The World Nomad Games
Ordinarily it would have been golden eagles on the gopher’s mind, but on a sunny afternoon in early September, there was something else to worry about. As it emerged from its burrow in the Kyrchyn Valley in central Kyrgyzstan, the rodent sniffed the dusty air blowing north towards the border with Kazakhstan. It smelled no threat, saw no frightening shadows being cast from above, and so scurried a little further from its burrow.
The danger, however, was coming from behind – out of nowhere an arrow landed less than a yard away, the equivalent of a sharpened lamppost landing next to a person. The gopher had unwittingly gate-crashed an archery event at the World Nomad Games and, understandably, had little interest in spectating. In a second, it vanished.
More arrows sailed through the sky, making a satisfying ‘thok’ as they slammed into an outline of a gazelle, a bullseye marked over its heart. Archery was one of 37 events at the third edition of the World Nomad Games; gopher hunting was not, although it perhaps could have been.
The 2018 edition brought larger crowds to see more sports contested between athletes from a higher number countries than ever before. The events were split between Kyrchyn and, four hours east from the capital city Bishkek, the lakeside resort town of Cholpon-Ata, where contests were held between the Sports Centre and the Hippodrome. The latter also hosted a flashy ceremony that opened a week of competition and cultural oddities.
The show had been decidedly non-traditional, conventional almost, but if the slick performances inside the Hippodrome had been a little predictable, the audience was anything but. The only ticketed event of the Games, large queues began to form long before the music and dancing started, a gathering of humanity at its most eclectic.
A Scottish group of Highland Games athletes had come to demonstrate their indigenous sports but, arriving in kilts, were so overwhelmed with selfie requests that they almost didn’t make it into the stadium. Elsewhere, there were portly Turks with astonishing moustaches, Instagram-ready Bulgarian archers in fur-lined jerkins, a Mongolian sumo too large to fit through the turn-style. Seeing that wrestler squeeze through a metal gate looked odd, but not quite so strange as a team of Tajik warriors in full plate armour, each carrying a bastard sword large enough to cleave a man in twain. As they edged their way towards the Kyrgyz guard manning the metal detector, a sensible outcome looked impossible.
Founded just four years ago, the Games are a fairly new creation, a modern way of gathering ancient peoples and sports unfamiliar to much of the world. Before attending, it’s easy to imagine that them taking place on a gusty steppe, centuries-old grudges being worked out under an enormous sky. The reality of much of it is nothing like that.
Almost on the shore of Issyk-Kul, the huge lake that dominates the east of the country, the Sports Centre was home to many of the wrestling events, conducted under fluorescent lights, on rubber gym mats. The fighters controlled their weight, drank protein shakes, wore compression gear… It could have been almost any gymnasium in the world, even if sports like alysh (a form of belt wrestling) and mas (a one-on-one stick-pulling contest) were more niche than, say, judo and taekwondo.
More in keeping with preconceptions about the Games, the temporary village in Kyrchyn was set up in that endlessly photogenic gorge, an hour away over bumpy unsealed roads. There, with more space to move and a series of sensational interlocking mountains as a backdrop, events such dog and falcon trials were held alongside the archery.
It was in this vast valley that Emirati competitor Mohammed El Mansoori triumphed with his salukis Tizab and Algam in a dog hunting event. The 38-year-old hails from Abu Dhabi, a region with rich but fast-fading Nomadic heritage. Hunting with salukis has been a Bedouin pursuit for centuries and for El Mansoori it was important not just to compete under the flag of the UAE, but to represent that tradition. His victory ahead of Kyrgyz and Russian runners-up didn’t happen by accident, either. “At home we use a car and a dummy to race the dogs, but here they used a rabbit and horse,” he said behind the UAE’s humungous Bedouin tent. “I had to get my dogs ready for that, so I bought a horse and rabbits and trained my dogs here before the event. I knew my dogs were the best, I knew I would win, 100 percent.”
That bombastic confidence wasn’t shared by all competitors, even those who knew what to expect. Aida Akmatova is arguably Kyrgyzstan’s most famous athlete, which at the Games brought with it a different kind of pressure.
