So maybe you heard (and it’s likely you did, given my aggressive social media’ing and the pretty extensive press coverage by international news outlets), but last week marked the second World Nomad Games, held in none other than my site, Cholpon-Ata. I guess “Olympics meets Central Asia, with a dash of flaming horsemen” describes the World Nomad Games (WNG) in a nutshell, but the 1.6 billion som (~23 million USD) event that brought thousands of athletes from more than 60 countries for a week of sports unique to Central Asia was also so much more than that.
Bummer if you couldn’t make it to Kyrgyzstan for this, but you’ll feel like you were basically there after reading this Top 10 list.
10. The Opening Ceremony
The WNG opening ceremony really, truly rivals that of this year’s Olympics opening and those of the past few years. It covered thousands of years of history, from Alexander the Great discovering the walnut to Mongol invasion, and beautifully blended parts of Kyrgyz culture. Watch all 2 hours of amazing song, dance, and performance here, or just skip ahead to 1:50:00 to check out Team USA crossing the stage (but then go back and watch the whole thing).
The video is great, but it can’t capture the giddiness of listening to a thousand komuzes play in sync, of dancing kara jorgo with hundreds of other people, of getting texts from people all over Kyrgyzstan that they saw me on TV, of hearing “United States of America” called and waving to 10,000 spectators. This was, hands down, one of the coolest nights of my entire life.
9. The Music
You’ll never need to make another pump-up playlist in your LIFE if you download the top hits of the WNG, I promise. The WNG гимн/hymn/anthem alone (yeah, it’s got a freaking hymn) is enough to listen on repeat forever, but some of the other songs featured in the opening and closing ceremonies are also amazing.
8. Nomad Cowboys Playing Kok Boru
The US Embassy flew in a ragtag group of cowboys (half career ranchers from Wyoming, half actors-cum-horsemen from New York) to Kyrgyzstan just for WNG. They learned to play kok boru, which is basically rugby played on horseback with a decapitated sheep carcass, overnight and were thrown into a match against a Russian team from Krasnoyarsk.
I went into the first game expecting the Americans to face plant, but the Russians showed incredible sportsmanship and patience in guiding the Nomad Cowboys through their first game of kok boru ever. Team USA won 7 whole points (despite losing horribly against Team KRS), and it was so cool to watch them figure out how to carry the 40kg goat body and lug it into the kazan (goalpit). The announcers were also excited about the Nomad Cowboys and made all kinds of sweeping generalizations about these guys being the best kok boru players on the other side of the ocean (which may be true, actually), about them learning so quickly, and about them being мыкты оюнчуулар mykty oyunchular awesome players. The crowd loved the Nomad Cowboys, which made watching this match especially enjoyable.
7. Kyrchyn Ethnovillage
So the cowboys were busy playing kok boru at the new hippodrome, the wrestlers were thrashing about in a giant sports complex, the intellectual gamers (see #6) were doing their thing in a nearby resort, but way out in Кырчын жайлоо/Kyrchyn jailoo/Kyrchyn summer pasture 500+ yurts popped up out of nowhere (well, from all 7 regions of Kyrgyzstan) to make a little ethnovillage. Each oblast, and then Osh and Bishkek cities, had their own section of yurts, which they decorated according to the traditions and vibes of their region – my favorite was Batken, the 1 region that’s off-limits to Peace Corps volunteers, where I did a short interview about my favorite foods for local TV and drank tea with a bunch of older women in their yurt. But obviously, I was also excited to visit “Jalal-Abad,” drink kymys in “Naryn,” buy some handicrafts in “Osh,” and pose in front of the Burana Tower in “Chui.” Dang, a busy day hitting all 7 oblasts in just a few hours.
The nature was beautiful, the air was clean, shashlyk (kebab) of all varieties was cooking, military jigits were playing American football, tiny Kyrgyz kids in kalpaks were throwing lassos, men were reciting Manas, boys were walking around with birds of prey of all sizes, the list of amazing things at Kyrchyn goes on and on. Most of the fun was centered at the American Corners yurt, where red-white-and-blue streamers hung next to homemade dream catchers and traditional Kyrgyz felt decorations, and which was host to a group of Native American dancers and the Nomad Cowboys for cultural demonstrations.
As you can imagine, I spent most of the day wandering around, my eyes big with wonder trying to take it all in. I can’t believe this place is so close to my home, and I really hope to go back to see Kyrchyn (even without the yurt village) sometime in the future.
6. Learning a New Game
In elementary school, I played a lot of mancala, but never did I expect that I would play a similar version of the game in an international sporting competition. In preparation for the World Nomad Games, I downloaded two mangala apps on my phone and practiced against myself. (How upsetting when I noticed that I was losing against myself, and how uplifting when someone dear to me reminded me that despite losing to myself, I was still, in a sense, winning.)
The night before my first official game, I played on a mangala board with real korgool pieces (well, not real korgool because that word means sheep dropping; we used little nuts instead) against a real, not-me human player. In that game, I stumbled through picking up and counting the pieces, but quickly learned the parlance (“Start with 5-1 on white,” “4, 6-2 is a good response on D”) and forced myself to have enough patience to count out all possibilities and to think through moves before picking up the pieces. Somehow I turned out to be pretty good at this game, probably thanks to playing mancala as a kid, next up is the more Kyrgyz and more complicated toguz korgool.
