A celebration of history and culture: the World Nomad Games

Nomad­ic cul­ture leaves a deep and col­our­ful imprint on Euras­i­an his­tory. Nomad­ic empires first arose as shad­ow empires in response to the cent­ral­isa­tion of China accord­ing to one of the main aca­dem­ic debates.

On the east­ern side of the steppe, neces­sity forced the nomads into cre­at­ing a cent­rally-admin­istered Mon­go­lia to con­duct poten­tially viol­ent busi­ness with China in order to main­tain their exist­ence. They did not have the capa­city to fight China head-on as their exist­ence was built around their mobil­ity in small num­bers – entirely dis­tinct from the sedent­ary cit­ies of the Chinese empire. Nomad­ic groups aimed to pre­serve their mobile life­styles, yet not in conquered lands. They adop­ted an imper­i­al-style admin­is­tra­tion sys­tem where they ruled indir­ectly through boy­ars or Rus­si­an noble­men col­lect­ing taxes for them.

Some argue that the arrival of the Mon­gol Empire con­trib­uted to the emer­gence and con­struc­tion of the European nation state. In con­trast, to the west of the steppe, nomads made a liv­ing not by viol­ent nego­ti­ations but by dom­in­at­ing the trad­ing net­work. These groups cre­ated the polit­ic­al frame­work for the Silk Route through policies provid­ing secur­ity to the cara­vans cross­ing Euras­ia, ensur­ing the smooth work­ing of the trade net­work that poten­tially con­trib­uted to European unity.

The World Nomad Games thrives to revive, pre­serve and devel­op this unique his­tory and eth­no­cul­tur­al par­tic­u­lar­it­ies of the nomad­ic civil­isa­tion in order to foster more tol­er­ant and open rela­tion­ships between people in the age of glob­al­isa­tion and amidst the polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic region­al trans­form­a­tions.

Turk­menistan’s per­form­ance at the open­ing cere­mony of the II World Nomad Games

Every two years, begin­ning from 2014, the Games take place in the lakeside town of Chol­pon-Ata, in the Issyk-Kul province of Kyrgyz­stan, although the host­ing loc­a­tion is set to change for future games. This year, ath­letes from 74 coun­tries par­ti­cip­ated in 37 tra­di­tion­al nomad games, involving horse games, wrest­ling, mar­tial arts, arch­ery, hunt­ing and intel­lec­tu­al games. The zeinth of strength and show­man­ship is found in horse game of Kok Boru (some­times known as Buzkashi). The game is described as a fusion between rugby and polo, with two teams com­pet­ing to throw a head­less car­cass of a goat into a goal at each end of the field. Tra­di­tion­ally the win­ner would take the car­cass home and cook it up in a feast.

Er Ern­ish, anoth­er Kyrgyz sport, sees two ath­letes wrestle on horse­back seek­ing to dis­mount their oppon­ent. Wrest­ling is the most rep­res­en­ted sport at the Games with fif­teen dif­fer­ent types on offer from the par­ti­cip­at­ing coun­tries, includ­ing Alyh, or belt wrest­ling, where the par­ti­cipants throw the oppon­ent on the ground by grabbing their belt around their waist.

Par­ti­cipants do not only com­pete in eth­no­s­ports but also in every­day activ­it­ies of nomads, such as yurt build­ing, hunt­ing with a golden eagle (Burkut Saluu), fal­conry (Dal­ba Oynotuu), dog racing, and hunt­ing (Taigan Jary­sh).

Kaza­kh ath­lete with his golden eagle

While Chol­pon-Ata hosts the sports games, the cul­tur­al base is the town of Kyrchyn Jail­oo in the moun­tains, dis­play­ing per­form­ances of Kyrgyz cus­toms, enter­tain­ment and games and those of the par­ti­cip­at­ing coun­tries. These eth­no­cul­tur­al shows intro­duce the dances, fash­ion, bazaars, and music of the nomads – embra­cing their ori­gin­al­ity and diversity. In the extens­ive yurt camp set up both by the offi­cial organ­isers and loc­al Kyrgyz fam­il­ies as accom­mod­a­tion, guests can exper­i­ence Cent­ral Asi­an hos­pit­al­ity, tra­di­tion­al cuisine, horse tax­is, and hot air bal­loon rides in the moun­tains.

Nomad­ic yurt vil­lage at the Games

Unsur­pris­ingly, the 2018 World Nomad Games were won by Kyrgyz­stan, with Kaza­kh­stan in second, and Rus­sia on the third place. At the clos­ing cere­mony, Kyrgyz­stan cere­mo­ni­ally handed a ves­sel of gla­cial water ‑the totem of the Games sym­bol­ising sim­ul­tan­eously both life and the dif­fi­culty of find­ing fresh water – and the book of great win­ners to Tur­key, who will host the next Games in 2020.

The World Nomad Games were broad­cas­ted all over the world in over 60 coun­tries, the sports, tra­di­tions, cul­tures and lives of nomads reached hun­dreds of mil­lions of people. With such an extens­ive cel­eb­ra­tion of the nomad­ic cul­ture and his­tory the com­ment­at­or of the second Games was right: ‘If Genghis Khan were alive, he would be here’.

