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’.

Walking in forgotten lands: conservation in Kyrgyzstan

The rur­al climbs of Kyrgyz­stan are legendary. They are also under threat. Brett Wilson has been work­ing as part of an inter­na­tion­al effort to secure the future of Cent­ral Asia’s unique nat­ive flora.

One of many stun­ning views encountered in Kyrgyzstan’s Sary-Chelek Bio­sphere Reserve.

Cent­ral Asia was once the focus of trade across the world. The Silk Road ran from China across into Europe span­ning the moun­tains and val­leys of Asia’s cent­ral region. How­ever, as this region became absorbed into the USSR, its links to the West­ern world were broken and the trans­fer of know­ledge regard­ing this region’s biod­iversity was, unfor­tu­nately, lim­ited due to rising ten­sions between coun­tries. Today, after the break­up of the Soviet Uni­on and the inde­pend­ence of coun­tries such as Kyrgyz­stan and Kaza­kh­stan, the sci­entif­ic and envir­on­ment­al depart­ments of these coun­tries are grow­ing and the amaz­ing spe­cies diversity that these areas hold is becom­ing appar­ent.

I worked in the Repub­lic of Kyrgyz­stan in one of the biod­iversity hot­spots of the world, the wal­nut-fruit forest. These forests are thought to be the ori­gin of an incred­ible vari­ety of fruits and nuts such as apples, pears, apricots, wal­nuts, and pista­chio nuts as well as a range of flowers includ­ing tulips. Due to the his­tory of these coun­tries, little research has been car­ried out in these forests espe­cially with regard to some of the more Endangered spe­cies. The land­scapes where these spe­cies are found are heav­ily util­ised by the loc­al human pop­u­la­tion. The resources gathered from these forests have helped sup­port loc­al com­munit­ies for thou­sands of years and con­tin­ue to be an excep­tion­ally import­ant part of loc­al cul­ture and life.

Farm­ing and forest are nev­er far apart in the Kyrgyz land­scape. 

The forest eco­sys­tem, how­ever, is under pres­sure due to over­har­vest­ing of resources and excess­ive live­stock graz­ing with­in the forest land­scape. This is greatly lim­it­ing the regen­er­a­tion capa­city of the forest and may mean that these areas are not sus­tained for future gen­er­a­tions. As the loc­al pop­u­la­tions con­tin­ue to increase, this prob­lem also escal­ates. The remain­ing hab­it­at frag­ments are becom­ing more dam­aged and pop­u­la­tions of many fruits and nuts are declin­ing dra­mat­ic­ally. Numer­ous spe­cies loc­ated in these forests have been iden­ti­fied as threatened and in need of urgent con­ser­va­tion action. How­ever, lim­ited inform­a­tion on these forest sys­tems and the spe­cies with­in greatly inhib­its the tar­get­ing and there­fore the effect­ive­ness of any action planned.

I stud­ied the apple spe­cies Malus niedzwet­zky­ana, already on the Endangered list, with the hope of redu­cing the know­ledge gaps sur­round­ing threats to this spe­cies and its eco­logy. The apple is unique as it has a red pig­ment which per­meates through its leaves, flowers and fruit leav­ing red-tinged leaves, a deep red fruit from its skin through to its flesh, and pink flowers. This red pig­ment is a type of antho­cy­an­in which has been shown to have bene­fi­cial health prop­er­ties, with anti-inflam­mat­ory and anti-vir­al being two of the most sig­ni­fic­ant. Its unique genet­ic makeup high­lights it as a crit­ic­al spe­cies to pro­tect as it has import­ant poten­tial use in devel­op­ing new apple vari­et­ies.

The red fruit of the Niedzwetzky’s apple tree. The unique pig­ment­a­tion of this spe­cies makes it iden­ti­fi­able against oth­er apple spe­cies.

Work­ing with Fauna and Flora Inter­na­tion­al and Imper­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, I col­lec­ted data in four forest frag­ments that were known to be strong­holds of the wal­nut-fruit forest eco­sys­tem and where loc­al com­munit­ies were will­ing to provide sup­port to con­ser­va­tion prac­tices. Dur­ing my trip, I loc­ated around 150 indi­vidu­als [the largest data­set known glob­ally] and recor­ded the extent of threats from live­stock graz­ing and fire­wood col­lec­tion across these areas. I also explored the basic eco­logy of the spe­cies and developed a spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el to invest­ig­ate his­tor­ic­al forest cov­er and try to devel­op evid­ence for past hab­it­at loss.

By gath­er­ing this inform­a­tion, I have been able to con­trib­ute to the pro­tec­tion of an icon­ic Cent­ral Asi­an land­scape and change the fate of one of its more unique spe­cies.

