Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

I can’t emphasise how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to attend the 2nd edition of the World Nomad Games.

Founded by Kyrgyzstan as an Olympics-like showcase of traditional culture and sport with an emphasis on nomadic peoples, Kyrgyzstan hosted the inaugural games in 2014, kicking off a two-year cycle with them hosting again this year — just around the time I happened to be in the area. With some infamously unique sports being played in competition that are otherwise rare or difficult to witness, a cultural festival happening simultaneously, previous experience hosting in the same place, and twice the number of participating countries (40 of them — though mysteriously, Canada’s flag was flying despite no representation), this is most likely the largest event Kyrgyzstan has ever hosted, its biggest chance to showcase itself to the world — still modest for an international event, and yet full of potential, promise, and positivity.

The fact that an event like this comes with cheap accommodation and cheap food already makes it a big draw to people in the know — that is, locals, and other tourists in the country whom I grouped up with. What puts it over the top though, in an incredibly admirable decision that truly sticks to the spirit of celebrating culture, is that all of the events (save the ticketed opening and closing ceremonies) were completely free.

Watching the sold-out opening ceremonies on TV, Kyrgyzstan put its rich history on display through song, dance, and taped segments, spanning everything from the nomadic yurt life to Alexander the Great bringing walnuts to Greece from Arslanbob to Genghis Khan burning villages to mothers weeping for their lost sons. Unfortunately for me, everything was in Kyrgyz with no English translations or TV airings available so I was left to fill in the blanks myself. But that wasn’t necessary in the next segment: acrobatics, fire-dancers, horse riding stunts even crazier than the ones I saw in Tibet, people literally being dragged behind horses on purpose, and even horsemen on fire(!) racing into the stadium. Absolutely riveting.

The list of participating countries was quite an eye-opener as well: in addition to the expected Central Asian nations (every other “stan”, Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, and of course Kyrgyzstan with a whopping 1000 participants), plus America valiantly putting up a small team yet again, much of the rest of the list is unexpected: South Korea, Hungary, France, Guatemala, DR Congo, Benin, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Brazil, Argentina… Granted, most of them likely put up wrestlers, and it’s quite clear that some countries take the World Nomad Games far more or less seriously than others, but the turnout shows a clear consensus on the importance of preserving and respecting traditional cultures: some countries brought teams over to showcase their own national sports in non-competition demonstrations.

But of course, being a Kyrgyzstan-created event, most of the events favour Kyrgyz and Turkic traditions. And who else but the home team is going to be competitive? Sure, every medal comes with a bank-sponsored cash prize, but a close competition is not the goal here.

Sports took place in four venues. One is a resort which I never went to, featuring intellectual competitions like mangala (think of that board game where you’ve got a bunch of holes with stones in it that you pick up and drop into each following hole). Of more interest to me were the hippodrome (horse racecourse) and wrestling center, set just outside Cholpon-Ata town overlooking the shimmering, blue Issyk-Kul, and Kyrchyn Gorge, a jailoo 40 km away set in an incredibly photogenic valley home to archery and avian sports.

Likely the sport with the biggest draw at the games is kok boru, which happened to be the first thing we saw. Known by a bunch of other names in different countries, the concept is the same: goat carcass polo. Two teams on horseback start each of the three 20-minute periods and subsequent faceoffs on one side of the center of the field, racing towards the other side of center, where a headless goat lies in the sand. Players must pick the goat off the ground, race to the other team’s well, and throw the goat in. Sound easy?

Due to uncommunicated schedule changes (a frequently occuring problem of an otherwise smoothly-run Games), we arrived just as all games had ended for the day. But to our complete surprise and delight, we were allowed onto the field… right as the Kyrgyz national team decided to come out and practice. Seeing them zoom mere metres beside us, swooping down to pick up the goat by the leg, then throw it into the well all up close and for the first time was equal parts daunting, impressive, and hilarious. I don’t think I’ve ever had to consider the aerodynamics of a quadruped before.

At the end of practice, with the goat dumped on the ground, I tried — how hard could it be? Well, with assistance, this was how high I could lift it.

The leg I lifted was already leathery from the games the carcass was used for. The goat probably weighed over 50 kg and rivalled my own weight! I can’t imagine having to pick it up while riding a horse, and be able to even lift it all the way up to the saddle.

