The Bushkashi Horse
An excerpt from The Marco Polo Odyssey by
Harry Rutstein, a long time member of the Long Riders’ Guild, has announced his new book The Marco Polo Odyssey: In the Footsteps of a Merchant Who Changed the World following his fantastic, ten-year journey to trace the 13,000-mile overland route – Venice to Beijing – taken by Marco Polo in the 13th century. Using every means of travel available, from horses to camels to goatskin rafts, Rutstein became the first person known to have authenticated and retraced Marco Polo’s journey. In this book he recounts the experience, as a history wrapped in adventure.
In March 2001, I learned of the total destruction by the Taliban of the cliff carved Buddhas of Bamian, Afghanistan; natural disasters, political calamities and now another tragedy along the Marco Polo route. Here in this peaceful valley, the fundamentalist Islamic government totally destroyed both the 175 foot Great Buddha statue and the nearby smaller Buddha, with cannon fire. The rest of the world trembled as these sacred fifteen hundred year-old works of art in their flowing Grecian gowns were blasted into dust. The Taliban perpetrated a crime that was comparable to blowing up the Sphinx in Egypt. Meandering through the Bamian Valley in late October, 1975 was like visiting a cathedral of gigantic proportions, but now its holiness had been taken away, empty, its destiny played out leaving nothing but giant empty coffin-like niches on the side of a massive stone wall.
A primitive bazaar stretched for about a hundred yards along the base of the cliff of the two Buddhas. Here we found a potter turning clay into water jugs on a foot powered wheel, a tinsmith bent metal into pots . . . cotton cloth, leather goods, trinkets, family heirlooms and a few vegetables were spread across the ground to sell in this small, remote village of mud huts. In 1975 the people of Bamian lived a simple peaceful way of life.
It was interesting to discover that the unfired vessels made from special clay and sold at the bazaar could bring the temperature of the water it contained low enough to hold butter solid and provide a very cool drink even in the heat of summer. Since the pots were not fired, they were porous. This allowed water to evaporate through the clay at just the right rate to keep these pots and their contents very cold in a poor man’s design for a low cost low energy refrigerator.
From Bamian we edged our way west for fifty miles into the Hindu Kush Mountains following what was not much more than a donkey path surrounded by a few scattered thorn-bushes along the arid slopes. I rented an old Bushkashi trained horse to serve us during our visit to the twelve thousand foot high lakes at Band-I-Amir. The horse nearly killed me.
Riding a Bushkashi horse is different. It is trained to play the fierce game of Bushkashi where from a dozen to sometimes hundreds of horsemen assemble into two teams on a field of unrestricted size. The object of this game is for a horseman, without dismounting, to pick up a headless carcass of a goat from the center of the field, and carry it across a goal and back to the pick-up point before members of the other team can struggle it away from him. The game is one big deadly free-for-all on horseback. All the riders head for the carcass at full gallop. Each has a whip in his mouth and pulls at the reins as the signal for the horse to go faster. As he approaches what is left of a dead goat lying on the ground, the reins are dropped, this time signaling the horse to slow; the rider bends over from his saddle without dismounting to seize the goat, tuck it securely under one leg, and hopefully heads for the goal before losing it to another contestant. Therefore, tugging on the reins of a Bushkashi horse makes it go faster and slackening the reins causes the horse to slow and stop. The game originated in Marco Polo’s time when the Mongolians came marauding through Central Asia, making off with the local sheep, and goats. To protect their livestock, the nomads developed a technique of picking up an animal from horseback and carrying it to a safe place or passing the animal from one rider to the next. Practicing this manner of saving their herds evolved into the game of Bushkashi. It is still a favorite sport for the Uzbek and Tadjik men of the “Roof of the World” and it became a national game performed in stadiums in Afghanistan during the 1950s.
I had rented such a horse to carry me to the lakes in Band-I-Amir. Nothing lives in this high mountainous area, not even a blade of grass. Its stark beauty is breathtaking with the beige colored eroded mountain walls falling into the dark blue waters of the lakes. The jagged mountain peaks are etched against a warm blue sky to make Band-I-Amir among the most picturesque wonders of the world. In this high country without roads, there are very few motor vehicles. Somehow a Volkswagen mini-bus made its way up this mountain heading for a French archeological encampment. My horse had never seen such a strange noisy intimidating object. He shied, reared, and bolted towards the largest lake. I could barely stay in the saddle. My instinctive reaction was to pull back on the reins to stop the horse. It raced faster. I had forgotten for the moment that this was a Bushkashi horse, trained to speed up when its reins were pulled. My life was at stake and I had only seconds to stop this horse before we both went into the deep frigid water. This small brown gelding may have known how to swim but I did not. On this cold fall morning, I was wearing every bit of clothes I owned plus heavy hiking boots--and I was about to go to the bottom of a lake . . . like an anchor. In desperation, I grabbed a single rein and pulled the horse’s head around so it almost faced me. I had no other choice and he had no choice but to stop. That was close! I could imagine my obituary back home would have read, “Harry Rutstein drowns with his horse in one of the highest lakes of the world.”
Harry Rutstein’s books about his Marco Polo adventures are available on line at Amazon.com, and at Barnesandnoble.com or through bookstores everywhere.