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Kok-boru is a popular horse game in Kyrgyzstan in which two teams of riders try to carry a goat or calf carcass into the opposing teams endzone. (© Igor Kovalenko / epa / Corbis)

Kok-Boru, the Horse Game You Won’t See at the Olympics

In Kyrgyzstan, traditional horse games offer a glimpse into Central Asia’s nomadic past

Unfortunately, Soviet authorities also contributed to the decimation of the native Kyrgyz horse – another marker of nomadic identity – by cross-breeding it with weaker European horses, according to Jacqueline Ripart, a French expatriate whose Bishkek-based Fondation Kyrgyz Ate works to protect surviving herds of the ancestral horses. Of the more than two million Kyrgyz horses roaming present-day Kyrgyzstan in the late 19th century, Ripart says, only a handful have survived.

After Kyrgyzstan declared independence in 1991, Kyrgyz authorities attempted to promote nomadic heritage – notably by including a representation of a yurt on the national flag and promoting Manas, the horse-mounted protagonist of an eponymous epic poem, as the Kyrgyz national hero. But they still haven’t made a broad-based effort to revive cultural activities that many Kyrgyz people associate with their past, says anthropologist Erica Marat. Kyrgyz elites are typically Russian-educated, she explains, and they view horse games and other markers of nomadic identity as “backward and uncool.”

But according to scholars, nomadic culture has been making comeback in Kyrgyzstan since the early 1990s. More Kyrgyz people are spending time in their yurts, listening to traditional Kyrgyz music, studying the Kyrgyz language (rather than simply speaking Russian, as they did under Soviet rule) and breeding horses, scholars say. The return to old ways isn’t always culturally motivated: In a country where about one in five are unemployed, many have turned to shepherding and other nomadic customs as a means of survival. Others have taken a renewed interest in traditional sports, music and arts in order to market the activities to tourists.

Ishen Obolbekov, the horse-trekking guide who arranged my trip to the horse games festival in eastern Kyrgyzstan, says he’s happy to celebrate the old nomadic ways even if their contemporary iterations aren’t perfectly authentic. “Of course horse games have been commercialized, but this is our history and our past,” he says. “If we stop playing them, our children might ask, ‘Father, did your father play internet games?’ Tourists also want to know who the Kyrgyz people are and what a nomad is. Horse games are the proof.”

***

From Jolkolot, I caught a bus to Barskoon, Obolbekov’s hometown, and then a shared taxi to Bishkek, the leafy Kyrgyz capital.

In the spring of 2010, demonstrators stormed Bishkek’s presidential palace, toppling the president. Violence also engulfed the country’s restive south, killing more than 400, according to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Although a new president, Almazbek Atambayev, was elected last November, Kyrgyzstan remains unstable. International rights groups accuse the government of abusing ethnic Uzbeks, and United States and Russia are perennially vying for control of the country’s military bases, one of which is a key strategic outpost for the American-led NATO war in Afghanistan.

But as I strolled through Bishkek’s central square last summer, the place felt peaceful. Children played in a central fountain ringed by yellow flowers as street vendors sold kumiss, a traditional drink made from fermented mare’s milk, and construction workers tinkered on a nascent statue of Manas, Kyrgyzstan’s horse-mounted national hero.

Ishen Obolbekov was waiting for me near the construction site in sunglasses, a polo shirt and starched khakis. He led me across the square into an upscale café, where a menu advertised caviar and a flat-screen television blasted American music videos.

 “So,” he said over a raucous Eminen song. “How was the festival?”

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