Skip to main content

A Kingdom for a Horse

Kokpar and the Future of Kazakhstan

ISSUE:  Summer 2017

The most decorated athlete in all of Kazakhstan is a five-year-old Mongolian horse named Lazer. Born wild on the steppe, he lacks the lean grace of a thoroughbred or an Arabian. Except for his large head and broad front haunches, he’s small enough to be mistaken for a pony. His coat is a dusty black tinged with rust, and his unkempt mane hangs punkishly over his eyes. Short-legged, small-eared, with aloof, walnut eyes, he might be any one of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of horses ranging over the grasslands of this enormous, wide-open country.

In the ancient nomadic game known here as kokpar (roughly, “goat grabbing”), Lazer is a champion many times over, with eight Kazakh National Games and two Central Asian Games titles to his name. Kokpar’s premise is simple: Two teams compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal. Lazer has been trained from an early age for the game’s chalked-out 200-meter field, to evade or dig in against much larger defensive horses. In fierce face-offs and chaotic scrums, it’s often a wonder that Lazer’s rider, a thickset, windbeaten man named Abdijaparov Abugali, can even hold on, let alone swing his body down Lazer’s flank in a headfirst lunge for the trampled goat carcass around which the horses stamp and circle.

Kokpar is said to have originated with Genghis Khan’s early thirteenth-century mounted raiders, though it may be even older. Traditionally, it was played between villages. The field of play was the distance, often miles, between two nomadic encampments; the goals a garden or animal pen in each. Matches would typically follow a wedding or the birth of a child, with fifty or a hundred men and boys on horseback coming together in a pell-mell of sweat and blood, of grunting riders and rearing horses.

The game is still played (or perhaps re-created) this way across central Asia, on the same occasions and on national holidays, but in recent years it has become increasingly professionalized, with federations and government ministers responsible for its promotion. There are now salaries for players and televised matches. And of course there are stars, none brighter than the one before me, calmly nipping the grass and sniffing the air on a chilly April morning at the hippodrome on the outskirts of Taldykorgan, a small industrial city in eastern Kazakhstan.

Lazer and Abugali form the core of Aileu-Ata (“Sacred Grandfathers”), the team from the southern city of Taraz that has dominated Kazakh kokpar for the last decade. They’ve come to Taldykorgan hoping to bring home their ninth National Games title. Other teams regularly offer millions of Kazakh tenge for Lazer, to no avail. When I ask Abugali who’s more important, the horse or the rider, he doesn’t hesitate: “The horse.”

As companions, iconography, and sustenance, horses are ubiquitous in Kazakhstan, and have been for centuries. The nomads who came to be known as Kazakhs in the fifteenth century shaped their way of life to this hard, semi-arid land. Horse milk and horsemeat were dietary staples, and skill on horseback was crucial for hunting, herding, and warfare.

For 400 years the Kazakh khanates maintained their independence, holding various conquerors at bay until the early nineteenth century, when tsarist Russia, seeking to outflank the British for influence and control in central Asia, began to colonize this territory, partly displacing its Islamic, ethnically Asian inhabitants. The disruption of a traditional Kazakh lifestyle led to hunger, clashes over water sources, and fledgling nationalist backlashes. Imperial mismanagement was at its worst in the 1930s, when the Soviet Union instituted a massive collectivization program that forced nomads into farming, with disastrous results: Within three years, 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs starved to death. At the same time, the empire banished dissidents to Kazakhstan and resettled Chechens, Koreans, Greeks, Volga Germans, and numerous other disparate populations here. Though many of these groups eventually repatriated, by the 1960s Kazakhs had become a vanishing minority in the very nation named after them, dominated politically by Moscow, with cultural Russification continuing to marginalize their born-in-the-stirrups traditions.

Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union fell. A suddenly independent Kazakhstan struggled with food shortages and a monetary crisis. But a recent petroleum and mineral-resources boom has helped avenge these deprivations. Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev (an authoritarian with a less-than-sterling record on human rights and press freedoms but generally popular among Kazakhs), this young nation has grown into the largest, most robust economy in central Asia. Its largest city, Almaty, buzzes with Range Rovers, Rolex outlets, and an au courant Hard Rock Cafe. The capital city of Astana, meanwhile, has been remade into a surreal showcase for the avant-garde work of architects like Norman Foster and Manfredi Nicoletti. This summer, Astana hosts the “Future Energy”-themed Expo 2017, aimed at bolstering Kazakhstan’s green-energy initiatives alongside its petroleum riches.

Despite these gestures toward a more global profile, Kazakhstan remains, for many, a huge blank on the map somewhere between Russia and China, essentially a hinterland. (During my visit, one young Kazakh educated in the US briskly summarized the typical Western conception of his country as, “Oil, dictator, Borat.”) In part to remedy its global anonymity, Kazakhstan is in the middle of a quixotic identity-building project, an attempt not only to define itself to the world but to reclaim and remake the past, and thus reckon with the realities of self-determination. After coming dangerously close to disappearing into history, ethnic Kazakhs are once again a majority, today making up about 65 percent of the nation’s population, with ethnic Russians at about 25 percent (the total population is just under 18 million, in a country larger than all of western Europe). A nationwide program of Kazakhification has gradually taken hold—replacing Russian with Kazakh as the language of business and politics, rewriting Soviet-era schoolbooks to include an honest account of Stalin’s brutal policies, and emphasizing the pre-tsarist history of the khanates.

The pre-Russian period has also been employed to provide the foundation of Kazakh cultural identity in the new century. The signifiers of a nomadic past are everywhere, often commodified and romanticized: placards in Almaty’s airport that showcase eagle hunting; documentaries on yurt living on state-run Kazakh TV; yurt-themed restaurants; and, of course, countless totems of the beloved horse—in snacks made of dried mare’s milk, in horse-themed techno on the radio, and in miniature riding crops given away as party favors, to name just a few examples.

This simultaneous evocation of an open-range past and promotion of a sleek, streamlined, twenty-first-century Kazakhstan—postmodern architecture, luxury shopping, green energy—has led to all sorts of anomalies and juxtapositions. The tribes that descended from Genghis Khan spread their culture across all of Mongolia and central Asia, but nowhere in this region is the contrast between the contemporary and the ancient higher than in Kazakhstan. And nowhere is the interplay between the two more starkly embodied than in professional Kazakh kokpar.

On Monday morning at the Taldykorgan hippodrome, the Games begin with a low-key ceremony. Underneath a huge sky, with the furrowed, moss-green foothills and dagger-like peaks of the Jungar Alatau range as backdrop, a crew from Kazakh TV is getting preliminary interviews. A band in traditional costume plays Kazakh folk music. When they finish, techno music comes up on the PA system—songs that sample horses whinnying and galloping and one track that uses a “hi-yo!” seemingly borrowed from The Lone Ranger as its chorus. Fourteen teams parade before us with their flags and banners: hunter green and yellow for Taraz, black and white for Shymkent, blue and gold for Almaty. Several teams have driven four or five days to get here, but no one’s looking road-worn, just expectant. The players all wear round, furry hats and tall, soft leather boots, thicker than American cowboy boots and with a lower heel. The horses are unshod, with simple saddles. Their calves are wrapped with felt strips and blue, white, or yellow tape, partly for protection, partly for flash. Like Lazer, some horses are diminutive. Others are tall enough that I mistake their riders, big as fullbacks, for smaller men.

That afternoon, Taraz squares off against the team from Almaty. Four starters from each squad line up on the far sideline, and a small crowd gathers as the horse techno fades out. The referee blows his whistle, and all eight riders whip their horses into a headlong sprint toward what looks like a dirty sack of laundry sitting in the field’s large center circle. An Almaty player gets out in front, and in a frighteningly casual display of horsemanship, swings his body down the side of his horse. His head and fingers practically scrape dirt. He snatches the goat but not firmly enough to break for the goal. The seven other riders slam into a scrum, vying to guard or wrench away possession. Everything is limbs, flying clods of dirt, horses rearing, riders whipping them deeper into the fray. 