For Bishkek native, the archery and games were not new – she appeared at the 2016 games and in the opening ceremony of this edition, performing her party piece of shooting arrows with her feet. For this, the 32-year-old raised herself into a handstand, then curled her legs around like an animatronic scorpion to fire the bow. It’s an impressive feat with impressive feet that earns her a living as a circus performer, but it’s not a competitive event. This year, Akmatova decided that she’d like a medal to go with the applause, so began training for horse archery, too.
Talking close to where the gopher was almost shot, she said: “For me the competition is something special, something new. It’s really difficult because when the horse is running you can’t use your arms to ride, but I’ve trained very hard for this, every day for a month. I was afraid to take a day off. My hands were all bloody I was training so much.”
What was she scared of? “It’s my first competition and I want the people of my country to look at me with respect – I don’t want their heads to go down when they see me. That’s why I’m nervous.”
This particular type of stress is felt by most athletes given the chance to perform in front of their home crowd; it can be inspirational, or it can be intimidating, helpful or a hinderance. At the Games, the crowd was proudly partisan – every Kyrgyz victory was applauded; every other nation’s triumph met with a frosty silence. Only neighbouring Kazakhstan brought a significant number of travelling supporters, though they too were drowned out when facing a local opponent.
However, for the Kyrgyz participants, this was possibly the last time they’ll feel this kind of jingoistic glare – as announced during the opening ceremony, the 2020 edition of the World Nomad Games will instead be held in Turkey.
Much will change. Undoubtedly the organisation of the events will improve – even for Aida Akmatova’s big moment, there weren’t any horses on hand, so boys were sent into the hills to wrangle the first mounts they could find, hastily slinging saddles on their backs and riding them to the start. As an Uzbek archer’s horse ran into the crowd for a second time, there was concern the whole event would lurch into farce. Soon there were also accusations of equine malfeasance when Kyrgyz riders seemed to have been given the best horses.
Yet part of the appeal of the Games is in these imperfections, the roughness of it all. The food will improve in Turkey, the planning too, but it also seems likely that corporate sharks will be circling with offers of sponsorship and branding and a monetisation of culture that seems ill-suited to the essence of these gatherings.
It’s also difficult to believe that the bazaar at the heart of the Kyrgyz edition will be so authentic by 2020. Sitting in the centre of makeshift Kyrchyn village, it hosted traders and craftsmen from across the country and was surely the most genuinely nomadic element of the whole week, something vital and timeless.
To walk its strange aisles felt like looking into a past most foreigners could never really be part of and perhaps never believed really existed until that moment. Close to the entrance a man was selling mosaics made up of thousands of pieces of coloured rice. Past him there were stalls hawking paintings of petroglyphs, clay pipes, woollen slippers, rainbow tapestries, dried fruit, a honey seller with the endorsement of two dozen bees swarming his stall. There was a grandmother with golden teeth selling strange ceramic idols, others pointing at Kyrgyz saddles, leatherwork, metal work, deep in the market now, knives designed to kill and dismember, fox pelts, a grandfather delighted with the price he’d just negotiated for a lynx hide, more people, more strangeness and then, proud of his stall, Afalay Kasimov, the wolf man.
Of all the sights inside the breathless bazaar, Kasimov’s was perhaps the most jarring for westerners. Next to rows of fur-lined hats hung 10 full-sized wolf pelts, alongside two woefully taxidermied busts, and below a pair of equally unconvincing full-sized wolves, the ridiculous, electrified faces of which looked as though their tails had been connected to the mains.
“I’ve never killed a wolf,” said the stall owner. “Except one that I hit with my car – and I couldn’t sell it afterwards.” He insisted that in summer, when the huge pack stays high in the mountains feasting on abundant prey, the wolves are left alone, but when winter comes they descend to pastures and butcher livestock. One year, they were blamed for slaughtering 16,000 animals: sheep, goats, horses. One way or another, death is inevitable, so the government pays hunters to take part in the culls. Is this the legendary wolf-hunting with golden eagles? (The fiercest birds can swoop on a wolf, blind it, then crush its skull.) No, explained the market stall owner, his guys use snares and guns.
If people had come to the World Nomad Games looking for a ‘realness’, an ‘authentic’ experience, then it was perhaps no better illustrated than with this – a hard form of subsistence living that outsiders could hardly bear to witness, let alone understand.