My research high­lighted that all forest frag­ments were greatly affected by humans.  How­ever, in the sites of Sary-Chelek Bio­sphere Reserve and Kara-Alma Forestry Unit, there was poten­tial to strengthen excep­tion­ally stressed pop­u­la­tions through sap­ling plant­ing pro­jects. I iden­ti­fied south-west slopes with rel­at­ively open can­opy as good areas to plant sap­lings. Using the spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el, I provided evid­ence that the his­tor­ic­al range of this spe­cies was much lar­ger than its cur­rent range, high­light­ing the effect of hab­it­at loss. This affects not only Malus niedzwet­zky­ana but the whole com­munity found in the wal­nut-fruit forests.

By gath­er­ing this inform­a­tion, I have been able to con­trib­ute to the pro­tec­tion of an icon­ic Cent­ral Asi­an land­scape and change the fate of one of its more unique spe­cies. This work is crit­ic­al in design­ing the con­ser­va­tion actions that will pro­tect this spe­cies in the future and the com­munity in which it grows. To have been able to explore a scarcely known corner of the world, walk­ing through the forests where few have been before, was a truly remark­able exper­i­ence. The con­trast of Rus­si­an and Turk­ish influ­ences along­side the unique tra­di­tions of the region make this a ver­it­able cul­tur­al melt­ing pot. This region, hid­den from the world I grew up in, is full of incred­ible people, excit­ing nature, and won­der­ful oppor­tun­it­ies, a land which I hope the rest of the world will come to appre­ci­ate as I have done.


Brett Wilson car­ried out his research with the sup­port of Fauna and Flora Inter­na­tion­al, The Roy­al Botan­ic Gar­dens, Kew, and Imper­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, with fund­ing from the Glob­al Trees Cam­paign. His interests lie in tree con­ser­va­tion research and he is cur­rently an intern at Botan­ic Gar­dens Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tion­al where he works on pro­tect­ing tree spe­cies world­wide.

All pho­to­graphy by the author.

Cheques through the mail: the changing nature of Central Asia’s remittance economy

Central Asian nations must supersede historic economic ties with Russia both by fostering employment and investment links elsewhere, and by generating a meaningful internal economy.

A work­er moves fish at a pro­cessing plant in Aral­sk, Kaza­kh­stan.

The eco­nom­ies of Uzbek­istan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyz­stan are heav­ily depend­ent on remit­tances from migrant labour­ers in Rus­sia. Tajikistan is the most remit­tance-depend­ent coun­try in the world, with four in ten adult males seek­ing employ­ment abroad. The increased move­ment of people across post-Soviet Euras­ia echoes the his­tor­ic­al con­nectiv­ity and cross-cul­tur­al inter­ac­tions with­in the region. These young work­ers have found employ­ment in low-income jobs indus­tries such as con­struc­tion sites and nat­ur­al resource extrac­tion.

Accord­ing to the World Bank, remit­tance inflows in Tajikistan rep­res­en­ted 42% of the country’s GDP in 2014. At an indi­vidu­al level, remit­tances sup­port the daily sub­sist­ence of poor fam­il­ies, and act as a medi­um for domest­ic con­sump­tion. In turn, this improves the bal­ance of pay­ments by provid­ing gov­ern­ments with tax from goods pur­chased through remit­tances. How­ever, remit­tances to Cent­ral Asia have begun to dimin­ish.

Coun­try 2015 2016
Uzbek­istan $3 bil­lion $2.74 bil­lion
Tajikistan $2.2 bil­lion $1.9 bil­lion
Kyrgyz­stan $1.5 bil­lion $1.7 bil­lion

Remit­tances from Rus­sia to Cent­ral Asia, www.eurasianet.org

The above fig­ures demon­strate the decline of remit­tances from Rus­sia to Cent­ral Asia. This fall is linked to devel­op­ments in the glob­al eco­nomy. The glob­al plunge in oil prices has caused a slump in the Rus­si­an eco­nomy, trig­ger­ing a reces­sion.

Migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face tougher immigration laws as the two countries do not belong to the Eurasian Economic Union”

West­ern sanc­tions imposed after Moscow’s annex­a­tion of Crimea has fur­ther com­poun­ded the eco­nom­ic crisis. These two devel­op­ments have res­ul­ted in a devalu­ation of the Rouble and thus the value in dol­lars of remit­tances. The weak­ness of the rouble has res­ul­ted in the fall­ing of real wages in Rus­sia. Eco­nom­ic deteri­or­a­tion in Rus­sia has, in turn, lowered demand for Cent­ral Asia labour, for­cing migrant work­ers to return home. Moreover, migrant work­ers from Tajikistan and Uzbek­istan face tough­er immig­ra­tion laws as the two coun­tries do not belong to the Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on. This phe­nomen­on has also affected migrant work­ers from the Cau­cas­us. It will be inter­est­ing to see if the lack of employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies in Rus­sia pre­cip­it­ates a flow of migra­tion to oth­er coun­tries in Europe or Asia.