Fact File: Tajikistan

Name Repub­lic of Tajikistan
Pop­u­la­tion 8,734,951
Cap­it­al city Dush­anbe
Offi­cial lan­guage Tajik, but Rus­si­an is widely used in the gov­ern­ment­al and busi­ness sphere
Reli­gions Sunni Muslim (85%), Shia Muslim (5%), oth­er (10%)
Life expect­ancy 69.7 Years
Pop­u­la­tion growth 1.62%
GDP $6.9 bil­lion
HDI 0.627 (129th)
GINI 30.8 (133rd)
Pres­id­ent Emomali Rah­mon


Situ­ated in the heart of Cent­ral Asia, the Repub­lic of Tajikistan is bordered by Uzbek­istan from the west, Kyrgyz­stan from the north, China from the east, and Afgh­anistan from the west, which provides a polit­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant loc­a­tion to the coun­try. Its com­plex land­scape is paired with a sharply con­tin­ent­al cli­mate, includ­ing areas with desert and sub­trop­ic­al cli­mate. Ninety-five per cent of the sur­face is covered with moun­tains, the two most sig­ni­fic­ant being the Pamir and the Alay Moun­tains, which are the sources gla­ci­er fed rivers, upon which the country’s hydro­power eco­nomy is built. Tajikistan is rich in oth­er nat­ur­al resources as well, such as urani­um, which allows for an influ­en­tial polit­ic­al stand­point, a vari­ety of pre­cious metals, namely gold and sil­ver. Its envir­on­ment­al fea­tures con­sid­er­ably influ­ence the chal­lenges Tajikistan faces, par­tic­u­larly fre­quent flood­ing and land­slides com­ing from the melt­ing gla­ciers due to cli­mate change.

The Pamir Moun­tains, viewed from the Pamir High­way, Tajikistan.


Tajikistan has always been at the cross­road of mag­ni­fi­cent cul­tures. The Tajiks emerged as a dis­tinct eth­nic group in the eight cen­tury. At the same time, Arab invaders conquered Cent­ral Asia, intro­du­cing Islam to the region, which still has a prom­in­ent influ­ence today. East­ern, espe­cially Chinese cul­tur­al effects influ­enced the region through the trade on the Silk Road, which had three main routes cross­ing the cur­rent ter­rit­ory of Tajikistan. Dur­ing the course of cen­tur­ies a wide vari­ety of cul­tur­al forces influ­enced the area as a res­ult of its annex­a­tion to the Per­sian, the Mon­gol, and the Timur­id Empire, before fall­ing under Rus­si­an rule in the 1860s, and becom­ing part of the Soviet Uni­on in 1921.

After more than a hun­dred years of Rus­si­an dom­in­a­tion, pro-demo­crat­ic protests emerged in Dush­anbe, and with the fall of the USSR, Tajikistan declared inde­pend­ence on the 9 Septem­ber in 1991. As a res­ult of the protests, the first dir­ect pres­id­en­tial elec­tions were held. How­ever, a year later, anti-gov­ern­ment protests swept through the streets of Dush­anbe escal­at­ing into a civil war which took 20,000 lives, and demol­ished the indus­tri­al and agri­cul­tur­al sec­tors of the eco­nomy. Sub­sequently, Emomali Rah­mon became the new head of state, and is still serving as pres­id­ent to the present day.


The gov­ern­ment act­ively pro­motes defin­ing and defend­ing the tra­di­tion­al Tajik cul­ture. Rus­si­an-style sur­names are out­lawed, and even though 85% of the pop­u­la­tion is Sunni and 5% is Shia Muslim, Arab­ic-style beards and hijabs are banned, as they don’t reflect reli­gi­os­ity, and people should ‘love God with their hearts’. Women are encour­aged to dress in tra­di­tion­al, bright col­oured cot­ton dresses and long skirts, while men wear caps lined with black lamb skin.

An early col­our pho­to­graph by Sergey Prok­ud­in-Gor­sky shows Tajik boys and men, prob­ably around 1910.

The Tajik cul­ture, with its legendary hos­pit­al­ity, is very fam­ily cent­ric. Wed­dings were his­tor­ic­ally cel­eb­rated over the course of sev­en days, how­ever this is now restric­ted by the gov­ern­ment as a res­ult of the huge expenses such fest­iv­it­ies incur. Today, the most widely cel­eb­rated fest­ivals are reli­gious ones, such as the Muslim New Year, or Qurb­an Eid, for which entire vil­lages get togeth­er and pre­pare tra­di­tion­al dishes, such as the ‘kabuli pulao’, which is a rice based dish with shred­ded yel­low turnip or car­rot, meat, and olive oil. The Tajik cul­ture has dif­fer­ent music for dif­fer­ent occa­sions, but tra­di­tion­ally, there is a solo instru­ment, such as the ‘daf’, for per­cus­sions, that can be traced back to the four­teenth cen­tury, accom­pan­ied by singing. The clas­sic­al nation­al dance, which is emo­tions driv­en and ener­get­ic, is also an essen­tial fea­ture of cel­eb­ra­tions.

