Known to many as the “roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains are home to quite a few superlatives. But nothing in the Pamirs elicits quite as deep a gasp as the pastime of a group of ethnic Tajiks living in China’s Taxkorgan Autonomous County, near China’s borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Buzkashi, a popular game among many Central Asian communities, is a sport in which riders grapple on horseback over an inflated goat carcass. In attempting to wrest the goat away from other competitors, riders often fall into large scrums, contorting their bodies while trying to keep their horses upright. Many fall off their horses, and deaths are not uncommon. Buzkashi may in fact be the most dangerous game in the world. In Taxkorgan, a region dominated by curtains of clouds, rocks, glacier ice, and snow, it is played atop yaks one day each year.
The World Nomad Games, held in Kyrgyzstan on September 3-8, drew participants from 40 countries, most of them from former Soviet Union. Competitions were held in over 20 different sports, including archery and javelin throwing, horse racing and several kinds of wrestling (some between individuals who stand in a ring, another between mounted riders). A sort of polo played with the headless body of a dead goat, known in Afghanistan as buzkashi and as kok-boru in Kyrgyzstan, is a particular favorite. A board game, toguz, somewhat similar to chess, is a less physical form of competition.
This event was the second World Nomad Games, following the first event in September 2014. This year’s event, like the earlier one, was held at Cholpon-Ata in Naryn Province of Kyrgyzstan, a small town on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, with striking views of the glacier-capped peaks of the Tien Shan.
These photographs demonstrate the vigor of the nomad traditions and the excitement of the participants. They document the importance of horses in nomad cultures, and demostrate other skills as well that have developed over the centuries among the pastoral populations who inhabit the high-elevation grasslands, many of them watered by glacier melt.