There were a few storied bits of Kyrgyz culture that I clung to in the months before coming here: drinking fermented horse milk (check), the half-million word epic poem about a man named Manas, and a game I’ve heard described as “sheep carcass rugby.” This weekend, I saw that game, called kok-boru, in action.
It did not disappoint.
I had the opportunity to see kok-boru as part of a bigger Horse Games Festival, put on by a Community-Based Tourism organization in the Alay region of southern Kyrgyzstan. Our crew of Peace Corps volunteers made up only a fraction of a bigger group of tourists from all over the world, brought to the entrance of the Chyiyrchik Pass for a day of sampling Kyrgyz foods, admiring Kyrgyz handicrafts and musical traditions, and watching a variety of horse games.
The games festival was massive. Hundreds of horses filled the fields, and the event had drawn a sizable crowd of Kyrgyz locals in addition to the tourists. Kok-boru wasn’t the only game on the docket; we also had a chance to see oodarysh, which is basically wrestling atop horses; tyin enmey, in which riders must retrieve a coin from the ground while at full gallop; and kyz-kuumai, wherein men and women chase each other on horseback in an imitation of courting rituals. On the first round, the man chases the woman; if he catches her, he gets to kiss her. The woman gets her chance for revenge in round two, though, in which she chases the man; if she catches him, she gets to whip him. This games of kyz-kuumai played out like a little celebration of Kyrgyz womanhood; not only did the woman, an amazing rider, evade the man in the first round, she also got a handful of whips in when she chased the man.
After several hours of chasing around the sheep carcass (during which time, a man who had control of the sheep fell off his horse and multiple groups of horseman charged through the crowd, forcing tourists and locals alike to scatter), it was time for a rest. Spending all day in the sun had done a number on our group, but fortunately we had an evening in a yurt to look forward to. It was through a Community Based Tourism home stay program that we had the chance to relax, eat, and sleep in a local family’s yurt. The tour organizer split us up by gender (fulfilling a cultural expectation as well as spreading the income from tourism across multiple families) and said goodbye.
We spent the sunset on a hill behind the yurt, admiring the family’s horses and the incredible views of the pass and distant mountains. The boys were smart enough to wake up in the middle of the night to look at the stars, which they reported were out of this world (hah). I was not going to pass up the opportunity for a full-night’s sleep, uninterrupted by bugs or scorching midnight heat, so instead I got an idea of how the sky looked through the boys’ pictures and words.
It was a lazy morning, and we eventually set back out for Osh by flagging down passing cars. I rode with a few other volunteers in the back of a minivan, with what we thought was one big, happy Kyrgyz family, but later realized was also a collection of hitchhikers.
This was my second experience with a Community Based Tourism (CBT) office in Kyrgyzstan, and I am really excited to continue seeing the country with the help of these organizations. While living in Alanya, I saw one manifestation of modern tourism — industrial, mass-produced, disconnected from local culture. In the summer, masses of tourists fly in, stay locked up in their all-inclusive resorts, fling trash all over the beaches and castle, and fly home with a suitcase full of neon tanktops and Turkish-looking keychains. CBT, on the other hand, strives for socially and economically sustainable tourism. It recognizes that tourism is a rapidly growing industry with a lot of potential for Kyrgyzstan’s economic development, but by promoting local ownership and local profit, it insures that actual Kyrgyz communities are the ones who benefit from tourism. Tourists also gain from the CBT model, especially those looking for a unique experience that shows the way real Kyrgyz people live. I spent a lot of the weekend thinking about how much my mom would love this festival, and how I will definitely organize a trip with my local CBT when she comes to Kyrgyzstan (hint hint).