The Tajik lit­er­at­ure is a prom­in­ent com­pon­ent of the cul­ture too. Whilst dur­ing Rus­si­an rule, lit­er­at­ure had to com­ply with the offi­cial views; pro­du­cing pieces about the civil war, indus­tri­al­isa­tion and col­lect­iv­isa­tion; the most well-known epic poetry ori­gin­ates back to long before the USSR, to the tenth cen­tury. Shahname, trans­lated as the Book of Kings. It is the world’s longest poem cre­ated by a single poet, Fir­dowsī. His piece has been the inspir­a­tion for many Tajik movies made in the country’s own film stu­dio, which was estab­lished, along with numer­ous theatres and museums, by the art-favour­ing Soviet Uni­on. Tajik people are fond of sports as well, the most pop­u­lar being foot­ball, with the nation­al team com­pet­ing in FIFA. Giv­en the geo­graph­ic­al con­di­tions, hik­ing, climb­ing and ski­ing are favoured as well.


The state of Tajikistan is a pres­id­en­tial repub­lic with a dom­in­ant party sys­tem. The head of state is Emomali Rah­mon sice 1992, who has recently declared him­self a Lead­er of the Nation. Ori­gin­ally, pres­id­ents are elec­ted for a max­im­um of two terms, each which lasts sev­en years, how­ever, Rah­mon has held a ref­er­en­dum which allowed him to serve four con­sec­ut­ive terms. Elec­tions are inter­na­tion­ally cri­ti­cised as neither fair, nor free, espe­cially since ban­ning the main oppos­i­tion party. The pres­id­ent cap­tures every oppor­tun­ity to con­sol­id­ate his power, which is also expressed by build­ing a tea house worth 1% of GDP, a new city in the desert, and set­ting up the tallest flag pole. Moreover, inde­pend­ent press is restric­ted, along with web con­tent.

Due to the unstable domest­ic polit­ics, edu­ca­tion and pub­lic health­care are not suf­fi­ciently sup­por­ted. Access to edu­ca­tion is lim­ited by indi­vidu­al resources, and health­care is only present in the urb­an areas, push­ing most people into prim­it­ive liv­ing con­di­tions. With regards to inter­na­tion­al polit­ics, Tajikistan is geo­pol­it­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant. The state has co-oper­ated both with Rus­sia, with respect to counter-extrem­ist and drug-traf­fick­ing meas­ures; and the United States, in provid­ing non-mil­it­ary assist­ance for their oper­a­tions in Afgh­anistan. Moreover, their trade in resources with China has perked both polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic interest in Tajikistan. Islam­ic extrem­ism — espe­cially as a res­ult of spillover from the Afghan war, has become an increas­ing secur­ity threat in Tajikistan. Counter-meas­ures, such as cur­tail­ments of cul­tur­al expres­sion, have often been repress­ive, and poten­tially counter-pro­duct­ive.


Tajikistan is the poorest coun­try in the Cent­ral Asi­an region. How­ever, it has secured an exem­plary track-record in alle­vi­at­ing poverty, hav­ing halved rates of indi­gence since inde­pendece. Almost half of its GDP is made up of remit­tances sent home from over a mil­lion Tajiks work­ing is Rus­sia and Kaza­kh­stan, mak­ing Tajikistan the most remit­tance-depend­ent coun­try in the world. Hence, the eco­nom­ic uncer­tainty of Rus­sia poses a great threat to the Tajik eco­nomy, lead­ing to socio-polit­ic­al instabil­ity, if the migrant work­ers have to return home.

The main eco­nom­ic sec­tors are agri­cul­ture and industry. Two-fifth of the pop­u­la­tion works in agri­cul­ture, which is mainly focused on cot­ton pro­duc­tion, rais­ing live­stock, and cul­tiv­at­ing fruits, veget­ables, grains, and rice. In spite of the sig­ni­fic­ant role of agri­cul­ture, food insec­ur­ity is a fierce chal­lenge for the coun­try, rely­ing highly on food import. With regards to industry, light industry is centered around agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion; hence, tex­tile and food-pro­cessing sec­tors are crit­ic­al to the intern­al eco­nomy. Heavy industry pre­dom­in­antly con­cerns coal min­ing and oil extrac­tion. The energy sec­tor is the prin­cip­al invest­ment sec­tor in the Tajik eco­nomy, and it has garnered increas­ing inter­na­tion­al atten­tion over recent years, espe­cially from China. Chinese invest­ments have pro­moted eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and trade in the region, largely in order to pro­mote and main­tain socioeco­nom­ic sta­bil­ity. One recent pro­jects to this end is the One Road, One Belt pro­ject, which aims to recon­struct the Silk Road, and build up a trad­ing link run­ning from China to Europe, through Cent­ral Asia.