The World Vodka Games
The World Nomad Games are held every 2 years in Kyrgyzstan with the aim of preserving nomadic culture and traditions and foster cultural exchange. I aptly renamed it the World Vodka Games after meeting the Munduz tribe. When they invited us to come stay with them in their yurt, a heavily vodka fuelled night ensued, new and meaningful friendships were forged, rustic Dutch dance moves displayed and a hangover for days developed.
The Munduz tribe at the World Nomad Games
Cholpon-Ata and the Kyrchyn valley are the main locations where for a week long the World Nomad Games take place. There are competitions in 36 different sports, including sports unbeknownst to us that have an engrossing and exciting ring to their name like Kok Boru, Er Enish and Burkut Saluu: equestrian sports consisting of bare-chested wrestling on horseback, traditional hunting with eagles and a rough and rowdy version of polo, played with a dead goat. Some more recognizable competitions that are being held are for example tug of war and horseback archery. Reading about these sports alone is enough to evoke images of roughened nomads storming through the steppe on their horses, playing ancient adrenaline filled, manly games.
Some nuance is at place though, because it is not all about testosterone heightening sports; there are also intelligence games and a
complete village dedicated to a cultural showcase. This is where we start this week; the Ethno Village in Kyrchyn Valley.
Completely in style of Kyrgyzstan there is little information on how late things actually start or where you have to go during this event. Kyrchyn is about 50 km’s from Cholpon Alta and having seen no sign whatsoever for a long time, we take a random left turn into the mountains when we feel we are close. Only to be directed back by one crewmember at the end of the road, it was now a one-way street. Eventually arriving at the village, a massive yurt camp comes into sight, beautifully located in a green valley surrounded by thick forest on the rolling hills and high mountain peaks in the backdrop. This is where every tribe from Kyrgyzstan has their own yurt camp and comes to display their traditional art, music, dance, clothing, food and engage in storytelling.
Archery from horseback
Kyrgyz dance meets American country
Completely different than a tightly controlled and organised event in Europe, the chaos of the whole thing is a bit overwhelming as we are finding our way, not sure where to go or what we are looking at. We stop by the stand of the America Embassy where a country band just started playing. Many Kyrgyz are sitting in the audience, listening carefully and taking loads of pictures. It doesn’t take long for them to get up on their feet and start swinging away. What a fantastic sight to see those Central-Asia moves connecting to the American country music. And what an amazingly simple metaphor for the goal of cultural exchange and understanding that lies at the core values of this festival. The interaction and fascination for each other’s culture immediately emerges from this sight. Here are two totally different worlds and cultures coming together in such innocence fun (although the best dancers did receive a little price, urging many Kyrgz to get on their feet) and interest in each other. People start clapping enthusiastically, are taking selfies
with the band, throwing some impressive dance moves around and are enjoying themselves immensely. I get to know Kyrgyz to be much more exuberant and impudent than the, by comparison, stiff Europeans. The band members are clearly surprised by this unexpectant jubilant crowd, having been used to an Western audience sitting well-behaved in their chairs, and are fuelled by the enthusiasm of the crowd.
An old man next to us is enthusiastically shouting ‘bravo, bravo!’ with increasing intervals and volume whilst clapping along. His Kyrgyz hat (the Kalpak) is tilting more and more skewed from his head with every sip he takes from his thermos flask, which I suspect of containing something to give his tea a little kick. Interest for and understanding of different cultures of the world is one of the goals of the organization of the games, which already manifests itself in the first 15 minutes we are on the festival in a splendid way. We have to finish watching this joyous spectacle before exploring the rest of the festival.
