World Nomad Games, KYRGYZSTAN

The World Nomad Games showcases nomadic sports, culture and lifestyle and takes place every even numbered year. It's held in Cholpon-Ata, in the Issyk-Kul Province of Kyrgyzstan, usually in September, although Turkey has also been floated as a possible venue for the 2020 Games. Nicknamed the ‘Olympics for nomads’ it’s a unique and fantastically entertaining chance to see a huge number of traditional sports and games. Some are familiar – archery, for example – but most are not. This must be the only place in the world where you can witness horseback wrestling, headless goat polo (kok buru), hunting with eagles, bowls played with cow kneecaps (ordo) and board games so complex they make mah jong look like tiddlywinks.
Many of the sports are not only unfamiliar to Western visitors, they are downright eye opening. Suddenly, the real Olympics look slightly wussy. Cirit, for instance, originates in Turkey and features two teams on horseback throwing spears at each other, with points awarded for hitting your opponent or his horse. Mas wrestling involves two men fighting over a stick. That might sound a bit primary school playground, but it’s pure, unadulterated man-on-man combat, with contestants sitting on the ground opposite each other, their feet braced against a board between them, heaving on a stick to see who’s strongest. Headless goat polo is the most revered sport, with two teams on horseback competing to throw a headless goat carcass into a goal. In a brilliantly waste-not, want-not move, the winning team gets to barbecue the thoroughly tenderised meat afterwards.
While goat polo is perhaps the most exciting sport, er enish is the most brutal. This is essentially wrestling on horseback with two warriors trying to throw each other to the ground in impressive bouts of strength and agility. If you prefer your wrestling horse-free, relax – there are numerous different styles of wrestling to enjoy, including Turkish, Turkmen, Tajik, Azerbaijani… the wrestling list is long.
Although a new event – the first Games were held in 2014 – they have become incredibly popular, a glorious celebration that attracts people from all the Stans and further afield, too. Some arrive on horseback, before pitching yurts, donning traditional clothes and settling in to enjoy the competitions, food and fun. The third World Nomad Games, in 2018, has 80 participating countries, 37 sports, 3,000 athletes, four locations and 2,000 volunteers.
The joy of attending the games is getting to watch both the competitions and the crowds. Stroll around and you’ll see spectators on horseback (or even standing on their horse’s back to get a better view), young Kazak hunters wandering through the crowds with eagles on their arms, someone skinning a goat, tents where banquets of regional food are spread out and the odd camel, too. Wherever you go, you’ll meet hospitable nomads delighted to show off their culture. Food is cheap and plentiful, but as ever, it makes sense to steer towards the vendors with the most local people eating at them.

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Mongolia and the Silk Road explorer tour

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The easiest way to visit the Games is as part of an organised tour to Kyrgyzstan. Tourism isn’t hugely developed here, accommodation in the vicinity of the Games gets booked up well in advance, and information in English may be hard to find. Your tour guide will be able to explain what you’re seeing, and there are friendly local volunteers to help out, too.
Typically, a two week holiday might devote two or three days to the Games, so you can catch the opening ceremony, with its highly choreographed performances, explore all the sites and see a good range of competitions. Remember that once at the Games, logistics aren’t always perfect. Scheduling can change with no notice, so if you are determined to see a particular sport make sure you get there early, and be patient if it’s delayed or cancelled.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Save the dream] [Kok buru (goat polo): Ceyhun Kavakci] [Archery: Bernd Thaller] [Er Enish(horse wrestling): Ceyhun Kavakci] [Opening ceremony: Save the dream] [Man on horseback: Save the dream]