Last September I ignored my comfort zone and flew to Kyrgyzstan. I had been invited to attend the World Nomad Games 2018 and after months and months of working and chilling in Bali and Bangkok, I was in desperate need of an adventure. I had never been to any of the ‘Stans and to be honest I would have a hard time picking out Kyrgyzstan on a blank map and even the spelling is something I still struggle with as Grammarly likes to remind me. I knew nothing of the country and that seemed part of the appeal for someone like me an innate (over)planner. But a journey into the almost unknown seemed exactly what the doctor ordered. That of course and the prospect of getting close to a headless goat.
You may ask now why it took me such a long time to write this post as this blog is not only meant to be practical but also inspire you to venture into the unknown and especially since everyone I told about this trip seemed incredibly excited and curious on my behalf. The reason is one of those uncomfortable travel blogger truth: I knew I couldn’t write a post that would be useful to you because not only was the whole organization of the event a bit messy and I don’t even know I managed to get from A to B but also – 2018 was the last year that the World Nomad Games took part in Kyrgyzstan so any advice I could give you on attending it yourself would be completely moot.
But coming back and talking about the event, showing my mother the photos I took and her swooning over them (as it is a mother’s duty) I realized that I do want to share my impressions about the event with you, SEO be damned.
Months have passed so I have forgotten the feeling of feeling bone-weary arriving at Bishkek airport at 5 am (my inner clock still set at 1 am), being ushered by a uniformed guard to the
front of the line at immigration, feeling both important and terrified – wasn’t I meant to fly under the radar as a tourist?! I remember, I found my luggage, got money, an all-important coffee, and a SIM-card as my friend Patrick had advised me to. Then I waited for my fellow travelers before we were put on a bus – destination unknown. We didn’t care, all we cared about was that the roomy bus offered us two seats each to sleep. Hours later we stopped surrounded by gravel mountains, the statue of a snow leopard greeting us and I got to buy my first Kyrgyz Snickers – always an excellent breakfast when traveling.
On and on we went, some of the athletes were being dropped while we were left on the bus, nobody knew where we had to go. I was too tired to lose my patience even when a 4-hour bus drive slowly turned into 8. And also because a fellow traveler from Azerbaijan had just turned our volunteer, a young student, into a puddle of tears after yelling at her in Russian for ten minutes. I shared my gummi bears with her and smiled, glad that I was too exhausted to add such an outburst to my bad-karma list and make someone cry who clearly wasn’t at fault.
Eventually, we arrived at the shores of the Issey-Kul lake, our home for the next week. We had to drop the lady from Azerbaijan first, wait for her while she requested a new room/lunch/attention giving the rest of us a chance to pass time with gossiping over a mutual annoyance. Then it was our turn and we arrived at the Dolphin De Luxe hotel. The hotel was stuck in a time warp or at least that’s how it felt to me – if Baby or Don Draper had come along I wouldn’t have been surprised. Not that I cared. There was a beautiful lake, a ferries wheel that terrified me – I still don’t know if it was its age or the fact that ferries wheels, in general, terrify me – and I had a room with a bed and most importantly a door to close. After a nap which I shouldn’t have taken according to all the rules of ‘how to get over a jetlag’, I met up with some friends, old and new, explored the lake activities and sampled the local beer before heading back to bed, this time at an acceptable hour.
For the next days, we split our time between the races at the Hippodrome stadium next to the hotel and the mountain village of Kyrchyn. We got lucky as the drive to the village didn’t even take an hour since all the presidents and important people who slowed down traffic with their arrivals and departures the previous days had left. And once we arrived I knew why I had come: this was where the magic happens.
What are the World Nomad Games?
The World Nomad Games were in their third year in 2018 and were brought to life in order to preserve the nomadic traditions from this Central Asian region. While most of the competitors were from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Mongolia, and China there were many other international athletes including Americans, French, and even a lone German horse archer. Games and displays were held both in the Hippodrome stadium as well as in the village which also became a showcase of nomadic traditions. For the first time in my life, I saw an actual yurt that wasn’t set up for glampers, I came nose to bloody beak with an eagle, mistook a yak for a cow and tried my hands at a local game played with the vertebrae of a sheep.
