Horses of the Silk Road
MIR’s Tour Manager Michel Behar is an encyclopedia when it comes to all things Central Asian. Here he shares his love of horses along the Silk Road.
There are so many horses of the ancient Silk Road, the network of trade routes that stretched from China to the Mediterranean Sea. The Chinese imported horses from Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, as protection from Xiong-Nu nomads, steppe people who populated what is now south Siberia, Mongolia, west Manchuria and the northern Chinese provinces. The Chinese were unsuccessful in breeding horses themselves for many centuries.
“The people [of Fergana]…have…many good horses. Their horses sweat blood and come from the stock of the ‘heavenly horse.’”
– Zhang Qian, 2nd c. BC
The first horses along the Silk Road were domesticated in Kazakhstan around 3,500 B.C., a full 1,000 years earlier than anywhere else in the world. They were so prized that rather than hand them over during Soviet collectivization under Stalin, Kazakhs instead slaughtered them. Today Kazakhs consider horsemeat a delicacy with healing powers, from lowering blood pressure to healing broken bones.
- Tiyin-enmay: a contest to pick up a coin
- Oodarysh: wrestling and trying to throw a rival off his horse
- At chabysh: a horse race
- Ulak tartysh: polo with a dead goat
- Kyz-kumai : catch a girl and kiss her. When the boy is successful, the girl whips him gently; if he fails, she whips him hard.
We watch from the sideline and cheer; the boys are so immersed in the games they don’t pay attention to us. Farhod, our local guide, has fond memories of these games from his childhood. One exception, though: the time Farhod failed to catch the girl and she whipped him really hard!
Their golden color is good camouflage in the desert, but they’re also brown or black. Their eyes and ears are huge, and they see well at night. My favorite Akhal-Teke is blonde with blue eyes. When our MIR tour stops at a working horse farm near Ashgabat, owner Katia brings out the horses one by one from the stable. These athletically built and elegant stallions gallop for us. She pets and grooms them after a good performance, offering them treats to munch on.
It’s such a treat for us just to watch these beautiful steeds with their flowing manes and tails, and remember their long history, these horses of the Silk Road.
(Top photo credit: Vlad Ushakov)
PUBLISHED: June 18, 2014