A trip to the Nomad Horse Games Festival

By Mark Jahnke
Oct. 13, 2015

There are a few things that most people, upon first glance at their Central Asia Lonely Planet, will remember most vividly about the Kyrgyz Republic: yurts and horse games. 

Most people who come to the Kyrgyz Republic get to see or stay in a yurt and drink kymyz to their heart’s content. But not very many get to see the traditional Kyrgyz horseback games. And yet recently I found myself high in the passes of the Alay region south of Osh at the Nomad Horse Games Festival, one of the first events of its kind in the world.

The Alay region is a large expanse of mountains south of Osh, most famously home to Peak Lenin, the tallest mountain in the region at over 7,000 meters. It’s also home to many villages, jailoos (pastures), a road to Kashgar, China, a road to Dushanbe, Tajikistan and the first stretch of the famous Pamir Highway into the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan.

The festival was organized to bring together over a hundred horsemen and their horses to play traditional games. Some came from as far as 40 kilometers away, and the number of people surprised the organizers – more than five times as many horsemen and horses as they had expected. It was to our great delight – the games we watched were exciting, entertaining and unlike anything we had seen before.

Nomad Horse Games Festival
Nomad Horse Games Festival

The first game was kokboru, also known as buzkashi in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In an official capacity it resembles rugby, except played on horseback and using a goat carcass instead of a ball. Formally it uses goals, but informally it can be a never-ending game of keep-away played on fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Our version was a more informal version, along the lines of keep-away, except played by at least 50 men on horseback.

It was festive and majestic; without boundaries, the game play moved in every direction, stretching across at least a kilometer of hillsides and pastures. It moved in and around the area where we sat watching, and on at least five occasions the action led to horses charging the spectator area. One time, I had horses galloping past me on both sides. It was quite possibly one of the most thrilling sport spectator experiences I’ve ever had.

The next game was horse wrestling, where two men on horseback each attempt to send the other tumbling to the ground. It was very interesting to see, since there is a clear strategy and an unwritten code of fouls. First they would line the horses up so that, while facing opposite directions, their necks were touching. Then they would each rise from the saddle to try and pull their opponent off balance. Only one of the three or four matches we saw actually ended with a rider losing his seat, but it was still exciting to watch.

In the third game, the young men would ride along at high speed and reach down from their saddles to pick up a coin on the ground. Also supremely difficult, only one or two of the 10 or so riders managed to swipe the little blue fabric set of coins from the ground, and the crowd erupted into applause when they did.

Nomad Horse Games Festival
Nomad Horse Games Festival

One of the most entertaining games is where a young girl riding a horse is chased towards a finish line by a boy. If he catches her, he can kiss her on the cheek; if he doesn’t, she chases him back to the start line. If she catches him, then she can hit him with her whip until they either reach the start line or he goes out of range. The girl we saw was an excellent horseman who easily outran her pursuer. More exciting, she chased him fast enough that she got in several good swipes of the whip on the second run.

The day finally turned back to kokboru, and eventually we headed back to our yurt stay area to relax, watch the sun set and eat a delicious meal.

After dinner, we rolled out the tyshyks (thin mattresses) and fell asleep until the middle of the night, when we woke up to stand outside and stargaze. The Milky Way shone so bright that it appeared as though it were clouds in Earth’s own atmosphere. And rather than a black expanse with points of starlight, the sky appeared to be so full of stars that even the dark spaces between were about to be shattered by more behind them.

It was all spectacular, and truly cemented my love and respect for this beautiful country and its people.

The night sky in the Alay, Kyrgyz Republic
The night sky in the Alay is unbelievable. I took these photos with a long-exposure setting, but even more stars were visible in real life.
Mark Jahnke