The Kazakhs have a long history of skiing. The ancient Chinese called them "Turks with wooden horses," a reference to skis. A 14th-century Arab historian wrote: “Since their country contains many mountains and forests and a large quantity of snow, they slay a great number of grouse. They make special boards which they call “chaneh” and stand up on them; they also make a bridle out of strap and tie it to the front end of the board, then take hold of a stick and, sliding through the snow, push themselves along with the stick, just as if they were driving a boat through water. That is how they travel in their “chaneh” over the steppe and through valleys, down slopes and up hills, in pursuit of mountain oxen and other animals.”

“Along with these same “chaneh” on which they travel they put their slain animals. Even when the load weighs as much as two or three thousand “mans”, it does not require much efforts to drag it over the snow. If a person will not be skilled or experienced in this pursuit, his legs will slide apart and he will tumble down in the snow when he runs, especially on the slopes and on a fast run. But a tutored person can run with great alacrity. No man would credit it unless he sees it with his own eyes...Word of this reached the noble era of the great Lord of Islam, and he commanded a group of people from that land to be brought to him. They then traveled to him in the manner described here; and he was convinced of the veracity of the story.”

Illegal Bare-Knuckled Fights in Kazakhstan and the Film Schizo

Illegal bare-knuckled fights run by gangsters and somewhat similar to fights depicted in Brad Pitt film “Fight Club” are conducted in some areas in Kazakhstan. Desperate, unemployed men are recruited for the fights. Occasionally men die. The prize for some of the big bouts is a beat up Mercedes. This world is portrayed in the film “Schizo”. See Film.

Describing the impoverished world depicted in “Schizo”, A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote: it is “governed by greed, petty corruption and desperation. Unemployed men risk their lives in the boxing ring, the local doctor accepts bribes in the form of pickles and sour cream from poor patients and Schizo’s drunken, deadbeat uncle seeks out a living stripping wires from utility poles...Ye the people in this dog-eat-dog environment retain their dignity in spite of their hard circumstances.”

“Schizo”, the debut film by female Kazakh director Guka Omariva, was well received in the West, The New York Times called it a “sensitive and well-observed...proud and responsible film.” The name of the film refers to the nickname of the main character, a 15-year-old boy who is regarded by his friends and even his mother as crazy.

In the film Schizo is a great admirer of his mother’s boyfriend, a smalltime gangster who make money from setting up illegal bare-knuckled fights. After one particularly nasty fight that kills a boxer Schizo is entrusted with delivering to the dead mean’s girlfriend his meager share of the fight proceeds. Schizo then strikes an improbable love relationship with the girlfriend, and her son admires Schizo the same way he looks up to the gangster.

Omarova, who grew up speaking Russian and now lives in the Netherlands, is a protégée of the Russian filmmake Sergei Bodrov, who produced the film and collaborated with Omarova on the script. A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote that Omarova “is a clear-sighted, self-confident filmmaker with an ability to blend the slow, detached rhythms of the classic landscape film with the verve and violence of a gritty crime story. She has a painter’s eye for composition and a novelist’s sense of character.”

On the film Omarova told the Los Angeles Times, This is how I see my country. There are no jobs in the villages. Our sheep were eaten in the ‘difficult years,’ and their flocks have not been replenished. I used real fighters, real criminals in this movie...I never want to be sentimental. To me, sentimentality is vulgar.” Only three of the actors were professionals. The boy who played Schizo was found in an orphanage.

Kazak Folk Sports and Unusual Sports on Horseback

“Kures” is the national form of wrestling. “Itys” is pastime and sport in which members of one team boast about their village, clan and insult their rivals with verses, puns and alliterations. Exchanges go back and forth. The group that fails to come up with a witty reply loses. Kazakhs also play a log stick game called “lapta”.

In Kazakhstan there are lots of horse sports. “Tenge alu” (“grab the money”) features riders in a race against the clock trying to scoop up bags of money lying on the ground while they ride their horses as fast as they can. Kazakhs are renowned for their ability to shoot arrows accurately while bouncing up and down on a horse going at a full gallop.

“Kyz-kuu” (catch the maiden) is a popular form of horse racing in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. A man on horseback chases after a girl and tries to kiss here. The girl is able to defend herself. If he doesn’t catch her he turns tail and gets chased and whipped b the girl. The sports reportedly began as an alterative to bride abduction. The sport has a history that goes back centuries and may has roots in the horseman custom of kidnapping brides. Describing kyz-kuu, Mike Collett-White of Reuters wrote, “The young man rides without a saddle and at full gallop, bearing down on his beloved just a few strides ahead...he gradually closes in, leans precariously to one side, grabs the girl rider by the waist and steals a kiss. All at breakneck speed.”

“Kokpar” is a Kazakh version buz kasi. Sometimes the carcass of a wolf is used rather than a goat. In one version of the game, teams of 12 score points by placing the carcass in a circle on the ground. The “Alaman” fat race is exhausting 25 kilometer endurance race over the steppe contested by riders between the ages of six and nine. It is similar to the Nadaam races in Mongolia. See Mongolia.

