Kyrgyzstan’s biennial World Nomad Games has it all: the bizarre, the whimsical, the sublime—and brazen acts of horseback dare-devilry.
The World Nomad Games are, without a doubt, one of the most photogenic events on earth. The last Games, held in 2016, featured a thousand musicians playing the komuz (traditional Kyrgyz three-stringed instrument) in unison, a burning horseman riding at full gallop, and Steven Seagal—and that’s just the opening ceremony. To fully appreciate this unique event, you need to be there—here are 10 reasons why you should get yourself to Kyrgyzstan September 3–8, 2018 for the third World Nomad Games.
Top Picks for You
It’s Like the Olympics, Only Horsier
The World Nomad Games is the Central Asian Olympics. Like the Olympics, there’s an opening and closing ceremony, and teams from over 40 countries participate in 23 different sports, striving for top position on the medal tally. The main difference is the sports themselves, most of which you’ve never heard of, and many of which involve horses. The Kyrgyz call the horse “wings of a man,” and the animal is central to their life and mythology. In the Hippodrome, the main arena in Cholpan Ata, the main drawcard is kok boru, or buzkashi, which is similar to polo, except that teams attempt to score goals with a stuffed goat carcass instead of a ball. There’s also horse-racing, horseback archery, and er enish, horseback wrestling. While it’s not quite Swan Lake, er enish combines the pomp of a WWF wrestling match with the grace of a ballet for an absolutely mesmerizing result.
It’s Like Burning Man, but With More Yurts
Located an hour’s drive from the Hippodrome in Kyrchyn valley, the Games’ cultural festival is a celebration of traditional nomadic life in all its color and pageantry. For the duration of the festival, the valley hosts over a hundred yurts, quite the sight against the spectacular Alpine backdrop. Kyrchyn is the place to see kyz kumai (where men on horseback try to catch up to and kiss women during a race), and traditional activities like archery, dog-racing, falconry, and competitive yurt building.
It's a Feast for Your Eyes (and Your Instagram)
While there is so much more the Games than the spectacle, there is no denying that the event is incredibly photogenic. The opening ceremony is world-class. You’ll see the trick riders from Turkmenistan—including the legendary burning horsemen—a light show, live music, and choreographed dances featuring thousands of performers. Yes, it’s about the experience, but as an added bonus, your Instagram feed is sure to be the envy of all your friends.
There Are Many (Mostly) Free Events
The main cost of attending the World Nomad Games is getting there; once you’re there, the cultural festival and most of the sporting events—including the finals of the kok boru—are free. Only the opening and closing ceremonies are ticketed. By Western standards, even the most expensive tickets for the opening ceremony are affordable—the equivalent of around $50 USD. There are a couple of advantages to this: it means it is an inclusive event, for backpackers as much as luxury travelers, and for the locals as much as it is for the tourists. It also removes the pressure of prebooking or planning, leaving the way for spontaneity and happenstance.
The World Nomad Games Is Not a Tourist Trap (Yet)
The World Nomad Games is as much, if not more, for the Kyrgyz diaspora—a celebration of Central Asian nomadic cultures, of their history, their mythology. The only downside? Most signage and commentary is in either Kyrgyz or Russian. Most of the enthusiastic young volunteers speak English (or try to), but it won’t always be easy to make yourself understood. The Games are well-organized, but the program doesn’t always run to schedule. Be prepared to go with the flow.
The Food Is So Much Better Than You Might Imagine
The traditional cuisines of Central Asia are delicious, freshly-prepared, varied and cheap. Highlights include manty (steamed dumplings), shashlik (marinated meat barbecued on skewers), and lagman (a delicious beef noodle dish). Homemade naan (flatbread) and black tea are staples. Some kind of salad (perhaps due to the Russian influence) accompanies most meals. The adventurous may wish to try the delicacy known as kumuz (fermented mare’s milk) but be warned: it is an acquired taste!
You Can Meet Nomads, and Become One for a Day
The best way to immerse yourself in the cultural experience of the Games and experience traditional Kyrgyz hospitality? Head up to Kyrchyn with an overnight bag, and stay the night in the yurt. It won’t cost much, and cozying up on the traditional horsehair mattresses with a group of friends or strangers is the best way to get a true sense of nomadic life. A homecooked dinner and breakfast is usually part of the deal.
The Festival Fashions Are Next-Level
The Kyrgyz use the World Nomad Games as an opportunity to strut their stuff, wearing traditional garments that reflect the different regions. Eye-popping color, intricate embroidery, and amazing headgear are all de rigeur. For Kyrgyz men, the traditional kolpek hat is a popular choice. For women, the ak-elechek, a turban-like headdress that features layers of white cloth, is ubiquitous. Traditionally, women would cut off pieces of the ak-elechek to use in the case of wounds, birth, and death, making it highly functional as well as decorative.
The Scenery Is Breathtaking
Kyrgyzstan is home to some stunning Alpine scenery and Kyrchyn Valley, where the cultural festival is held, is idyllic, complete with green pastures, flowing rivers, and snowcapped peaks. Its ever-changing weather creates a constantly shifting color palette. The town of Cholpan Ata may not be particularly swoon-worthy, but Lake Issyk Kul is a definite draw. It is the second-largest Alpine lake in the world (after Titicaca), and in September, it is still warm enough to swim in.
It's a Gateway to See More of Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia
You’ve come all this way, why not explore further afield? Spend some time wandering the boulevards of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Take a horse trek around Lake Song Kul, staying in yurts as you go. See the Burana Tower, a 9th-century minaret in the Chuy Valley, or travel along the old Silk Road to Tash Rabat, a caravanserai close to the China border. You can fly direct from Bishkek to the ancient outpost Kashgar in western China, or head to neighboring Uzbekistan.