What do you get when you combine competitive goat carcass polo, hunting with eagles, wrestling on horseback, sheep bone-throwing, stick wrestling — and an opening ceremony complete with hearkenings of Genghis Khan, men ablaze on horseback, and a ceremonious appearance by Steven Seagal?
The World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan, of course!
If you consider yourself sports savvy and are wondering why you've never heard of these games, the Olympics of nomadic sports, don't feel left out. The World Nomad Games are a relative newcomer on the international sporting scene. However, given the novelty factor and the growth in participation from 19 to over 50 countries in its first two biannual events, you’re likely to hear more about them in the coming years.
To help you navigate the World Nomad Games, both the individual sporting events and the accompanying cultural festival, we created this experiential guide. Our intent is to serve up a diverse snapshot of what the World Nomad Games are all about. We also offer some inspiration and practical advice to help you get the most out of the games if you decide to make the journey to Kyrgyzstan to experience the next ones firsthand.
Update: The dates of the 2018 World Nomad Games are 2-8 September, 2018 in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan. The opening ceremony will be on 2 September in the Hippodrome.
A Note on the Origins of Nomadic Sports and Games
Nomads traditionally faced all manner of challenges: foreboding landscapes, severe weather, warring tribes. It's no surprise the games they played grew out of the necessity to train their children to hunt, to think and to fight. A well-honed strategic mind, physical strength, and a set of select sharpened skills for survival aided the protection of one's animals and family. Played into adulthood, the games then honed and highlighted the best hunters, horsemen, fighters, leaders and strategic minds in the community.
Take kok-boru, goat carcass polo, one of the most popular sports at the World Nomad Games. It is played not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in Mongolia, Afghanistan (where the game is known as buzkashi) and other Central Asian countries. It is believed that kok-boru originated when village men — emerging from a hunt with the fresh carcass of a wolf they'd just killed because it had been feeding on their herds — would amuse themselves by trying to take the carcass away from one another on the return to their village. Upon arrival, the man with possession of the wolf carcass would throw it at the elder's yurt — the equivalent of chucking the carcass in the kazan (goal) today.
Today, kok-boru is played not with a dead wolf, but instead with the carcass of a goat. The concept of a game that involves throwing a dead animal into a goal may strike you as brutal or distasteful. We get it, the game is not for everyone. However, consider the historical and cultural context before judging. The goat, you might say, lived a “free range” life in the high pastures and village. And upon its death, not a shred of it will go to waste, as it will be eaten as the feast-prize by the winning team. The relationship that nomadic people have to their animals may seem foreign — almost exotic — to us, but that does not imply a relationship any less deep or respectful between human and animal.
But kok-boru is only the beginning, or perhaps the climax, of the nomadic olympiad. There were opening ceremonies, open air and indoor sports, intellectual games and an interactive cultural exhibit that stretched for miles. Here's a bit of what we experienced.
Experiential Guide: 24 Things to Do at the World Nomad Games, Kyrgyzstan
1. Take a Macro Lesson in Kyrgyz History and Culture at the Opening Ceremony (Hint: Involves Burning Men Riding Horses)
“If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d be here.”
Burning man: this is literally how the opening ceremony kicked off, foreshadowing what was to come in the macro-history of the Kyrgyz nation and of the nomadic peoples in the region. While many people still don't know much about Central Asia today, the opening ceremonies offer a reminder of the role this region played for centuries as a key geo-political and economic player along the Silk Road.
Additionally, Kyrgyzstan spent much of the 20th century under Soviet rule, whereby celebrating Kyrgyz traditions and nomadic culture were considered backward and actively discouraged. The World Nomad Games opening ceremonies, albeit a bit over-the-top at times with melodramatic theatrics, aimed to connect pride in the country's past with the living tradition of its present day.
Of course, this would include blazing men riding horses.
2. Gaze at Steven Seagal on Horseback, Dressed as a Warrior
Steven Seagal's special relationship with the former Soviet Union lives on.
So too does his fame and notoriety live on in Kyrgyzstan, apparently making him a natural choice as guest of honor for the opening ceremonies. That he decided to make his appearance on horseback, dressed as a Kyrgyz warrior, well, that's the stuff filed under: “I couldn't make this up if I tried.”
