Travel Tuesday: Kyrgyzstan's World Nomad Games in Photographs

Article by: Porter Clements & Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

The Opening Ceremony in Cholpon-Ata  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

The Opening Ceremony in Cholpon-Ata

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Last summer, we traveled to the third World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan. Here are a few snippets of what we experienced.

The two-hour-long opening ceremony was an enactment of the history of Kyrgyz nomad people. Music, dance, horses, and oral traditions were weaved into every chapter of the narrative, from the birth of the cosmos, to the age of new technology. The official guest list featured a triptych of leaders with dictatorial tendencies: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán, Noursoultan Nazarbaïev, and other notable hosts. The ceremony was the only event that required a ticket: everything else was free. In the background, the still waters of Issyk-Kul lake and snow-capped mountain ranges could be seen in the distance.

Indoor Wrestling  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Indoor Wrestling

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Inside the indoor wrestling rings, athletes of varying origins faced off in heated Western-style bouts, as uniformed members of the Kyrgyz Spetsnaz looked on. Both men and women competed, and the participants were often deadlocked for minute-long stretches before one would give way, often with a loud cry. As multiple matches ensued simultaneously, the arena became increasingly cacophonous, and the air rang with the vocalisations of wrestlers and cheers from the audience.

Ethno-Bazaar  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Ethno-Bazaar

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

The ‘ethno-bazaar’ featured various commodities from around Kyrgyzstan and the surrounding countries, including ornate clothing, fabrics and instruments, as well as aromatic snacks. Sellers often operated two to a stall, allowing multiple customers to haggle simultaneously. It was not uncommon for stalls with similar wares to be positioned near to each other, allowing shoppers to negotiate counter-offers from competing salespeople. 

Bread-making competition  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Bread-making competition

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

It was hard to see what was going on, as the crowd was packed around these women in traditional dress holding up large decorative bread. There appeared to be several categories, and the competition went on until late in the afternoon.

Horses  Photos by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Horses

Photos by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

All Kyrgyz brought their finest horses to the Games. Riders offered their services to pedestrians, and one could jump on their back for a rapid ride to the other side of the campground. 

Kumis  Stand  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Kumis Stand

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Numerous trucks were strewn about offering kumis, a traditional Kyrgyz fermented horse milk beverage, often served from what appeared to be oil drums. There were usually several Kyrgyz people queueing for it, though curiously, only a few Westerners.

Up in Kyrchyn Gorge  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Up in Kyrchyn Gorge

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

While the big stadiums for the horseback games and wrestling were down by the lake at low altitude, the real heart of the Nomad Games was up in the mountains, where archery, falconry and the ethno-bazaar all took place. Visitors had to camp out, or otherwise drive down from the mountains at night when temperatures plummeted. Those brave or foolish enough to withstand the night in a tent were rewarded with stunning views of the misty valley in the morning.

A Yak  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

A Yak

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

A yak and his rider wait for a passer-by to pay a few soms (the local currency) for a ride or a photo on the saddle. 

Bird Competition  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Bird Competition

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

One of the more impressive spectacles at the Nomad Games was the falconry competition. Here, the handler would attach a piece of meat to a rope, and swing the meat in circles in the air. Meanwhile, the falcon would circle far overhead until the handler blew the whistle, and the falcon nosedived toward the circling meat. At this point, just as the falcon’s talons were about to make contact with the meat, the handler would swing it away from the falcon, and it would fly overhead before the cycle repeated once more. Each handler-falcon duo was awarded points based on how many of these cycles they could complete in a set period of time.

National Pride (1)  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

National Pride (1)

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Two babushkas in full dress entrusted their smartphones to the camel owner who took a few staged photos of them. 

National Pride (2)  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

National Pride (2)

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

While walking around the site, it was impossible to get very far without being approached by somebody trying to sell something, whether it was food, a horseback ride, or, more frequently, the opportunity to be photographed with a large animal. Usually, these were young men, walking around with eagles—about a third of their size—perched on their arms. They were sometimes followed by their younger brothers carrying falcons just as large while they wandered through the crowds. They would tout their birds in the air and try to make eye contact with whomever they could, while ardently propositioning: ‘Фото? Фото?’ (‘Photo? Photo?’). In recent years, as the construction of a coherent national identity has taken centre stage in Kyrgyz cultural politics following the collapse of the Soviet Union, eagles and falcons have taken on a special significance as a marker of Kyrgyz identity. Pictured above, a man poses atop a camel with an eagle on his arm in a double affirmation of nomadic identity.

Archery Competition  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Archery Competition

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

A young archer is finding her focus as the first wave of archers take aim.

Results Announced  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Results Announced

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

A man with an eagle on his wrist films the winners of the falcon competition as they step onto the podium. 

Backstage  Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

Backstage

Photo by: Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud

For those who didn’t bring their own tents but still wished to spend the night in the valley, numerous yurts were set up by local Kyrgyz to provide bed and board for a moderate fee. The meals offered from yurt to yurt varied very little: one could always find plov, a popular Central Asian dish consisting of rice cooked with lamb and carrots. 

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