Lonely Planet Writer

Pathfinder pics: the unusual sports of Kyrgyzstan's World Nomad Games

The skill and accuracy of the nomadic horseback archers © Richard Collett

Lonely Planet Pathfinder, Richard Collett of Travel Tramp, recently returned from a whirlwind trip through wild and beautiful Kyrgyzstan, one of our Best in Travel countries to visit in 2019. In between wending his way across rolling pastures and gawking at dramatic landscapes, Richard also managed to nab himself a front row seat at the strange and captivating World Nomad Games...

Kyrgyzstan is at the heart of nomadic history in Central Asia. To celebrate the unique culture and traditions of their nation, in 2018 the Kyrgyz hosted the World Nomad Games, which is arguably the biggest sporting event of the year. Nomads, athletes and tourists from across the world gathered on the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake to battle it out for nomadic glory, over a week of sporting events held alongside cultural demonstrations. In a spectacular, mountain-fringed landscape and surrounded by traditional yurts, horseback archers galloped along the ranges, eagle hunters exhibited the prowess of their birds of prey on the Steppe, and mountain dogs raced across the field. The World Nomad Games, held every two years, truly is a sporting and cultural event like no other.

A celebration of nomadic culture

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Kyrgyzstan is the perfect destination in which to celebrate nomadic culture, and at the World Nomad Games, traditional dress and elaborate costumes were out in force. Hundreds of yurts were raised in the valley, and as horses trotted through the encampments the smell of Kyrgyz cooking wafted through the cool, mountain air. Thousands of people had travelled from across the land, and from continents far away to see these ancient cultures and sporting events being revived in Kyrgyzstan – I couldn't wait to witness the incredible show.

Landscapes and lakes

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The event was held on the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake, an alpine lake found in the east of Kyrgyzstan, and close to the formidable Tien Shan mountain range that separates Central Asia from China. The lake was an impressive tourist attraction during the Soviet era, and people would flock to the sunny shores and sandy beaches from across the Soviet Union. The World Nomad Games, being held in such impressive surroundings, are again bolstering tourism in this remote part of the world.

Horseback archery: skill, speed and accuracy

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It was the feared horseback archers of the Mongol armies that allowed them to conquer much of the ancient world, and hundreds of years on, the techniques and skills are still proudly practised. Horseback archery was one of the most intense sporting events of the World Nomad Games, and a true demonstration of skill and prowess. Archers galloped along the range at full speed, drawing their bows and shooting their arrows into the targets. It was tense, thrilling and absolutely breathtaking to watch.

Eagle hunting: the bond between nomad and bird

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For centuries, the nomads of the Steppe in Central Asia have tamed birds of prey to help them survive. Golden eagles are trained from birth to hunt, and over time a unique bond forms between the bird and its trainer. At the games, these glorious eagles were in competition as the handlers demonstrated the quality of training through their eagles' ability to hunt in the field. And it wasn't just locals participating in the event, but people from across the world too, as eagles, falcons and other birds of prey soared through the skies above the yurts.

Taigan Jarysh: the dogs of The Steppe

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The Taigan is an unique breed of hound that has long been trained on the Steppe and in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan by nomads. These fluffy, lovable looking dogs hardly appear menacing, but they're lightning fast and adept at taking down wolves that might threaten a nomad’s family or herd. In the Taigan Jarysh competition, trainers displayed the agility and prowess of their dogs as they raced across the field in hunting simulations.

Mountains, culture, and tradition in Kyrgyzstan

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Kyrgyzstan’s unbelievable scenery, majestic mountains and alpine lakes have ensured that the little known Central Asian nation is slowly making a name for itself among travellers seeking a unique destination to explore. People are no doubt drawn in by the country's rugged good looks, but it’s the years of tradition and history that they stay for. The World Nomad Games is an unusual, yet compelling event to be part of, and I would urge anyone who gets the chance to experience it, to do so.

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