The World Nomad Games are an incredible event held every two years in Kyrgyzstan that celebrates nomadic culture. It’s one of the most amazing events I’ve ever attended, but also one of the most chaotic.
Read on to find out how to the get most from your time at the World Nomad Games.
1. Start by reading my detailed post The World Nomad Games: One of the Coolest Events On the Planet.
It explains what the games are all about and what you can expect. If it sounds appealing, and I’m sure that it will, come back here so that you can start planning your trip. The next event takes place in Sept. 2018.
2. The World Nomad Games revolve around four different themes. Try to attend at least three of them. You’ll find martial arts and wrestling, horse racing and the national sport Kok-boru, cultural events and intellectual games. I attended the first three but didn’t make it to the intellectual games. They involve watching participants play traditional board games like Toguz korgol. Just as there are world chess championship games, there are also Toguz korgol championships.
3. If you were only to watch one event, let it be Kok-boru, the national game of Kyrgyzstan. Similar to polo, but with a dead goat or sheep. Think of what hockey is to Canadians, what baseball is to Americans and what football is for most of Europe and you’ll get the idea of how important it is. It’s easy enough to follow, even if you don’t know all the rules. But be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart. There will be lots of tense, nail-biting moments. Players and horses do get injured on occasion.
4. Plan for at least two days at Kyrchyn Jailoo. This summer pasture located ~ 40km east of Cholpon-Alta is where you’ll find the cultural, hunting and archery events. There’s so much to choose from ranging from yurt to storytelling competitions, to cultural performances. The events at Kyrchyn were my favourite part of the World Nomad Games.
5. Connect with the volunteers at Kyrchyn Jailoo. One of the reasons I loved this part of the games so much is that you had the chance to connect with locals. They would invite you into their yurts and offer you yaks milk, along with something to eat. Many of the locals we met didn’t speak English. Fortunately, there are lots of English-speaking local volunteers who can assist. Meeting Zuru was one of the highlights of the entire games. How can you not love someone who offers wisdom such as 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.
One of my other highlights was talking with a Camel Sheppard and learning about the life of a Camel Sheppard in Kyrgyzstan. Neither of these encounters would have been possible without a local to interpret, so don’t be shy. The local volunteers I met were all friendly, eager to help and welcomed the chance to practice their English. The World Nomad Games has done an exceptional job of providing a lot of volunteers at Kyrchyn Jailoo.
6. Allow plenty of time to get to Kyrchyn Jailoo. The easiest way to get there is to take one of the shuttle buses. Be sure you allow plenty of time if you want to catch a particular event, as it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to almost 2 hours if there are traffic jams. Don’t let this dissuade you, though; I LOVED my time at Kyrchyn. The journey is 100% worth the trip.
7. Use a dropped pin to mark the pickup location. It’s very easy to get lost at Kyrchyn and not be able to find your pickup point. If you have a smartphone, I recommend using a dropped pin in Google maps when you get dropped off so that you know where to return to for a pickup.
8. Wear comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. While you’ll be okay wearing regular shoes to the other events, Kyrchyn is in a meadow. You have to cross a small stream by stepping on rocks. If it rains, it gets rather muddy. I wore flats. They were comfortable but trashed after two days. I recommend wearing runners, or other footwear that’s a bit more rugged that can stand up to mud.
9. Be prepared for the weather to change. Most of Kyrgyzstan is above 1000 metres and surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountains. As a result, the weather can change quickly. The day can start off sunny, and then it cool off to the point where you need a sweater in a couple of hours. You don’t want to get stuck in a rain shower in Kyrchyn unprepared. Carry a raincoat and an extra layer that you can tuck away in your bag.
10. Be prepared for the toilets at Kyrchyn. I say this, but in truth, nothing can prepare you for the port-a-potties. Now, worldwide, port-a-potties don’t exactly have a glowing reputation for cleanliness, but here they’re the worst I’ve ever seen or smelled. Bring toilet paper and lots of hand sanitizer. You’ll also want to go in pairs so that someone can hold your handbag or backpack. You don’t want to bring anything extra in there that you don’t need or risk it getting covered in poop.
Despite this, I still want to reiterate my love for Kyrchn. Just try not to drink too much, and don’t eat curry the night before!
11. Check the updated schedule. You’ll receive a paper copy of the schedule, but it’s not uncommon for it to change daily. Always check the updated schedule daily. Events may start earlier, or be delayed by a day or two.
12. Bring cash. At Kyrchyn there are no bank machines and credit cards aren’t accepted. There might be a bank machine in the Hippodrome where the horse events take place or in the Sports and Recreation Center where the martial arts and wrestling events are, but I’m not sure. Ask your hotel where you can get cash and get it in advance.
13. Eat local. If you’re eating at the World Nomad Games, you’ll be eating local food, which is a huge plus in my opinion. Saying that, you need to be careful as to what you eat. Several people on our trip had stomach issues related to something they had eaten.
Use common sense when eating street food, i.e. try to eat during peak hours when food turnover is high, and look for lines of local people which is usually a good sign.
If you’re at the Hippodrome or the Sports and Recreation Centre, I found that the best food was outside of these venues and just across the street. Check out this food guide to learn what to expect. Food Tip for Celiacs: If you’re celiac as I am, my go-to dish was Plov. It’s a rice dish with shredded carrots topped with a generous portion of slow-cooked lamb or beef. I ate it almost every day that I was in Kyrgyzstan at different locations, and it never gave me any problems.
14. Attend the Opening Ceremonies. They were an incredible production and one of my highlights of the World Nomad Games. Getting tickets to attend can be challenging. I was fortunate enough to have mine arranged for me. You can check the World Nomad Games Facebook page or their website for updates. Alternatively, you can also send them a message and inquire.
15. Carry your passport with you when attending events at the Hippodrome or the Sports and Recreation Centre. My passport was checked to enter the Opening Ceremonies, and every time I entered the Hippodrome. You may be able to wiggle your way in without your passport, but bring it to be on the safe side. Nobody checked or asked for my passport at Kyrchyn. Also expect bag checks when entering the Hippodrome and sporadically at Kyrchyn.
16. Expect chaos. The World Nomad Games is still in its infancy, having been held twice. I heard that the second event was much more organized than the first. Learn to go with the flow, and you’ll enjoy your time much more. It takes me a day or two to adjust, but I welcome it after living in Germany, where everything is so structured.
17. Book your accommodations far in advance. Plan to stay in Cholpon-Alta, where the games are held to make for easy coming and goings. Book your stay early as there is limited accommodation.
18. Plan for a red-eye flight into Bishkek. There are no great times to fly into Bishkek. You’ll likely arrive on a red-eye in the very early morning and depart very late. My flight arrived at 5:00 am and left at 1:00 am. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around this, so grin and bear it. Nobody said that travel was always glamorous.
19. Plan to stay in Kyrgyzstan longer than the World Nomad Games. While the World Nomad Games are incredible, so is the rest of the country. Plan to extend your stay to explore more of this remote country.
Check out these posts on Kyrgyzstan for more ideas by Stephen from MonkBoughtLunch. He’s an America who’s been living in Bishkek for several years and is incredibly knowledgeable about travel in Kyrgyzstan.
You’ll also want to check out Sam and Audrey’s video. They show you what to do in Bishkek, the capital city. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore it, but their video makes me want to go back.
In summary, I highly recommend attending the World Nomad Games. Knowing what to expect before you go, will help you enjoy it even more.
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.
Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their hiking, cycling and wildlife vacations in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.