“Bucket list stuff??” my cousin Nikki asks after I send her a picture from the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan. I don’t answer immediately as this question actually makes me think. After all, I have just sent her a picture of me holding the 35kg carcass of a headless goat, grinning in hysteria. It’s kind of obvious but that was never on my non-existent bucket list. While I have been already lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, orangutans in the wild and dive with mantas and whale sharks and will hopefully soon see gorillas and one day an orca and a panda, I didn’t dream of encounters with dead goats. So given the situation, I can’t answer the question immediately.
My trip to Kyrgyzstan had me dead tired, covered in dust and probably a bit of horse manure, sunburnt and alternating really hot or really cold. Again, not really what travel dreams are made of. And now there is a picture of me holding a dead goat on my phone. Or rather, a picture of me trying to hold it because while I was told that the goat carcass used in Kok Boru, the game we have just witnessed, loses a bit of … bits… and thus weight during the course of a game, it is still bloody heavy.
So all in all, I need a while to comprehend this question. But then, almost on their own, my fingers start to type: “Totally!” At this point I am not ready to expand on this one worded answer, I can just feel my heart pounding in excitement, disgust, and exhaustion – as I said, that goat is heavy.
Today I can elaborate some more because the World Nomad Games feel already so far away and it seems a million things have happened since me and my goat encounter. Sometimes time needs to do its thing for you to make sense of a situation or realize – there are certain things that will never really make sense even in hindsight.
I don’t know what it was that had me apply for press accreditation for the World Nomad Games 2018 at the beginning of the year. I am not usually one for sporting events and never considered Central Asia to be one of my dream destinations. While I like adventures I guess you could say I am a warm weather adventurer: diving or hiking followed by some nice wine, wifi, and a comfy bed. I don’t mind roughing it for a few days but I am definitely no Margaret Mead as much as I would like to think so. I like experiences but genuinely think the phrase ‘off the beaten path’ is incredibly overrated. And most of all, I can only handle a certain amount of spontaneity and disarray in my travels – I am German like this.
So what prodded me to fly to Kyrgyzstan to an event I only had a vague notion of, in an area, I had never heard of, to write about something I knew nothing about I still don’t know. It definitely wasn’t ‘bucket list stuff,’ I think it was more a notion of wanting to do and see something else than my usual circuit of Morocco, South Africa, and South East Asia. A bit of culture shock maybe? I still don’t really know.
But a few months later I had booked a ticket via Istanbul to Bishkek, had confirmed a gazillion times that Germans don’t need a visa for Kyrgyzstan and that someone would indeed pick me up from the airport.
I arrived at 5 am, not having slept and cranky but glad to be greeted immediately upon arrival, someone official looking ushering me through immigration. I got my luggage, a SIM card, and a coffee and soon we were off on a bus. That’s when things started to go not according to my non-existent plan and a trip that should have taken 4 hours ended up lasting 8 instead. One Snickers and my first cup of Kyrgyz tea could only do so much to alleviate my crankiness at this point.
Luckily every never-ending journey has an end eventually and in the afternoon we finally arrived on the shores of the Issyk-Kul lake my home for the next week. Remember Kellerman’s from Dirty Dancing? Bosteri village and the Dolphin Deluxe hotel became my version of Kellerman’s: somewhat stuck in the olden days only here with a distinct Soviet twang. Vodka instead of whatever Baby drank but still, watermelons at every corner store and people frolicking on the shores of the lake. There was, of course, a ferries wheel, a derelict rollercoaster, paragliders, and ice cream albeit with some dried fish vendors too.
The events of the World Nomad Games took place in the so-called Ethno Village of Kyrchyn, the Hippodrome in Bosteri as well as a sports & recreation center. Having missed the grand opening ceremony (maybe a blessing in disguise as journalists had to wait for hours on end for presidents to arrive and to leave) I only saw the inside of the Hippodrome a couple of days later when the unofficial highlight of the games began: Kok Boru.
Before coming to Kyrgyzstan I knew two things about the event: there was at least one girl who could do a handstand on a horse while simultaneously shooting a bow and arrow with her feet and they would allegedly play a polo game with a headless goat. I had seen the picture proof of the former but the headless goat sounded too much like an urban legend, too “good” to be true.
But true it was and so I eventually found myself next to a sandy pitch, clutching my cameras and starring at the scene that unfolded in front of my eyes: grim-faced men on horses reminding me of Vikings or heroes of a costume movie depending on their respective outfits fighting for a goat carcass like it was a great treasure. Blood, sweat, and tears got a whole new meaning here.
The rules of Kok Boru are somewhat simple: grab the goat, stay on your horse, tuck it underneath your knee and go! There is a pit goal for each team, no goalie but for the unassuming spectator no rules either so players are allowed to steal the goat with all means necessary. The goat needs to be thrown into the pit and quite often the player who scores goes in head first after the goat too. If he is lucky he lands on the goat, the pit is quite solid and bones break easily. The losing team has to fish the goat out of the pit and bring it back to the center of the field. Grab, throw, repeat. You can find the exact rules here.
Kok Boru is not for the fainthearted and that goes for both, players and spectators. Players must not only be good riders but strong as well. There are rumors the French team lost so badly because none of its players was able to even lift the goat into the saddle once. And needless to say, you cannot be squeamish. As far as the spectators go, there is no way around it: Kok Boru is somewhat archaic and actual bloody both thanks to the goat and the overall ‘roughness’ of the game. Mind you, in traditional games, the goat gets eaten after the game so this is simply a case of playing with your food but not one of senselessly wasting an animal. I felt for the horses, none of which looked too happy. Though I was told no horse sport is very gentle.
While I questioned and still question the validity of tradition versus the humane treatment of animals here and haven’t come to a conclusion not even for myself, I will admit that it was also quite exciting. An unexpected excitement as I never got the appeal of adrenalin, blood, and sweat. I never got that this combination could be so invigorating, even sexy I dare say. The WNG’s motto “United in strength! United in spirit!” reminded me of the Hunger Games and especially during Kok Boru, even though there are no women with bows and arrows in sight. Standing right next to the steaming horses and the steaming men, testosterone running high – let’s just say I wasn’t too sad that some took off their shirts for Er Enish, horseback wrestling that was on afterward.
So I guess that is my ‘excuse’ for holding the dead goat after the game – adrenalin and a bit of bloodlust, something I never felt before and as I mentioned before was equal parts exciting and disgusting. Incidentally, I haven’t eaten goat ever since.
For the final, I decided that I had gotten a close enough glimpse behind the scenes and forwent my prime press seats behind the stage to sit amongst the crowds instead. It was meant to be a crowd pleaser with the favorite, Kyrgyzstan, and the unexpected underdog, Uzbekistan playing. It wasn’t. Let’s just say that Kyrgyzstan added insult to injury when they not only won but won with 32:9.
At some point, I think it was after the 12th goat the crowd grew tired of cheering and only stirred when a player broke a leg (told you, those pits are solid!). I left the Kyrgyz family who had briefly adopted me for the game before the award ceremony and snuck out. After all, I already had the picture proof of my unofficial bucket list item and with that a proper reason why I had come to the World Nomad Games: to experience something I had never experienced before. And I didn’t need a medal for it.
So now tell me: given the opportunity would you have held the headless goat or am I the only crazy one?