The scrum opens, and an Almaty rider shoots out of its center, his horse galloping for the far goal. The goat bounces wildly against his mount’s flank. He hauls the carcass up into his lap. The goal, a large, circular mound of hay and earth hollowed out on top, is only yards away. But the other riders catch up, and everyone crashes into another scrum. The goat drops back onto the field. The two teams circle, trying to scoop it up. After two minutes with the goat in the dirt, to keep the action from stagnating, the head referee blows his whistle, and the riders and goat shift to the nearest face-off circle. And here is where Lazer proves his worth.

With the teams in position, the ref gives the signal. Lazer and an Almaty horse dart into the circle, and Lazer immediately twists around the goat, drops his center of gravity, and uses his short, unyielding body to box his opponents out, giving Abugali, his rider, just enough time to swing down and grab the carcass.

They’re off—charging down the field, getting enough of a lead that Abugali has time to pull the goat up to his chest and fling it forward for a goal. One of the line judges, a weathered, mustached man named Kulzhatayev Maulebkazi, points in astonishment. “You see?” he says. “You see this horse? Best horse in all of Asia!” 

At seventy, Maulebkazi is an old kokpar hand. He tells me how, following the Soviet Union’s collapse, a handful of teams began to meet once or twice a year, which eventually led to the formation of the first national kokpar association, in 2000, and the first national championship, in 2001. He was in his last days as a player then but has been involved as an official ever since.

As he talks, I’m distracted by his fingers, which are twisted and swollen from a lifetime of yanking at the reins. He notices me staring. “Watch,” he says, “I can break a stone.” He stacks one thick stone on top of another, pauses for a breath (or maybe just for effect), then karate chops the top stone clean in half.

Talking with Maulebkazi, I’ve missed all the goals. By the final whistle, Taraz has routed Almaty, 10-3. Two men grab the goat and lug it off the field. A whole day of getting thrown around, stamped on by horses, and nearly ripped in half means it’s time to retire this particular specimen. They drop it on the grass. I ask if I can pick it up and gingerly take a rear leg. The thing is heavy—regulations put it between thirty and thirty-five kilograms—and with all its organs rolling around inside, it practically writhes out of my grasp. 

“What do you do with this now?” I ask, as I strain to hold it up.

The men who brought it off the field look at me skeptically. “Dinner,” one says.

Maulebkazi explains: If you eat meat from the kokpar goat, then go home and sleep with your wife, you’re sure to have a male child.

Everyone nods solemnly.

There are various, perhaps not mutually exclusive explanations for kokpar’s origins. Genghis Khan’s horde is said to have played it, after victory in battle, with the body of a fallen enemy. Another theory holds that when nomads killed a wolf that had been picking off their livestock, they celebrated by playing with the wolf’s carcass. The pros at Taldykorgan mention only a goat carcass and describe kokpar’s roots as more pragmatic: The game was used to train soldiers, to foster skills vital in mounted battles, especially scooping up fallen comrades.

That said, kokpar leaves its own body count. Nearly every middle-aged man I speak to at the Games recalls playing kokpar “village-to-village” as a boy, and nearly every one of them stopped due to grievous injury. A broken shoulder, a broken arm, a broken back—the list of ailments goes on. In most matches at Taldykorgan, two or three riders fall or are thrown. A few get trampled by the horses. In one match, a player comes off the field with his uniform splattered head to toe in blood: In a scrum, a horse bit his palm. “Kokpar,” one rider tells me, “takes eggs.” My translator searches for the right word. Embarrassed, he makes a cupping gesture near his groin. “We play kokpar because it’s in our blood,” I’m told several times. “Because we’re nomads.”

