The Silk Road Cup

Anne Dohrmann takes us on as journey to the mountains of Iran.

For the third time, an international horse archery competition is taking place here in Iran: in the desert city of Yazd 2017, in picturesque Shiraz 2018 and in 2019 at the foot of the Alborz Mountains near Tehran.

Last year I was already among the participants, which changed my mind about the country. Of course, I have to adhere to the strict dress code of the women, including the headscarf, but I am really looking forward to the friendly and warm Iranians themselves.

The most important basic requirement is a well trained horse. There are no particularly preferred breeds because the animals do not have to do anything extraordinary or unphysiological. Only a calm mind is an advantage.

Regarding the shooting technique, the scene can be roughly divided into “Mediterranean” or “thumb technique”. The historical authenticity and the safe arrow guidance on very fast horses speak in favor of the thumb technique, since the arrow is placed on the right and is pressed against the bow by the wind.

However, the Mediterranean technique allows the shooter to hold up to twelve arrows on the bow hand, so that the shooting and shooting can be accelerated very quickly. The better technology cannot be determined objectively.

The rules are formulated relatively openly, the essential applies: the bow must not have any contact surface or aiming device, and the arrow must be shot at a gallop. Everything else may be regulated by individual organizers, but is mainly at the discretion of the rider.

In the morning I get a first overview of the location. The area is a little out of the way in the wasteland. In the north the Alborz Mountains rise majestically, in the southeast a cloudy smog cloud suggests the foothills of Tehran.

The competition track and the horse boxes border one side of the site, there is also a small private zoo with a disturbingly high number of lions, furthermore an artificial lake, many sports fields and small bungalows, in which the three of us are accommodated. The complex is normally used by members of the army for recreation and leisure activities.

The participants of the training camp, which will fill the four days before the competition, are now complete with the Kazakhs and me. Around 30 athletes from all proficiency levels have seized the opportunity to learn from four of the best teachers worldwide.

These trainers are Christoph Némethy from Hungary, who teaches the Mediterranean technique, Mihai Cozmei from Romania with Slavic technique, furthermore the thumb shooter Wojtek Osiecki from Poland and Ali Ghoorchian from Iran with Persian technique. 

It is the first camp of this format. We learn the tips and tricks of the professionals in small groups; Rhythm exercises, tricks to be able to hold more arrows on the bow hand, and more.

But also individual problems are dealt with, in the group we solve specific difficulties of our colleagues. This constructive, benevolent interaction between the athletes creates a very pleasant atmosphere in the community of mounted archers.

After the ground training, we can prepare the horses for the first mounted training. The animals here are often very young and spirited, only a few stallions are neutered.

Some animals are so tense that they tremble nervously even when standing and hold their heads up high with bloated nostrils. Relaxed group rides are unthinkable, you always have to watch carefully the movements of all horses in the area in order to avoid a kick in time. 

We try different horses one after the other on the 160 meter long track that ends in a right-angled curve. The speeds vary from 18 to 51 km / h. One day we leave the well-known area with the horses to train on the “Nature Track” in the mountains. It is a dry river bed that winds between the slopes. However, the training character seems to me to be of secondary importance here, in the foreground is the ride through the mountains as such.

The training camp offers a wealth of knowledge from all aspects of horseback archery, and at the end my head is literally buzzing with new knowledge. Two free days now follow until the actual tournament begins.

We are forbidden to leave the site to explore the area because recent protests have left Tehran tense. The government has shut down the Internet across the country; indeed, in the entire ten days that I spend in Iran, we have no way to receive or send information.

The weather surprises us with unexpected cold. In the morning there is a thick carpet of fog above the floor, which limits our field of vision to ten meters. We decide to shoot at short distances. Often there is snow, but it disappears again and again during the day.

Two German teammates have now arrived; overall, the group of international riders is now growing steadily to around 60 from 23 different countries.

Since we have no central meeting spot, we often meet spontaneously in one of the small bungalows;  listening to the music of our countries until late at night, teaching each other traditional dances and simply enjoying the time together.

Sometimes up to eight nations, from Russia to Iran to South Africa, are crammed in. However, for us it is absolutely irrelevant where the individual comes from, what language you speak or which religion you follow. The shared passion for mounted archery spans all borders and lays the foundation for international friendships.