3. Cheer the Underdogs: The American Kok-Boru Team
“Let’s go play a game we’ve never played, in a language we don’t understand, where you could possibly die. Sounds great.”
An actual quote from the the team captain and spokeman, this quote also tells the story in short of how an American kok-boru team, composed mainly of cowboys (and actors) from Wyoming, ended up at the World Nomad Games.
Just a couple of weeks prior to the games, the team captain, Creed , received an invitation to assemble a kok-boru team. Within 24 hours, he rounded up eight guys and the Nomad Cowboys were born.
As the Americans adjusted to Kyrgyz saddles (their American ones were stuck in customs in Istanbul) before their first match with Russia, they confessed that, with the exception of the captain, none of them had ever played kok-boru before. During the first match, the American team proved themselves a quick study and, sometimes quite literally, threw themselves into the game.
The way that they were treated by competitors – the likes of Russia, China and Kazakhstan — also featured a bit of heart-warming sports diplomacy. Instead of laughing the Americans off the field and making a mockery of them during their first ever match, the Russian team actually helped teach them a few tricks of the kok-boru trade — how best to pick up a goat from the ground, and how to tuck the carcass under the leg when riding. Russian competitors could even be seen holding the Americans' jerseys so they wouldn't fall from their horses while picking up the goat carcass. They were gracious enough to allow the American team to score a few times as well.
In a final demonstration of fair play, the winning Russian team offered to share their prize — a rather tenderized goat feast — with the American team they'd just beaten.
4. Admire the Kalpaks in the Crowd
One of the best things about sporting competitions: crowds and people watching. In Cholpon-Ata, the host city, Kyrgyz men were the stars with their kalpaks, the traditional and ever-versatile Kyrgyz felt hat.
5. Watch Men Fly During Mas Wrestling
I never imagined that watching two big men try to pull a stick away from one another could be so exciting, but something known as “mas wrestling” proved that wrong. This nomadic sport is gaining traction in the United States and other countries around the world. Not surprising because the event features great strength, dramatic run-up, and often a quick finish.
6.Enjoy Ashlianfu With a Local Family
Filed under random acts of kindness, Kyrgyz edition.
On the opening day of the World Nomad Games cultural festival at Kyrchyn Gorge, a Kyrgyz family lunching at a yurt cafe spotted us looking lost (and hungry). They asked us what we were looking for, what we wanted to eat. Then, they proceeded to open up their secret stash of ingredients from Karakol (a city in the east) and produced the most beautiful and delicious bowls of ashlianfu, a spicy noodle dish from eastern Kyrgyzstan that is served with vinegar, soy sauce, peppers and egg. It was among the tastiest we'd ever eaten.
As much as we enjoyed walking the grounds of the cultural festival later that afternoon, it was the unplanned nature of this encounter and the family’s hospitality and sense of humor that stole the show. For us, it's also the essence of Kyrgyz warmth.
7. Time How Quickly It Takes to Construct a Yurt
Imagine this: the basic structure for this nomadic home can be carried into the mountains by one bactrian camel and put up or taken down in the course of an hour. (The yurt building record at this World Nomad Games was a brisk 13 minutes).
Yes, yurts are remarkable. A basic one will be built with 100 wooden poles connected to a tunduk (center skylight) to hold up the ceiling, with cross poles to reinforce the sides. The exterior is then covered in heavy pieces of felt. When you pull the cover over the tunduk at night, the sleeping environment is — one might imagine – womb-like in its darkness and warmth.
8. Luxuriate Inside a Yurt
Turns out yurt luxury is indeed a thing. Just take a peek inside.
Here's a tip: if you ask to peek or step inside a yurt in Kyrgyzstan, you'll likely be invited for tea and snacks.
9. Take a Horse Taxi
The Uber of festival rides, horse taxis are the transport of choice to navigate the various sites and World Nomad Game exhibitions at the cultural festival at Kyrchyn Gorge.
10. Admire Golden Eagle Hunters and Their Masters (Salbuurun)
Traditionally, nomadic men would take to the mountains for months on end armed only with a bow and arrow and their hunting eagles, falcons and dogs. During this lengthy hunting interlude, called Sulbuurun, hunters survived off the land. This is why the relationship between man and his hunting animals remained so strong; it was often a matter of mutual survival.