So you’re probably wondering what the origin is of this game. Well… herders often tried to protect their livestock from wolves. They’d chase the wolves on horseback, pick them up off the ground, and throw them around for fun. Yeah. “Kok boru” literally means “grey wolf” in Kyrgyz. How this sport morphed into using a dead and decapitated goat, who knows. And traditionally, this freshly-slaughtered goat/sheep is then offered to the village elder after a game. I presume the goats used for the World Nomad Games weren’t, but with all the tossing and tugging involved, I can’t imagine what kind of condition the elder would possibly receive the goat in…

We saw four matches in total, and all but one were a complete blowout. China — a team comprised entirely of ethnic Kyrgyz — played Krasnoyarsk (one of the Russian teams, each completing separately) in an incredibly close 3-2 match. Kazakhstan routed the Americans 15-4, with all four American goals aided by Kazakh players who took pity on them — only one of the Americans had ever even played kok boru before showing up to the games, and most of them had trouble picking the goat up off the ground! In the bronze medal match, China ruthlessly beat the federal Russian team, and Kyrgyzstan did the same in their gold medal match, defeating Kazakhstan with an over-10 point lead in the final event of the entire Games. I don’t think I’ll ever hear another deafening crowd cheering “KYRRRR-GYZ-STAN! KYRRRR-GYZ-STAN!” over a soundtrack of kok boru-referencing Kyrgyz rap music (sadly not identifiable on Shazam) ever again in my life, but I sure hope I do.

In all matches regardless of result, the level of skill and violence involved in the sport is riveting to watch. Horses and players seem to have their minds in sync, knowing exactly when to move a step closer or further to more easily pick up the goat. Players commandeer their horses to attack other players and their horses, leaving everyone in a tangled scramble surrounding a furry mound laying on the ground: in some instances, players fell off, with their horses on top of them, and some had to be guided off the field. How the horses comply to this activity is completely beyond my comprehension.

Holding onto a heavy goat is quite difficult too. It’s a struggle to get the goat high enough to ride away, which leaves plenty of time for players from the opposing team to try to wrestle it away. Some players tuck the goat under their leg, secured by the stirrup. Others, more skilled, are able to fling the goat on top of their shoulders. But quite often, a player will be holding the goat by one leg, while an opponent tries to wrestle it away by riding in the other direction holding another leg. It’s amazing we didn’t see any goats torn in two!

Throwing the goat into the well also wasn’t nearly as easy as it seemed. One American threw himself into the well and the goat on the ground, to wild laughter from the crowd and many, many slow motion HD replays. As for the Kyrgyz players, being the quickest and most skilled, they often flung both themselves and the goat into the well, providing extra momentum.

Wow, so much analysis for a sport I just got to know. Heh.

Another horseback sport is cirit (jeeret), a sport of Turkish origin. Supposedly a competition sport, only one match was played, between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan. Despite Turkey having a clear upper hand, gold medals were awarded to both teams. Anyway… in this sport, players take turns throwing javelins at each other.

Yeah, you read that right. But to lessen the danger a little, thankfully, the “javelins” aren’t spear-tipped. Teams line their players on opposite sides of the field. One player starts by racing towards the other side, trying to hit someone or their horse. Once they let go of their spear, a player from the defending side gives chase to the first player (who attempts to return back to his side safely), trying to hit them back. This cycle continues. There’s clearly some strategy involved, which Kyrgyzstan seemed to misunderstand: their players kept riding into the end zone, throwing their spear only when necessary, leaving them close and vulnerable to Turkish players. (Riders who manage to either overtake or get in close proximity with their target can also score points by simply feigning a close-range javelin throw.)

Plenty of skill is involved too. Riding a bouncing horse and throwing a javelin isn’t easy at all, and yet both teams did occasionally hit their targets. Defence also isn’t easy, as the defending player often has to look behind him to see and dodge. On several occasions, defending players were able to catch the javelins thrown at them, to rapturous applause from the crowd.

On the last day, several variations of traditional horse racing took place: jorgo salysh, riding horses with a trotting gait instead of a full-on gallop, is like the Nomad Games’ version of the Olympic’s race walking, except with horses. At chabysh featured children riding horses bareback with no stirrups or helmets for 11 km and 22 km. Wowwww. (Those kids aren’t going to have kids, are they?) Admittedly, neither of these events were especially interesting to watch from my perspective, but the hippodrome was 100% packed for the only time during the games that I can recall, with the crowd going wild over the Kyrgyz sweep of the medals and large 2 million som (US$300,000) cash prize for the very youthful 22 km gold medal winner. This event is clearly a source of national pride.

