By Zeena Urynbassarova
The three major features of the steppe warrior’s life were archery, horsemanship and pastoral nomadism. These were the building blocks of the steppe life. And a true man in early days was judged by three skills that he had mastered: the first being the ability to fight, the second ability was to shoot and hit the bull’s eye, i.e. the archery, and the third was horse racing. These were so called “three games men love to play”. Murat Gabdousalimov, whom I was happy to meet and to talk to, seemed mastered the first two skills very well and now is on his way to the third one.
Drilling engineer by education, Murat is also the holder of black belt and the 1st dan in karate. He was once the President of the Atyrau Oblast Federation of Karate-Do.
Now his passion is archery and he mastered bow making art to its highest level. The bows he makes don’t just look good and professional, but they also shoot as far as 200- 300 meters and even further. He also loves horse riding and dreams in the future to master the art of horse back archery.
Murat seems to be a person of not many words, but he is quietly and privately reviving this beautiful tradition of archery in Atyrau.
- Why have you started to make bows?
Every man since he is a kid has this magical attraction to weapons. I used to make bows when I was a little boy and maybe this attraction later evolved into this hobby.
- What can you tell me about bows and the art of archery?
The martial art of archery is very old. Throughout the years different military and political leaders used this advantage to accumulate wealth and power. Two of the most significant horseback archers, Atilla the Hun and Genghis Khan, were the most powerful men of their time.
For hundreds of years horseback archery was a discipline that fed tribes and conquered enemies, helping horse cultures flourish on many continents before almost disappearing into history.
But now horseback archery is rapidly growing in popularity and enjoying a comeback. There are multiple mounted archery demonstrations and competitions all over the world every year.
For example, next month in April in Ukraine there will be an international horseback archery completion and I will try to go and see this exciting and fascinating sport event.
- So, what is the archer’s equipment consists of?
The first is the Bow. I make many various types of bows. Among them are Indian (Comanche), Turkic, Hungarian, English, Mongolian and Manchurian designs.
Arrows. I make mainly bamboo arrows, but carbon fiber arrows are much better and they shoot very well. A feather fletching is essential for mounted archery; feathered fletching gives you more accuracy than plastic vanes.
Thumb Ring. The Asiatic archers for hundreds of years used the thumb draw and they used to wear a ring on their thumb, because of the incredibly fast shooting you can accomplish with it.
Thumb rings also help to give a clean release of the string. There is also a Mediterranean (some call it English) style when archers use the three finger draw. All draw styles are fine and I believe hitting the target is what matters.
Quiver. Quivers are cases for storing the arrows. Sometimes I shoot from a quiver, and sometimes I hold arrows in my hand. I practice both techniques. This is all the armament that you need to practice archery.
- How much time does it take to make a bow?
If I make a wooden bow then it takes about 3 days, but if I make a composite bow that is made of different materials, such as wood, horns, sinews, etc. it takes up to 2 months, because sinews dry slowly. There is also a very good stretching material such as basalt coating which is called an artificial sinew and I also use it for bow making.
The final stage in bow making is called tillering and that’s where the bow-making really begins. What you actually do here- you just take off wood where the limb doesn’t bend enough, and leave alone the areas where it bends too much. After tillering you make trial shots- about 50-60 shots and then you can decorate, paint and vanish your bow.
- How far can you shoot an arrow?
You can shoot an arrow as far as 800 meters. But that requires a special skill. On an average an arrow can fly as far as 200 - 300 meters.
- Where do you take the materials for making the bows?
In Atyrau the materials are hard to find, but I use karagach tree wood for making pure wooden bows. Karagach is a very strong tree. I use the log that I keep for 6 -12 months outside for drying and then I cut it into 4 pieces in longitudinal direction. One of the best woods for making a bow is ash tree and we have ash trees in Atyrau. Ahs is considered a bow tree. Maple is also good.
I use the animal horns for making the arrow tips and also for the end piece of the arrow, but the cow horns are not good for this purpose, they are flaky and so I buy water buffalos horns from Southern Asian countries and China.
I use poplar tree branches for making arrows, but I like bamboo shoots, they are the best material for arrows.
Animal sinew is a good material both for bows and arrows, because of its good stretching quality. I make my own glue out of fish swim bladders. Actually the majority of the materials that I use are natural and not synthetic.
- Have you heard about Genghis Khan’s whistling arrows?
Mongols used little whistles made of either bone or clay and attached them on the side of the arrow. The whistling arrows of Ghengis Khan army put fear in the hearts of his enemies. Can you imagine a picture with thousands of flying whistling arrows – this was like a physiological attack, the tactics used by Mongols. Mongols rarely engaged themselves into close combat.
They also used the famous tactic of Parthian shot - the Parthian style of archery when you shoot at enemies while riding and facing away from them.
- Are there archers in the world that inspire you to make the bows?
One of the amazing bowyers and archers are Kassai from Hungary and American bowyer Lukas Novotny. They are the legends of bow making art. There are also many good bows coming out of Korea now.
- What does archery do for you?
Archery is a sort of meditation for me. It calms you down, because in order to hit the target you need to calm yourself down and prepare yourself for shooting.
The mere process of shooting with the bow, pulling the arrow from the quiver, drawing the string, releasing of string and arrow and after that you throw back your hand – these movements give you piece of mind. And it even doesn’t’ matter whether you hit the target or not.
There is a legend about a Japanese old man who once a day used to come out of his house and made one shot from the bow. Once he noticed a tiger in the bush, he hit the tiger and went back home. Next morning he went to have a look at the tiger that he killed. It appeared to be a big stone and his arrow went through the stone. This is the proof of magic things that concentration and force of hand can do, even if you shoot with an arrow made of fragile bamboo. It can crush the stone!
- What are your plans for the future?
I have been very passionate about martial arts my whole life, and I am now dreaming of becoming a mounted archer. I have supporters who also want to revive this sport in Atyrau.
I am a very fortunate person to have the supporting and understanding family: my wife, my three daughters who also love archery, as well as my parents. We all live together and the whole family is involved in shooting sessions that we organize in our yard.
“Archery, especially mounted archery, is an important part of our history and should not be lost”, says Murat.
Let’s hope that Murat’s nomadic spirit will inspire others to revive this beautiful art where athleticism is combined with so much elegance and romanticism!