The village of Kyzyl-Oi is calm, its dirt roads still warm from the day’s heat. Evening brings with it delightful freshness, which the powerful Kökömeren River amplifies.
At the end of the main street sits a large expanse, a pitch, where the village’s inhabitants are beginning to gather.
Men on horseback huddle in deep discussion, their horses jittery, as though there was something in the air. The sharp crack of a whistle startles them and they obediently form a line.
Suddenly, a horse breaks formation, galloping towards a baked dirt kazan, a bowl-like structure the size of a wading pool. Its rider leans in and pulls out the furry carcass of a headless goat, sewn up to keep the animal’s innards from falling out.
Fury on horseback is unleashed.
The others chase him, churning up dust, obscuring an already incomprehensible sight. It’s about two teams of eight men fighting each other on horseback, shoving and smashing to prevent opponents from grabbing the goat carcass. The winning team will be the one that throws the goat most often into the kazan: welcome to kok boru, or “blue wolf”, Kyrgyzstan’s national sport.
Like most other games played by the nomads of Central Asia, kok boru is a game of war.
Centuries ago when nomadic tribes swept through Asia, they used games to sharpen their physical and intellectual skills, essential for the conquest of land and looting of property.
Dead goat polo, as some call it, is possibly the best-known of these games. (You may know it by its Afghan name, buzkashi.) The game’s origins can’t be pinpointed but the sport may be linked to the capture of hungry wolves on the prowl for nomadic cattle herds. It is savage to watch but ingrained in the traditions of the region, as are so many other sports on horseback.
The World Nomad Games
Those very traditions are now fighting for survival. For centuries, nomads carried goods and knowledge back and forth across Asia and Europe, Africa and Australia. My own family has nomadic roots and I find the thought of migration hard to resist, experiencing itchy feet each time the seasons change.
But nomadism suffered a severe blow under the Soviet Union, which absorbed all of Central Asia from 1924 until its fall towards the end of the 20th century. In many places nomadic lifestyles were declared illegal and nomads were forced to become sedentary.
Once the Soviets were ousted and Central Asia’s republics became independent, these new countries made efforts to reclaim their cultural heritage and interest in nomadic culture grew rapidly.
While many nomads have abandoned their transient lifestyles and settled in towns and cities, events like the World Nomad Games (first held in 2014) are working to ensure traditions stay alive and culture is preserved.
Nomads were very strong, very wise, very smart people, with a rich tradition and culture. The 21st century is very urbanized and modern. But without knowing our history, without knowing who we are, we can not build our future.
Aijan Abdesova, the deputy head of the Secretariat of the Third World Nomad Games
Those first Games attracted 19 countries who competed in ten disciplines. The second Games in 2016 had 62 participant countries, and 80 countries are expected for the 2018 iteration.
What you can expect to experience at the World Nomad Games
In 2016, organizers calculated that half a billion spectators interacted with the Games in some way, either by watching them on television or visiting them online (the 2018 Games were even more spectacular, by all accounts).
There’s how the Games unfolded. For a week, the world’s eyes were on Kyrgyzstan, for the novel Games, of course, but also in slight disbelief that a relatively new and poor country – it emerged in 1991 and stands at number 120 of 188 on the 2017 Human Development Index – could pull off something so spectacular. (There was some criticism within the country – which remains poor – about high spending but as the Games unfurled, pride at their success took over. A country whose name no-one had heard of weeks before had suddenly become a household word.)
Two main venues hosted the Games. Some competitions were held in various sports facilities throughout Cholpon-Ata, on the shores of Lake Issy-kul, the world’s second largest salt-water lake. The other venue was about an hour’s drive away, at Kyrchyn Gorge. Both were brilliant, and both were different.
The facilities at Cholpon-Ata were brand new, with a sports center still smelling of fresh paint on the night of the opening ceremony. Between the giant screen, the parading delegations and the individual video monitors, no one missed a thing.
It was a technical success, worthy of a Hollywood premiere, with light shows, dances, equestrian feats, music, all going to plan. The one incongruous note was the not wholly unexpected arrival of actor Steven Seagal, who is friendly with Vladimir Putin and who occasionally pops up in this part of the former Soviet Union.
In Cholpon-Ata, a few of the wrestling games seemed familiar, but I admit I was skeptical about others. After all, how exciting can it be to spend an hour watching a woman (there were plenty of female participants) try to grab a small stick from her opponent? Only when you’re sitting in the same tense sports hall can you understand the sheer force and determination required to do this seemingly simple task and I couldn’t take my eyes off the participants.