Next door to the hippodrome, the wrestling center played host to several variations of belt wrestling, two of which I watched. In Kazakh koresh, men wear martial-arts style jackets with coloured bands running over the lapel, arms, and back. Wrestlers grab onto those and attempt to flip their opponent. In Kyrgyz kurosh, wrestlers are shirtless to the waist, where they tie a single belt. The goal is the same: points are scored by bringing the opponent to the ground, with automatic wins awarded for a complete flip, and points-based wins if five minutes have elapsed.

Oftentimes, those five minutes weren’t necessary at all. Many matches ended within a single second, with one player able to catch the other off-guard. Matches that did take the full five minutes were frequently mesmerizing standoffs, neither player giving way — although one Kyrgyz wrestler managed to win his gold medal at 4:59, conducting a perfect flip despite being down in points 1-3! Unfortunately, many matches simply didn’t happen — there were many wins by default because the opponent didn’t show up. (Perhaps athletes couldn’t understand the announcements or the schedule? Maybe they just gave up? India in particular had plenty of participants yet few who actually did show.) Happily for my Nomad Games buddy Ben, a combination of this and some excellent wrestling led to him witnessing two of his Hungarian countrymen (what are the odds?!) winning bronze medals, clearly popular with the crowd. Oh yeah, the crowd? As with every location during the games, I don’t think I’ll ever see another sports venue in my life full of Kyrgyz kalpaks — those amazing, outrageous conical white hats.

With so many horse-related and wrestling sports, why not combine both? Er enish is basically Kyrgyz kurosh on horses, complete with referee on horseback. (And even some Hungarian athletes gave it a go!) Wrestlers and their horses circle each other, trying to pull each other off the horse (or hold onto their own) by any means possible — even if it means grabbing on to the opposing horse’s neck. This was as violent as violence gets without blood. I wonder how the horses feel: they often ran off as soon as their rider fell, and some of them even seemed on the verge of tipping over as their rider was pulled while holding on for dear life, but they never seemed in distress.

Being in Kyrchyn Gorge felt like an entirely different world, with hundreds of yurts set up just for the Games in an otherwise rural area — one section towards the parking selling food, and the rest a cultural village. The sight alone of the yurt village is incredible, a bustling town lined with flags, ornately decorated temporary houses, and traditionally costumed people, all set in a very green, postcard-perfect mountain backdrop, beautifully sunlit. Unfortunately, the sprawl came with no signage and the sporting events were held in disparate locations within the hilly gorge, and the resulting confusion and distances led to us missing a couple of events, including the strategy/bone-throwing game of ordo.

We did catch some of the salbuurun (hunting) events though. Burkut saluu involved golden eagles chasing down a lure dragged behind a horse, with the winner determined by speed. It’s not an exacting standard, but this was measured by how far down the field the eagle catches the lure, and the skill and speed of each eagle was quite obvious to the crowd. In real life, the eagle trainer rides on horseback, getting closer to foxes and rabbits that the eagles can catch.

Dalba oynotuu featured the trainers a bit more: releasing their falcons, they then twirled a lure on a long string, enticing their falcon to swoop in and out without actually catching the lure until the routine was finished. Some of the participants were especially impressive, getting their falcon to fly up close or swoop down low, and seeing their falcons hover directly above us in the audience sitting on the hillside was breathtaking. Buuut…birds are birds, and some participants were less successful, seeing their falcons either disinterested in the lure, or outright fly far away and not come back. Yikes — hope they didn’t actually fly away forever!

Taigan jarysh, a race for hunting greyhounds, was also held on the grounds, but we missed it due to unclear scheduling. (We heard that only two of the participants actually cooperated and crossed the finish line!) We did make it in time to see the dogs being paraded around though, looking elegant with their perfectly coiled tails.

Instead of catching taigan jarysh, it seemed like every time we were at the field, an archery competition of some sort was taking place. Not a complaint! Atchan jaa atuu required participants to ride a horse down a straight path, shooting three targets (images of goats) placed on their left, each angled so that they would have to shoot in front, beside, and behind them. Like cirit, aiming while on a horse seems incredibly hard, but having to hold on and aim behind while the horse is running forward seems practically impossible! There were plenty of foreign participants in this event, and all seemed to do quite well. The Hungarians and Slovakians also did a short demonstration of choreographed group archery, where they shot arrows in formation and in rhythm.