Perhaps more palatable, though just as brutal, were some of the sports themselves, particularly er enish and kok baru, the Games’ most popular events. The former is a sort of horseback wrestling, a one-on-one event where the goal is to unseat your opponent. The latter is the infamous sport also known as buzkashi in Afghanistan, and more commonly referred to as goat polo in English. It has been compared to the gentile game played by posh boys on lawns in certain corners of England, but instead of mallets the riders use their hands, and instead of a ball, they use the 30kg (70lb) decapitated, dismembered body of a newly slaughtered goat. It’s really not much like polo.
Perhaps surprisingly, this macabre event attracted teams from outside of Central Asia, including from France and America. Here and at other events, the US athletes made for an incongruous sight – members of the all-white team wearing denim and Stetsons participated in almost every event, including horseback archery. As one German tourist asked no one in particular: “Why are there cowboys playing Indians?” Yet to listen to competitor Nick Willert talk, no one would doubt his motivations for participating nor his admiration for his opponents.
He heard about kok baru just three weeks before the start of the Games and immediately wanted to participate. Having retired from MMA a few years ago with a winning record, Willert now coaches that form of semi-controlled barbarism in California. Prior to that, he grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, one of those great open American states where horsemanship is all but essential. On the basis that he is a hard bastard who can ride, he decided to join the US kok baru team, and then enter the er enish as an individual.
His ear was already cauliflowered from combat, but his black eye was new and in training for these new sports, the 41-year-old lost a tooth. “I went down to Cholpon-Ata that day and they fixed it right up,” he said with a new smile. “It was only about a hundred bucks – would have cost me thousands at home.”
Despite his rough-and-tumble background, the violence and malintent were a surprise to him. “They weaponise the horses in both er enish and kok baru,” he said, swigging from a bottle of kumis, locally fermented horse milk. “These guys have been doing this for thousands of years – there’s so much history involved in it. There’s so much functionality, everything has a purpose, they don’t play around. That’s what really attracted me.”
Willert was aware that there probably isn’t another multi-discipline Games in the world at which America arrive as underdogs, with almost no hope of winning a medal. He didn’t come close at the 2018 World Nomad Games, either – America lost both their kok baru games, and Willert was beaten in his first round er enish bout, too. Still, he did better than anyone predicted, only getting dismounted at the whistle. He may have actually lost on points, but in the sweat and the fury, he couldn’t really be sure.
That was better than the team event – in kok baru he was hit so forcefully that he flew from the saddle and, lying on the dusty floor with the wind knocked out of him, watched his horse ride off with his boot still in the stirrup. “Those horses were pissing vinegar and mean as hell,” he chuckled, “and biting sons-of-bitches, too.”
Given everything that’s going on – riders whipping each other’s horses, pulling at their reins, encouraging their lunatic stallions to kick each other – did Willert ever forget that the ball wasn’t a ball, but a newly murdered goat? “Hell no! When you pick that animal up, you get covered in fur and blood and goat shit – it’s coming out both ends, man. You come out of there just stinking.”
He intends to return in 2020, and to train hard over the next couple of years, but with the best will in the world, it’s still hard to imagine him winning a medal. The elite practitioners all have over developed back muscles, the result of endless pulling at opponents. Their relationship with their horses is symbiotic. They live for this sport.
Watching the professionals in the Hippodrome, if they were afraid before the bouts, it was impossible to tell. Some left the field of battle daubed in blood that was not their own. A victorious Kazakh was taken aside by a TV crew for an interview. When they ask him to write his name, adrenaline made his hands tremble too much to hold the pen.
Heavyweight champion Birjan Kosaliev was unimpressed. This mountainous man, with forehead furrows so deep they could dislocate an index finger, tightened his bandana before a bout. In the build-up to the Games he’d upped his daily training regime from two hours to five. He has no day job – er enish is all he does. Confidence he did not lack. “I’m going to win,” he said without emotion. “I won last time. I’ll win this time.”
What is the worst injury he’s had?
“I don’t get injured.”
What is the worst injury an opponent has ever had? The big man from Mongolia didn’t answer, but saddled up, kicked his horse, and rode to war.
A version of this piece was published in the first issue of The Culture Trip Magazine in October 2018.