar is expected to be a star attraction, at least for the Central Asian crowd, and even for fans farther afield.

Wikipedia adds that Kazakhstan had a commission in the 1950s to set the rules of the sport:

  1. There are two teams with 10 participants in each
  2. Only 4 players a team are allowed to play on a field at a given time
  3. Teams are allowed to substitute players or their horses
  4. Game is played on a field of 200 meters long and 80 meters wide
  5. Two kazans – big goals with a diameter of 3.6 meters and 1.5 meter high are placed on opposite sides of a field
  6. A goal is scored each time a kokpar (goat carcass) is placed in an opponent’s kazan.
  7. A kokpar is brought to the field center after scoring a goal

You learn something new every day.

How Hewlett-Packard Has Revived the Silk Road

Few people know this, but I used to live along the historic Silk Road.

This famous 4,000 mile route connected Asia and Europe for many centuries, before fading in importance in the 1400s. Now, the giant corporation Hewlett-Packard has revived the route as a faster, overland alternative to shipping electronics from China to Europe versus doing so by sea. The New York Times goes along for the ride via photos and brief videos in this fantastic photo/video essay:



See the rest here.

Astana: The Modern Capital of Kazakhstan

This is a very good piece in National Geographic on Nur­sultan Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan’s president since 1991) and his quest to build a new, modern capital for the country (now located in Astana):

Rich in oil and other mineral resources, Kazakhstan has lavished billions on the new capital, inviting some of the world’s leading architects to showcase their work on the Left Bank of the Esil River, which separates the administrative “new city” from the older, mostly Soviet built district on the Right Bank. The results are eclectic, visually arresting, and not to everyone’s taste. But love it or hate it, Astana is here to stay, its population having swelled from 300,000 to more than 700,000 in a decade. Along the way, it has become a billboard for Kazakh nationalism and aspirations—a statement as much as a city.

Nazarbayev has given several reasons for moving the capital from Almaty, among them its vulnerability to earthquakes and its proximity to the Tian Shan mountains, which limit its room to grow. But geopolitics also played an important role. Nazarbayev is widely believed to have been motivated by fear of Russian territorial designs on northern Kazakhstan, which borders Russia and encompasses a large share of Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian population. In any case, few were willing or able to challenge the authoritarian leader, who remains popular for promoting stability and economic growth despite criticism of his government for corruption and human rights abuses.

To build his dream city, Nazarbayev solicited help from foreign benefactors eager to do business with Kazakhstan—among them the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which funded construction of a mosque with space for 7,000 worshippers. (Islam is the dominant faith in Kazakhstan, although the state is officially secular.) He also brought in leading global talents such as the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who designed Astana’s master plan. But he never left any doubt as to who is in charge. Sarsembek Zhunusov, the city’s chief architect, recalled his colleagues’ trepidation when Nazarbayev declared some years ago that he wanted a huge pyramid built.

If you look at photos of the buildings in the city, they look nothing short of spectacular. No wonder the comparisons in the article of a modern-day Peter the Great.