The spirit of the World Games of Nomads could be felt even in Astana’s international airport. The joy and excitement of participants was contagious, spreading to everyone onboard the flight from Astana to Bishkek.
Ulan Z. Bigozhin
Ulan Z. Bigozhin received his PhD in Anthropology from Indiana University-Bloomington in Spring 2017. His primary research interests are religion, nationalism, patrimonial relations, and state-building in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, with a focus on how religion (the veneration of Kazakh Muslim sacred places) is involved in state- and nation-building processes at the grassroots level. Ulan’s current focus is the reinstitution of horse games (kokpar) in contemporary Central Asia in the context of nation- and identity-building.
It was September 1, and I was leaving the Kazakhstani capital to observe the 3rd World Games of Nomads (WGN), held between September 2 and September 8, 2018 in Cholpon Ata, Kyrgyzstan.
Observing the WGN was part of my project looking at the reconstitution of a traditional Central Asian horse game known as kokpar (variations of the name include kok bory, ulaq tartysh, kupkari, and buzkashi), or goat polo.
My fellow passengers included people of all different nationalities and backgrounds: an American cowboy from Wyoming, a French equestrian, and many others. All were en route to Cholpon Ata to take part in this dangerous yet attractive game. In fact, this was the first time that a French delegation had ever participated in the WGN, and the game was expected to be a serious test of their riding skills.
The atmosphere was equally buoyant at Manas airport in Bishkek, where guests disembarking from the plane were met by colorful posters emblazoned with WGN slogans. Numerous Kyrgyzstani volunteers garbed in red tracksuits—red being the color of the national flag—assisted visitors.
As this attention would suggest, WGN is an important event for Kyrgyzstan and its people, a way to demonstrate their national pride and identity. The charm of imagined and reconstructed Central Asian nomadic culture is quite attractive to locals, and a sense of orientalism and post-Soviet nationalism was clearly in the air.
Also heading to Cholpon Ata for the opening ceremony of the WGN were Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The added security laid on for these leaders meant that the streets of Bishkek were crowded with police, with the result that it took some time to get to the hippodrome where the WGN was being held.
The Games kicked off with the opening ceremony, a play based on widespread Central Asian myths and legends, albeit visibly infused with Western New Age ideas. Its main theme was the birth of the nomadic people and their horses; it also detailed the birth of the all-Kyrgyz hero Manas and his victory over the forces of evil. The air was filled with ethnic music, dancers performed, and horse riders demonstrated impressive acrobatic feats on the backs of galloping horses. The ceremony wrapped up with the parade of delegations, which included representatives of around sixty countries garbed in bright clothing.
The central figures of the WGN festival are horse and rider.
For centuries, the horse has been a symbolic figure in the folklore, religious beliefs, customs, and rituals of Eurasia’s nomads—and to this day, it is one of the main forms of transport in some parts of the region. The importance of the horse to these cultures is borne out in artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age that show the horse as the friend of the nomadic warrior, a magnificent creature who accompanied him into battle, fought alongside him, and ultimately died with him. After death, horse and rider were buried together in the mountains (kurgans) that extend across the Eurasian steppe. Thus, you might say that the WGN is a paean of praise to the horse.
Both before and after the ceremony, the small city of Cholpon Ata, located on the coast of the beautiful Issyk Kul lake, was crowded with visitors. They included Hungarian riders in their medieval armor; Bulgarian archers with their bows; and Mongol, Bashkir, and Kalmyk horse riders in their colorful traditional dress. In addition to participants, there were hundreds of tourists, who took selfies near decorated yurts and even with Kyrgyz elders wearing colorful national dress.
If many guests were interested in visiting the ethnic village (aul) of Qyrchyn, 40 kilometers away, I was interested in kok bory.
Kok bory is the crown jewel among the sports contested at the WGN, which include wrestling, mounted archery, and more. This year, there were kok bory teams from countries as diverse as France, Mongolia, Afghanistan, the US, and Russia. Russia actually sent three teams: two teams (from Moscow and Krasnoyarsk) comprised of ethnic Kyrgyz who are now Russian citizens and a third team of Bashkirs, a Turkic-speaking people from the Urals.
On the streets of Cholpon Ata, it is easy to spot the kok bory players. They are tough-looking young men with rough, sunburned faces—the faces of people who spend most of their time on the open range. Many, although not all, players are obviously strong, having built up muscle through endless kok bory battles for the goat carcass on the backs of galloping horses. They walk the streets in tracksuits bearing their national emblems and wait for the games to begin.
The two main rivals in the sport of kok bory, anyone who is familiar with the game would tell you, are Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (Yet Kazakh team lost to Uzbek team in a semifinal match on September 6). Over the past decade, it is these two teams which have most often contested the final. As one Kyrgyz elder told me during a kok bory match between France and Bashkortostan, “We are waiting to see a good game, good kok bory, everyone knows that the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz can show it.” It is quite amazing to see how important kok bory is for hundreds of rural Central Asians!
I spent the first day of the Games with the Mongolian team, which hails from the Kazakh-populated Baiyan Ulgi area. This young team, which was just starting to play a team form of kokpar, had its first game against the WGN kok bory favorites, the Kyrgyzstani team. The team from Baiyan Ulgi could not hold up in the face of their experienced rivals’ energy, courage, and power. They were also limited by the fact that they—unlike their Kyrgyzstani counterparts—had been unable to bring their own trained horses. Nevertheless, these young men, who made the four-day journey from their homeland by car, demonstrated unbelievable strength of spirit and character. In the middle of the match, when the Mongolian team was already behind, one of the referees told Baiyan Ulgi players,“Hey, zhigitter, just play, just enjoy. It’s kok bory.”
Yes, many of today’s Central Asians are no longer nomads.
The dramatic, often tragic evolution of history over the course of the twentieth century meant that the traditional lifestyle of the steppe people drastically changed. But when you look at all these young men and women, at these beautifully decorated felt yurts, at these horses with ornamented saddles, at these brave young people who are playing kok bory, you can almost feel that that the nomads are still here, the kurgans are still on the steppe, the horses are already saddled, and tomorrow will bring a new game of kok bory!