There’s nothing like scrambling to stay out from underhoof as two horseback wrestlers charge into a crowd of journalists to really set a festive tone.
With the Winter Olympics having wrapped up in Sochi and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil only a few months gone, one might have assumed that all the best sports-themed travel opportunities were done for 2014. In a quiet corner of Central Asia, however, for the first time ever delegations from across the Turkic world and beyond gathered in September to celebrate the World Nomad Games and compete in sports that hearken back to ancestral nomadic traditions.
Though it received nowhere near the media attention of more popular worldwide sporting events, the World Nomad Games did manage to attract competitors from as far away as Sweden and the United States in addition to the obvious favorites such as Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Turkey. Over 350 athletes from 18 different countries competed in all, in sports as common as wrestling and as exotic as Kok Boru.
Central Asia tends to attract an adventurous sort of traveler, and for many the ‘unicorn’ of a trip through the region is this national sport – Kok Boru. Two teams of horsemen flying back and forth across a field fighting over the body of a recently-living goat… to watch is equal parts gore, excitement, and childlike enthusiasm. Even after several years based in Central Asia, any time I know that a Kok Boru tournament is in the works I wake up feeling like a kid on Christmas morning – not knowing what exactly I’ll find this time but sincerely believing that whatever it is it will be AWESOME.
Kok Boru may have been the headliner of the World Nomad Games competitions, but it was far from the only attraction at this combined sporting event and cultural festival. Just next door to the Hippodrome racetrack and horse-sports field was a somewhat puzzling Circus tent, but tucked into the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains an hour away from the main events was a much more interesting attraction.
In the Kyrchyn gorge numerous actors, musicians, and quite a few stuntmen gathered to put on a show that rivaled even the sports competitions back in town. For the three day Ethno Town yurt camp at Kyrchyn, the smell of fresh air and grilled goat meat competed with the inevitable odor of horses running all around as locals rode up to have a look at the event or performers prepared to put on a show. The biggest draws for the tourist crowds were daily theatrical performances showcasing ‘nomadic traditions’ and crazy stunts (and quite a crowd it was – official estimates put over 45,000 people at the World Nomad Games during the six-day event).
In between major performances, poets and musicians from all across Kyrgyzstan put on shows to keep the people entertained. Some, like this young boy whose blindness means he has to learn music by ear alone, are famous throughout the country. Others are of a more regional fame, but the visitors to Kyrchyn seemed to enjoy them all the same. With constant music as a background and food being persistently shoved into our hands at every turn, it was difficult not to feel festive while spending a day at Kyrchyn!
As a traveler, I tend to find any festival to be a good time to experience a country. People are happy, good food usually turns up somewhere, and a generally good mood tends to take over. Add in six days of intense sport competition and the national pride that only local rivals pitted against each other can bring, though, and it takes the whole atmosphere to another level. Though the First-Ever World Nomad Games are over for now, the organizers of the event speak in terms of a new type of competition that will eventually grow to rival the best that world sports has to offer. The photographer and traveler in me both certainly hope so, as this version was an absolutely incredible experience.