Chukheh Wrestling in Turkmen Sahra
In April of 2022, we had one of our most memorable trips with two of our most favourite and flexible travellers: Sofieke (Dutch) and Ole (German), a lovely couple who spent 9 quality days with the Bakhtiari nomads in their biannual journey of Kooch. Sofieke joined us a week earlier and was lucky enough to witness and record some moments of a game of Chukheh wrestling, a traditional game and a favourite sport among the nomads. She also attended a Turkmen wedding in the beautiful lands of Turkmen Sahra before reuniting with her lovely boyfriend, Ole, who joined us after a week for the upcoming Kooch Journey. Here’s a short travelogue of this memorable trip, penned by dear Sofieke:
Bakhtiari nomads’ move or “Kooch”, including packing of all their possessions and livestock, happens twice a year across the Zagros mountain ranges between their winter and summer pastures. This way, the Bakhtiaris ensure that their sheep and goats have access to grass of the highest quality throughout the year. In fact, animals are responsible for the bulk of the Bakhtiaris’ income. To witness this biannual transhumance, together with my boyfriend, I travelled with Husein and Jahan’s family, across the Zagros Mountains, from this family’s winter pasture towards their summer pasture.
During the trek, which took seven days, we covered 92-kilometres and 3,200 altimeters altogether. Including one day of arrival and one day of rain, we spent nine days with Husein and Jahan’s family members, their 250 sheep and goats, four donkeys and five horses. It was an intense but unforgettable journey. Each nomadic family follows its own route during the migration and has fixed pastures to stay in along the way. The trip is full of surprises and requires high adaptability. We had also heard this from other families whose paths crossed ours. Some had lost five goats along the way, others had to leave a sick sheep behind. ‘A surprise for the bears’, they would say.
The landscape along the way was very diverse. From severe drought and heat to lots of greenery and rocks. Eventually we even encountered snow! Some parts were difficult to hike because of this, which made the days quite intense. The hike was all about trial and error and being mentally strong enough to walk through hunger. Since fruit and vegetables were too heavy to carry and were spoiled too quickly, we lived on homemade bread, milk, yoghurt, and onions instead.
Every morning we started the walk, often four to five hours long, to the next pasture. On one of these days, we even walked for 10 hours to arrive at the next resting place. During the treks, we had no idea when we would arrive at our goal. The mentality therefore became: “every step brings us closer to the destination”. The walk was no longer about the destination, but about the journey itself.
Keeping up with the fit nomads proved to be a huge challenge. In the evening it was often a great relief when we reached the night meadows, drenched in sweat and with sore feet, we put up the tent for the night and helped the family with the last chores for the day. The bags on the donkeys and horses had to be unloaded, wood had to be gathered for the fire, and sometimes we helped gather the goats before milking them. Nature became our home, and, with any luck, there was no river to provide fresh water and a place to wash.
Nomadic life is not complicated, but it can bring many hardships along the way. Nomads face extreme elements and struggles: long days, short nights and nocturnal visitors such as bears and wolves that want to devour the families’ goats and sheep. These wild animals are the reason why nomads carry dogs to protect themselves and their animals. They also carry a gun around for that matter. The mountains are like the Wild West, and it is impossible to predict what they will encounter. For protection, the men of the families take turns keeping watch over the camp at night.
It was a tough trek, where we had to push our limits physically and mentally every day. Every day we feasted our eyes on the beautiful landscape and fascinating culture of the nomads. We realised how much we could learn from the Bakhtiaris: how little you need for living, how much freedom and happiness nature can bring, and how to make do with what you have. The life lessons we were able to learn will stay with us for a long time. It was a thoroughly unforgettable adventure that we recommend to everyone!