The World Nomad Games is a fairly new event – 2016 marks the second time it has ever been hosted! – but despite being in its infancy, this is one of the most exciting sporting and cultural events I have ever attended. This year, forty countries came together to compete in twenty-three different sports under the slogan “UNITED in FORCE! UNITED in SPIRIT!” and what an event it was.
So what are the games all about? Well, the mission behind the games is to preserve and showcase the rich tradition of nomadic culture found in Central Asia, and to promote values of peace through inter-cultural exchange. And need I mention that aside from the opening and closing ceremonies these games are entirely free to attend?!
As a foreigner coming in with very sparse knowledge of the region, this event was a fascinating way to dive in headfirst. There wasn’t a single sport I could name or identify, or even an athlete I knew by name, but by the end of the games I was cheering along as Kyrgyzstan dominated the kok boru match and took the headless sheep as its prize. Yes, I told you these games would be interesting, but before we get into the actual sports, I want to tell you a little bit about the culture.
Nomadic Culture at the Folk Festival
The Kyrgyz were once a nomadic people whose traditional industry revolved around animal husbandry, which meant packing up the yurt and moving with the changing seasons. During the summer months, the nomads would relocate to the high-altitude pastures where their animals could graze and fatten up for winter, however, this is a tradition that was repressed by the Soviet Union with Kyrgyz families being forced to permanently settle into villages during the late 1920s and 1930s.
Today it is great to see the tradition of going up to the pastures being reasserted and that’s why, for me, one of the highlights of the World Nomad Games was the Folk Festival taking place on the Kyrchyn Jailoo.
‘Jailoo’ translates to summer pasture, and this is where many of the cultural performances and events were set. Picture a wide green valley surrounded by mountains covered in thick forest, and you’ve got yourself the perfect setting to celebrate Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic history.
Kyrchyn was divided into various camps each representing a different province and the heritage associated with each of these. I really enjoyed wandering through the different camps and seeing the various handicrafts on display – tapestries, musical instruments, and traditional hats – as well as catching some of the musical performances and dances.
Everyone was beyond friendly and we had people calling us in to have a look inside their yurts, while others kept trying to feed us; food plays a massive role in hospitality here.
Aside from that, Kyrchyn had yurt building competitions, costume displays, national dish contests, storytelling and so much more! This is also where the archery and hunting competitions were held, so overall there was plenty to keep us entertained. I spent two whole days here and I still feel like I barely scratched the surface. Trust me, if you do come to the World Nomad Games, don’t be put of by the distance to Kyrchyn because it truly is one of the highlights of the whole event!
Sports at the World Nomad Games
There were lots of sports to catch at the World Nomad Games – more than you could cover in just a few short days, to be honest! – but if there’s one you shouldn’t miss, it’s kok boru.
This is probably the strangest game you’ve never heard of. Picture a game of polo where two teams are trying to score on their opponent, except instead of a ball they’re using a headless goat or sheep. This may sound a little grim, but the animal has already been slaughtered and it is eaten by the winning team at the end of the match, so nothing goes to waste.
This is a sport that dates back centuries and it is widespread across Central Asia. Traditionally, children who wanted to play kok boru would approach a shepherd and ask for a slaughtered goat or sheep. They would then play the game and at the end return the animal to the owner as a sign of thanks. Because the meat had been tenderized during the game, this was actually considered a great gift.
I was worried that the animals at the World Nomad Games would perhaps go to waste, but that was not the case. A fellow blogger even ran into the USA team who lost the kok boru match against China, and they talked about how they had been invited to partake in the goat. Apparently they were still reeling with gastrointestinal issues, but you don’t turn down a celebratory barbecue. After all, isn’t this camaraderie what the games are all about?
For anyone considering the World Nomad Games in the future, here’s a full list of the games you can expect to catch:
Kok-boru: I’ve already written about this one, but basically it’s two teams on horseback trying to get a sheep or a goat into the goal.
Er enish: Wrestling is hard enough, right? Well, why not add another element of difficulty by wrestling on horseback! That’s what this sport is all about! Apparently this game has a bit of a military tradition as wrestling on horseback was something that developed on the battlefields of Central Asia.
Cirit: This is a game with Turkish roots and it involves throwing a stick at your opponent while riding on horseback. It kind of looks like they’re throwing spears at each other, minus the deadly tip.
Mas-wrestling: In this game two wrestlers sit facing each other with the soles of their feet on opposite sides of a wooden board. The wrestlers then grab a stick with their hands and they pull until they’re able to get the stick or pull the opponent onto the other side of the board. Sounds simply enough but players were turning beet red from the exertion.
Alysh: This is another wrestling game where wrestlers rest their heads on their opponents shoulder, and then grab on to their opponent’s belt with both hands. The goal is to pin down the other person by holding down his belt.
Kyrgyz kuresh: In this wrestling game both opponents are bare chested and the goal is to throw the other person over their shoulder. The two players stand on a mat facing each other, and grab onto each other’s belts with both hands, tugging and pulling until they’re able to swing the other person over.
Kazakh kuresh: In this form of Kazakh wrestling, wrestlers dress in special jackets and then try to knock their opponent down to the ground.
Goresh: Here two opponents meet on the mat and they try to force the other person to touch the ground with any part of their body except their feet.
Gyulesh: This is yet another wrestling game where two opponents meet and use a series of holds, grips and throws, to get the other person over their shoulder.