The final archery competition we saw involved all athletes standing in a line at one end of the field, each simultaneously shooting a single arrow labelled with their name as far as possible. (I’m just happy no one in the audience got impaled during the sudden, brief storm of raining arrows…) With no measuring tape, the winner was simply determined by furthest distance, but I swear, the winning arrow’s distance seemed like an entire football pitch away! Absolutely mind-boggling.

On the opposite end of the gorge, some unscheduled mas-wrestling matches were taking place in the middle of a throng of spectators and yurts (rather than the wrestling center 40 km away, as scheduled), with women competitors as well. Each competitor sat with their feet against a board propped up in the middle of a circle, both holding onto a small wooden stick, trying to pull their opponent to their own side. While some matches ended in an instant, others were more intense, especially the matches featuring evenly-matched women in a thrilling détente that the crowd went nuts for — not just cheering for Kyrgyzstan or their country, but the names of the actual participants, for once. And the size of the competitor doesn’t necessarily correlate to their chances of winning either — an incredibly large, bulky Armenian man lost decisively to a relatively lean Kazakh competitor, who managed to flip him over completely onto his side in three seconds.

In between both venues in the gorge, in the cultural village, foreign countries set up their booths and yurts, babushkas set up their displays of very reasonably-priced souvenirs and handicrafts, and boys ran around with horses, eagles, and falcons for pictures.

Little themed mini-villages featured various facets of Kyrgyz culture: yurt building, traditional costumes, singing, dancing, and families making beshbarmak (goat or horse meat/intestine stew, the national dish, freshly slaughtered before our very eyes and the eyes of other indifferent goats). All of these turned out to be competitions, although it wasn’t well-communicated to the public. To me, competition or not, I enjoyed seeing authentic examples of all of these, all concentrated in one place. It seemed just as likely that all the participants were doing it for fun, just something normal.

And sure enough, this wasn’t just a show, but a genuine outpouring of Kyrgyz culture. We were frequently greeted by Kyrgyz spectators asking where we were from and how we were enjoying Kyrgyzstan and the Games, all of them beaming with pride at the vast showcase of their unique identity, and some even inviting us to join their families in their activities despite having just met us. Some members of the Kyrgyz diaspora (primarily from America) also made their way to the Games, impressed by what they saw. But further than that, we were frequently invited to join in — we helped a team build a yurt, were invited inside another one to have some snacks by a family who set one up for the games, had strangers explain things to us before we even had to ask, and were offered some of the beshbarmak cooking outside (which we politely turned down). Delightfully weird, genuinely kind, absolutely real, and proudly Kyrgyz — I can’t think of a better way to describe both these cultural events and the country itself.

No, Kyrgyzstan’s flag isn’t a basketball. Look up inside a yurt!

The Games and cultural events lasted for six days. I intended to stay for two, and ended up sticking around for nearly all of it, wanting more at the end! Rumour has it that the next World Nomad Games in 2018 may move to Turkey — though this definitely isn’t confirmed. While that would really boost the profile of the event and the nomadic cultures it promotes, I can’t help but hope it stays in Kyrgyzstan instead. While Turkey does lay claim to some of the sports and culture, Kyrgyzstan is where it continues to thrive — its population is fully invested in the culture the Games promote. And the setting of the games couldn’t be any more perfect, with horse-based sports and racing taking place in front of a shimmering blue lake ringed by snow-capped mountains, and a gorgeous valley perfect for both nomadic yurts and hunting sports. Nothing felt too crowded, and despite the large number in attendance, it still felt intimate and relaxed, and the security presence was never overbearing (although it did have some glaring gaps, but no one really has anything against Kyrgyzstan!). Sure, many organisational aspects of the Games were left wanting, but Kyrgyzstan feels like the best host with room for further improvement. It doesn’t need to be the Olympics, and it can expand and gain clout on its own merits. If the event does end up moving around in the future, it has an impossibly high bar to live up to.

The Games will definitely become bigger in the future, and who knows where they’ll end up. But for me, while I hope to have the chance to attend a future World Nomad Games, this was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m proud to say I got to see these Games in its current, nascent state, large enough to be internationally notable, small enough to feel like being part of something promising, wholly unique in its atmosphere. It’s one of the top highlights of all of my travels, of anything I’ve seen in the world. Understatement of my life: this was something special.

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