Photo Essays | Society | Central Asia

Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

A week of earnest competition, friendly contests, and a full-on Central Asian Burning Man-like festival.

Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

The 2nd World Nomad Games from September 3 to 8 in Cholpon-ata on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul were part spectacle and part sports. Here, a Kyrgyz kurosh match.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

In Cholpon-ata, a 10,000-seat hippodrome hosted lavish opening and closing ceremonies as well as kok-boru and horse races. The opening ceremonies told the story of Kyrgyz history and nomadic culture through song and dance.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev soaked up the spotlight as he made his way to the stage to officially open the Games. Upstaged by Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s funeral, no other presidents made it to the Games.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

But Steven Seagal did.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

The Games’ real soul–and the most interesting part of the whole event–was 45 minutes away from the hippodrome in the jailoo at Kyrchyn Gorge. A jailoo is a summer mountain pasture where Kyrgyz nomads spend summers grazing their flocks. Yurt villages were set up in the jailoo by Kyrgyzstan’s seven regions, plus the two main cities of Bishkek and Osh, and a section for international representatives.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

Women making a traditional and tremendously versatile Kyrgyz food: boorsok. The fried dough appears on nearly every table and can be eaten with any meal, used to soak up shashlik juices, or sprinkled with powdered sugar and declared dessert.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

In each of the yurt villages there were near constant performances. When not playing or singing, this troop of musicians rested in a yurt and snacked on boorsok and grilled corn.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

Behind many of the yurts people set up picnics, beckoning strangers to share a meal (or a beer). To the right is a kazan, a large pot placed over a fire and used to cook–in this case a delightful mutton and potato stew.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

One of the highlights of the jailoo was the yurt-building contest. Here, men practice building a yurt.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

Kyrchyn was also the sight of traditional hunting games–Salbuurun–including eagle and dog hunting. Many competitors showed up in traditional costumes; this man from Kazakhstan holds a golden eagle.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

At the American yurt a troop of cowboys told cowboy stories, a group of native Americans performed, and Kyrgyz children were learning the great American nomadic tradition: football.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

Throughout the yurt camp children, dressed in traditional attire, posed for pictures. Here three children my companions remembered from the 2014 Games waited to get their portraits taken.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

Beside the hippodrome in Cholpon-ata stood the conspicuous Gazprom building. Technically the Sports and Recreation Building, the blue cube hosted various kinds of wrestling. In the foreground, the tragic but enterprising American kok-boru team battles Kazakhstan.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

Inside the Gazprom building during the finals of Kyrgyz kuresh the crowds busted at the seams. Kyrgyz military–co-opted to run security for the Games, in addition to thousands of police from all over the country–kept spectators from the mats.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

The half-dozen kinds of wrestling featured in the Games were difficult to distinguish from each other for the layman. But unlike some of the more traditional sports–like the hunting games–the wrestling took on the tone of serious competition.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

Kyrgyz kuresh is a kind of belt wrestling in which the two wrestlers each grab hold of their opponent’s belt and attempt to toss them to the ground. The only obvious difference between Kyrgyz kuresh and Kazakh kuresh is that in the Kyrgyz version the wrestlers are shirtless.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

On the final day of competition, the highly anticipated kok-boru final between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan was prefaced by horse races. In the adult long-distance race, the ultimate victor held an impressive lead for most of the race.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

The hippodrome was filled for the kok-boru final. The goat-polo game–brutal and exciting, known also as kokpar and buzkashi–is the national sport of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (and also Afghanistan.) Kyrgyzstan won to thunderous chanting from the stands by a score of 15 to 3.

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

The victorious Kyrgyz kok-boru team took home a 3.5 million som prize (just over $50,000).

Credit: Catherine Putz
Spectacle and Sport at the World Nomad Games

The closing ceremonies–a glorified and eclectic concert–rounded out the Games. Kyrgyzstan plans to host the Games again in 2018, though no date has been set.

Credit: Catherine Putz

In early September Kyrgyzstan hosted the 2nd World Nomad Games at the lakeside resort town of Cholpon-ata. The Games kicked off with a lavish opening ceremony on September 3 and closed with an eclectic concert on September 8. The week between was filled with earnest competition, friendly contests, and a full-on Central Asian Burning Man-like festival. Attended by delegations from more than 40 countries–some serious competitors and some perhaps press-ganged backpackers–the Games were a vibrant celebration of nomadic culture.

“If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d be here,” the announcer at the opening ceremonies boomed to an appreciative cheer from the crowd.