We have the luxury of choosing horses ourselves, lots of other tournaments will determine for you. Since almost all animals are quite spirited and quick, the decision is often made on the basis of sympathy. As a rule, this tactic is surprisingly reliable. Since I’ve spent a few days with them myself, I already know many of the horses.

I hold back on the test riding and rely on the organizer’s judgment when choosing my mount. I only get to know the mare “Khatoon” shortly before the competition. She is a wiry thoroughbred mare, I have to be brisk and courageous when getting on so that I don’t get caught by their annoying kicks.

Once I have made it there, the roles have been clarified and I can enjoy an absolutely cooperative horse. Her temperament now flows completely into her movement. After a rocket launch, she tirelessly flies round the track. A perfect horse for mounted archery. I can calmly indulge in a steady gallop and focus entirely on shooting.

The competition starts on a wet and cold morning at 9 a.m. However, the moisture quickly gives way to icy sunshine, which gives us a view of the spectacular snow-capped peaks of the Alborz Mountains that are enthroned on the horizon.

As the first group prepares, the rest gather in the stands. Only a few external viewers came, which is certainly due to the generally very tense political situation in the country.

The event will be interrupted at noon for an official opening ceremony. Staggered by nation, we run a round across the square and listen to a welcoming speech in Farsi.

The flag of our country is printed on a sign, which we carry in front of us. Unfortunately the German flag is printed upside down. It is not the only and an example of the small, chaotic, but somehow lovable oversights that horseback archery tournaments often seem to accompany. 

It starts with the “Korean Double Shot”: 120 meters, a forward shot, a backward shot, time limit: 15 seconds. The arrows must be pulled out of a quiver. We have a trial run per competition and only two runs in the classification. Internationally, this is a very small number that hardly provides a representative picture of the archer’s performance. The aspects of reflex and luck also play a role here.

In the afternoon we ride the “Hungarian competition”, again only two runs are counted. In Europe, each rider has nine graded races in this discipline. As many arrows as possible are shot at a disc tower 90 meters long.

Forward, sideways and backward shots are required in the smooth transition, needing a continuous body rotation, facing the target. The time limit here is 18 seconds, slow riders and fast shooters get their money’s worth in this discipline.

It is very interesting to watch the different participants, because hardly two share a completely identical style. Nock and shooting technique, the equipment, the saddle, riding style, speed, historical clothing, everything is worth a closer look and impresses with a great variety.

The program includes the “Tabla” – or “Turkish competition”. This is again about the speed: a forward shot is followed by a backward shot and finally a long sideways shot at a small target. It is a difficult competition. In the trial run, I’m getting new courage because I hit all three targets.

The “Pahlavan” competition, Persian for “athlete” or “hero”, brings a completely different challenge. In addition to bow and arrow, we have to use a two-meter spear to collect various rings and prick a cardboard from the ground.

Only the rounds in which at least two out of five individual tasks are completed, and the rider arrives at the finish line with both weapons, are counted. Anyone who does not meet one of these aspects during the first evaluation run will also be disqualified for the second attempt.

Unfortunately, the first rider with the spear accidentally destroys one of the five stations. Nevertheless, the minimum requirement of two tasks is not reduced, making the competition even more difficult than it is anyway.

My gray mare Khatoon is very fiery that day. I need help so that I can coordinate my weapons in the saddle without my horse autonomously sweeping onto the track as if magnetized. 

Unfortunately I don’t get the shot with spear in hand, but at least I manage to pierce the cardboard at the end of the lane. A second round is therefore no longer possible for me. I bring my mare back into her box and thank her for carrying me through these wild four competitions unscathed.

In the evening a BBQ with a lot of fire is prepared for us. We feel very comfortable as foreigners in Iran, respect and tolerance shape the tone. Due to the family atmosphere, I never have the feeling that I am marginalized as a woman. In the official context, however, there is a cool distance between the genders. If you want to show yourself progressive here, dare to shake hands with the participants.

The last day of the “Silk Road Cup” is reserved for the top 30 riders to date. You can now ride the final “International Track”, which combines one qabak, ie one shot upwards, with three other single targets. Hardly anyone manages to meet the time limit and hit all targets.

The last rider dashes through the finish line and suddenly the competition on the Silk Road is over. The event itself was as turbulent and wild as the horses. The return to everyday life at home now seems like waking up from a dream.

My own good horse is already waiting there for me and the bow. Together we will fill the new knowledge with experience. The long German winter will hopefully give me enough time to train so that I can wear my head a little higher at the next international tournament

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