World Nomad Games

I knew last week would be an exciting one when my ride into Cholpon Ata ended in terror as I was attacked (ok I exaggerate, “landed on”) by an eagle on a mashrutka and the closest three flustered ejes screamed at its owner.* September 8th through the 14th, Cholpon Ata (a village about 40 minutes west of Ananevo on the north shore of Issyk Kul) held the first ever World Nomad Games. These games brought together more than twelve countries to compete in traditional games and display cultural events. The whole month leading up to this week, Issyk Kul was full of excitement, tourists, horses (and show eagles) and the games were publicized more than any other event I have seen in Kyrgyzstan. They built new facilities (which appear to have been thrown together over the course of about three weeks, but were ready for the games on time) and even had a television advertisement.

Check out the advertisement here:

The goal of the World Nomad games is to celebrate the culture, history and traditions of nomad countries across Eurasia. These games and traditional events were held in three locations across the north shore of Issyk Kul. There were two showgrounds in Cholpon Ata, the Hippodrom, a large stadium complete with a horse track, seating for about 1200 people and plenty of room for vendors to sell popcorn, samsas, shwarma and other traditional treats, and the Rukh Ordo, a beautiful park in Cholpon Ata that usually is a bit pricey to get into but was open to the public during these events. The third showground was in Kochkor, a National Park in the mountains of the village just next to mine, Seimyanovka, the same place I visited Jailoo my first weekend in Ananevo. This pasture hosted yurts from every oblast, more than 200 in total, and also displayed traditional games, cultural performances, food and other events (I heard horseback archery was one but was disappointed I didn’t get a chance to witness it myself).

Men and women from more than fifteen countries came to participate in the games. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Russia (the Altai Republic), Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, USA, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and more. Some of these participants had been training their whole lives in these sports, some of whom were invited to represent their country by the U.S. embassy (presumably because diplomats didn’t want to make their own team), and some of whom found out about the opportunity on a couch surfing site a week beforehand (I’ll let you guess which countries each kind of participant hails from).

Many of these traditional games involve horses:

Oodarysh – Horseback Wrestling
Participants from different countries try to wrestle opponents off the their horses.  It was impressive how controlled the horses were, boxing one another out of the way, and how strong these men were, able to stay on their horses while being shoved and pulled at.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn Afgani wrestler, waving his country’s flag, rides in to meet his opponent

Tyin Emmei — Dangerous Horse Stunts
Players attempt to pick up a coin while riding a horse at full speed, race from Karakol to Kirchen and more
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race winners were awarded up to $20,000 for first place

Kok Boru – Dead Headless Goat Polo
Mounted players compete for points by throwing a beheaded goat (or sheep) carcass into a well-like goal at the end of each field. After one team scores, the defeated team must climb in and retrieve the carcass and drop it midfield while the other players run towards him at full speed and attempt to pick it up first.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATwo Kyrgyz teams (red and blue) played each other for the first place slot (clearly no one else could compete)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis blue shirted man was one of my favorite players.  He would throw himself off his horse with the carcass in order to ensure he scored a point (and I’m sure also just to show off)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa victory lap for the Kyrgyz “blue” team

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe Kyrgyz “red” team scores

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA militia guard watches as the Mongolian team rides off defeated
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Teams ride off the field together after the championship game

Kurosh – Waist Wrestling
Essentially what looked a lot like American wrestling but where players were allowed to grab one another’s belts

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Kazak wrestler watches his teammate from the sidelines after winning a match

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Kyrgyz wrestlers observe other countries’ matches while they wait

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two heavyweight wrestlers demonstrate techniques for the crowd

Kokuz Torgol – Mancala with Strategy
Literally means “Nine Sheep Droppings” in Kyrgyz. This game is played like mancala but with the strategy of chess (thinking many moves ahead).

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Four Peace Corps volunteers made up an American team and played against competitors from a variety of countries.

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Referees watched the games to see the players keep count and to ensure that the room stayed quiet.

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Women were only matched with other women and men only matched with other men.

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Ordo – Sheep Bone Marbles
The knuckle bones of a sheep are put into the middle of a large circle as men from two teams throw larger bones at them in attempts to hit them out of the circle. (played a lot in villages)

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Team Kazakstan (in teal) played two teams from Kyrgyzstan (in both red and blue) in a heated game

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Catch (and Kiss) the Girl
A game in which one or two men chase after a girl on horseback.  If they catch her they can (in theory) marry or kiss her.  If she gets away she gets to hit them with her horse whip three times.  While I’m sure there is a Kyrgyz name for this game, many of the locals I asked gave me different names and most simply called it “the game where you catch the girl…”

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There were also many traditional music and dance performances in Cholpon Ata at The Rukh Ordo and the Hippodrome.

Including a circus of sorts

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complete with a hair died zonkey (zebra doney)

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and child wrestling
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Among these cultural events, performers from many different countries displayed traditional music, dance, and costume.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA group of Turkish women are interviewed by local news networks about their dance

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A young Kyrgyz girl bows after her song and dance.  Her performance on the Kumyz (a traditional Kyrgyz instrument somewhat resembling a solid banjo) mimicked a deer running through the forest.
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A group of ejes, adorned in Kyrgyz dress, enjoy an ice cream in the shade

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Champion wrestlers sit with a coach and an Ak Sakal (literally translated to “white beard” in Kyrgyz language).  In villages older, well respected men, called Ak Sakal, usually form a council that makes decisions or has input on various town matters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMen in traditional hats (called Kalpaks) watch wrestling matches on the last day of the games


I enjoyed getting to experience a bit of nomad culture and to see the pride people took in performing for and explaining these traditions to foreigners. I hope this is the beginning of a long tradition and can’t wait to see the Kyrgyz national teams sweep the horse games (and maybe the Americans climb the rankings in some Toguz Korgol action) again next year. Almaty (?) 2015 or bust!

*explanation of eagle incident from above:
A man who was bringing his hunting eagle to the events (presumable to make money off tourists posing for photo ops with the bird) decided that instead of shoving the eagle in the trunk of the mashrutka (which is the standard practice) he would just bring his eagle onto the crowded bus as a mother would with her lap child. However as the mashrutka grew more and more crowded, and the eagle more and more agitated, the young man moved seats for an older woman and ended up behind me at which point in time the eagle hopped off his owner’s lap and onto the headrest of my seat. When the mashrutka came to a screeching halt (as they normally do to let someone off or to pick up an extra fair waiving them down on the side of the road) the eagle flew forward and onto my head. Passengers around me then proceeded to hit it in an attempt to remove the bird, but this didn’t help and only made the eagle flap around more until its owner scooped it up in a bear hug and promptly disembarked the mashrutka to put the animal in its rightful seat with the rest of the luggage (the trunk). I can say that no eagles were harmed on this mashrutka ride, but my sense of security and the back of my sweater certainly took a beating.

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