Swinging away at the American country band
Spread out over the terrain there are many performances and cultural showcases, like carpet weaving, lots of singing and dancing, cooking, handcrafts and numerous activities that I cannot identify. People can get their picture taken with a hunting eagle or on a horse. You can even get your picture taken with some lost Western folk, as people approach us from time to time to take a picture with them like we are part of the festival’s attractions. The festival and activities can appear somewhat staged here and there. However, the visitors are mostly local or from
this region which shows that there is a lot interest in rediscovering their own culture and traditions. These, they might have forgotten due to cultural oppression during Soviet times, increasing modernization and the influence of globalization. I think it is a nice way for locals to reconnect with their culture and for foreigners to get acquainted with it. Many of the culture on showcase here is actually still being used today and part of the way of live for the many nomads that still live in this country.
While the sun is setting, we are strolling around between some yurts at the back of the terrain where it is more quiet. I find myself staring at a man who is stirring with a large ladle in a big cauldron in between two yurts, while thick plumes of smoke that arise from the cauldron are being lit up by the backlight of the sun. He catches me staring and waves us over. Upon approaching we exchange the usual questions: ‘Ruski?’
To which both parties replied with a negatory.
Undeterred by this inconvenience, he is determined to talk with us and start explaining who they are with detailed gestures and untamed enthusiasm. He introduces himself as Nur Mohammed. More men start approaching and Nur introduces all his friends. They are members of the Munduz tribe. The word tribe always conjures up the image of some exotically decorated African warriors, living off the land, deep in the wilderness.
Which is not the case of course. Rather it is a family of sorts, consisting of strong ties. The Munduz members gather here from all over the country to share their traditions with their fellow countrymen and foreigners. Nur is very proficient in talking with gestures and together with Google translate we understand each other quite well. He asks us if we want to come back tomorrow and spend the night in the yurt with them. ‘Of course we will!’
‘Do you like wodka, Nur?’ His faces lights up and his mischievous eyes sparkle, followed by a resolute ‘yes!’
So far during our time in Central-Asia we learned that bringing a bottle of vodka with you works very well for connecting with people, especially when you don’t speak the language. It’s also a good gift to bring when you’re invited somewhere, because usually they don’t want to accept money in exchange for their hospitality.
Horse ball lunch
The next day we show up at the yurt of the Munduz. There is however no sign of our friends that we met the day before. We are pulled into the yurt by some lady who immediately starts taking care of us with tea and lunch, that we are having together with a group of people inside. We have to deal subtly with a delicacy that is being handed to us; a bowl of horse balls. After a while I had already learned that in Central-Asia the term ‘delicacy’ entails something different than in the Netherlands. We have become increasingly proficient in the art of depositing the presented treat subtilty or feign contentment about the flavour of said delicacy. This
situation called for the feigning tactic. Everybody in the yurt was expectantly watching us, hopefully awaiting our response, so there was no way to get rid of it discretely. Expressing our contentment about the flavour, we indicate we do not want to be selfish and eat this treat all by ourselves, upon which the group waves away these concerns by saying ‘nonsense, you are our guest.’ So the bowl had to be emptied completely. After finishing a whole bowl the taste gradually gets better actually. So, another tactic is to just eat shitloads of the presented food so you get used to the taste, although I have to admit I have refrained from this tactic ever since.
During this horse ball lunch, we met Alibek; A young Kyrgyz guy who spoke English very well and thus translated for us. He has a scholarship for studying horticulture in Hungary and was just back for summer to visit his family. ‘So this is your family, all these people in the yurt?’ I ask him. ‘No, I don’t know these people. They just invited me in for lunch when I was walking by’ he said. Apparently the hospitality is not exclusively directed towards foreigners. Together with Alibek we leave the yurt after lunch and as we make approaches to get on our way Alibek asks, ‘So what are we going to do now guys?’
‘Ehm, I thought we were going that way, don’t know about you?’
‘Well let’s go then’. And from that moment on Alibek was our self-appointed guide. We automatically assumed we were going our own way, well in Kyrgyz culture it is more
normal to automatically assume to do something together. Still a bit taken aback by this sudden, but very welcome accompaniment, and fascination for the differences in the social aspects of our culture.
