Murghab Horse Festival

August 12, 2014

A young girl gets dressed up and mounts a horse ready to play Kyz-kumay at Murgab Horse Festival in the far East of Tajikistan. Kyz-kumay  (the kissing game) is a traditional Kyrgyz wedding ritual, where a male rider (the groom) attempts to catch a young horsewoman who represents a bride so that he can kiss her.  If the woman is not caught by the time they reach the finish line, she turns to chase the young man back to the starting line with a whip.

The village of Murghab stands high in the Pamir Mountains, 3,650 metres above sea level in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), an area strictly controlled by the Tajik government. Murgab's close proximity to Kyrgyzstan and trade and transport routes and the lack of internal borders in Soviet times mean that majority of the population are ethnically Kyrgyz.

The Murgab Horse Festival is held on the second weekend of August and as well as providing an opportunity for the locals to enjoy themselves, also aims to revive and strengthen Kyrgyz. Alongside the horsemanship, traditional Kyrgyz songs are sung and poetry readings given. People come with their horses from all over the region to compete.

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Onlookers watch as a smiling girl manages to outrun her 'kisser' in a game of  Kyz-kumay. It's a great chance for the girls who traditionally stay at home, to show what they're made of.  The ability to handle a horse well is, say the locals, what makes a man, or indeed a woman, a true Kyrgyz.  

 

The surrounding area has little human development apart from the odd road and the dry and desolate landscape is almost moon-like in places. The region makes up 45% of the land area but is home to just 3% of the population of Tajikistan

Young boys learn how to ride and handle a horse from as young as 3 years old and at the festival the  Aht-chabysh, a race run over 2 km,  sees riders as young as 13  compete with their horses. 

Young boys make up the majority of the spectators looking on with awe and hoping that one day they may be able to compete in the festival. 

Family members and neighbours gather to watch their brothers, fathers, husbands and friends take part in the competition.

In the game of Oodarysh, two riders do their utmost to pull their opponent off their horse, and throw them to the ground. The players have different colour ribbons are tied to them to represent their teams.

The aim of Tyin enmey is to gather up as many bags of coins as possible over a course spanning 100 metres whilst traveling at speed on horse back. Here, a competitor just misses his target as the crowd looks on. 

Spectators can really get involved in the game of Oodarysh , cheering on the players and shouting out tactical advice that the wrestlers might use. 

Children walk the 5km back to Murgab after the day events. 

 

To see more photos from Tajikistan check out the photo essay Forbidden Tajikistan And The Pamir Highway