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World Nomad Games 2018

Updated: Mar 10, 2019

This post is a continuation of a previous post. But it is also a standalone post because the World Nomad Games deserve a special post of its own. (Nonetheless, if you haven't, you should start reading from Part 1! Click here.)

THE WORLD NOMAD GAMES. This biannual event, inaugurated by the Kyrgyzstan state in 2014, was the highlight of the entire trip.

The World Nomad Games (Kyrgyz: Дүйнөлүк көчмөндөр оюндары) are an international sport competition dedicated to ethnic sports practised in Central Asia. In the following days we would get first-hand experience of the various nomadic sports.

Before we start, we need to understand a little bit of the geography and history of this region. Starting from 4,000 years (or more) ago, the nomadic people travelled from place to place without a fixed settlement. It was recently discovered that the movements of nomads moving their herds in the hope of finding fresh grass may have created the distinctive pathways of an ancient trade route that runs across Central Asia - the Silk Road.

Map of the ancient Silk Road, courtesy of

The once bustling Silk Road was based on a delicate dynamic between settled populations and communities that were more mobile - the nomads. The nomads were an important source of livestock and strong battle horses as they brought these and other valuable resources from the steppes to the city dwellers through trade. The influx of commodities in turn ensured the success of rooted settlements as they grew into prosperous intellectual and religious centres. In exchange, traders from sedentary civilisations brought precious silk, gems and other refined goods to the nomadic tribes.

It was at these points of interaction between the nomads and the city dwellers where major trade nodes sprang to life, many of which evolved into political capitals and major market towns along the Silk Road and influenced history for years to come.

Present day nomadic groups - Buryats, Kalmyks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, mongols, Turkmens and Yakuts, to name a few - have different religions and speak diverse languages. They engage in different methods of stock breeding and migration patterns. Fundamentally, however, they branch off from two main linguistic groups - Turkic and Mongolian, and this binary distinction becomes apparent in other aspects of their cultural norms.

For example, the dwellings of Turkic nomads have spherical roofs, while those of Mongolian groups have conic roofs. Turkic nomads wear soft footwear, drink clear tea, and slaughter sheep in a way that drains away the blood; Mongolian nomads wear hard footwear, drink tea mixed with milk, butter, salt and flour, and slaughter sheep in such a way as to preserve the blood (which is made into blood sausage). The Kyrgyz people, who hosted this year's games, are a Turkic-speaking people.

A Kyrgyz (Turkic) yurt, with a spherical roof. (Picture courtesy of

A Mongol yurt, with a flatter and conical roof. (Picture courtesy of

With this background, we can now better appreciate the importance of the nomadic people and their role in influencing the world's history, and also feel a tinge of sadness laden with pity for the fact that the world is increasingly turning less and less nomadic, and becoming more and more sedentary. As urbanisation reaches new levels in this part of the world, much of the nomadic traditions which used to rule the steppes now face the risk of obscuration. The World Nomad Games consequentially serves the role of preservation on top of promotion of nomadic cultures.

Nonetheless, the World Nomad Games have propelled Kyrgyzstan onto the global stage. More and more foreigners are visiting the country - there appears to be good prospects for the local tourism industry. The future seems bright ahead.

On a side note, I gawk at the fact that we now live in the day and age where almost all nomadic people can be brought together to one place, to compete against one another in common traditional sports that withstood the test of time and space.

To recap, this was our journey so far (and the bolded part is where we are now):

Bishkek (1 day)

Kochkor / Song-Kol (3 days)

Bokonbaevo (2 days)

Cholpon-Ata / World Nomad Games (3 days)

Karakol / Altyn Arashan (2 days)

Cholpon-Ata (1 day)

Bishkek (1 day)


We arrived early at Cholpon-Ata to collect our pre-booked tickets to the Opening Ceremony. The Opening Ceremony was the kick-off event of the Games and would see delegations of national athletes march in at the Hippodrome of Cholpon-Ata.

Since the ceremony was in the evening, we spent the morning at the beach of Issyk-Kul (a warm day is so great when you are in Kyrgyzstan).

Many tourists who arrived earlier have decided, like us, to hang out by the beach along Issyk-Kul. There were people suntanning, jet-skiing, and paragliding.

Issyk-Kul is the world’s second largest alpine lake (after Lake Titicaca in Bolivia), lying at 1609 m (5,279 feet) above sea level. Even though it is surrounded by mountains, Issyk-Kul never freezes, thus its name means “hot lake” in Kyrgyz.

Then it was time to leave for the Hippodrome. We packed up our picnic bags, dusted sand off our bikini, wrapped ourselves up in warm clothes and headed back to town.

In the afternoon leading to the opening ceremony, policemen and security personnel lined the streets.

The official opening of WNG was attended by many high-profile political guests of the Turkic States - the President Erdogan of Turkey, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazahkstan, the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban, among others. Plus representatives from the Russian Federation and international organisations like the UN.

Kyrgyz lady, in traditional winter costume. There were many people of different nationalities dressed in traditional clothing but she stood out.

Some 1,500 performers took part in the opening ceremony of the third World Nomad Games, telling the story of both serenity and chaos of a nomad's life in a breathtaking performance.

The audience saw a colorful theatrical performance "The Birth of the World", which was divided into stages: the birth of life and man, the emergence of a nomadic civilization.

Hundreds of dancers on the field recreated the moments of nomadic life and culture, accompanied by laser beams and beautiful scenery. Then the official parade of all countries participating in nomadic games took place.

