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

Geography

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.

History

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.

Culture

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.

Politics

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.

Economy

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.