Nomadland

From central Asia's grasslands to the shores of the Mediterranean, a rich culture of nomadic 'sports', often drawn from hunting, fighting or simply surviving in an unforgiving environment, is shared by people from across the region spanning from China's Xinjiang province to Turkey. Since 2014, these competitive pursuits have been organised into the 'World Nomad Games', a colourful celebration of nomadic traditions that is drawing ever larger crowds.

Initiated by the then Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambaev, the bi-annual Games have been held near the sleepy former Soviet resort town of Cholpon-Ata on the shores of Lake Issyk-kul and set against the Küngöy Ala-Too mountains. Over a one-week period, thousands of competitors from over 80 countries, assisted by thousands of volunteers, gather to match their strength and skills in such unusual disciplines as kok buru (or headless goat polo), ordo (or cow kneecap bowls) and er-enish (or horseback wrestling). Though the disciplines are dominated by physical activities that require strength and dexterity, a whole section is dedicated to 'traditional intellectual games' such as toguz kogool (or nine sheep droppings) which is based on the Turkic mancala tradition with fiendishly complex rules.

The event has become a popular gathering for people from across the region, many of whom still spend much of the year living in yurts while grazing their herds on the grassy mountains during the summer. In a region famed for its hospitality, the Nomad Games are also an opportunity to eat, drink and be merry both before, during and after the competitions take place. With Kyrgyzstan becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination for nature lovers, hikers and adventure tourists, the World Nomad Games are now adding an extra draw for the intrepid traveller keen to explore this part of the former Soviet Union.

After the 2018 World Nomad Games, Turkey expressed an interest in hosting the Games and they were scheduled to take place in the central city of Bursa in 2020. The global Covid pandemic and worldwide travel restrictions have meant that the event had to be cancelled. It has tentatively been rescheduled for 2021 in either Turkey or Azerbaijan.

Ben Roberts attended the last World Nomad Games and got a sense of raw excitement of this unusual sporting event.
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