Even such slow-moving board competitions as the Turkish mangala game held a certain fascination, in part because of their originality (to me) but also because of the lack of accessories or artifice. Most of the board games pitted humans with skills against one another, relying purely on brain power, with little of the paraphernalia that often accompanies modern sport.
Even if you’re not into spectator sports, you’ll find it hard to tear yourself away. The games are in turn clever, brutal, competitive and exhilarating, so it’s not surprising the event is often referred to as the Nomad Olympics.
However much I enjoyed watching some of the unusual events in Cholpon-Ata, the gathering at Kyrchyn Gorge was the place that stole my heart.
Kyrchyn Gorge, where nomads could just ‘be’
Here, I let my inner nomad run wild as my eyes scanned hundreds of yurts, their beige woollen casings covered with red, green and blue festoons, dotting the hills liked pale ants marching in formation.
Men and women from across Central Asia caught up on gossip, fried boorsok dough in hot oil to make pastries or handed eagles to passers-by – the most natural thing in the world.
Men on horseback galloped by with elegance, so close I felt my hair move, but not close enough to make me tumble. Some horsemen short arrows, others were on fire, nomad stunts and skills on show.
The mood was joyous and there was a fair bit of being pulled into yurts, drinking yak or horse milk (never again!) and eating fried things, all accompanied by gestures, laughter and unintelligible exchanges. That hospitality, by the way, was the hallmark of my entire three-week stay in Kyrgyzstan – without exception, throughout the country, people were curious, friendly and welcoming, whatever the language barrier.
The following photos – kindly provided by the World Nomad Games – provide a glimpse of the wonderful event at Kyrchyn.
While many cultural festivals are put on nearly exclusively for tourists, with overly stylized performances tailored to what is thought to be our taste, this was somewhat different: a festival by nomads, for nomads. Yes, I came across the occasional Disneyesque animal costume and a few hot dog stands but if you ignored the large parking lot and the scattered ringing of cellphones, you could easily think you’d woken up in 1300. To make sure things remain authentic, the 2018 Games also included an ethnographic research component to better understand nomadic traditions.
This official video will give you a powerful sense of what the Games felt like.
Welcome to the World Nomad Games 2020
When the 2016 games ended, there was some uncertainty about where the next ones would take place – the names Kazakhstan and Turkey were briefly floated – or if, indeed, they would take place at all.
In the end Kyrgyzstan decided to ‘own’ the Games and the third 2018 version was, like the other two, played on national soil. Early September was an ideal time to visit to Kyrgyzstan (June to September has the best weather). You can take advantage of the towering Kyrgyz mountain ranges, pristine alpine lakes and stunning wild landscapes.
But the next Games will be different: the 2020 World Nomad Games will be held in… Turkey!
Things every Woman on the Road should know about the 2016-2018 World Nomad Games
- The Games are divided over several sites. The hippodrome and stadium in Cholpon-Ata is where the wrestling and major horseback games take place, while the intelligence games are scattered throughout town in various hotels. The more cultural events (including handicrafts, food and – eagles!) are up in Kyrchyn Gorge.
- There are free shuttles back and forth between the town and the gorge, with schedules released just before the Games. At peak times, the one-hour ride can stretch to several hours so start early if you don’t want to miss anything.
- There are plenty of volunteers who speak English and who are there to help you get from one place to the next or figure out the ever-changing schedule. Don’t hesitate to stop them and ask questions. The Games issued an app in 2016 and will launch a new one closer to the 2018 Games.
- While the Games are inexpensive and transport is free, you’ll need tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies. Keep an eye on the official website of the Games.
- Bring some kind of translation app: Google Translate does a fair rendition of Kyrgyz, or use Russian to get by in most places (remember, this region was once Soviet). You may not need this during the Games but if you decide to visit the rest of the country (and you must!) you’ll find English is rare indeed.
- There are plenty of places to stay in Cholpon-Ata but book soon because infrastructure is limited and places will fill up fast. Visit Booking.com or compare prices on HotelsCombined.
- Food is for sale at the stadium and in Kyrchyn Gorge and you’ll find plenty of it.
- You will get dirty and muddy in Kyrchyn Gorge and the weather can change in an instant – it can rain, the sun can shine and you can freeze, all within five minutes. Wear hiking or all-weather sports shoes.
- Be warned that at least in 2016, the sanitary situation was less than optimal, with outdoor portaloos quite unwelcoming. Bring toilet paper and try not to breathe.
- There are no ATMs near the Games (or at least there weren’t in 2016), and always carry your passport with you. Security is high, with plenty of armed personnel around to make sure nothing untoward happens.
- Arm yourself with patience. Schedules will be rearranged, and your best plans will go up in smoke. Just flow with it.