The nomadic legacy and its attendant virtues of independence and toughness do seem to loom over the Kazakh psyche. Yet kokpar doesn’t appear to be enormously popular outside of a small group of hardcore fans. Away from the hippodrome, most of the residents of Taldykorgan I ask about the National Games aren’t even aware they’re hosting. And while kokpar is featured regularly on state TV, most Kazakhs I speak to prefer watching Premier League football or Russian music videos or movies.

Because of this narrow but passionate interest, the financial support for kokpar comes mostly from the top down. Wealthy and politically connected individuals regularly sponsor exhibition matches, in which pros and semipros take part. A prize is given to the highest-scoring player, typically a certain number of horses or, more often, a car. At Taldykorgan, a star player for the Shymkent team, Bak Tobay, is introduced as having “won twenty cars and nine Land Cruisers.” The National Games, meanwhile, are for cash, most of which comes from the state-run Bank of Kazakhstan. And while a team might be backed and managed by, say, the owner of a large ranch, with sponsors for boots and saddles, much of the broader, institutional support for professional kokpar comes from the government.

The many billboards around Taldykorgan touting government initiatives—nearly all of which feature Nazarbayev—attest to the president’s fondness for reminding Kazakhs of his largesse. Likewise, Nazarbayev’s government has put plenty of sporting people on the payroll. At Taldykorgan, at least half of the men I speak to introduce themselves as a national coach, a national trainer, a deputy minister, or a Master of Sport (a title that qualifies one to coach or play at the national level). Nazarbayev has also put his nephew (and possible successor) Kairat Satybaldy in charge of the Kazakh Association of National Sports, the body that oversees kokpar and other traditional games. Without this kind of government investment, kokpar might well fade away or limp on as the equivalent of the Highland Games in Scotland, or a lumberjack competition in Wisconsin, as nostalgic spectacle or even kitsch.

That said, kokpar’s atavistic symbolism is pretty high. Its expression of fearlessness and soldierly daring, along with its pre-Soviet, pre-tsarist authenticity, are no doubt part of its appeal for Nazarbayev’s government. After all, a nation defines itself by what it reveres, and the totems of a distant, seemingly nobler past can be invoked to enormous effect. Tossing the caber might draw on medieval athletic competitions, but the Highland Games are primarily a Victorian invention, meant to both formulate and reify a hardy Celtic culture. Similarly, Yeats and Lady Gregory resurrected fierce mythic rebels like Cuchulain as a bedrock upon which to build a national literature distinct from Britain’s. And Mussolini literally excavated history by digging up buried ancient Roman monuments, an overly optimistic signal that a new Italian empire was emerging.

Nazarbayev’s great project is his architectural playground, Astana, but he’s also careful to be photographed and filmed playing a traditional two-stringed lute called the dombra, and in interviews attributes his good health to horsemeat and kumis (fermented mare’s milk), two nomadic staples. There is perhaps an irony here: A twenty-first-century state is being built on a tradition that resisted the very idea of centralized power. The nomad represents an ideal—used to sell everything from Nomad Insurance policies to Air Astana’s Nomad Club frequent-flyer program—but as the oil boom continues, more and more ordinary Kazakhs are heading to urban centers. Yet, even as many now work in offices instead of on a ranch, or drive trucks and taxis rather than ride horses, they can still identify with the kokpar pros who risk life, limb, and eggs for glory in the saddle.

Illustration by Guy Stauber

Wednesday at Taldykorgan promises one of the week’s most anticipated matches, Shymkent vs. Mangystau—the hard-charging, Land Cruiser-winning Bak Tobay against another star player, Aleksander Popchenko. Popchenko and his brother, who plays for the city of Kyzylorda, are the only Caucasian players on the field. They’re Ukrainian, not Russian, but their pale, wind-chapped complexions are a reminder that kokpar is a very Kazakh game. I’m curious to ask Popchenko about his experiences—he has a huge, bright-red abrasion around his eye, and I want to know about that, too—but he’s so press-shy he rides off whenever I get within five feet of him.