Despite modern culture, the tradition and craft of training golden eagles, falcons and dogs for hunting lives on. The way masters handled their birds before the competition was fascinating to witness. How their birds were trained to catch the animal and then wait for the master to arrive was, too.
11. Snack on Boorsok (Fried Dough)
Who doesn't love fried dough? Enticed by the early morning aroma, I approached these women just as the cultural festival was underway to ask what they were making.
“Boorsok!!” They replied.
Within a few moments, we had hands full of this Kyrgyz bite-size fried snack plus a photo shoot with everyone in the vicinity. Sometimes it pays to arrive early…and hungry.
12. Witness Wrestling On Horseback (Er Enish)
A trend you may have noticed with nomadic sports: horses + strong men. Er enish (wrestling on horseback) takes this to a whole new level. It’s difficult to imagine how a man is able to balance himself on his horse while putting all his weight and strength into tearing his opponent from his.
13. Bribe a Camel with Sweets and Apples
While horses steal all the attention during the nomadic sports, let's not forget the role that camels play — and have played — in this part of the world. It's thanks to these hearty animals that caravans were able to carry goods and people across the Silk Road, from China to Europe…and back again, particularly during the colder months.
But, I digress with my camel history and admiration.
Camels are also known to be stubborn. Should you ever be faced with an intractable camel, an unruly Bactrian, take the advice a Bactrian camel herder named Dustin taught us. Each spring, when he needs to collect his 35 camels from the mountains, he takes advantage of their sweet tooth and entices them down from the hills with apples and candies.
14. Cuddle with Taigan Hunting Dogs
The Taigan, a traditional Kyrgyz dog breed similar to greyhounds, might look playful and cuddly. They are, but they've also been trained for over 1000 years to be fierce hunters, unafraid of wolves, and to protect the herd at all costs. In nomadic circles and in the mountains of Central Asia, these dogs really are man's best friend.
15. Accept an Invitation Into a Yurt And Hang Out With the Elders
Show curiosity and you will be rewarded. This holds true in most of our travels, but especially in Kyrgyzstan where local people are often just as curious about you as you are about them. Ask a question about something, and next thing you know you're hanging out in a yurt with grandma and the local elders.
16. Learn War Strategy: Watch Ordo
Through the centuries, Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors have all known their share of war and warring tribes marauding across their lands. One of the Kyrgyz games developed to teach the strategy and tactics of war is called ordo. The goal: to knock out the alchiks (soldiers) and capture the khan (leader). In practicality, imagine marbles played with much larger pieces shaped like sheep knuckles. Likewise, imagine the nomadic version of pétanque or bocce.
In the World Nomad Games, ordo offers an intellectual complement to the more physically intense likes of kok-boru. Nomads know that both brains and brawn are required for survival.
17. Spot the Lederhosen
While the traditional nomadic outfits of the Kyrgyz and other Central Asian competitors impressed, I have to give points to the German archers for bringing their spirit, and their lederhosen.
18. Find Lord of the Rings Inspiration in the Female Archers
Earlier in our trip to Kyrgyzstan, we'd learned that women also played a key role as warriors and fighters in traditional nomadic cultures. Strength and skill were prized in women, too. I was reminded of this when I met these two Kyrgyz archers just prior to the hunting competitions.
Do they also remind you of Lord of the Rings?
19. Know Her Marital Status, Count the Braids
Traditionally, you could determine a Kyrgyz woman’s marital status based on the number of braids she wore. 40 braids meant she was unmarried. Upon marriage, braids were reduced to just two. And if that woman were to become a widow, then one braid would remain.
20. Try to Discern the Rules of Cirit
Men chase each other on horseback and throw javelins — at one another. This alone should be cause for concern, except that the javelins are blunt-ended, and upon closer inspection look like the cross between a Nerf dart and a toilet plunger. Somehow points are scored, we think. No matter the rules, the traditionally Turkish cirit is fun to watch, despite how difficult it is to figure out the rules of the game.
