Like all good Central Asia stories, it both starts and ends with a cold beer and a couple sticks of sheep shashlyk. One moment a late night chat over ways to make inroads in Kyrgyzstan, and seemingly the next talking my way past security and picking up a Press Pass for the World Nomad Games.
Which, really, is what the life of the traveler is all about I think. One moment you’re sitting around chewing the not-at-all-proverbial fat of a sheep’s ass, and the next you’re on the field for the Opening Ceremony of the most impressive festival modern Kyrgyzstan has ever hosted and all of a sudden the President is like ten feet away and you’re bemoaning something as mundane as the focal ring on your too-old camera.
When it seems like all the unusual you can handle for one night, when surely nothing else odd can happen so you may as well pack up and go home, that’s when somebody sets a horse on fire and sends it flying down the race track underneath an equally toasty rider.
Working with the Press Corps for the World Nomad Games is equal parts amazement and frustration and absolutely entirely photogenic. Even when a trained eagle is bearing down on a cowed wolf, a wolf who has played this particular role of victim so many times that he has learned to simply go limp and take the beating rather than try to fight for freedom, even during something so violent and morally off-putting the shutter never stops because the entire experience just seems so atemporal. Even Kok Boru, a holiday favorite and perhaps the most violently exciting (or is that excitingly violent?) sport I’ve ever seen, happens so many times that I eventually look at two teams about to start a match and think “You know… a cold bowl of noodles sounds exquisite right now.” Because if the Nomad Games has taught me anything, it is that there will always be another game of Kok Boru and another chance to get *the shot* as a hapless rider falls beneath a herd of hooves.
Everywhere I go every day for a week, something is happening that at any other time would be a highlight for a day or a week or a month. For one week, it seems that Issyk Kol has become some sort of Nomad Highlights Reel. Actors in historic costume reenacting a battle between clashing armies (with even more firey horsemen)? Check.
Horse races and Bride Chases? Check and check.
[That second one is an Event, mind, and not an Incident.]
A closing ceremony with Laser Shows and Daft Punk-ish Dancers and World Renown R&B Singer Ray Horton (Formerly of the Real Milli Vanilli)? Check and check and… check?
Because these World Nomad Games are a sports competition, to be sure, but they are at least equally if not more so a P.R. Exercise. A reason to focus attention on Central Asia and on Turkic Culture but more than anything on Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is in an uncomfortable position politically and economically, and along with wavering on joining the Eurasian Economic Union they’re betting heavily on tourism as a major source of income in the coming decade. Though organized in cooperation with Turkey and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan, these ‘Nomad Olympics’ are very much about showcasing Kyrgyzstan and all the things that make it great for travelers. And the Kyrgyz must be doing something right to have won over half of the medals awarded during the Games!
To be there at all is a lucky break and a reminder of many of the things that make not only Kyrgyzstan but also this whole often forgotten corner of the world such an interesting and exciting place to travel.
To be there with Press Pass access is the stuff of dreams, for writers and photographers and travelers alike. Central Asia is also, one should not forget, a place of opportunity for dreamers and adventurers and those who believe that can talk their way into anything. Though my primary argument for being part of the Press Corps had to do with my job in Bishkek, one Dutch couple from that first fateful table of shashlyk applied with no better grounds than “we’d kind of like to think about making a documentary” while a travel blogger buddy who published his first-ever paid travel writing on GoMad Nomad on September 7th went on to publish his second-ever paid travel writing on CNN Travel on September 19th.
I didn’t do so bad for myself, of course, with quite a few photos that I’m quite proud to have taken. But in between being charged by too-focused-to-care Horse Wrestlers or half-heartedly defending American cinema against an onslaught of slurred Russian from a slurry Russian in a packed minibus I was reminded of another conversation. Sitting in the office of the head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bishkek, this wise man said to me:
“Every man has one country with which he will truly fall in love. I have mine, and have for a long time. But if I were a younger man, if I were your age, it would be this country and these mountains and these people.”
But that story is a different story, and like all good Central Asia stories, starts and ends with a cold beer and a couple of sticks of sheep shashlyk.
[Note: If you’re looking for a more factual-reporting based summary of the World Nomad Games, visit my travel blog for more.]