Alibek spend the whole day with us explaining about the sports and his culture. He took us from archery on horseback to narrative art where among oral narration of epics such as Manas, we witnessed Altysh; in which through improvised poems 2 contesters politely diss each other. A sort of freestyle ‘yo mama rap’, nomadic style. Followed by a competition in yurt building (winner did it in an impressive 7 minutes). After this day we would see and speak Alibek several times during the week, regularly asking us how we are doing, giving tips for our vodka hangover and even getting me in the press area of a major Kok-Boru game (for which I forgot to apply).
The real nomadic sport
At the end of the day we went back to the yurt of the Munduz. Still there was no sign of our friends. Again, somebody puls us straight into the yurt and starts preparing a bed for us, together with about 10 strangers that we don’t’ know. A bit awkwardly we hang around in the yurt while everybody is chatting with each other and then starts going to bed. A little bit disappointed we thought we turn in as well. Then Nur and Ulan-Bek, our friends from the previous day, storm in and tell us to follow them outside. Here, a friend of Nur gives me warm clothes and moments later I’m clad in a 90’s Nike training trouser and ditto jacket. Apparently satisfactorily prepared, Nur nods and we follow them up a hill, still unsure of what we were going to do. He spreads out a blanket on top of the hill, overlooking the massive yurt camp, and pulls out some bottles of vodka, as do we. Now it becomes clear what we are going to do. The bowls are being filled up (indeed no shitty little shot glasses, but bowls) and we start drinking.
‘Alghla!’ Meaning cheers in Kyrgz, as the Munduz say. With the help of gestures and google translate we have long conversations about almost everything. Where we come from, our traditions and even deep discussion about what it means to be happy and
materialism versus spiritual contentment. ‘Money is no wealth’, says Ulan-Bek. ‘We much rather look for spiritually fulfilling relationships than materialistic ones’.
Like I said before, the tribe means a big family. Any Munduz member anywhere in the world is considered their brother. A strong tie, that is not bound by blood. Now, we are a Munduz brother as well. Repeatedly Nur says (in English); ‘me brother’ and points to himself. ‘You brother’ and points to Bart. ‘You brother’, and points to me. ‘And you brother’ and points to Ulan-Bek. ‘We brother’ and he points to all of us. Well that just goddamned warmed my heart. It is very simple, but feels so meaningful. Every now and then when the conversations dies down for a bit, Nur repeats his ‘we brother’ utterings, followed by a new round of drinks and an ‘alghla’. As we get to know each other better, we feel a real connection with these guys who come across incredibly sincere. Later, they say an Islamic prayer for us, in which they bless us in all our endeavours. Although we are not religious at all, this still feels special. As the night moves on, suddenly Nur and Ulan-Bek started singing. Although the words are a bit slurred by now, nevertheless it is great to witness.
At one blurry point Nur says ‘there is a party somewhere in the yurt camp, do you wanna go?
‘Yes let’s go!’
‘However, you must not show that you are drunk, it’s not allowed’ says Nur, while after making this statement he starts dangerously tilting backwards and almost rolling down the hill. Eventually we have to carry him down the hill. ‘I don’t think you have worry about us showing that we are drunk Nur’.
We arrive at the party and it is the greatest scene ever. In between some yurts the most colourful collection of people has gathered and are dancing wildly, shouting, clapping, singing or playing the accordion and tambourine. Everybody starts talking with us, enquiring where we from and we have to show our moves on the ‘dancefloor’, supported by loud cheers of the crowd. It doesn’t take long of course before we are we are kindly but urgently requested to sing a Dutch song for everyone. I carefully manoeuvre myself out of this one and let Bart take on this honour. Fearlessly he takes the stage and his rendition of a very bad Dutch folk song catches on with the crowd, who starts clapping along and cheering ecstatically.
After a while we leave the party revelry and retreat somewhere between the yurts to get a rest.
Nur goes down first. Spread out like a sea star in the grass, while his Kalpak hat that never leaves his head, has given up as well and rolled off somewhere in the grass. I look to Ulan-Bek. Tireless he continues to tell stories. He looks just as sober before his first glass of vodka. Every now and then he hold his phone with a text in Google translate in front of my face, but I’m seeing double by now and cannot read it anymore. Then Bart retreats from the interaction and drops down as well.
