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Indigenous Sport

With the Kazakh's mastery of the horse recently endorsed by the findings by archaeologists that the wild horse was first domesticated by inhabitants of the Kazakh Steppe, it can be no surprise that the national sport of Kazakhstan centres upon horsemanship. The Steppe horse is endowed with outstanding stamina and hardiness, and certain breeds are exceptionally swift. All true Kazakhs love the horse. In past times, prowess on the horse won young men their chosen brides. Kazakh festivities between springtime and autumn feature equestrian contests, and the popular heroes are the Kings of Kokpar.

Kokpar may be likened to a kind of polo in its wildest form. Participating riders can number a thousand. The Kokpar pitch is as wide as the Steppe. The winners are those who can take possession of the carcase of a goat, hurled into the equestrian melee.

Then there is Andaryspak, in which the contest is between two riders, often galloping at full tilt, who seek to pull one another out of the saddle. It involves exceptional strength and dexterity.

Next is KumisAlu - in which the test is to snatch from the ground a small object like a coin without leaving the saddle and at a fast gallop. It deeply impressed Alexander the Great, when his army swept through the southern Steppe 2,300 years ago.

The context of Jangshty involves the pursuit of an imagined enemy to whack him with a whip - the pursuer sometimes being a woman avenging a faithless lover. Then there is Kazaksha Kures comprising a match between two mounted wrestlers.

Kazakh equestrian sport is far from a mere physical matter. It demands pluck, craftiness and stamina, of which the severest test of all is the Alaman-haiga, a race covering up to 80 km.

No less than Kokpar and the equestrian contests, he who hunts with eagles - the berkutchy - is supremely, and uniquely - a Kazakh. In this work it has already been touched on as an integral feature of Steppe life, a tool of hunting game for the pot, and a means of protecting flocks from predators like wolves or foxes. In modern times, it has gained the status of a sport of rarity and high distinction.

The distinction stems from the training and mastery of this vast raptor. Many still practice the art of falconry throughout the world: peregrines, merlins and goshawks for the pursuit of smaller birds or small terrestrial game.

None but the Kazakhs made use of a bird with a wingspan of some three metres and a weight of seven kilos. To have such a sharp-beaked and taloned creature bating on one's wrist out on the snow-bound, wind-swept Steppe is a man's task. So is the training, calling for endless patience. But first the eagle chick must be purloined from its remote eyrie in the Jungar or the Altai mountains.

To be any kind of falconer (there is no such English word as 'eagler' for a berkutchy) is a life's profession, and in Kazakhstan as elsewhere, often an hereditary one. The relationship of the bird and its master is constant, and all-consuming. In the training of a young bird, the falconer must sacrifice his sleep for nights on end. For weeks, the growing bird is rendered sightless under its hood: dependence on its master becomes total. Then that intimacy must be turned to lifelong trust - twenty years or more, with a healthy bird.

And it is said that as the man trains the bird, so does the great bird train his man, the berkutchy famous in Kazakh life on the Steppe for his inner resource, longevity, and perfect posture.