World Nomad Games: One of the Coolest Events on the Planet

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I knew I was in for something special within minutes of attending the World Nomad Games And that was before the headless goats or the warm yak’s milk……

I’ll get back to the headless goats and the yak’s milk, but first, a bit about the World Nomad Games, because if you’re like me, you haven’t heard of them.

What Are the World Nomad Games?

The official mission of the World Nomad Games is to: revive and preserve revival the historical-cultural heritage of the nomadic people’s civilization of the world.

I’d say that’s pretty spot on. After attending the cultural and sporting events, I realized how little I knew about nomadic culture. Four dates later, I left with my eyes open to a whole new world.

The games have four different themes:  martial arts and wrestling, horse racing and events, cultural events and intellectual games.

Are the World Nomad Games Similar to the Olympics?

The sporting results appear to be similar to the Olympics on the surface. Athletes come from across the world to compete for their countries. In 2016, a whopping 1200 participants came from 40 different countries. Not bad, considering that this was only the second time the event was held!

But a quick look at the event schedule and you quickly realize that unlike the Olympics, you’ll  hardly recognize any of the events. Mas-wrestling? Kok-Boru? Yurt judging? And that’s exactly what makes the World Nomadic Games so special.

You'll find over 200 yurts at the World Nomad Games.
One of 200+ yurts at the World Nomad Games

Which Countries Participate in the World Nomad Games?

Participants are mainly from Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet Republics. But they also come from Mongolia, Turkey, China. Even less obvious countries like Germany and Benin in West Africa take part. Athletes welcome the chance to compete in their sport of which there are few opportunities on a global scale. I spoke to two German participants who were competing in the archery competition. They spoke mostly about the camaraderie between competitors.

Germany had representatives at the 2016 World Nomad Games competing in archery.
40 countries participated in the 2016 games, including countries like Germany.

Where and When are the World Nomad Games Held?

The games are held on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kuk in Kyrgyzstan. They’re held every two years in September. The next one will take place in 2018.

Highlights of the World Nomad Games

I had so many highlights of the World Nomad Games. As a result,  I’ve broken them down into the following categories: Opening Ceremonies, Cultural Highlights, and Sporting Highlights. It will really give you a feel for why I think the World Nomad Games are truly one of the coolest events on the planet.

Opening Ceremony Highlights of the World Nomad Games

The Opening Ceremony was a spectacular show featuring dancing, singing, horsemanship like I’ve never seen before anywhere and the participants coming on stage. Wrapping it up was a dramatic fireworks display. It was similar to an Opening Ceremony at the Olympics but with its own cultural relevant twists.

If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d want to be here, proclaimed the announcer at the Opening Games. The crowd went wild. Khan was the Founder and Emperor of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. He united many of the nomadic tribes that conquered most of Eurasia. Genghis Kahn is a legend in Kyrgyzstan.

It was one of the first differences I realized about the games – nomadic cultures, of course, have their own heroes. That’s why I was shocked when they introduced the guest of honor, Steven Seagal dressed in Kyrgyz khan armor. In the west, it’s thought that his best days are behind him. Here he’s revered, judging from the crowd’s thunderous applause.  Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

World Nomad Games Opening Ceremony.
The Opening Ceremonies were a feast for the senses. I especially loved the performances by the horsemen.
Fireworks at the World Nomad Games.
The Opening Ceremony ended in a dramatic fireworks display.

Cultural Highlights of the World Nomad Games

Cultural Performances
There were multiple cultural performances. These involved the participants wearing traditional clothing, singing, dancing and stunts on horses. There was so much going on, it was hard to know where to look. And it was captivating.

You'll find dance performances at the World Nomad Games.

Cultural performance at the World Nomad Games

Participants wearing traditional Nomadic clothing at the World Nomad Games

Horsemen performing at the World Nomad Games
The performances by the horsemen were a highlight.

The Setting for the Cultural and Hunting Events

You couldn’t ask for a more gorgeous setting than Kyrchyn Jailoo. It’s a summer pasture, used by nomadic people for their animals. Here, there was an ethnic-village set up of 9 settlements totaling over 200 yurts representing each of the Kyrgyzstan seven regions. In addition,  Bishkek and Osh, the largest cities in the country also had settlements.

The World Nomad Games cultural and hunting events took place in Kyrchyn Jailoo.
Kyrchyn Jailoo is where the cultural and hunting events took place.

Meeting the Welcoming Kyrgyz People and the World Nomad Games Participants

Kyrgyz people are incredibly welcoming, inviting you into their yurts for cookies and warm yak milk.

If I had to choose just my top highlight of the games, it would be meeting the inspiring Zura, an inspiring Kyrgyz woman spouting with wisdom.

She invited Nellie from Wild Junket and me into her tent and chatted with us for over 30 minutes. Zura is an important figure in her village in the eastern province of Naryn. She holds degrees in law, medicine, and teaching. As a result, I felt wiser just being in her presence. One of my favorite quotes from her was:

Young women can wear whatever they want to look beautiful. Older women can’t. They have wrinkles, extra fat, etc. They need to wear traditional clothing to help them look beautiful.

At 64, she is beautiful in both body and spirit.

World nomad games
Zura is an inspiring Kyrgyz women and a leader in her village in the eastern province of Naryn.


If you're invited inside a yurt you will be offered something to eat and drink.
I received a warm welcome from Zura and her yurt companions.


A Kyrgyz woman in traditional nomadic clothing inside her yurt.
Zura inside her yurt.

I also met with one of the talented horsemen – or should I say, horsewoman. In Kyrgyzstan it’s not just the men who are athletic, the women are also kick-a**. I chatted with this rider who at just 17 has made a name for herself. She only really learned to ride a year ago when she joined the circus following in the footsteps of her sister. Her father is very proud of her. Horsemanship is something that Kyrgyz people take extreme pride in.