Bey­ond Rus­si­a’s eco­nom­ic trav­ails, a remit­tance-depend­ant eco­nomy sig­nals low levels of invest­ment (and thus a lack of pro­duct­ive non-primary jobs), declin­ing terms of trade, and per­sist­ent vul­ner­ab­il­ity to the vicis­situdes of the glob­al eco­nom­ic cli­mate. Moreover, the iter­at­ive waves of emig­ra­tion serve to under­mine the fra­gile nation­al con­scious­ness in nas­cent demo­cra­cies and cause a vari­ety of social frac­tures as a con­sequence of wide­spread absent­ee­ism. Hence there is a need both to move away from Rus­si­an depend­ence, and the remit­tance eco­nomy itself.

Increased foreign direct investment (FDI) from China and Turkey highlight the geopolitical shifts occurring in the region.”

The struc­tur­al over-reli­ance on remit­tances have cre­ated an eco­nom­ic dilemma for Cent­ral Asi­an gov­ern­ments. Lower remit­tances have engendered a fall in eco­nom­ic growth as the pur­chas­ing power of cit­izens dimin­ish. Tak­ing into account the excess­ive debt affect­ing these coun­tries, gov­ern­ments are forced to increase spend­ing, thereby exacer­bat­ing fisc­al defi­cits.

How­ever, the com­bin­a­tion of estab­lished migrant com­munit­ies from Cent­ral Asia in Rus­sia and the ease of assim­il­a­tion via a shared lan­guage act as recal­cit­rant bar­ri­ers to swift trans­itions in the nature of Cent­ral Asi­an remit­tance eco­nom­ies.

Clearly, these coun­tries must seek altern­at­ive solu­tions and diver­si­fy their eco­nom­ies. Increased for­eign dir­ect invest­ment (FDI) from China and Tur­key high­light the geo­pol­it­ic­al shifts occur­ring in the region. Increased invest­ment in infra­struc­ture will reduce the depend­ency on remit­tances and stim­u­late the employ­ment mar­ket in a region that offers cheap­er labour than its neigh­bours. The pur­suit of altern­at­ive cur­rency inflows sig­nals a region will­ing to adapt and evolve to changes in the glob­al eco­nomy.

China is cur­rently the largest investor in the region. Its Silk Road Eco­nom­ic Belt (SREB), estab­lished in 2013, offers an altern­at­ive to eco­nom­ic strategies ori­ented towards Rus­sia. Like­wise, the Beijing-led Asi­an Infra­struc­ture Invest­ment Bank rep­res­ents a nov­el source of fund­ing for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and infra­struc­ture-build­ing in Cent­ral Asi­an states. As Cent­ral Asia re-ori­ents itself in the glob­al eco­nomy, it is faced by a pleth­ora of oppor­tun­it­ies, chal­lenges, and poten­tial traps. Will lead­ers look bey­ond Moscow and seek friend­ship else­where?

Banking on Islam: Central Asia’s future in the world of Islamic finance

Unsur­pris­ingly, things changed in Cent­ral Asia after the end of the USSRLike Rus­sia, industry was privat­ised and mar­ket cap­it­al­ism embraced. How­ever a less obvi­ous trans­ition is the uptake in Islam­ic fin­ance (IF) facil­it­ies, both as a com­mer­cial source of invest­ment and liquid­ity, and private bank­ing ser­vices.

The fin­an­cial dis­trict in Almaty, Kaza­kh­stan, where Islam­ic has its first foothold in Cent­ral Asia.

Accord­ing to Reu­ters, Islam­ic fin­ance growth world­wide has been double-digit since 2000, and this trend is mani­fest­ing in Cent­ral Asia with the emer­gence of new facil­it­ies and incor­por­a­tion into wider glob­al IF net­works. Islam­ic fin­ance is struc­tured by, and com­plies with, sharia law — espe­cially in con­sid­er­a­tion to the goods and ser­vices it funds (for example, pork or alco­hol) and the pro­hib­i­tion of par­tic­u­lar forms of interest. These insti­tu­tions have grown in tan­dem with a glob­al reviv­al of Islam­ic iden­tity since the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, and a dis­il­lu­sion­ment with ‘west­ern’ bank­ing forms and the per­ceived reg­u­lar­ity of their fail­ure to suc­cess­fully under­write risk. In tan­dem, the Soviet policy of reli­gious sup­pres­sion once enforced in Cent­ral Asia was lif­ted after inde­pend­ence, cre­at­ing a region­al renais­sance of Islam­ic obser­va­tion and expres­sion across this Muslim major­ity region, which fur­ther facil­it­ates the enthu­si­ast­ic embrace of IF.