Instead, I speak with Mangystau’s coach, Kanagat Suyebaev, a quiet, self-possessed rancher from the oil-rich region near the Caspian Sea. I ask him if Popchenko has a difficult time as a non-Kazakh. “No, no,” he says, “everyone’s the same here.” Well, almost. I catch up with one of the national trainers as he finishes beheading a goat and ask him about Popchenko. “We have an Islamic tradition—circumcision,” he says, wiping blood off an ordinary kitchen knife on the grass. “Maybe next year, we’ll make Popchenko a real Kazakh.”

Dark humor aside, the promotion of traditional Kazakh practices is entangled with some brutal history. In the 1920s, Stalin drew the borders of the central Asian republics so as to splinter linguistic and ethnic groups and thwart possible revolt, a policy that fed bloody conflicts across the former Soviet Union in the late twentieth century and continues to cause ethnic and religious strife in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Perhaps because President Nazarbayev has been careful to balance Kazakhification with policies aimed at “unity in diversity,” Kazakhstan has been largely free of such violence. And since Kazakhstan still relies on a certain amount of patronage from Moscow, Nazarbayev also seems to scrupulously avoid out-and-out Kazakh nationalism, which may explain why relations between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians have remained largely calm. Still, some ethnic Russians resent the incursion of the Kazakh language into official life, as well as the widening wealth gap between themselves and the ultrarich Kazakhs connected to the president.

For their part, individual Kazakhs often have an ambivalent relationship with their Soviet past. I speak with coach Suyebaev about his father, who taught him to play kokpar when he was five. “He loved the motherland,” he says, sounding a little like a Soviet-era textbook. “He was a patriot.” His father fought in the Red Army’s cavalry and served in the party after World War II. Kazakhs of a certain generation were, on the whole, loyal Communists (Kazakhstan was the last Soviet state to declare independence, trailing even Russia itself). Suyebaev is old enough to remember the long breadlines and hyperinflation caused by the Russians dithering with the value of the ruble during the collapse of the USSR, but when I ask him about those difficult postindependence years, he falls silent.

“It wasn’t as bad for us on the ranch,” he finally says. “We were self-sufficient. We were okay.” My translator leans over and quietly explains: Not many Kazakhs like to talk about those lean, uncertain times. 

Or maybe Suyebaev is just focused on the match. Shymkent and Mangystau are mounting their horses. Shymkent, former national champions, are one of the few teams to challenge Taraz’s dominance, so this contest has drawn a noticeably larger crowd, with spectators pushing closer to the field as the players steady their horses on the far sideline.

The ref blows his whistle. Right away, the action is relentless. Bak Tobay blocks out ferociously and goes for the goat, but Popchenko snatches it away and breaks for the goal. Tobay catches up, gets hold of a leg, and the two stars wrench the animal in different directions, threatening to rip it apart. The announcer’s commentary is percussive, freewheeling, mixing in proverbs and bits of poems that I’m told defy translation. Shymkent dominates the first half, keeping the action dangerously close to Mangystau’s end. But goals elude both teams. 

Early in the second half, one of Shymkent’s players flagrantly whips the flank of one of Mangystau’s horses. The foul gets him sent to the sidelines. Shymkent plays short for the two minutes of penalty time and has to dig in defensively. The action gridlocks. The scrums keep spilling off the field, several times scattering the crowd. Mangystau’s captain complains to the line judges that Shymkent keeps playing their men—rules forbid attacking the physical persons of the opposing team. The fitful rhythm of the match is wearing on the crowd—“Come on, play!” one spectator yells. Finally, Popchenko yanks the goat out of a snarl of riders and horses, flashes his way to the goal and scores: 1-0, Mangystau. He gallops back to the sideline, arms above his head like a showboating footballer.

Tobay tries to answer. Time after time, he fights his way to the goat, pushing so hard one of Mangystau’s defensive horses rears back, drops to its back knees, and throws off its rider and his saddle—another interruption of the action. Then it’s one violent scrum after another, players whipping and screaming at their horses, one another, the ref. One of Mangystau’s defenders makes a crucial steal, passes to Popchenko, who shoots up the sideline and scores again. In the waning minutes, Tobay almost gets one back but leaves the goat hanging on the rim of the goal. Mangystau regains possession, and the crowd cheers, perhaps angry with Shymkent for playing dirty. The announcer counts down the last thirty seconds, and the horse techno comes up.

