The first time I heard about Kyrgyzstan as anything more than a trivia question was in 2016 during the World Nomad Games. It was a global celebration of traditional culture and sport amongst the world’s nomadic peoples and it was held in Kyrgyzstan near Lake Issyk-Kul. I was so captivated by it because everything seemed so strange, so alien. Wrestling on horseback, eagle hunting and yes, even dead goat polo were all featured in the news stories at the time. It captivated my imagination, as it must have for millions around the world, and from that moment on Kyrgyzstan was firmly on my travel radar. So when I had an opportunity to visit this Central Asian country and experience it for myself, I couldn’t say no. There were many highlights during my time in the country, but what I enjoyed perhaps the most was a truncated version of the World Nomad Games, a special ethno-festival on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul where I learned more than I ever imagined about traditional culture in Kyrgyzstan.
The countries of Central Asia have very unique cultural traditions that span centuries. Before the Great Game of the 19th century when the British and Russians vied for control of this always-important part of the world, those traditions were like the people who lived there, fluid. National boundaries didn’t exist in the same way they do today, this was the land of nomadic peoples. While no longer nomadic, well mostly, those traditions may no longer be essential for day to day living, but they form the heart of the cultural identity of people not only in Kyrgyzstan, but throughout Central Asia. It’s evident in Kyrgyzstan though as soon as you arrive into the capital city of Bishkek and see the national flag. There emblazoned on it is the tunduk, the frame forming a ventilation hole in the rook of a yurt, the traditional dwelling of the nomadic Kyrgyz. So important is the yurt and its meaning that it is the emblem of the country, featured prominently on its national standard. That’s a powerful image with a deep meaning, and knowing this I was excited for a crash course into everything Kyrgyzstan during the daylong Ethno-Fest on the South Shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.
I got there early, but in my defense I arrive everywhere too early. Although the forecast had threatened rain, I could tell the day would be anything but wet. In fact, the heat already radiating early in the morning promised a scorcher. I wasn’t the first one at the festival site though, perched on a cliff overlooking the massive inland sea. Already folks from around the region were there, setting up, preparing food and anticipating who might attend the event. I’m not sure if this was the first such festival in the country, but it’s not something the nascent tourism industry had put together very often and no one knew for sure whether or not people would show up. It’s courageous really to put oneself out there like that, but regional organizers saw the success of last year’s World Nomad Games and felt that there would be interest. And they were right. Before long visitors from all walks of life entered the compound, locals who wanted to enjoy a fun day out but also more tourists than anyone had originally anticipated. They came from all over, Bishkek, Karakol and locally from Lake Issky-Kul, and the message was clear, foreign tourists desperately want to learn more about traditional life in Kyrgyzstan and I was right there with them.
To recapture the magic that was the entire day would be impossible, because it was definitely a long day outside. Instead I want to share some favorite moments, experiences at the festival that I think encapsulate what made it so very special, starting with the oftentimes bizarre but always fun to watch sporting events. Selecting some of the more popular events from the World Nomad Games, the sporting exhibitions at the ethno-fest were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. That’s because the nomadic sports draw upon those centuries of traditional living, when leisure activities always had a basis in essential skills needed to survive. The most popular event at the 2017 festival was also the one that was splashed in newspapers around the world in 2016, dead goat polo. Otherwise known as Kok Boru, this very unusual activity started as a way to practice for raids on neighboring villages, but today is a fun and important aspect of the Kyrgyz nomadic identity. It’s actually a lot like watching a soccer match, two teams square off and try to capture the dead goat and take it to their goal on the opposite end of the field. Played on horseback, this is an intense sport to watch and for the riders a dangerous one. It’s also oddly enjoyable as a spectator and I quickly found myself cheering on my favorite team.
The events though weren’t about sensationalizing these experiences; they’re a real and honest reflection of traditional life in Kyrgyzstan. Nomadic life isn’t easy and neither are the sports, from dead goat polo to wrestling on horseback and beautiful exhibitions of archery and falconry. All of the events were intense, but also a lot of fun not just to watch but also participate in. During the tug of war battles, spectators were invited to join in on the teams, and the hilarity that ensued was just as much fun to watch as it must have been to do. More than just comic relief though, it was immersive and all of us there visiting from around the world instantly felt welcome, we felt at home and we all walked away with a better understanding of this beautiful country.
There were many more passive events though that added to both the educational and entertainment value of devoting the day outdoors. Traditional music, arts and crafts and of course food were all highlights. Throughout my time in Kyrgyzstan, food played a starring role and, thankfully, I loved almost everything I tried. At the festival the star of the culinary show was a dish I had come to love, plov. My Kyrgyz friends may not like to hear this, but plov is actually an important dish throughout Central Asia, and forms the basis of the diets for millions of people. It’s also a simple but hearty dish made from meat that is fried, boiled and steamed with yellow carrots, spices, garlic and then cooked rice. Served as a concoction, it’s tasty and definitely filling.
One of the capstone events at the festival was an impressive speed race to build a yurt in the quickest time. The yurt building in particular was important since this simple dwelling is so central to the traditional image of Kyrgyzstan. Yurts are far from being specific to only Kyrgyzstan, nearly all of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia have their own versions. But in Kyrgyzstan the importance of this abode has been retained instead of forgotten. While for most Kyrgz, the days of living in the foothills of a mountain pass in a yurt are long gone, the yurts offer an important link to the past. Many people have yurts they keep in particularly picturesque places where they spend warm summer weekends, a peaceful getaway from hectic city life. Staying in a yurt is a festive occasion, which is why I was so excited for my own yurt experience.
Living the Life
I’m not a camper by nature and roughing it for me usually entails a hotel without AC, but I think it’s practically criminal for any traveler to visit Kyrgyzstan and NOT spend at least one night in a yurt. The people in this part of the world were nomadic for most of their history and at the center of that existence was their home, the yurt. Even Kyrgyzstan’s flag pays homage to this history with the design at the center of the yurt featured prominently on the national standard. For me though, spending the night along the pristine waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, listening to the waves lap up on shore as I slept in my yurt was just something I needed to do. I’d spent the week prior learning everything I could about this amazing country, but I needed that time getting closer to it in this very unique way so that I could walk away not just knowing, but understanding.
Attending the ethno-fest was one of the last experiences I enjoyed while visiting Kyrgyzstan and I couldn’t have planned a better way to wrap up my time in the country. It synthesized everything I had learned and observed about the country in one neat package, while surprising me at the same time. Almost more importantly though, it was fun. Watching locals attending with their families, I couldn’t find a single person without a smile on their face. The day was about continuing centuries old traditions and a shared sense of community, but it was also about reveling in that community. Ultimately, that’s what those national symbols in Kyrgyzstan are really all about. The sports, the yurts, the food, they all point towards the incredible importance of a network of family and friends, networks that thankfully still exist today and have been expanded to include curious visitors like myself.