fitness · traveling

The World Nomad Games: headless goat polo for the win

These bright, quilt-like images are from cloth decorating the outside of yurts in Kyrgyzstan

Now I’ve seen everything.

I mean, I really have.

I have been privileged enough to travel a lot — closing in on 60 countries, with some truly amazing and magical and rare experiences.  I’ve seen wild jaguars and polar bears and the Sahara and the himalayas.  I’ve kissed a wild grey whale on the head.  But one place I’d never been was Central Asia. And when two of my good friends moved to Kyrgyzstan for a year, I thought it was a great chance to see it.  And then Bo said “come for the world nomad games!”

“Okay!” I said.  Then:  “what the heck are the world nomad games?”

Basically, the world nomad games were started about six years ago (the one this September was the third event) to revive some of the traditional sports of nomadic peoples, especially in Central Asia.  The NYT did a great piece with some fantastic photos on its history last month:

The sports are the sort of things that whisper around the edges of your dreams — familiar events like wrestling and arm wrestling and archery, but then veering into the mythic, like hunting with eagles and dogs, on horseback and on feet, a sort of bocce-like game involving tossing bones and — most spectacularly — kok boru.  Kok boru can be looked at as the “hockey” of the world nomad games — but this is hockey that includes these rules:

The teams will play semi-final and final games. If there is a draw during the regular time, the teams will play an extra period. During the extra period there is a golden carcass rule. If the teams play with an even score, they have a shoot-out.

According to the results of Kok Boru, the Great Kok Boru Player and the Great Kok Boru Horse will be determined. The Great Kok Boru Player will be determined based on the largest number of carcasses. 

Yes, that says carcasses.  Kok boru is basically polo on horseback, where the “ball” is a headless sheep or goat carcass.  The field is big, and there is a lot of tugging and wrestling and yanking the carcass by the legs, culminating — for the skilled — in hurling an obviously heavy, unwieldy carcass into a “well” that looks like a huge dog dish.

It’s riveting.

There’s a reason the World Nomad Games immediately became a hit six years ago:  this is primal, numinous competition — written on the souls of centuries of life where people are entwined with the land, with horses, with other creatures.

The games were on the banks of Lake Issyk Kul in northern Kyrgyzstan, a pilgrimage from Bishkek in itself — we stayed in a yurt camp on the way, and I slept better than I ever have.

The opening ceremonies were in Kyrgyz without translation, but the narrative was clear:  first there was the land, and then there were people, and then there were horses, and then people forged metal and they became one with the horses, and the world as we know it began.

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Even without words, the opening ceremonies were incredibly moving.  And I didn’t expect that the parade of nations would include more than 80 countries — including a Hungarian team in full medieval battle armour, a kok-boru team from Wyoming, and a small contingent from Canada.

 

The Canadians walked under the Canadian flag in the opening ceremonies, but when they showed up on the archery field, they waved a Mohawk flag.  Which made sense to me.  But when I talked to them, they seemed to be perhaps one indigenous person from Canada and a collection of Hungarian-Canadians, supported by private funds from another European country).  Somehow all of this seemed very… Canadian.

The people in the hotel room next to us — a French couple now running a hotel in Uzbekistan — told me later that during the opening ceremonies, they were moved by the adjacency of the Iranians and Israelis, the Syrians and the Russians, the possibilities of human connection that surpasses the idiocies of politics that always seem to open up on a sports field.  I had my own moment of that watching an Iranian woman and an American woman arm wrestling.

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My photos aren’t great — I only had my phone — but that one illustrates the best part about these games — the intimacy.  Apart from the opening ceremonies, there were no tickets for the games — you just show up and if there is room, you have a seat.  With the arm wrestling, I was able to worm my way right to the front of stage.  (And, by the way — arm wrestling is shockingly compelling — the women try to psych each other out and defeats are quick, within 20 seconds usually; the men can get locked in mutual battle for long, intense minutes, the victor often falling to the ground with the effort).

Half of the events were at the hippodrome on the shores of the lake, and the rest were in a valley about an hour away.   It was transporting — half broad open plain, archery and hunting with dogs and eagles, and on the other side, a cultural village filled with people demonstrating the crafts and food and dance and openness of centuries.

That intimacy showed up again — we were able to scootch right in between the people throwing bones and the hunters, close enough to touch eagles, catch the breath of the hunting dogs as they ran off from their handlers, meet the only female eagle hunter, who put down her big heavy purse for five minutes to compete, then picked it up again.  She’s not the same one as the subject of the documentary people have told me about — that woman is younger — and I don’t know this woman’s story, but I do know her face, and I know her confidence in this field of men.

 

My friend J loved the cultural village most of all, incredibly drawn to the women.  It was in this village that I danced the dance of the land I was in that I wrote about a few weeks ago, and where we got to see people truly, deeply revelling in cultural practices that could have been blotted out by centuries of occupation.

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We only had three days at the actual games — I had to come back to Canada and my friend I was traveling with went on to India and other adventures.  But we all wanted to spend days watching kokboru, wandering among the women in the cultural pavilion, watching the archers dozing between their sets.  Everything felt timeless, like time was stretched, like the earth had opened up to offer us a time when everything seemed possible.

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Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who blogs here two or three times a month. Here she is after breakfast in a yurt camp in northern Kyrgyzstan.

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