World Nomad Games, KYRGYZSTAN
The World Nomad Games showcases nomadic sports, culture and lifestyle and takes place every even numbered year. It's usually held in Cholpon-Ata, in the Issyk-Kul Province of Kyrgyzstan, usually in September, and the next games will be held in 2024. Nicknamed the ‘Olympics for nomads’ it’s a unique and fantastically entertaining chance to see a huge number of traditional sports and games. Some are familiar – archery, for example – but most are not. This must be the only place in the world where you can witness horseback wrestling, headless goat polo (kok buru), hunting with eagles, bowls played with cow kneecaps (ordo) and board games so complex they make mah jong look like tiddlywinks.
Many of the sports are not only unfamiliar to Western visitors, they are downright eye opening. Suddenly, the real Olympics look slightly wussy. Cirit, for instance, originates in Turkey and features two teams on horseback throwing spears at each other, with points awarded for hitting your opponent or his horse. Mas wrestling involves two men fighting over a stick. That might sound a bit primary school playground, but it’s pure, unadulterated man-on-man combat, with contestants sitting on the ground opposite each other, their feet braced against a board between them, heaving on a stick to see who’s strongest. Headless goat polo is the most revered sport, with two teams on horseback competing to throw a headless goat carcass into a goal. In a brilliantly waste-not, want-not move, the winning team gets to barbecue the thoroughly tenderised meat afterwards.
While goat polo is perhaps the most exciting sport, er enish is the most brutal. This is essentially wrestling on horseback with two warriors trying to throw each other to the ground in impressive bouts of strength and agility. If you prefer your wrestling horse-free, relax – there are numerous different styles of wrestling to enjoy, including Turkish, Turkmen, Tajik, Azerbaijani… the wrestling list is long.
Although a new event – the first Games were held in 2014 – they have become incredibly popular, a glorious celebration that attracts people from all the Stans and further afield, too. Some arrive on horseback, before pitching yurts, donning traditional clothes and settling in to enjoy the competitions, food and fun. The fifth World Nomad Games sees the event return to Kazakhstan in 2024, after the fourth games, held in 2022, were hosted in Iznik, Turkey.
The joy of attending the games is getting to watch both the competitions and the crowds. Stroll around and you’ll see spectators on horseback (or even standing on their horse’s back to get a better view), young Kazak hunters wandering through the crowds with eagles on their arms, someone skinning a goat, tents where banquets of regional food are spread out and the odd camel, too. Wherever you go, you’ll meet hospitable nomads delighted to show off their culture. Food is cheap and plentiful, but as ever, it makes sense to steer towards the vendors with the most local people eating at them.
Our top Festivals Vacation
Mongolia and the Silk Road explorer tour
Enjoy Naadam celebrations before exploring Central Asia.
From £7510 25 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2024: 10 Jul
2024: 10 Jul
If you'd like to chat about Festivals or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Call toll freeCalling from outside the USA
The easiest way to visit the Games is as part of an organised tour to Kyrgyzstan. Tourism isn’t hugely developed here, accommodation in the vicinity of the Games gets booked up well in advance, and information in English may be hard to find. Your tour guide will be able to explain what you’re seeing, and there are friendly local volunteers to help out, too.
Typically, a two week vacation might devote two or three days to the Games, so you can catch the opening ceremony, with its highly choreographed performances, explore all the sites and see a good range of competitions. Remember that once at the Games, logistics aren’t always perfect. Scheduling can change with no notice, so if you are determined to see a particular sport make sure you get there early, and be patient if it’s delayed or cancelled.
More about Festivals
We outline what festivals you can catch when, around the world.
Our festivals travel guide explains what these cultural spectaculars involve.
Learn where the most exciting events and celebrations take place around the world.
Religious and cultural festivals take place throughout the year across Bhutan.
Discover the meaning behind the Day of the Dead, and where and when to see it.
Chad's Gerewol festival is an elaborate and unique courtship ritual.
Mongolia's Nadaam and Eagle festivals are wonderful sporting and social events.
Sarawak's Rainforest World Music Festival draws musicians from around the world.
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is one of China's most awe-inspiring events.
The Voodoo festival in Benin, is an otherworldly cultural treat.
Ethiopia's Timkat is an authentic religious festival, full of colour, singing and drumming.
Rio Carnival, held every year in the week before Lent, is the world’s biggest party.
Learn the origins and traditions of Diwali, and how you can join in.
Invaluable festival vacation advice, from our expert responsible travel partners.
We look at some of the responsible travel issues around cultural festivals.