Photos of Happy Villagers Playing Polo with a Dead Goat

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Photos of Happy Villagers Playing Polo with a Dead Goat

What it's like to watch a group of men on horseback tussle over a goat carcass before chucking it in a makeshift goal.
July 31, 2016, 1:20pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

My journey to the plains of Kyrgyzstan comes from a bit of an odd story. I read in the papers that Kazakhstan was scrapping its tourist visa fees and an unpopular, tedious sign-in process for foreigners, to try make the country more "tourist friendly." It didn't take much persuading for my friend Henry and I to book flights to Almaty via Istanbul.

I'd heard Kyrgyzstan was worth visiting and not impossible to get to from Almaty, so we spontaneously decided to give that a go too. We didn't have much knowledge at all of the local area, as we crossed the border from Kazakhstan to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. There is a proper "Soviet meets Silk Road" feel about the place, but we quickly realized we'd need to head out of the city to see more of the area's traditions.

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After paying a fee to a fixer who spoke English, he took us out to the countryside and recommended two activities: Ulak Tartysh—more commonly known as dead goat polo—and Kyz Kumay, a game where a group of men on horses chase a woman, who can protect herself with a whip, from a "match-winning kiss."

There was a game of Ulak Tartysh taking place the following day, so we agreed a time and a place and met our fixer the next morning. We had no idea which direction we were heading in, but two and a half hours later we arrived at a small rural village in the Kyrgyz mountains.

The name "dead goat polo" seems to tell you just about everything you'd expect to see but I didn't really understand how you could format rules around a group of 20 guys on horses chasing a carcass. As I soon discovered, I was very wrong. There aren't just rules to Ulak Tartysh, there are full-on international championships that take place, mainly across central Asia and the Middle East. Countries like Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan play against each other in test matches to sell-out crowds.

The field we stood in was around the size of a cricket pitch, surrounded by mountains and sealed off with bulky rocks rather than a rope boundary. Spectators stood in a small watchtower made of scrap metal parts and worn-out tires functioned as 'goals' on the end of the pitch.

Once the 20-odd players arrived on horseback, they picked teams and put on the corresponding red or blue T-shirts before a group of about 13 arrived on a smaller horse, carrying the goat's carcass. Then things kicked off, with the men wrestling for possession of the dead goat before galloping down the field and chucking it in the tire goal. The horses sometimes lost control and ran off the field, right at us spectators, and the game came eventually to a premature end when one of the players fell off his horse and landed awkwardly on his hip. He was eventually OK, though. An occupational hazard.

See more of Stevie's photos from the Kyrgyz mountains below, and his other photography work on his website.