Ulan-Bek asks me something and with a lot of effort I squint my eyes and read, ‘shall I recite my self-written poems?’ Fuck yes, you legend, please do. I let myself fall on my back as well whilst the calm voice of Ulan-Bek in that strange sounding, alien language has a soothing and calming effect on me.
I look up to the starry sky. Unlike home, the sky is dotted with many bright little lights and I can see the milky way as clear as I ever have. I listen to the poems of Ulan-Bek that I don’t understand but somehow feel that I know what they mean. A grin appears on my face. I realise that this is a little moment of pure bliss.
With this feeling I’m lying there and in my mind imagine this scene from above, as if a camera is zooming out: an image appears of three guys flat on their back in the grass inbetween some yurts, while vodka warrior Ulan-Bek Munduz is thoughtfully and cautiously watching over us like an old sage, lulling us into sleep with this stories of legends and poems of love. And I think to myself, this is what life is about. Experiencing moments like this and making connections like this. Alghla.
Now some actual sports
So far we nearly haven’t seen any one of the exciting Nomadic sports that we anticipated on seeing when coming to the games, but I feel I already grasped the true meaning of the Nomad Games with the people we met.
Alright then, besides drinking, time for some other sports. There is a great variety of sports on display here, but everybody really comes here for the highly revered Kok Boru.
Imagine polo. Now take away the ball and replace it with a decapitated goat carcass. A goat carcass of 35kg to be exactly. This value of weight seems to be the only rule in the game they adhere strictly too. Other than that, there are almost none. Except that you are not allowed to crash straight into someone’s horse. It’s a rough sport, guaranteed to give a man their required doses of testosterone and a manliness boost up. Serious injuries frequently occur, although it is played a bit more clean during such a big tournament. But it is not uncommon to see
men falling from their horses, threatened to be trampled under the whirling of hooves. A few times a player thrusts the carcass with such force into the round, elevated goal, that he flies right behind it to enter the goal as well. One time a medic team with a stretcher had to carry off a player, who returned pretty soon after that, continuing the game.
The game starts with the two teams, consisting of 4 players, standing side by side. On the whistle of the referee they storm towards the carcass and players try to grab the goat from the ground. Now this requires a lot of agility and strength, you’ll see men dangerously hanging from the side of their horse, almost touching the ground, to reach the goat. And then lift 35kg up by one arm; it is quite intense and requires tremendous skill of the player. If he succeeds in grabbing the goat, he must then break away from the crowd of horses with great velocity and fling it into the opponent’s goal.
Kyrgyzstan is the shoo-in and eventually wins the much coveted finale of the Kok Boru match, under loud cheers of the ecstatic crowd, who are more fanatic supporters than we are when our country plays in a world cup final of soccer. In fact, Kyrgyzstan leads the charts with most gold medals for all sports of the event for that matter. Rumour goes that visiting countries were lent much less good performing horses in the sports. Still, we got a nice taste of this exciting game, with the final a great way to end this week.
Kyrgyzstan wants to put itself and the nomadic culture on the map with this event. One of the goals of the World Nomad Games organization was: ‘’Strengthening and further developing intercultural dialogue, understanding, friendship, harmony, and cooperation between the people of the world’’. An objective that has been amply achieved in my view, as it is exactly what I experienced there. Now I realized that it was not really about the sports, but the cultural exchange and stimulating understanding between each other. Through meeting Ulan-
Bek, Nur, Alibek and many others this week, I can safely state that above all Kyrgyz are incredible hospitable, but also very curious to other countries, nationalities and cultures. After the isolation of the Soviet time, these countries are becoming increasingly connected with the rest of the world. Now, they are excited to learn about the possibilities it can bring to them. As they are searching for their own identity in this world and exploring their opportunities, they will not forget to preserve their amazing traditions, culture and history.