Central Asia has many spectator-friendly games. They usually revolve around showing how bad-ass you are, either while riding a horse, wrestling down your opponent or a combination of the 2. On horseback there’s buzkashi, archery, racing after a girl, picking up a coin from the ground, long distance racing and the aforementioned horseback wrestling.
Horse-less, there’s traditional wrestling and eagle hunting (although you can use a horse for that one too). Then there are the less macho sports: sheep bone throwing, the kids’ favourite, and the mancala-style game of wits known as toguz korgool or toguz kumalak.
Let’s go over them and find out where you might get to see or play them yourself.
Fun and games
Also known as ulak tartysh, kokpar or kokboru, in this game 2 teams of riders battle for the carcass of a dead goat to be thrown into the other team’s goal. Spectacular and brutal, it’s a crowd favourite. Find out when and where it’s played or check out a report from a Nowruz game.
Also known as jamby atu, the goal is to hit a target shooting backwards, while riding a horse in full gallop. Hungarians are actually the true masters of this sport, but it is making a small comeback in Central Asia.
Like the other horse games below, it’s usually only played on festivals – see the buzkashi article.
Known as audaryspak in Kazakhstan, er enish or oodarysh in Kyrgyzstan and tyiym enmei in Tajikistan, this is a sport for real men. Get the other guy of his horse and you win.
Girl-boy horse racing
Known as kyz kuyu or kyz-kuumai, this exciting horse race involves a boy and a girl chasing each other. First the boy chases the girl. He wins if he can kiss her. Next, the girl chases the boy and she wins if she can whip his ass.
Horseback coin picking
Tenge alu in Kazakh, this one seems to be a mostly Kazakh sport of incredible skill and agility, played in Kazakhstan and Western Mongolia. Try to pick as many coins off the floor while hanging to the side of your horse at full speed.
Long distance horse racing
Some races cover marathon distances of 40+ kilometers. The At Chabysh festival is the best place to join in, if you have a Kyrgyz horse.
The national sport all over the region. Every ethnic group has its own version and own name of wrestling. The rules are pretty similar: they all revolve around the same idea of flexing your muscles and getting your opponent to the ground, but the costumes change. Every decent-sized town will have a training center for wrestlers where you might spot them. Besides the Central Asian festivals, Naadam in Mongolia and Sabantuy in Tatarstan are the best times to see some wrestling.
There are different types of games for eagle hunters to show off their skill. Hunting live animals (salburun) is just one of them. Bird and trainer can also be tested with trials on speed, agility and cooperation skills. We’ve written extensively on the best time and places to see eagle hunting.
Sheep bone throwing
Shagai (in Mongolian), chuko (in Kyrgyz) and asyk or oshuk in Kazakh respectively Tajik refers to the anklebones of a sheep (or a goat). They resemble dice and kids have invented tons of games to play with them. Hitting a target from a distance, long-distance racing, shooting at other bones to get them to point the same way up, or hit them out of a circle, …
Get some for your kid if he (it’s mostly a boy’s game) is keen to practice before he makes some friends on his trip. As the last Playstation hits the dump, it will be to the sound of sheep bones hitting the ground.
Toguz korgool / toguz kumalak
A descendant of the great family of counting and sowing games called mancala, this variant is played in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It looks deceptively simple, but it’s not – statisticians will do well here.
The rules are explained on Wikipedia and there’s an active community on IgGames where you can find some really good players to play against. Toguz korgool/kumalak can also be played on your Android phone. The best app for multiplayer is this one, to play against the computer try Algebra of Nomads. For tactical advice, visit this strategy page.
It’s a good game, apparently enjoying the biggest popularity among the brainiacs of Northeast Kazakhstan.