We left Son Kul Lake just before 8:00 a.m. heading for Issy Kul Lake and the town of Chopan Alta, which is situated right on the lake. We followed the same route back out from Son Kul Lake as we had taken on Saturday once again crossing over the magnificent pass and down through the valley. However, once we reached the turnoff for Son Kul Lake from the main road in and out of Bishkek, we took a right and headed north to Chopan Alta.
It wasn’t long before the second largest salt water lake in the world, Lake Issy Kul came into view. It would be almost another hour before we arrived in Chopan Alta and its very beachy vibe.
Now originally, the plan was to simply enjoy Lake Issy Kul and a few attractions in and around Chopan Alta, but with the Nomad Games in Chopan Alta the plans were changed. We were going to see what events we could take in once we arrived.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I had no idea the Nomad Games were going on in Chopan Alta when I booked my trip over a year ago. Once I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I soon learned a lot about the event. First, this was the third biennial games. Second, the idea behind the games is to showcase and preserve ancient nomadic traditions in a rapidly modernizing world. Finally, the events at the Nomad Games covered everything from arm wrestling, archery, falconry, martial arts, and horse racing to events with very foreign names and even more foreign descriptions (e.g. Kok Boru involving men on horses attempting to take control of a dead sheep or goat and throw the carcass into their opponent’s well at one end of a dirt playing field). In total, there were 37 events with at least 60 plus countries participating. (Canada is not one of them, but surprisingly, the U.S. sent a contingent.) In addition to the sports competitions, there was a cultural component to the games with different customs and traditions and equestrian events to be showcased.
Anyway, we stopped by the hotel to check in, a lovely waterfront hotel, but the rooms were not ready. We took a walk along the water and down the pier and then grabbed a quick bite to eat. After lunch, we decided to head out to see what events were going on. (Access to all events was free.)
We drove about two blocks from the hotel and were immediately held up just before the traffic light by the ever and omnipresent police contingent. Originally, I could not understand the reason for the amount of police. However, what I had failed to realize was the significance of these games to the nations in the region. The presidents of Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan as well as the Prime Minister of Hungry were all expected to attend. As a result, there was a massive police presence starting just outside Bishkek and growing exponentially as you neared Chopan Alta.
So while we were raring to get to the Games, some VIP was holding us up. And so we waited and waited. About 10 minutes into waiting, police sirens wailed and flew past us along with a number of black vehicles, including one with the Russian flag on the front of the car … Putin. But once Putin had passed us, the police continued to hold us up for another 10 minutes. In the mean time, the people waiting were losing their patience and soon horns began to blare. Uh yeah sure, that is really going to make the police suddenly let us all through.
Anyway, the police finally opened the road and we set off. We passed the Hippodrome (site of the horse events) and the adjacent Sport and Recreation Center (site of the martial arts events) and continued on down the road. AK advised me that the events at the two Chopan Alta sites were concluded for the day, so we were going to the Kyrchyn Gorge, about 40 km from Chopan Alta, where the cultural events were taking place.
And so we drove on, passing police officers on every corner and at every intersection. Once we reached the turnoff for the Gorge, we were immediately rebuffed by the police. Apparently, the road was an exit road only so we had to drive another 5 minutes down the road to a turnoff that would also take us on another route to the Kyrchyn Gorge. We no sooner turned down the road and made a right before we came to a dead stop. Cars were bunched together like cattle and no one was moving. AK and Farhat got out of the car to find out what was going on. When they reported back, it seemed that no one could explain why the road was closed.
After waiting about 15 minutes, (and watching a woman bless a guy in the car in fron of us), Farhat came back and saw some cars moving. He immediately put the car in gear, did an end around the vehicles in front of us and soon had us at the front of the line. We stopped again, but were told the road would open in 10 minutes. AK got back in the car and the road immediately opened. Farhat forced his way past other cars and we were off down the road.
The road went through some housing areas before it passed through farmland and then suddenly we were on a very dusty dirt road heading up into the mountains. About 10 minutes later the Kyrchyn Gorge came into view. A makeshift parking lot was filled with cars and buses and on the hillside I could see a stadium surrounded by dozens and dozens of yurts.
We parked the car and began the long hike to the site. (I had no idea how we were going to find our car when we it came time to leave.) As we walked, we passed people on horses, a child carrying a falcon (seriously), a child riding a camel, men and women dressed in traditional Kyrg clothing, the odd tourist and lots and lots of police. It was quite the scene and certainly unlike any event I had ever attended.
We passed through a police security line (they wanted to see my camera and that was it), crossed a bridge over a rushing river and then hiked up a hill past lots of yurts and vendors selling a variety of handmade goods, Nomad Games souvenirs and food. When we finally made it to the stadium we encountered a mass of humanity. We managed to find a little hill that gave us a pretty good vantage point of the stadium where all kinds of dancers were performing on the infield of the stadium. Every now and then, horsemen in costume would come barreling down the track performing acrobatic stunts.
AK explained that the performance was the story of the Kyrg nation and how it overcame differences to meld together as one republic. It was really incredible with music as a backdrop and a variety of acts playing out. We wandered around from site to site to try and get a better view. At times, it was simply impossible to see anything and at other times, we had a wonderful view (depending upon where the acts were taking place).
At one point as we moved back to another hillside spot, two guys walked past holding massive falcons. I ended up holding one (it was incredibly heavy) and the handler held the other while AK took my picture. The birds were incredibly calm. In fact the one I was holding would not stop looking at me. I was so thrilled and excited about the birds, I did not think about the fact that I was face to face with a falcon who could rip my eyes out in one peck. Oh well. Didn’t happen so nothing to worry about.
After spending about an hour and half at the site, the show ended with a grand finale, including men on fire and a reconcilation parade. Once it was over, we began the long hike back to the car. The bridge we came over was closed (no idea why) so we had to hike a little further down past a number of yurts that appeared to be set up for participants who were staying in them. There were people everywhere cooking over open fires and socializing. It was actually interesting to see as we walked.
By some miracle, we found the car and began the drive back. As luck would have it, the drive back was plagued by police stopping vehicles. As we left the stadium (in the same direction we came even though it was supposed to be for entering vehicles only), we were immediately stopped and told that the police were only letting vehicles pass every two minutes. So a bottle neck built up. Cars started to turn around, but Farhat persisted and soon enough we were free of the jam and heading back to the main road.
Unfortunately, the police ended up stopping us no less than four times along the way. One time, we were pulled over by a policeman whistling everyone over and no sooner had we pulled over than cars were zipping by us so we ignored the cop and drove on. At another stop, we simply drove up the street around the block and back onto the main road. There was no rhyme or reason why the cops were stopping vehicles and we never did see another motorcade like the Putin motorcade. Farhat was fit to be tied, but we finally made it back to the hotel by 6:30.
I was exhausted so called it a night while AK and Farhat went for dinner. We planned to head out by 9:00 a.m. in the morning in order to catch events at the Hippodrome and the Sports and Recreation Center before driving back to Bishkek in the afternoon. It had been a long, incredibly interesting day.