Nestled to the north west of China, Kyrgyzstan is the second smallest “Stan” out of the seven in the region, both by population and area. It’s a mountainous country, with 88 mountain ranges resulting in over 90% of Kyrgyzstan being at least 1,500m high. Despite the relative inaccessibility, it was a vital part of the Silk Road and continues to retain a wealth of cultures within the small landmass.
The capital city, Bishkek, is in one of the relatively low-lying areas of the country at around 800m. Even so, it lies in the shadow of the stunning Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountains) range. It is within easy reach from Europe and the Americas through Dubai and Istanbul. And this was the first stop for Angela, who visited Kyrgyzstan for the World Nomad Games in 2018.
Taking place every two years, the World Nomad Games is a Kyrgyz concept which began in 2014. As with the first two events, the 2018 edition took place in the lakeside town of Cholpon-Ata, on the shores of Issyk-Kul (Warm Lake). As the country’s largest lake, and one of the deepest in the world, it serves as a beautiful backdrop for the Games.
With over 2,000 athletes from 84 countries, the World Nomad Games is the biggest event of its kind. Encompassing 37 different “ethno sports” from across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, the aim of the Games is to promote and preserve ethnic cultures. While the focus is naturally on Kyrgyzstan and the neighbouring countries, it does include sports from as far afield as Hungary and Japan.
In a sign of its global ambition, the 2020 edition of the Games will be taking place in Turkey – the first time outside Kyrgyzstan. Alongside the sports, there is a strong cultural aspect with seminars and other events reflecting the lives of nomadic peoples.
For Angela, Bishkek was the first port of call when she visited Kyrgyzstan for the Games in 2018 – it was an opportunity she could not turn down:
“I’m no sports enthusiast,” says Angela “but when my friend mentioned this to me almost two years ago, I knew I couldn’t let another year pass without seeing it with my own eyes. I spent a night in Bishkek hanging out with friends, one who lived there and two who had flown over for the event.”
While most of us have never heard of the Nomad Games, there was no chance of missing it in Bishkek. “There were tons of pictures in the town square in Bishkek advertising the event. I couldn’t wait to get there,” said Angela The following morning she left for the three hour journey to Cholpon Ata, where the event was held.
Despite not being able to find a ticket, Angela was able to immerse herself into the atmosphere and grab a peek into the hippodrome, where the opening ceremony was held. “The first event I watched was Kok Boru, a game similar to polo,” explained Angela “two teams on horseback try to score -except they played with a headless goat. Before long, I was cheering with the rest of them.”
Kok Buru is a brutal horse sport played across Central Asia, particularly among Turkic peoples. The game is thought to have come across from Mongolia between the 10th and 15th Centuries. Evidently, it’s not for the faint hearted.
Nomads across Central Asia rely heavily on horses, so it’s not surprising the animal takes centre stage for the Games. Various forms of horse racing was a staple even but there was another more unusual event.
Describing the game of Er-Enish, Angela recalled “once again, players were horseback mounted and they’d have to wrestle for 2-6 minutes until a winner is declared.” Like kok boru, this sport originates from the Turkic peoples dating back to at least the 18th Century, if not earlier.
The proud nomadic men do not miss an opportunity to display their skills on horseback and strength in wrestling. Yet there was still room for some more sedate culture beyond the hippodrome and along the shores of the lake.
“I also went on a road trip to Issyk-Kul with friends to watch the cultural performances,” said Angela. “There was traditional dancing and games such as building a yurt, a portable tent used as a dwelling by nomadic people of Central Asia.” The gathering of so many nomadic cultures in one place presents the perfect opportunity to learn about different aspects of their lives beyond sport.
Nonetheless, “the next day was filled with archery and birds of prey,” according to Angela. “Salbuurun involved lures being waved around to show how well-trained their eagles or hawks are and they were judged by their speed and accuracy. There were a few funny moments when the birds just chose not to play. They were after all, wild animals. I ended that day with Taigan Jarysh or greyhound dog racing.”
Alongside the Nomad Games, Kyrgyzstan is a stunningly beautiful country, with ample hiking routes for all abilities. The mountains give a sense of wonder and with so many remote areas, you can truly be at one with nature and experience the nomadic lifestyle.
Even though the World Nomad Games 2020 are taking place in Turkey, you could do worse than to add Kyrgyzstan to the itinerary.
In a sense, it’s up to you. Bilshek has its fair share of four-star, international standard hotels but outside the capital, such establishments may be hard to find. Given the country’s limited tourist industry, don’t be surprised to find that “glamping” hasn’t really taken off there yet.
However, you can stay in yurts, if you book in advance, particularly around Issyk-Kul. Camping for hikers is also permitted throughout Kyrgyzstan. However, it is wise to check local regulations if you are intending to camp outside designated grounds. This can be a particular issue if you are approaching any of the border areas.