Around this time five years ago, I was travelling overland through Central Asia's Kyrgyzstan. We had attempted camping on the banks of Lake Song Kul but the freezing temperatures and biting wind proved too much for our group (we were in tents, remember!), so we headed for warmer pastures, eventually setting up camp in a beautiful valley.
The national sport in Kyrgyzstan and many other parts of Central Asia is Ulak Tartysh, otherwise known as Goat Polo. No, not polo played on goats...but polo played with goats. Or one goat, to be exact. A dead one. Headless, legless and acting as the ball.
From the start, we could see that this was serious business. The locals gathered from miles around to watch the horsemen race around an indiscernible playing field. The 'out of bounds' rule clearly not yet having made it to these parts, so tents were trampled and at one point the ute I was standing in the back of was in the centre of the game instead of on the sidelines. Wikipedia tells me that in Kyrgyzstan this kind of behaviour is forbidden in the official game rules, but what were we to know!
The horsemanship of the riders was incredible to watch, leaning at right-angles in their saddles to collect the goat carcass from the ground while racing around a corner, fending off advancing members of the opposing team and speeding towards the goal all at the same time. Most of the time the 'ball' was at the centre of a group of 6 or more men and horses, kicking up dust so we couldn't be sure who had it. In fact, come to think of it, we had no idea who was on which team. But we couldn't take our eyes off the game (not least because of the risk of being trampled!).
Prizes for the players were cigarettes and Russian vodka. They seemed pretty pleased and I'm sure ate a hearty goat stew that night. Many yurt-dwelling families can't afford to sacrifice any of their stock for the game, so they were delighted when we covered the cost for a goat (and post-match donated the tenderised meat back to the farmer for his wife to cook up in a big stew).