Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, and the birth of independent states, Nowruz has been experiencing a significant revival. Reconnecting with their heritage, countries from Albania to Afghanistan, Kosovo to Kazakhstan have declared it a national holiday. You’ll also find it celebrated wherever there are large populations of Zoroastrians (also known as Parsis) or expat Iranians, including in Canada, the US, and India. The festival’s name has many variations: In Kazakhstan,
goldfish in it, and a sprinkling of rose water decorate the table. Anticipation builds as the family gathers: They cannot eat until the exact moment of the spring equinox.
Nowruz is a time for family, and people take the chance to return home to their villages. Across Central Asia, and especially in Kazakhstan, it’s the one occasion when historic nomadic traditions are revived. Felt yurts are erected in town squares, and in each one a dastarkhan (feasting table) is set. Once again, there are seven dishes, including meats and dairy products, but here they represent not the planets, but human virtues: health, wealth, joy, success, intelligence, agility (essential for a horseman on the steppe), and security. The music is riotous, and the dancers are bedecked in magnificent costumes and jewellery; it really is quite a spectacle.
But arguably the greatest excitement is reserved for when the buzkashi games start. The most famous of these is in Afghanistan’s Mazar-i Sharif, where thousands of spectators gather, but smaller matches are played across the “Stans”. In Kazakhstan the sport is called kokpar; in Tajikistan it is ulak tartysh.
This chaotic, dangerous horseback rugby is the more energetic forerunner of modern polo. Teams can be as many as 100 riders strong, and they are competing for the glory of their tribe or clan. Matches have been known to last for several days, and they can be exceptionally aggressive, although etiquette dictates that you should not deliberately whip other riders, or knock them from their horses. A goal is scored when a rider manages to throw the headless goat carcass (a weighty but readily available alternative to a ball) into the kazan (goal). The crowds roar with delight; and their energy spurs the riders on.
For 3,000 years, Nowruz has marked a new beginning. That moment when the days and nights are of equal length is a fitting time to look back and remember our ancestors and our traditions, but it also the time to look forward to the year ahead. ag SOPHIE IBBOTSON is the founder of Maximum Exposure Limited, and the Eurasian investments specialist at Glacex LLP. She is the author of five Bradt Travel Guides, including guidebooks to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and lectures regularly about Central Asian business, culture, and travel.