5. The Judges of the “Intellectual Games”
The men responsible for judging and ref’ing the “intellectual games,” as mangala and toguz korgool are referred to, were seriously amazing people. On the first night before the competition started, they were so patient with teaching us the rules and showing us the ropes of using a chess timer (note: only click it with the hand you used to make the move). Throughout the competition, Kamchybek Baike, the head ref, and Nurbek Baike, a world champ and technically the coach of the Swiss team, cheered on the Americans and checked on our standings after every match. After every win, I was so excited to tell them my korgool count; after every loss, I went to them immediately for feedback on where I went wrong.
(Plus, they treated all the athletes of toguz korgool and mangala to a free, catered boat cruise on lake Isyk-Kul, so there’s that.)
4. Winning a Medal
What a freaking trip to learn a new strategy game a week before the competition, stumble my way through the individual bracket, then dominate the heck out of the team bracket with my oblast-mate and fellow lady boss Sarah. We took the bronze in team mangala, which required beating teams from Yakutia (far northern Russia), Altai (eastern Siberia), and China. I never expected to win a single game, let alone win a medal. Sarah and I took home 1 of only 4 medals won by American athletes at the WNG, say what?
It was such an amazing feeling to have a medal wrapped around my neck while the US flag hung behind us, and it was an even more amazing feeling to donate the 20,000 som (280 USD) in prize money to a women’s rights organization here in Isyk-Kul.
3. Nerding Out About Language
The World Nomad Games were a dream for a Eurasian language nerd. People from all over the Turkic-speaking world showed up in a tiny town in Kyrgyzstan, where they maybe bothered to toss in some Russian or English, but really just stuck to their sub-branch of the Ural-Altaic language family. And while I tried my best to throw out the random Azeri, Turkish, and Tatar words I know (The one word of Tatar I learned at 15 came in handy and made a bus full of swoll Tatar wrestlers laugh, thanks Aigul!), I also ended up just sticking to Kyrgyz when chatting. There was Kyrgyz to Turkish, Kyrgyz to Azeri, Kyrgyz to Turkmen, Kyrgyz to Kazakh, Kyrgyz to Uzbek – and nobody batted a freaking eye that all this was happening. I’ve definitely been the person who scoffed at the idea that these languages are interchangeable, but for the purposes of WNG they really were perfect substitutes. The World Nomad Games were basically my linguistic heaven.
2. Meeting the Organizers and Volunteers Behind the Event
In the week I spent at the WNG, I met so many talented Kyrgyz youth. The WNG brought in hundreds of volunteers from all over Kyrgyzstan, most finishing high school or starting university; they were responsible for all the grunt work, from picking up 60,000 tons of trash to shuttling around the international athletes who couldn’t speak Kyrgyz or Russian to making sure the logistics of the event actually stayed in place.
This event was one of the best organized I’ve attended in Kyrgyzstan, and one of the best designed events I’ve been to ever. All of it – the branding and concerts and events – was the brainchild of young people in the Kyrgyzstani government. Aibek, a civil servant working for the Ministry of Youth, picked me and a few volunteers up on the side of the road while we waited for a shuttle to the Kyrchyn Ethnovillage. On the ride, we chatted in a mix of English and Kyrgyz about the games, about our time in Kyrgyzstan, and our observations about the country. Aibek seemed so focus on getting our feedback for how to make Kyrgyzstan better, but we kept assuring him that the WNG and the young people responsible for organizing it and making it happen were proof that good things are coming this country’s way.
1. Making Connections with Athletes from Around the World
The Azeri teenager who climbed onto my balcony to say “Selam” after snagging an armful of peaches from the tree growing outside our room; the 6 kids from Yakutia who played Memory with me while waiting for results to come up and asked if I knew Justin Bieber and if I liked water, Game of Thrones, and apples; smiley Ainur, the coach of the Kazakh team, who winked and said “I don’t know how to play well!” when I asked for advice on strategy; the entirety of the Pakistani team, especially the tech genius who unfortunately fell ill with food poisoning the night before toguz korgool started and so got DQd; Trevor from Antigua, who invited us all to a waorri competition in 2018; the woman from Bashkorostan who let me wear her traditional headdress and surprised me with her bright blonde hair; the US mas-wrestlers who thought it was hilarious that mas in Kyrgyz means “drunk”; the Brazilian team leader, who never took off his sunglasses or suit the whole 7 days of the WNG and who laughed at my attempted Portuguese; Oscar from Colombia who always wore white on white and danced so adorably at the closing ceremony; Atilla, the Kyrgyz-Turk who was patient with my rusty Turkish and had the best headwear of all the athletes; the trio of super hip Kyrgyz boys who kept the intellectual games room in shape; the Tajik guy who at once pushed a lot of buttons and yet also was so respectful of our boundaries, and who said the most beautiful things about living together in peace and friendship.
Literally the list goes on and on, because I came across so many people from so many regions of the world, who spoke so many different languages (but made it work in some combination of English-generic Turkic-Russian) and who gave the WNG such a fantastic atmosphere.
Peace Corps trains us to blend in, to avoid being too flashy about our citizenship, so it was really strange to be plastered in American flags and “USA” all over my body for a week. I was nervous for negative attention, especially hanging around Team Iran or Team Afghanistan or Team Pakistan because #politics. But it was so refreshing and really inspiring to see . In his speech at the opening ceremony, President Atambaev complained that sports have become too political, an apt observation after this summer’s Olympics in Rio; he praised the World Nomad Games as a way for people to come together above politics, and I think that ended up being really true.