To vary­ing degrees oth­er Cent­ral Asi­an nations have embraced Islam­ic fin­ance (most not­ably Kyrgyz­stan), but Kaza­kh­stan leads the way in the devel­op­ment of IF. In 2009 Kaza­kh­stan became the first former-Soviet nation to issue IF guidelines, and in 2010 the first Islam­ic fin­an­cial insti­tu­tion — Al Hilal Bank — was gran­ted a license to trade through an inter­gov­ern­ment­al agree­ment between Kaza­kh­stan and Abu Dhabi. Since then, a pre­vi­ously con­ven­tion­al bank — Zaman — became an inter­na­tion­ally recog­nised Islam­ic Fin­ance insti­tu­tion, and in 2015 the gov­ern­ment out­lined its policy object­ives for the future of IF, with optim­ist­ic tar­gets set for 2020. Kaza­kh­stani gov­ern­ment­al sup­port for Islam­ic Fin­ance has included grow­ing mul­ti­lat­er­al cooper­a­tion with more estab­lished IF reg­u­lat­ory bod­ies, includ­ing the Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Board (IFSB), the Account­ing and Audit­ing Organ­isa­tion for Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Insti­tu­tions (AAOIFI), and the Inter­na­tion­al Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Mar­kets (IIFM). Fur­ther­more the Islam­ic Devel­op­ment Bank (IDB) has com­mit­ted to fin­an­cing invest­ment in infra­struc­ture and indus­tri­al pro­jects val­ued at $1.5 bil­lion, demon­strat­ing the impact of glob­al IF net­works.

Undoubtedly, the com­par­at­ively recent rein­sti­tu­tion of Islam across Cent­ral Asia has con­trib­uted massively to the uptake of Islam­ic fin­ance, a new reli­gi­os­ity (not neces­sary con­fined to Islam) equally per­vad­ing the pop­u­la­tion and the insti­tu­tions that uphold these society’s struc­tures. How­ever more prag­mat­ic inter­pret­a­tions of IF’s rise in the region have been mooted by for­eign schol­ars. Sebasti­an Peyrouse high­lights the poten­tial polit­ic­al bene­fits accrued by estab­lished Islam­ic states (includ­ing the Gulf States and Malay­sia) through the use of IF as a vehicle for closer eco­nom­ic, polit­ic­al and religious/ideological rela­tions. On the oth­er hand Dav­in­ia Hog­garth at Chath­am House high­lights IF as part of a wider ‘multi-vec­tor’ strategy which, in Kaza­kh­stan espe­cially, seeks to reduce eco­nom­ic reli­ance on any single for­eign part­ner by embra­cing invest­ment from a max­im­um num­ber of sources. Although cur­rent estim­ates sug­gest that Islam­ic fin­ance is of min­im­al scale in Cent­ral Asia, the con­sequences of its growth undeni­ably are not lim­ited to com­mer­cial and fin­an­cial interests, and IF’s growth will surely be tracked intently by inter­na­tion­al busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments alike.

Observ­ers must be real­ist­ic when not­ing this upwards IF trend. After all, even as the Cent­ral Asi­an nation with the deep­est rela­tion­ship with Islam­ic fin­ance, Kazakhstan’s tar­get for total IF bank­ing assets by 2020 is only 3 – 5 per­cent of the nation­al , while IF assets today make up only one per­cent. How­ever Reu­ters’ out­look for Islam­ic fin­an­cial invest­ment ranks Astana as a top rank des­tin­a­tion, with mul­tiple inter­na­tion­ally trad­ing banks includ­ing Al Baraka and May­Bank show­ing interest in Kazakhstan’s bour­geon­ing Islam­ic fin­ance mar­kets. The major­ity-Muslim pop­u­la­tion of Cent­ral Asia is cur­rently an untapped cus­tom­er base for IF insti­tu­tions, while gov­ern­ments across the region are real­ising the invest­ment oppor­tun­it­ies of IF as an altern­at­ive to Rus­si­an and Chinese sources. Though young, Islam­ic fin­ance seems likely to expand through­out Cent­ral Asia in the com­ing years.