In the grass arena dozens of men were screaming and running as horses galloped towards them at full tilt, forcing them to flee uphill. The scene, at Silk Road festival in Afghanistan’s highlands, conjured visions of the horsemen of Genghis Khan, who descended on the region eight centuries ago and devastated it.
But the crowd gathered this week to watch the world’s wildest sport was made up of delighted spectators rather than victims of a Mongolian cavalry charge. The riders were playing buzkashi, a game a little like polo but with no boundaries and with a dead goat instead of a ball, sometimes said to have been invented by Khan to keep his troops fit in winter.
Later came jousting, horse racing and the tug of war, all used to hone fighting skills in the area for generations, although the audience in 2013 roared up on thoroughly modern motorbikes and in Toyota pickups and battered jeeps, which doubled as shelter when the buzkashi teams thundered past.
“It’s my first time seeing buzkashi in real life, and I’m a little scared,” said Fariba, a student from Ghazni province trying to snap photos of the horsemen without getting too close. “It’s great to see everyone here enjoying themselves, showing another side of our country.”
The festival is a rare chance to celebrate the heritage of Afghanistan’s now-isolated highlands, an area that has sunk into deep poverty since sea routes decimated the lucrative trade caravans that once plodded east towards China and India or west to Europe.
“Buzkashi is our local sport,” said Habibullah Elkani, a police commander and horseback referee. He served four years near the frontlines of the insurgency in Kandahar before coming home and taking up the risky game he got addicted to in his teens. Three days of events also included a poetry contest.
The festival, now in its fifth year, celebrates the potential of an area that has escaped the worst ravages of Afghanistan’s post-2001 violence, amid rising fears about the future without foreign troops. All coalition combat forces will be gone next year.
“People are worried, very worried, when you talk about 2014,” said Reza Mohammadi, an organiser. “But life is continuing, and people are trying to make the best future for themselves, their family and their country.
“It’s the people of Bamiyan who make this place peaceful, not the police or military men,” he added, citing a high number of girls in education as one achievement. Women were well represented at the festival, with a female presenter and dozens of people packed into a women-only section of the audience to watch stars famous from reality TV.
A roar of excitement exploded when the singer Sajid Hussain Jannaty appeared on stage. Jannaty won Afghan Star, a pirated version of Pop Idol, with songs drawn from traditional highland music, and had come back to repay his fans, said Mohammadi. “If you think about living in Afghanistan, there is a war on; there is poverty; many places don’t have electricity or clean water. People need music because it’s food for your mind.”
One afternoon’s events were held by a spectacular lake, a slice of shocking blue between the barren hills. Revellers wandered between the concert, swan-shaped pedalos on the lake, swimming areas, picnic places and food stalls selling fresh watermelon and fried snacks. “It’s my first time here, but I feel very safe,” said Sayed Abul Hassan, an engineer in Afghanistan’s fledgling air force.