Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day Holiday:
Celebrating Nomad Style
Holidays are always an awesome time to travel, and Independence Day is a particularly fine festivity. No matter whether Hot Dogs and Fireworks for the 4th of July in the US or Military Parades on Bastille Day in Paris, Independence Day holidays are usually a combination of patriotism and tradition and more than a little raucous celebration. But of course, not every country can celebrate with the panache of Kyrgyzstan.
As both a male and a foreigner, my interest is always drawn inexorably towards the Ak-Kula Hippodrome and the horse games there. This is a traditionally male-dominated environment, to be sure, and like any big sporting event it attracts a fair amount of bravado and celebration and overripe team spirit. It also happens to be fantastically photogenic.
[Females should have no fear, but you will certainly be in the minority once you get there.]
I’ve written at length about Buzkashi/Kok Boru/ Ulak Tartysh (the sport of many names apparently), so I’ll spare you the finer points and rules. Suffice to say: two teams, stuffed body of a dead goat, horseback players fighting to sling said goat into their big concrete goal-bowls on either side of the field. I watch it every chance I get, and if you ever make it to Central Asia you absolutely should as well.
Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the Soviet Union on August 31st of 1991, shortly after changes within the government of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic itself and immediately following an attempted coup in Moscow. Local blogger Ianbek has written in depth about it, but after years of growing tendencies towards separatism within the USSR and even though the Kyrgyz SSR had supported a referendum in March of ’91 to stay with the Union it was one of a number of countries to declare independence in the wake of the coup attempt on Gorbachev. Given the political history, it should come as no surprise that many of the celebrations involved with the Independence Day holiday in Kyrgyzstan are throwbacks to the traditional nomadic culture of the country.
Not only Kok-Boru, but horse races and wrestling and street games involving sheeps’ bones are all to be found. Celebrations of strength and skill, all, but also special events that aren’t often found on the streets of Bishkek aside from major holidays. And of course, food! There is none of the Sumolok of the Nowruz festival (thankfully!), but just you try to walk down a busy pedestrian area on Independence Day without stumbling over four or five ladies selling Oromo and Samsa and ice cream all around.
Beyond the ‘local’ and ‘traditional’ and ‘nomadic’ and all the other travel buzzwords, part of the appeal is (like any country during a big public holiday I think) just being in the midst of it all and seeing people having fun and spending time with their friends and family. Generally from early afternoon and on into the night there will be singing and dancing on a big stage at the central Ala-Too Square. Even better, at least to my mind, is the scene in the several parks surrounding Ala-Too. Young couples sit in the grassy shade while old Babushkas hog all the benches and keep half an eye on their grandkids. Throughout it all: Qalpaks (Kyrgyz hats) galore.
Oh, and what would any Independence Day be without a bit of fireworks in the center of town?
As if that weren’t enough already, there often is a folk music concert at the Philharmonia concert hall on the eve of Independence Day. These seem quite popular and a great place to hear some traditional tunes and see a lot of folks in nice national costume, but they also have concerts here quite often starting in September so don’t stress too much about getting there on Independence Day.
It can be difficult (as either a tourist or resident in Bishkek) to find a definite schedule of when/where/what happens on holidays like this. I’ve tended over the past few years to find that it works best to head out to the Ak-Kula Hippodrome before noon if you want to catch Kok-Boru or the races, and that you’ll generally be done there by three or four. This is often about the time the concerts and dance performances start in earnest at Ala-Too, which will go on until nine or later. If you want to catch the proper concert at the Philharmonia, check on tickets in advance and expect it to start around five or six or so.
If you’re in Bishkek as a tourist, the Hostel Inn is probably the closest accommodations to the Philharmonia (from where you can take a bus to the Pishpek Hippodrome) and Ala-Too square. Check them out – they’re also one of the cheapest city center accommodation options I know of. If you’re looking more upmarket, the Hyatt is a bit further on Sovietskaya but still very central to Ala-Too. Also be sure to check out my Bishkek Travel Guide for thoughts on other things to do in town once the holiday is over!