Aba kurosh: In this wrestling game, the goal is once again to get the opponent over your shoulder, but the wrestling is accompanied with live traditional musical instruments that feature both drums and wind instruments.
Chong at chabysh: This translates to ‘racing to the far distance’ and it is a long distance horse race run over 80 kilometres, in a team that consists of over 21 horses. All riders must be over 18.
At chabysh: This is a slightly shorter long distance race that is run over 22 kilometres. Riders over 12 years old are allowed to participate.
Jorgo salysh: This race is for riders over 12 years old and it covers 11 kilometres.
Kunan sabysh: This one is run with stallions that are between 2-3 years old and it also covers 11 kilometres.
Joo jaa atuu: This game involves hiking and shooting with a bow and arrow.
Atchan jaa atuu: And this one involves horseback riding while shooting with a bow and arrow.
Mass bow range and accuracy: Target shooting with a bow and arrow.
Toguz korgool: To translate the game, ‘toguz’ means nine and ‘korgol’ means sheep droppings. In this board game, each player has nine wells and the goal is to collect as many sheep droppings as possible. I’m not sure why you’d want sheep droppings in your well, but that’s how the game works.
Mangala: Mangala means ‘to shift’ or ‘to move’ and it is the equivalent of chess in this part of the world. In this board game, there are 48 stones, 2 storage wells, and a total of 12 wells. The goal of the game is to empty the storage wells and fill each of the smaller wells with 4 stones.
Salbuurun: This part of the competition involves hunting with birds of prey and dogs. There is a competition to see how fast eagles can fly as hunters call them from 200 meters away and also how quickly they can race after a fox skin. There’s another competition where hunters get their falcon to simulate an air attack on a lure made of feathers, as well as a Taigan dog race to see how quickly dogs can run after a fox or hare skin.
THE NATIONAL GAME
Ordo: This is a military game that involves mapping out an attack on the enemy. Basically, a circle is drawn on the ground and then players try to knock the ‘Khan’ out of the circle and thus take over his palace. This game is played with small animal bones.
The Layout of the World Nomad Games
The World Nomad Games were spread out across Cholpon-Ata and the surrounding area, so it’s a good idea to get a hold of the schedule and figure out what events you want to attend and where those are held. Here’s a quick look at the locations and what games took place in each of theses:
Hippodrome: Located in Cholpon-Ata. This is where the horse races and horse competitions were held, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies.
Sports and Recreation Centre: Also known as the Gazprom Building, this one is located in Cholpon-Ata just west of the Hippodrome. This is where the martial arts events were held.
Kyrchyn Jailoo: This is a green pasture located about 40 kilometres east of Cholpon-Ata and just north of Semënovka. If you don’t have your own vehicle, the best way to get here is by using the shuttles. This is where the folk festival was held along with the archery and hunting competitions.
Aurora Sanatoria: The Sanatoria is located 17 kilometres east of Cholpon-Ata and this is where the intellectual games were held.
Exploring the Surrounding Area
The World Nomad Games are 6 days in length, so this also gives you plenty of time to take some day trips or extend your stay in Kyrgyzstan and spend some time travelling around the region; I would suggest the latter!
If you want to do some sightseeing around Cholpon-Ata, you have Issyk-Kul Provincial State Historical Culture Museum Reserve; it’s a long name, but it’s a field covered in large boulders where you can see petroglyphs. There’s also Rukh Ordo, which is a quirky theme park that looks at historical figures, Kyrgyz legends, and the interplay of 5 religions all under one setting. And aside from that you can also go on a boat tour of Issyk-Kul or just enjoy a dip in the lake.
Now see the picture of the mountains right above? That’s on the shores of Song Kol Lake and it is one of the most beautiful places you will get to experience in Kyrgyzstan, so find a way to carve out a couple of days and do a horse trek and yurt stay out there! It’s not really that close to Cholpon-Ata, but it’s worth the detour either way.
Tips for the World Nomad Games
- Book your accommodations in advance. This was a well attended event so you’ll want to make sure you book your hotel or hostel in advance. Don’t leave things to chance or you could end up in the outskirts of town!
- Wear comfortable closed shoes. I would suggest hiking boots if you have those, or if not a solid pair of running shoes. The path leading to the Kyrchyn Jailoo was starting to get quite muddy towards the end of the festival.
- Bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. You’ll likely be spending long days out in the sun and it’s easy to get a burn without realizing it.
- Pack a fleece and a rain jacket. The temperature is cooler on the jailoo and things can get quite chilly and rainy when the clouds roll down from the mountains, so it’s best to be prepared.
- Carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The porta potties at Krychyn were less than pleasant so I would refrain from using those and go for the makeshift squat toilets instead. You’ll also want to come prepared with toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
- Check for a revised version of the schedule. We found that the schedule for some of the events changed last minute with some things being pushed forward and others pushed back, so if there’s something you don’t want to miss, check the updated schedule that’s posted on the exterior of the building.
- Bring money for food and snacks. There were lots of food stands at the Hippodrome and outside Kyrchyn, so if you don’t want to pack a lunch, bring some cash and sample the local food.
And that’s a quick intro to the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan. I hope this guide will come in handy for anyone thinking of attending the games which are held every two years, but if you have any other questions in the meantime, feel free to leave those in the comments below.
Would you attend the World Nomad Games?
This trip was made possible with the support of Discover Kyrgyzstan and USAID. As always, all opinions expressed here are my own.