Southern Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan

The World Nomad Games gave me a small taste of the scenery of Issyk-Kul, and with the games over, I was eager to explore it some more. With plenty of tourists bunched together, the day after the closing ceremonies, all heading in the same direction — a bit of a rarity in this part of the world — it was remarkably easy to group up for virtually any activity, whether lakeside or off to a jailoo.

Issyk-Kul is the 10th-largest lake in the world by volume, and the second-largest alpine lake in the world after Peru/Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca. It may not look like much on a map, but its deepest point is 668m — pretty crazy! I had a quick swim between kok boru matches back in Cholpon-Ata, and was itching for a few days by the lake, but with the tail end of summer approaching, I decided to wait a little longer, and do a bit of mountain hiking before the weather got too cold.

The Issyk-Kul region seems markedly less Kyrgyz than the rest of the country (save for internationally-minded Bishkek), with people from Siberia (Russia) and Kazakhstan having a prominent presence, not just as vacationers, but as long-term residents as well. After all, with the only other large body of water in proximity being the Arctic Ocean far to the north, it’s the only bearably swimmable body of water they’ve got! But surprisingly for a place like this, much of the lake shore is underdeveloped, dotted with humble villages, the odd small resort, faded and few tourist shops, and occasional run-down or abandoned settlements.
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World Nomad Games

 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.
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