Spring snow wrestling

Facing off in the snow

Spring is “Gushti” (wrestling) season in Tajikistan.  This weekend I was invited to a big gushti match in Tojikobod District, site of many great buzkashi matches this past winter.  After a bit of rain overnight, the morning was damp and cold, with low clouds hovering along the sides of the Rasht Valley.  Although the calendar says spring and our staff have been dismantling the coal stoves in the office, I threw on a bunch of layers.  That proved to be a good idea, as we encountered light snow as we drove higher in the valley.  Our vehicle was full of drivers and guards who also wanted to see the gushti, many of the same staff who had been always ready for a day of buzkashi.

Finally reaching the village of Shirichashma, we found a large crowd already gathered outside the local school.  Thick mats were arranged in a large square in the middle, and the matches were underway.  Two matches were happening simultaneously, while other wrestlers sat at the edge of the mat.  I only had a minute to take in the scene before I was grabbed by the hand and led through the crowd to an open area next to the judges table.  It turns out my guide used to volunteer for Mercy Corps and today he was in charge of all the prizes for the winning wrestlers, an important job.

Apparently he remembered the many photos I had taken during buzkashi, and he wanted me to have a good spot for the festivities.  Seated in what passed for the press box, I was in an ideal position to take some photos.  I also was well taken care of, alternately being offered “choi” (tea) or RC Cola.  The wrestling is Greco-Roman syle, with both wrestlers standing and a win only awarded for throwing your opponent fully onto his back, called a “khalo”.  The crowd would go crazy if there was a khalo, or they thought there was one.  The referees were reserved with the khalos, only calling one when it was a clear flip onto the back.

Going for a "khalo"

The wrestlers ranged from about 14 to 25 years in age, and varied quite a bit in size.  It was clear some were well-known “champions”, including one of the referees who judged for more than an hour before taking the mat himself and quickly getting a khalo.  The hometown favorites from Tojikobod competed against wrestlers from the neighboring districts of Jirgatol and Rasht and even a few wrestlers from Dushanbe.  Although a few decisions were disputed, most wrestlers accepted the decisions and there was a good level of sportsmanship.  Only one match resulted in injury, when a wrestler was flipped fully over his opponent and in the process dislocated his shoulder.

As the matches continued, the snow increased but there was never any sign that the matches would be stopped.  Typical April weather in this part of the country.  One of the prize carpets was rolled out to provide a dry surface, and wrestling continued.  My host kept bringing tea, then a blanket, then an umbrella.  I was a bit amazed that the wrestling continued.  Finally after more than 3 hours we were all wet ready to get warm.  We headed for the home of Amirjon, the prize giver, and settled down to Tajik “girdecha” (traditional hearth-baked bread), yogurt, honey, and “shorba” (meat, potato and carrot soup).  All agreed the gushti was “zur” (great), and we headed for home a happy bunch.

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