Mangystau has pulled off an upset. Having only played together two years, they’re the youngest team here and are headed to the match that will determine third and fourth place, which promise their own cash prizes. But this last match was rough, and no one’s in the mood, just now, to celebrate. “It’s a shame you were here to see this,” Maulebkazi, the stone breaker, tells me.

One night, I meet up again with Shyngys Nurlanov, the young professional who so neatly summarized Western ignorance about Kazakhstan, and his friend, Aidos Aikhojayev. Both men were educated at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and came home to start careers in business and IT, respectively. We find a table at an upscale café full of prosperous young Kazakhs, many of them on dates. Over tea and hookahs, we talk about a favorite Kazakh pastime: reconstructing detailed genealogies and tribal lineages. Everyone in Kazakhstan, I’m told, can identify the fifteenth-century horde from which they descend. You’re Kazakh because you know who your grandfathers were.

Shyngys has a problem with this. He points out that, geographically, Kazakhstan is a somewhat arbitrary entity, and that before Stalin drew new borders—distinguishing between Kazakh and Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Turkmen, Kazakh and Tajik—few would have thought of themselves in such terms. For nomads roaming back and forth between territories, the tribe, not the nation, was paramount. 

Aidos seems troubled. “But I’m Kazakh!” he says. “I know I’m a Kazakh!”

Shyngys leans back, takes a drag on the hookah, exhales a long stream of smoke. “There are no Kazakhs,” he says. “Stalin made us up.”

Perhaps Nazarbayev’s top-down cultural project will lead to similar contradictions. On Kazakh TV, for example, a commercial for Expo 2017 features a serene young couple emerging from a yurt, the husband carrying a Kazakh flag. He drives it into the cracked earth, and a kind of green-energy miracle spreads outward, transforming the parched steppe into a utopia of wind turbines and solar panels. Meanwhile, the couple’s humble yurt multiplies by the thousands. The Expo’s emphasis on renewable energy is a tacit acknowledgment that Kazakhstan’s reliance on petroleum leaves its economy vulnerable to the volatile price of oil. In the interest of diversification, Nazarbayev’s government has been promoting tourism and courting foreign investment. But the country struggles to attract visitors, and international companies remain wary of political corruption and nepotism. Nor are they reassured by the unpredictability of its neighbors: Tajikistan is nearly a failed state; Turkmenistan is ultrarepressive, ultrasecretive, and seldom visited; and, until recently, Uzbekistan was run by a thug with an atrocious human rights record. Given these pressures, Nazarbayev works hard to maintain an arguably tenuous stability, with no guarantee that it will survive beyond his tenure (he’s seventy-seven), especially if power struggles follow. The conjuring of a proud, independent, uncomplicated past—no matter how many contradictions it might create—can bulwark against an uncertain future.

Yet not everyone is so sanguine about the traditional way of life. “The Russians brought schools, electricity, medicine,” Shyngys says, growing impassioned. “My grandmother was born in a yurt! She lost ten children in a yurt! My wife and I are going to raise our children in the best apartment we can afford.” For Shyngys and others, high-end coffee shops and the Hard Rock Cafe may well be as central to Kazakh identity as eight grown men hurling a goat carcass across a field.

On Saturday, the last day of the Games, a crowd of about 200 has gathered at the hippodrome. The field has been freshly sprayed with water to tamp the dust, the goals wrapped with new green-and-yellow drapery. The teams not playing in the final are now at ease, and weary. Many have several days’ drives ahead of them.