Many people from all over the region had come to give visitors a glimpse into their lives. Yurts were open to visit at leisure and we got invited for a meal, a photo, and to admire the latest offsprings of the resident families. Language wasn’t an issue. For the first time I was surrounded only by languages I couldn’t speak and I didn’t mind it one bit. When a guy invited us to try the broth he had been stewing for hours over the open fire I knew he is joking when pointing at a large piece of intestine simmering, advertising it as snake. I could see the twinkle in his eyes and while I am not much fonder of intestines as I am of snakes in my soup, I tried a bowl. It was the most delicious broth I had ever eaten.
While much of the atmosphere in Ethno Kyrchyn village resembled a big fair with games, stalls, and music, there were also some serious competitions going on. Archery, dog and eagle racing were on the agenda. A few eagles decided that they had enough and took off instead of flying back to their owners, much to their dismay. If a lost eagle doesn’t disqualify you I don’t know what will and the owners knew it too, leaving the field with their heads hanging low, clutching the little pieces of meat which couldn’t entice their beloved pets to take a winning flight.
My favorite, however, was the women’s archery on horseback, a display not only of mad skills but also of beautiful traditional outfits. Katniss Everdeen had nothing on these women who charged their horses, galloped along the track while shooting at the targets painted with colorful goats.
In between, we did our press vests and Instagram account justice and took pictures of the amazing scenery all around us. This is what I expected Kyrgyzstan to look like though Olga, one of the volunteers and a tourism student told me I had seen nothing yet. The rest of the country was even more beautiful according to her, something I found hard to believe.
Our days at the Hippodrome made me feel even more like a proper journalist, standing right on the sidelines of the action. A friend of mine almost got run over by a horse and I got to hold the headless goat. While I am usually not one for racing or wrestling the atmosphere was electric especially on the final night when the Kok Boru final took place. I decided to stay in the audience and promptly got adopted by a Kyrgyz family for the duration of the game. My plan to root for Uzbekistan, the underdog, as I usually would quickly dissolved especially as it became clear that Kyrgyzstan was annihilating them. The final score was 32:9 – even the audience seemed to feel a little bad for this easy win.
Each night I returned covered in dust, vowed to put on more sunscreen the next day, tired and hungry. Thanks to some new friends who spoke Russian I discovered the local delicacies Lagman, a fried noodle dish, and Manty which resemble my beloved Nepalese momos. One evening I ventured out on my own and I ended up ordering vodka-o instead of orange juice. I drank it though I usually hate vodka and shrugged it off – when in Kyrgyzstan…
After a week, I returned to Bishkek for a one-night layover before I was back in Istanbul. I was still tired and dusty, my excuse to drink delicious rosé in copious amounts to soothe my throat. I was also confused and not quite sure what to make of my trip and the country, how to ‘sell’ it, how to write about it.
Usually when I leave and write about a place I like to have a somewhat clear understanding of what a country can offer a traveler, whether it is right for adventure, luxury, nature lovers or city slickers. I like to recommend places I liked, tell you how to get around or at least give you lots of hindsight and what-not-to-do advice. Attending the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan had left me a little baffled, feeling I couldn’t offer any of this which made me hesitant to share anything at all.
There seems to be an expectation of travel writers that we not only should do our homework before going somewhere but also be objective when writing about a place. Fair enough, though sometimes that is incredibly hard. I tend to love or hate places, rarely am I indifferent. While I have shared even my negative thoughts in the past, these days I tend to be a bit more careful because of that expectation. While I allow myself to be human, influenced by internal and external factors which may not affect other travelers but swayed my mood, I try my hand at more objectivity. Sometimes that means I won’t say anything at all because I fear the criticism, the accusation of not getting or understanding a place, shy away from the discussion of whether I have given a destination a fair chance and done it right. In this digitalized day and age when everyone is a self-proclaimed expert, nobody is an expert on anything anymore, and if you admit to not being an expert what’s your business just sharing your thoughts?!
But here I am. No expert on Kyrgyzstan, just sharing my opinion and one that is not even very definite. Even months later the country has left me neither in love nor indifferent and I definitely didn’t hate it. I think as both a regular traveler and a travel writer it has left me puzzled like a guy that I find intriguing but am not sure if he is quite right for me.
And maybe that is okay. It is not a country’s job to fulfill my expectations and how can it when I didn’t have any, to begin with? Maybe Kyrgyzstan is just that: a place for adventures and wonder, a time warp that doesn’t need to fit into my worldview, a journey that can just turn into a little story without an oh so useful to-do list, a picture that may inspire you to book a ticket or a country that used to be home to a once in a lifetime experience. Or maybe it can just be a place in my memory, a stamp in my passport that doesn’t need a label at all.
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