Games Nomads Play

Kok-boru wasn’t the only thing going on at the World Nomad Games. The horse events and wrestling events were held in the village of Cholpon-Ata, but up and away in the Kyrchyn Valley, a “jailoo” (summer pasture at a higher elevation,) were the “Ethno-bazaar” and other nomad competitions of skill. Visitors had to ride a “marshutska,” a white minibus with about twenty seats plus standing room, to get there from Cholpon-Ata.

Kyrchyn Valley is a broad valley, a really large grassy area, surrounded by mountains. A couple of creeks run through it, and one road. Hundreds of yurts had been set up across the grassy area. Many of them were there to house the participants and workers, a significant number were there as family residences, and a few were being used to house national displays.

Kyrgyzstan had a national display – a yurt furnished in the traditional way, offering tea and a variety of fruits and pastries, along with a couple of people in traditional costume to welcome visitors and answer questions.

The USA had a large exhibit. There was a yurt in which they were showing a continuously-looping film about the USA and serving popcorn! There were three shelters outside, displaying the resources available to the Kyrgyz through the U.S. Embassy – free English lessons, for instance. A half-scale tipi was set up, and the Embassy workers were handing out straw cowboy hats with a blue or red star on them. There was a basketball hoop and backboard set up with a basketball, and a pile of football helmets to try on – the Seattle Seahawks and the NY Giants, my favorite two teams in the NFL! They were not real helmets – they were child-sized – but that didn’t prevent some pretty big “kids” from trying them on. The display was a hit, and you can be proud of the effort our Kyrgyzstan embassy is making to create a good impression. (The two guys – very nice – in the British yurt with their pot of tea and cardboard cut-out of a Palace Guard tried hard not to whine with envy.)

From the Middle East were the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. The Omani were recognizable by their “dish dasha,” the long robe that is the traditional dress, and their “muzza,” the head scarf wrapped in a turban-like style. These are worn by most men in Oman still today. The Omani contingent performed a Bedouin chant, accompanied by a variety of drums, drumsticks, and handheld drums (large tambourines minus the metal pieces.)

Arabs from the UAE and Saudi Arabia were wearing their white robes and the red and white keyeffah headscarf or the black and white version. The Arab states served traditional food, both hot and cold, and tea. Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol or eat pork.

There were Kyrgyz were selling rides on their horses, yaks, and two-humped camels, and selling food, soft drinks, tea, water, toys, and souvenirs. The favorite food stand was the one selling grilled steaks. They couldn’t cook them fast enough, and they were really, really good.

The program for the day consisted of Ordu in the two tents at the very end of the field, hunting events, and archery. Ordu is a game of strategy played with pieces of vertebrae marked to distinguish their ownership, and rocks which are used to move or displace your opponent’s pieces. It can be played with two or more players, and they can form teams if there are enough players. The idea is to attack your opponent’s pieces in such a way as to eliminate them from the playing field, and winning when they are all eliminated.

Outside on the grassy field was the hunting competition with the Golden Eagles! They are gorgeous birds, slightly smaller than a full-grown Bald Eagle, with golden-brownish feathers. The hunting competition was structured so that, by turns, each handler placed their bird on a stand at one end of the field. A few yards ahead, there was a line across the flight line where a man stood with a light blue flag – this was where the timing started. To start, the handler took the eagle onto their arm and then sent it into the air. Each bird had this short distance to get into the air, so to speak, and when they flew across the line, the man waved the flag and the timing started. The eagles were supposed to follow a fox skin that was dragged by a length of rope from a horse and rider, who dragged it to the other end of the field until the eagle touched it or crossed another line at the end of the field. As a spectator, I sat with others on the hillside that rose above the field.

I was surprised to find that the USA had a representative in this event, too. The American was the first participant and had one of the fastest times, 10.2 seconds. One of the Kazakhstan entrants set his eagle into the air, and then watched as it went higher, circled around the field, and then flew off in the direction of the road, where it landed, fortunately on the side and not in the traffic’s path. The poor guy. It turned out he was not the only one whose bird went astray, but it was the first and most amusing example. There was one woman participant from Kazakhstan, and the USA was the only “non-nomad” entrant.

The hunting with eagles was followed by hunting dogs. The dogs were Afghan hounds, Borshoi hounds, and an Irish wolfhound. The Borshoi hounds were managed by a Russian team, but I did not see any USA entrants in this event. The competition was laid out very much like the eagle hunting – a start, chasing after a lure, and a finish line. There were not a lot of entrants and it was, frankly, not very exciting.

The archery events took some time to set up, and I continued to watch from the hillside. There was a USA entrant, but the shooting and scoring process was such that I never caught up with how the entrants scored. The archers fired several times from standing and kneeling positions, and the targets were scored after each round, so getting through the hundred or so archers took some time.

I watched the archers practice for the horseback archery event from the very same hillside, but I moved higher on the hill after I saw that the targets were placed in front of the hillside….

There were three targets spaced along the path where the horses would run. The path was several feet wide, but riders were penalized if their horse strayed beyond the boundaries. Riders had to manage the horses with their legs, since shooting the arrows required both hands. Riders changed horses between rounds. This placed the emphasis on the shooting, eliminating any advantage from a familiar horse. The targets were placed so that the riders would take three types of shots: approaching the first target, even with the second target, and a backward-looking shot at the third target, before finishing the run a few yards beyond.

The archers had a wide range of skill in this event, so I was glad that I had moved higher, although no spectators were wounded by the few stray arrows. The Kyrgyz and the Kazakh archers were best at this event, which surprised no one. The Turks and the Russians made a decent showing. There was no USA entrant here.

It was, all in all, a colorful day, but by the time the clouds were rolling in, I was ready to call it a day and return by marshuktra to Cholpon-ata.

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