21. Cheer Female Wrestlers In the Ring
While most of the sports represented at the World Nomad Games are male-dominated, a form of wrestling called alysh offered the opportunity for women to take to the ring. The action is impressive and quick.
22. Watch Kids Race Horses Long Distance…Bareback
As someone who has only been on a horse a few times in her life (I clutched my saddle for dear life much of the time), the fact that children as young as eight just hop on and off horses as second nature strikes me as remarkable. For them, the horse is an extension of themselves. To witness them run a long-distance race riding bareback? Wow. I hurt just imagining it.
23. Keep Your Eye on the Goat During the Kok-boru Finals
This was THE game that everyone had looked forward to during the entire World Nomad Games: the kok-boru final between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. For both of these teams, kok-boru is a national sport, a crowning of national pride.
And so, it was intense. And rough. And fierce. And skillful. And emotional. Engaging to watch.
No, I never thought I'd come away from the World Nomad Games a kok-boru fan. But, this game — the action, emotion, and all — won me over.
24. Breathe Deeply and Take in the Mountain Landscape at Lake Issyk-Kul
It's easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the games, to run around and and take in as many competitions as possible. But don't forget to look up and around, draw a deep breath and take stock of where you are: on the shores of Issyk-Kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world, all surrounded by the Tian Shan mountains.
A beautiful and very special part of the world.
World Nomad Games Practical Details: Schedules, Tickets, Transport, and More
World Nomad Games 2018: The 3rd World Nomad Games will take place 2-8 September, 2018 in Cholpon Ata, Kyrgyzstan. The World Nomad Games opening ceremony will be on Sunday, 2 September in the Hippodrome of Cholpon-Ata. Monitor the World Nomad Games website for updates and information on events, schedules, countries participating and more.
Schedules: While there were basic schedules printed for the Games, sticking to them was another story. Updated and accurate schedules of events were difficult to come by, especially for the hunting competition and events at Kyrchyn Gorge. Just keep asking the volunteers to help you find updated schedules and steer you to where you need to go.
Tickets: With the exception of the opening and closing ceremonies, all events are open to the public and do not require tickets. There are security checkpoints, so be prepared to open your bags for a brief search.
Language: Many of the volunteers at the games speak English and can be quite helpful with translation. Learning a few words of Russian will go a long way, though. The ability to read Cyrillic letters is even more helpful, particularly for schedules.
Transport: We were fortunate to have a press van that took us around most of the time, but we did see shared transport mashrutkas (mini-vans) going to Kyrchyn Jailoo (pasture) from the hippodrome, as well as plenty of taxis to take you to and from Cholpon-Ata. It takes about an hour to get to Kyrchyn Gorge from Cholpon-Ata, so take that into consideration when planning your day.
Food: There are lots of food stalls inside the Cholpon-Ata hippodrome grounds and at Kyrchyn so it’s unlikely you’ll go hungry. However, it always makes sense to carry some snacks with you for flexibility between matches. Some of our favorite Kyrgyz dishes include ashlianfu (spicy noodle dish), laghman (noodles with meat and peppers), and plov (rice dish with vegetables and meat). Kyrgyz food tends to be quite meat heavy, so if you are not a hard core meatatarian keep an eye out for carrot and cabbage salads.
Note: Follow these tips to try and avoid traveler belly when eating local foods. If you do fall sick, know that there are several pharmacies in town that carry antibiotics (e.g., ciprofloxacin is worth acquainting yourself with for basic stomach bacterial bugs) and other medicines over the counter. For more on treating basic stomach and other travel illnesses read this.
Other Practical Tips: As with most large-scale events, it’s best to carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you. While the toilets in the hippodrome were in good shape, the portable toilets at Kyrchyn were not. We will spare you the details.
We also recommend carrying lots of sunscreen and applying it frequently. Cholpon-Ata is at elevation (1,633m/5,260ft) and Kyrchyn Gorge is even higher, so the sun is more intense and stronger than you might be accustomed to.
Accommodation for the World Nomad Games
Cholpon-Ata is where you’ll want to base yourself for the World Nomad Games, as the main events are at the hippodrome and recreation center just outside of town. Accommodation ranges from basic hostels to spiffier resorts. The ability to spend a few days on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul is a bonus. Check out accommodation options in Cholpon-Ata.