5 Things to Expect at the World Nomad Games
Sometimes while travelling, we stumble upon these little gems of events. We don’t plan to be in a particular place at a particular time, yet by chance our roads lead us to the most memorable destinations.
So it went with the World Nomad Games. On my motorbike trip from Australia to the Netherlands, I decided to include the Stan-countries of Central Asia. These countries are known for their incredible nature and rich nomadic culture. They are an overland traveller’s and camper’s dream. You can travel on deserted gravel roads for the entire day, and once the sun starts to sets, you can pitch your tent anywhere you like. The feeling of freedom is unmatched.
When I arrived in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, a friend told me about the World Nomad Games–an event held this year for the second time in Kyrgyzstan. An event with the purpose of preserving and celebrating the athletic aspects of nomadic cultures. The games take advantage of the modern age, gathering athletes from over 40 countries around the world. Yet they aim to keep alive the age-old spirit of the 23 traditional sports. The event is not only a popular day-out destination for the locals; it also attracts sports enthusiasts from the surrounding countries and tourists alike.
If you have the opportunity to attend the World Nomad Games, here are five things you can expect to find:
1. Passionate and energetic crowds
Issyk Kul Lake, a large lake some 250 kilometers east of the capital city, forms the glistening backdrop for the games. In one of the venues, a variety of wrestling-type sports is played. The stadium is far too small for the chanting and cheering, mainly male crowd. People climb up the sides of the grandstand to catch a glimpse of their national heroes. The energy in the hall is incredible. “Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan,” shouts the crowd. Then, one of their muscular fellow country men puts his opponent on his back in the very last second of the game. It seems like the stadium might burst!
2. Unique open air entertainment
About 50 kilometers further, a gravel road takes you away from the lake into Kyrgyn Valley. The rolling green hills and views of the mountains make this place worth a visit any day. Decorated with hundreds of yurts, it is the ultimate scenery for cultural performances and an array of sports. People in traditional clothing perform plays, sing and dance. Locals and visitors alike are entertained by the wealth of culture. A little further ahead is the sports field. Here, competitors show their skills in eagle hunting, archery, and horseback archery. It is impressive to watch how these modern-day Robin Hoods shoot their arrows in the bullseye, while balancing on a galloping horse. The enchanting backdrop of the snow-capped mountains makes for the greatest open air entertainment.
3. Unity through sports
The World Nomad Games are held in Kyrgyzstan, close to the Kazakh border. Many of the spectators carry the red or blue flags of their respective countries. Many travellers attend the event, as well. You’ll have the opportunity to watch a Central Asian sport, and share the experience with a backpacker from Chili, rally racer from England, Indian student, Italian hitchhiker, German traveller, Australian bike rider, Argentinian nomad, French historian, Canadian, Hungarian, Dutch, American, Japanese… No matter where you’re from, or where you’re going, you’re all united in the excitement over these age-old sports.
If you are a horse lover, this is your part of the world and this is your event. Horses are an integral part of nomadic culture. So, it isn’t surprising that the hippodrome forms the heart of the games. The setting is perfect: the grandstand looks out over the field and racetrack with the lake in the background. There’s horse racing, of course, but there’s also a sport best described as horseback basketball, as well as the crowd-pleasing horseback wrestling. In the last one, two bare chested men try to wrestle each other off of their horses. It’s a sport appreciated by men and women alike.
5. Never-before-seen sports
Kok Boru is a sport that makes ice hockey look like a kindergarten game and animal rights activists’ hair stand up. It is best described as polo with a dead goat. Yes, it all sounds quite lurid, but once you’re a part of the fired up crowd, you can’t help but enjoy it. It draws you in. There are two teams on horses. Their aim is to score by depositing the goat’s carcass in a goal at the other end of the field. At the beginning of every play, the teams gallop from the side, along the midline of the field and, at full speed, reach down for the goat. The men hang off their horses, fully upside down to grab hold of this 40-kilo carcass. Once in possession of it, they try to race off to the goal. Their opponents then block them, divert them or stop them in any possible way. The horses charge into each other, and the men fly to the ground at full speed. And even when they reach the goal, things get messy. Often the horse crashes into the goal, sending its rider, holding on to the goat and flying off to score the point. Kok Boru is raw, powerful, packed with excitement, and full of testosterone. It’s so different from any other sport in the world.
The World Nomad Games are an experience unlike any other. Nowhere else can you enjoy such a unique display of Central Asian nomadic culture, combined with powerful and skillful athleticism. If you are an international sport and culture lover, make the games part of your next holiday.
Photo credit: Nicolas L.