Taraz has made their ninth final, today facing the team from Atyrau, in western Kazakhstan, who’ve played solidly all week. Taraz scores early, then plays nimble defense, blocking a near-goal from Atyrau by batting away the goat midair. This time of year, Atyrau is still covered with enough snow that its players haven’t had much time to train. Still, they scrap and claw their way to a goal, and going into the second half it’s 2-1. Then Taraz starts to pull away. The announcer moves excitedly up and down the sideline, trailing a long mic cord. He has every reason for exuberance: Lazer and Abugali are putting on a master class. In every face-off, Lazer seems to dominate not by speed and strength but wile and stubbornness. Atyrau’s face-off specialist and his horse simply cannot get around him, and Abugali is consistently able to scoop up the goat, break from the scrum, and pass the carcass to an attacking teammate, whose rangy horse gallops toward another goal. It’s hard to say if Abugali is directing Lazer or simply responding to the training and preternatural instincts of his horse. It’s a collaboration between man and animal that reaches back centuries, here brought to its professional best. With five minutes left, Taraz scores two more goals in quick succession. Atyrau’s defense tries to keep up, but the match is slipping from their grasp. Final score: 4-1.

Taraz gathers on a concrete dais to collect an oversize check for a million tenge. They pose for photos as fans gather round, thrilled to shake a champion’s hand. Away from the celebration, Lazer dips his head and munches grass. Will he get any extra reward for today’s victory? “Watermelon, honey, and carrots,” Abugali tells me. He brushes Lazer down, prepares him for the trailer. Once again sedate and ordinary, the most famous horse in the country is going home for a few weeks of rest.

Several months later, I’m in an Uber in the States, back home in Chicago. It’s been a long day, I’m beat, but the driver wants to make conversation. “Sorry for my English,” he says. I ask what other languages he speaks. Russian, he tells me, and another language called Kazakh, though he doesn’t expect me to have heard of it.

Yerzhan studied at the University of Illinois. While there, he went riding sometimes, at a farm owned by Quakers. He tried to buy a horse for eating once, but the farmer thought maybe it was illegal and wouldn’t sell.

And kokpar? Yes, Yerzhan loves it. He watches matches on YouTube and in videos his friend sends him through WhatsApp. But he feels that the younger generation is less interested. They only think about girls. They only want to speak Russian, he says, echoing a Kazakh nationalist sentiment. He says that, for those who remember the Soviets and experienced the early days of independence, things like kokpar and speaking Kazakh are more meaningful.

We’re on I-90, passing billboards for hair restoration and Hooters and WhirlyBall. “My favorite horse,” Yerzhan says, unprompted by me, “is Lazer. He’s incredible. So smart. He’s like Ronaldinho and Ronaldo in one. It’s the way he always gets position. He’ll move left then immediately jump back right. He’ll actually fake the other horse out. He knows to do this. Incredible.”

As I listen I’m half a world away, on the steppe around Taldykorgan, and my own familiar cityscape—itself once an endless prairie, a hinterland to many—seems very strange indeed.

“Why? Do you like kokpar?” Yerzhan asks. “Do you know Lazer?” 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Lexi's picture
Lexi · 6 years ago

Thank you for this wonderful piece. 

Sarah Portell's picture
Sarah Portell · 6 years ago

The best place to experience nomadic life and watch traditional Kok Bar is in Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia where the horse Lazer is from.  The wind-blown steppe of the 90% Kazakh population of this Mongolian province is remote and raw, filled with kumis and kazi (fermented mare's milk and salted horse rib sausage).  Although these Kazakhs are part of the diaspora, they enjoy the freedom Mongolia affords them to maintain their traditional way of life, language, and sport without the identity crisis faced in Kazakhstan.  Things are changin in Ulgii as well, but compared to Kazakhstan, this place is the wild west.  As the writer states, Kazakhstan is a juxtaposition of ancient and modern.  Bayan-Ulgii is like going back 100 years where the majority has lived in a yurt, knows an eagle hunter, and knows how to butcher a sheep.

Ayan's picture
Ayan · 3 years ago

Bayan Ulgii is incredible! However, Lazer was born in Kyrgyzstan, and in 2017 he was 23. He's dead now, but definitely a legend and part of a kokpar history.


Recommended Reading