I was raring to go by 8:00 a.m. I had read that the World Nomad Games events at the Hippodrome began at 9:00 a.m., and I did not want to miss the action. I had breakfast with AK and Farhat, and we were on the road by 9:00. Fortunately, none of the police activity that slowed us down on Monday affected us on our short drive to the Hippodrome. We arrived without any delay and found a parking spot in a fairly empty lot right outside the Hippodrome entrance. We walked past the myriad of stalls that were being set up and into the Hippodrome only to find out that the events were not beginning until 10:30. Ugh. It was only 9:15.
We ended up walking out of the Hippodrome and wandered by the stalls that were partially set up. I ended up buying some lovely handmade “Yurt” Christmas ornaments (it never ceases to amaze where I find these things) much to the delight of the vendor who I expect did not think she would sell Christmas ornaments so early in the morning, if at all.
After my purchase, AK, Farhat and I wandered over to the adjacent Sport and Recreation Center to see if there were any events scheduled. It turned out that some kind of “belt wrestling” was going to be taking place at 9:30ish. I say “ish” because it seems that the schedule for the World Nomad Games is somewhat flexible. As it turned out, the event began at 9:45.
By the time 9:45 hit, the seating area was packed. We ended up finding wonderful seats right in the middle of the arena. There were three wrestling circles, but it appeared for this event only two were going to be used. As we waited, we occupied ourselves by trying to identify all of the flags of the nation participants that were hung around two sides of the building. We got a big laugh when we noticed that the Iran flag was placed next to the Israeli flag and an even bigger laugh when we noticed that the U.S. flag was buried in a corner.
Anyway, as the event began the first two competitors were lead into the arena by two volunteers each holding a pole with the name of the country of each competitor. In ring A we would be watching men from Latvia and Belarus and in ring B we would be watching men from India and Kazakhstan. Now I’m not sure what I expected, but each event was over almost before it started. Seriously.
The idea behind “belt wrestling” is that each man has a belt wrapped around his waist and when the men move into position, they wrap their hands around their opponent’s belt. The idea is to wrest the opponent to the ground using your body and a twisting motion around the belt. If you reach two points, the match is over. You can win the match on the first slam to the ground if you raise your opponent in the air and bring and lay him out on his back.
And as I said, the first two events were over almost immediately. In less than a minute, the man from Belarus and the man from Kazakhstan had wrestled their opponents to the ground twice. In a subsequent match, a Russian literally raised his opponent up in the air and slammed him to the ground. Game over.
We ended up watching the wrestling events for about 30 minutes before we left for the Hippodrome. Virtually every wrestling match was over in a couple minutes. I think we only saw one that lasted for more than a few minutes and that is only because neither one of the men could wrestle the other to the ground. Eventually, the Russian won that match too.
So we left the Sport and Recreation Center, walked through the mass of vendors that were now all set up and in selling mode and back into the Hippodrome only to find out that the Kok Boru event between Mongolia and Russia (also known as buzkashi) had already started. Again, the times at these games seem to be optional.
Anyway, we found seats and I immediately set out to try and understand the “sport”. As I previously mentioned in a past blog, Kok Boru involves men riding horses while attempting to take control of a dead sheep or goat with the goal of throwing the carcass into their opponent’s well at one end of a dirt playing field. The sport dates to ancient times (perhaps as early as 9th century B.C.), but was certainly popular with nomadic tribes in Asia from at least the 4th century A.D.
I quickly learned that each half is 20 minutes long with no stoppages and the number of horses and men on the field for this version being played in the World Nomad Games was four to a side, with substitutions as the game progressed. And the men were using a dead sheep rather than a goat. Whenever there was a stoppage in action, for example if the riders went out of bounds, the dead sheep was brought back to the center and a rider from each team would jostle to try and pick up the sheep (sort of like a faceoff in hockey).
Now I cannot begin to describe how dangerous this sport appeared to be. The riders all carry whips to keep the horses moving. When one man has the sheep, all the other riders either try to protect him or try to grab the sheep. The scrums that ensue are unbelievable with horses and men and whips meshing together in one big wrestling match. Periodically, the man with the sheep will break free and will be chased at top speed by the other riders.
And the attire the men wore was something else with each rider wearing long boots and a hard helmet like hat. The helmet is to prevent the obvious injuries while the long boots are specially made to help the riders lean over and out of their saddle as they attempt to grab the sheep.
As we sat and watched a man gave a play by play and periodically dramatic music would accompany the action on the dirt. It wasn’t long after we sat down that Mongolia broke free and barreled down the dirt field to slam the dead sheep into a large circular well. And as it turned out, the goal scored by Mongolia was the only goal of the match.
I sat and watched literally fascinated by the skill and daring it took to compete in the game. It was fast, filled with drama, and I saw no less than two spills where horses and riders went down. And on both occasions the horse fell on top of the rider. Yikes! (Yes, I did have to ignore the fact that a dead sheep was being used as part of the game, but who am I to judge a sport that has been played in these parts for centuries.)
Anyway, when the match ended with Mongolia the winner, we exited the building. We took another wander through the vendor market. I bought a souvenir of the Nomad Games as well as some sausage filled pastries for the three of us and then we hopped in the car to head back to Bishkek.
On the way out of town, we stopped at the Issy-Kul State Historical Cultural Museum Reserve, which houses ancient petroglyphs that are etched into the surface of rocks. The age of the petroglyphs date anywhere from 1500 BC to the 5th to 10th century AD.
The site was covered in sand and stones dating to the glacier age. As we wandered around the sandy paths, it was difficult to make out the etchings. However, three etchings stood out for me. The first was two camels and riders dating from the 8th century BC to the 5th century BC. (It was unclear to me why there was a date range as most carbon dating can pinpoint the date of an ancient artifact to a much closer date range.)
Anyway, the second etching was of two deer and what appeared to be dog or leopard. Unfortunately, there was no date on these petroglyphs. The last etching was closest to the entrance and was perhaps the most impressive. These petroglyphs featured hunters, snow leopards and goats, dated to the 8th century B.C. to the 5th century A.D. (again, no idea why the date range), and were incredibly well preserved. Simply amazing.
After the walk around the petroglyphs, we started our drive back to Bishkek. We made a quick stop for lunch and one more stop for a beer for me and AK as well as buying another tasty corn on the cob before driving through “no man’s land” (an area along the boarder of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan that is apparently considered to be both countries) and arriving back in Bishkek just after 4:30. My time in Kyrgyzstan had come to and end. I was flying to Tashkent in Uzbekistan tomorrow for a nine day trip around Uzbekistan. My trusty drive Ferhat and my funny and charming guide AK had been wonderful companions. I could not have had a better time in Kyrgyzstan.