Kazakh Horse Racing

Horse racing is a traditional entertainment and sports activity that is deeply loved by Kazakhs. Traditionally it has been held at large weddings as the main entertainment event. Once the horse racing ends, the celebration is over. Kazakh horse racing comes in two forms: fine horse racing and galloping horse racing. The fine horse racing is a test of skill, comparing the galloping speed, durability and galloping technique. The participating horses are generally adult horses that are five year old or older. The riders are adults. When racing, the riders have to display outstanding riding skills. They not only need to make the horses gallop steadily, but they must also make animals maintain a graceful, galloping movement. Galloping horse racing is a race of speed and endurance. There are classifications for adult horses, one-year-old horses and studs. The participating riders are generally boys 12 to 13 years old. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

The time and place of major horse races is announced way in advance. The participants make preparations two to three years in advance and train specially ofr a specific event. The Kazakhs attach great importance to raising and training racing horses. They believe that in addition to proper breeding, horse types, blood relationship, body form and posture, the key for the horse to become a champion lies in its training and the skills of the horse trainer. There are professionals that choose and train horses.

Participating riders wear red and white clothes. The hair and tail of the racing horses must be woven or bound with colored cloth strips. In this way the tail does not get in the way of the galloping horse and the colored cloth helps to identify individual horses and riders. The racing distance is generally 20 to 30 kilometers, sometimes the track is in straight line, and sometimes it has turns, around the grassland. Winners bring honor to their whole clan and tribe. When a rider finishes the race, it rider shouts the slogans of his own clan and tribe. At this time, all the people of same tribe echo the slogan together.

Kazakh "Snatching Sheep"

Snatching sheep is a fierce team sport played on horseback by Kazakh. Also played by the Kyrgyz and Afghani, it integrates sports and entertainment and is a test of strength, courage and riding skills. Generally held on a flat, open grassland, the sport is often the featured event of a festival or an event such as a arge wedding. The equivalent of a ball is a sheep or goat or a sheep or goat stuffed with sand. The object of the game is to escape with the stuffed sheep. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

Participants in a snatching sheep competition belong to two teams. The competition begin when each team send one its riders to snatch the “ball.” The rider who gets to the stuffed sheep first grabs the hind legs, and with both hands and presses it onto the saddle. Members of the other team try grab the sheep's forelegs and pulls the sheep away from the rider who is holding it. Sometimes the struggle for the ball can be quite fierce and riders have been seriously injured and even died. It requires the systematic cooperation, human strength and horse strength to excel in this sport, with the strongest person and the strongest team snatching and holding the sheep and scoring goals. ~

In some competitions there are several rounds of individual sheep snatching with a competitor from each team trying to be the first to grab and control the stuffed sheep. After this is the real event when both teams go after a single stuffed sheep—and a mad free-for-all begins. The riders rush up in a crowd trying to grab the sheep. The person that takes the sheep whips his horse and gallops off, other riders take off after him as quickly as possible. When they catch up with him, a fierce tussle for the sheep begin. When they are locked together, sometimes several hundred riders surround the rider with the sheep, pushing and squeezing from left to right and front to back. Once a rider has full possession of the sheep, the riders on his team set up screens for and try to protect him as he whips his horse and gallops off. Riders on the other team run after him or block him, and try to wrestle the sheep away. If a rider manages to escape with the sheep and riders of the other team can not catch him, the rider's team win the competition. In some places, the game cannot come to an end until the sheep is thrown to an appointed yurt. That evening, the host of the yurt happily entertains everyone at a party at his yurt. The Kazakh people believe that the mutton of this sheep can help them to cure sickness and meet good luck.

There is another type of snatching sheep which involves a single rider. First, the prepared sheep is left on the arena. Two riders, each representing their team, begin to snatch the sheep from each other on the horseback. The person with the greater strength and appropriate skills usually wins. The snatchers cannot gallop, they can only snatch within the arena, which is as large as two to three basketball courts. This competition depends on the number of participants, and is generally run as a single elimination tournament.

Girls Chasing Guys on Horseback

Kazakh sports and entertainment activities on horseback are generally held on wedding days and festivals. One of the biggest crowd pleasers is the girl chasing a young fellow on horseback event. The event begins when a pair of male and female riders ride bridle to bridle to the appointed point. When going there, the young fellow can amuse and make fun of the girl, even kissing and hugging her. According to custom, no matter what he does the girl can not get angry. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

When reaching the appointed place, the young fellow whips his horse and gallops off, with the girl in hot pursuit. When the girl catches the young fellow, she can wave her whip around his head, and even can beat him to retaliate for his teasing, and the young fellow cannot strike back. However, generally the girl will not really beat him, especially if the girl likes the young fellow. Often she only raises her whip and lowers it lightly. But, if she does not like the young fellow, and the young fellow ruthlessly teased and mocked her, the girl can caste courtesy aside and violently whip the guy. In the past, this activity was a means in which Kazakh youths locked in to arranged marriages by parents, could escape them. Many young people who got to know each other on horseback, sprouted love, and finally got married. Nowadays, it mostly a spectator sports, with many married people participating in it. ~

There are many interesting legends as to how "the girl chasing after the young fellow" game originated. According to one legend: Long long ago, the heads of two Kazakh tribes became relatives by the marriage of their son and daughter. On the wedding day, the groom’s feather lead an entourage to welcome the bride and bragged that his son’s horse was a winged steed chosen from many good horses. When the father of the bride heard this, to show off his own horse and his daughter's riding skill, he said: "My daughter will run in opposite direction to your destination, if your young fellow can catch up with my daughter, they can get married today, otherwise, it will be negotiated later." The bridegroom was eager to get married, so he was unwilling to be outshone and agreed the challenge conditions. The two youths got on their horses at once, the girl whipped her horse and galloped off, with the young fellow in pursuit. When he caught up with the girl and went ahead of her, the girl said the young fellow could run first, and she would chase after him. ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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