(Source: World Nomad Games)

After the dazzling displays, the march-in of athletes, representing 80 countries, commenced. Many were donning traditional outfits from their home countries.


At the end of the ceremony, President of Kyrgyz Republic Sooronbai Zheenbekov officially declared the III World Nomad Games open.

The President's speech was entirely in Kyrgyz language, we had no clue what he was saying. The crowd was cheering and applauding. It turned out that one major announcement he made was that the next WNG (2020) will be held in Turkey!

The next day, we headed to the Kyrchyn Gorge.

The Kyrchyn Gorge, ~40km away from the main town of Cholpon-Ata, is another venue for the World Nomad Games.

View of the gorge

The gorge is 30 km long. The tumbling mountain river of clean glacier water Ak-Suu runs along the bottom of the gorge, and along the slopes grow majestic Tian-Shan spruce. During the spring and summer, the clean mountain air is filled with the scent of aromatic alpine grasses.

Sports like horseback archery, traditional archery, and eagle/falcon/wild hound hunting were held here. Almost a thousand yurts were set up here for the Games. The entire time I could not stop being in awe of all that surrounded me.

A berkutchi (hunter) and his eagle. Training eagles takes a lot of time (3-4 years), must be done by one person, and requires constant daily attention. Most of the birds, which can have a life expectancy of 40 years, are caught young, hooded and placed in a cage with a perch that constantly sways while the berkutchi sings and chants to it, to imprint the sound of his voice and impress his personality on the bird. (Later on, the eagle is able to distinguish human voices and will obey only that of his master). The berkutchi feeds the bird himself.

Fusion of the ancient and the modern - Kyrgyz man wears an Ak Kalpak over his baseball cap.

Two local ladies walking through one of the bazaars in Kyrchyn Gorge. They were looking at scarves when I approached them for a picture and they look surprised. So I told them that they are 'Сулуу' (beautiful in Kyrgyz) and they flashed me these smiles!

Beautiful ladies on a traditional swing - a selkinchek - which is an activity that many couples enjoy together.

Falcon hunting is also a sport practised by the nomads. Falcons have excellent eyesight which they use to locate their prey. To keep them quiet and not distracted the falconer puts a small hood over their heads and removes it when they are about to release the bird to hunt.

The Komuz, a three-stringed plucked fretless lute, used both to accompany singing and as a virtuosic solo instrument. It is the instrument most identified with the Kyrgyz people.

Bazaar at the Kyrchyn Gorge. The stalls here sell locally-made arts and crafts.

Ethno-dances at the Kyrchyn Gorge.

A greyhound and his trainer, competing in the Taigan Zharysh race.

This greyhound competition, the Taigan Zharysh, showcases the tradition of Salbuurun, which means 'hunting', whereby the hunter uses only a golden eagle, bow and arrows, horse and a taigan dog to hunt for prey.

No modern weapons are used - so that hunting does not adversely affect the natural populations of wild animals.

Then... we headed back to the Hippodrome to catch the indoor wrestling and also the horseback games!

Wrestling in the Sports and Recreation Centre.

The Er Enish game, in which the riders have to wrestle with each other while simultaneously controlling the horse and maintaining their balance. It is a game of immense strength and skill combined.

Audience at the HIppodrome, watching the Kok Boru matches of that day.

We caught our first Kok Boru game!!

March-in of the players before the match began.

Kok Boru preliminary: Mongolia vs. Altay

Perhaps the most unforgettable (and morbid) game of the nomads, Kok Boru, also known as Buzkashi in countries like Afghanistan, is a game in which horseriders play a game of polo, but with a headless goat carcass. The aim is to throw this headless carcass in a goal pit. The goat typically weighs 32-35 kg - can you fathom the amount of ab, legs and arms power, coupled with great horse control ability, that the players need to play this game properly?

A few days later, we came back for the Kok-Boru finals. Unsurprisingly, Kyrgyzstan was in the finals. But surprisingly, the Kyrgyz's long-time rival, Kazakhstan, did not make it to the finals. The opponent this time was Uzbekistan.

Kok Boru Finals - Kyrgyzstan vs. Uzbekistan. March-in of the Uzbekistan team.

The Uzbek team attempts to score a goal by throwing the goat carcass into the pit.

No matter how hard the Uzbek team tried, unfortunately the Kyrgyz team overpowered them in every way. The Kyrgyz players were just super strong (how does anyone wedge a 35kg goat between one leg and the horse???) and super steady in their horse-handling (they could get their horses to go exactly where they needed them to). It seemed like it also helped that all of the Kyrgyz horses were extremely well-trained. They sprinted for the pits the moment their riders got a grip on the goat! It was evident that they were trained to do so automatically, because sometimes they sprinted for the wrong pit.

Kyrgyzstan emerged victorious in the final round of Kok Boru. They also won the most medals in the entire World Nomad Games and emerged as the overall champions.

It was such an amazing experience to be at the Games - my photographs only captured part of the breathtaking scenes. While I secretly wished that the next one would be held in Kyrgyzstan again (so I would have another reason to visit), there is no question in my mind that I will be getting my tickets to Turkey in 2020.

P.S. The guys at Nomadasaurus did a better job than me at explaining the various nomadic games in greater details! Check out their post here. I regretfully missed out on some of the stuff like the intellectual games and the archery competition.

READ ON: Kyrgyzstan | A 2-Week Journey (Part 4)


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