Female riders at the World Nomad Games.
Two of the talented riders that I had the pleasure of speaking with

One of the most interesting yurts that I had the pleasure of visiting, was a musician’s tent.  I took part in an impromptu jam session…in a yurt on a Monday morning! Such a great way, and definitely one of the most unusual ways that I’ve ever started off my week.

Travel tip: Yurt etiquette requires that men sit on the left, women sit on the right.

Impromptu jam session inside a musician's yurt.
Jamming with musicians inside their yurt.

I also loved the marketplace where visitors can watch traditional handicrafts being made and of course buy.

A Kyrgyz woman wearing traditional nomadic clothing checking her mobile phone.
Kyrgyz people have a foot in the nomadic world, but also the modern one.
A practice singing performance at the World Nomad Games
A boy practising for a singing competition.

World Nomad Games Post

People wearing traditional nomadic clothing

Another highlight was meeting a camel shepherd. Like many Kyrgyz people, he is semi-nomadic. He lives in the city during the winter months working as a chef. In summer, he is nomadic following his camel herd. Find out more about Camels in Kyrgyzstan.

Camels at the World Nomad Games
While camels aren’t overly popular in Kyrgyzstan, some Kyrgyz work as camel shepherds.
Kyrgyz woman on her mobile phone while weaving at the World Nomad Games
Many Kyrgyz have a mix of traditional and modern lifestyle.
In the gorgeous setting of Kyrchyn Jailoo a Kyrgyz woman weaves.
Kyrgyz woman weaving at the World Nomad Games

Also at Kyrchyn Jailoo were Salbuurun – Traditional Kyrgyz Hunting.

Hunting birds such as falcons, hawks, and eagles have long played an important rule in obtaining food. In the simulated events, the birds catch a pelt dragged along by a horse. The fastest one wins. I have very mixed feelings about this practice, which I’ll explore further in another post. In a nutshell, the training is very harsh on the birds. On the other hand, the falconers develop a strong relationship and even a spiritual bond with their birds. I loved watching the falconers below connect with their birds.

Falconer and his bird at the World Nomad Games
I loved watching this falconer interact with his bird.
Falconer reassuring his bird at the World Nomad Games.
This falconer also appeared to have a close relationship with his bird.

Another Kyrgyz tradition is hunting with Taiga dogs. Taigan is a breed of dogs from Kyrgyzstan that are a source of national pride! They make excellent hunting dogs and can hunt at elevations up to 3000 meters. As such they’ve earned the nickname King of the Mountains. The competition at the World Nomad Games involves a simulated hunt.


Taigan are a breed of dogs from Kyrgyzstan that are a source of national pride! They make excellent hunting dogs and can hunt at elevations up to 3000 metres earning them the nickname "King of the Mountains"
Taiga dogs are an important hunting dog in Kyrgyzstand referred to as the “King of the Mountains”
A falconer and his bird after it successfully captures its "prey" at the World Nomad Games.
A bird successfully captures its “prey”.

Sporting Highlights of the World Nomad Games

While I’m not a fan of wrestling – I don’t like to see people hurting each other, I was a fan of Mas-wrestling at the World Nomad Games. Here’s how it works: opponents sit sole-to-sole on either side of a wooden barrier. The goal is to get your opponent on your side while still hanging onto the stick and keeping it parallel. Whoever gets the stick over to their side first wins. It’s an incredible display of strength!

A Mas-wrestler at the World Nomad Games
Mas-wrestler concentrating on his performance
One of the sports at the World Nomad Games is Mas-wrestling.
Mas-wrestling requires a lot of strength.

World Nomad Games Post

Finally, we have Kok-Boru, the iconic game in Central Asia.

It’s what hockey is to Canadians, what football (soccer) is to most of Europe and what baseball is to Americans.

Imagine it to be like polo, only in place of a ball, a headless goat or sheep. The aim is to get the goat or sheep into your goal. Whoever has the most goals at the end of the game wins. It’s not a game for the faint of heart. The sport is dangerous for the players to shift their weight, to try to pick up the goat or sheep weighing ~ 80 pounds. That’s all while riding a horse and fending off your opponents.

In Kyrgyz nomadic culture, slaughtered animals mark auspicious occasions, such as weddings, birthdays or religious events. It’s no different in Kok-Boru. The revered prize is the animal which the winning team will eat. I can imagine that it would be very tasty. After all, it’s well tenderized after being fought over.

The last match was epic, Kyrgyzstan versus Kazakhstan.

The national sport of Kyrgyzstan is Kok-boru, similar to polo, but played with a decapitated goat or sheep.
Two Kazakhstan players strategize while playing Kok-boru.
In Kok-boru a point is scored when the goat or sheep is thrown into the goal.
Kyrgyzstan scoring a point in a game of Kok-boru
The World Nomad Games 2016 Kok-boru final.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan played the last game of Kok-Boru at the World Nomad Games 2016 ,
Kyrgyzstan was the Kok-boru champions the 2016 World Nomad Games was
Kyrgyzstan emerged the victors to a crowd of 10,000 screaming fans.

Fortunately, Kyrgyzstan won this important game – national pride was at stake!

It’s enthralling watching new sports that you’ve never heard of but certainly won’t forget. I have a new-found respect for the athleticism this game requires. Both of the Kok-Boru players and their horses.  But my favorite part was learning about the nomadic culture. Actually interacting with Kyrgyz people like Zura while sipping yak milk in their yurt is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

The diversity in activities and events at the World Nomad Games is absolutely incredible.

You'll find 200 yurts at the ethno-village at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan.

Note: My trip was organized in cooperation with Discover Kyrgyzstan, and made possible by the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). All opinions are my own.