Celebrating Nooruz (Persian New Year) in Bishkek

Ulak Tartysh Horse Games during Nooruz Persian New Year in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Posted by on March 18, 2016

Celebrating Nooruz (Persian New Year) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan


(Note: this Nooruz post originally published in 2014. Sadly I’m out of town for 2016 festivities, but hopefully next year I’ll be able to catch it in Bishkek or Tashkent or maybe even Tehran? Till then, sprazdnikom nooruz!)

Preparing for Nooruz new year celebrations in Bishkek. Local drink sumolok for sale on the streets of Bishkek during the Nooruz New Year celebrations.
As with any holiday worth the title, half the fun of Nooruz in Kyrgyzstan is in the lead-up for the week before the festival as the city prepares to have fun. In Bishkek this can be seen not just in new signs on Ala-Too Square or the increasing number of Kalpak hats around town, but even in the very weather itself. As the snow finally melts away and flowers start to bloom in the streets, it truly feels like time to celebrate the beginning of spring: Nooruz.

Outside the city center, a handful of women who look back towards rituals of the past will spend the week preparing to cook Sumolok. Picking out the earliest shoots of wheat and barley, watering them for 7 days before the festival, and then preparing the  mush ‘just so’ is a skill no longer known to most. Like the rest of the Nooruz traditions, this was forbidden during the Soviet era. Though  it seems to have lost most of the original Zoroastrian connections in Kyrgyzstan, the origins of Nooruz as a religious festival still made it anathema to the atheistic super state.
Training horses in the Bishkek Hippodrome in preparation for the Nooruz new year holiday.

One tradition that clearly hasn’t died, though, is that of the nomadic games. All week long teams have been training at the Hippodrome horse stadium. During the week the stands might have been somewhere between ‘not very crowded’ and ‘completely empty’ but on the day of Nooruz: full to the brim.

Crowds in Bishkek watching the Nooruz horse games.

I think I’ve made no small case for how much I love Ulak Tartysh – I think these nomadic-heritage games were one of the things that first really attracted me to Central Asia. For every major holiday that I know there will be a competition on, then, I plan my entire day around being out at the Hippodrome for as long as there are games to see.

Nooruz horse games at Bishkek's Ak-Kula Hippodrome.

Even if I refuse to stop talking about the Ulak Tartysh, there are plenty of other activities involved in the city’s celebrations. There are other traditional games, stuff like horse races and wrestling and alchiki (in which a sheeps’ joint is thrown at other alchiki on the ground – it reminds me very much of ‘Jacks’), as well as dancing and singing and general merriment on the streets.

Horse races at Bishkek's Ak-Kula Hippodrome during the Nooruz holiday.Playing national games on Bishkek's main ala-too Square during celebrations of the Nooruz persian new year holiday.Throwing alchiki for cash prizes in Bishkek's Ala-Too Square during the city's Nooruz celebrations.

The origin of the name Nooroz, from the Farsi for ‘New Day’, really does seem to be reflected in the attitude of the city. The winter cold is finally gone, and the seeds of Spring have already been sown. What more reason could one really need to get out and celebrate?

Symbolic soldiers guard the main Ala-Too Square in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan as Nooruz New Year celebrations go on all around.Nooruyz 2014 concerts on the central Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

This is the kind of Nooruz even Manas could be proud of.

If you’re in Bishkek for Nooruz the very budget-friendly Apple Hostel Bishkek gets great reviews, as does the slightly more central and also slightly more expensive Interhouse (both of which offer private rooms as well as dorms). If you’re looking upmarket, the Hyatt is on Sovietskaya and still easily accessible to the city center. 

As an aside, we’ve also published a quick and dirty guidebook to show tourists around for their first few days in Bishkek. This includes information, including a map, of where to get the minibus to Ala Archa. If you’re headed towards Kyrgyzstan and expect to need some help getting around, consider our Unanchor: Bishkek guide!


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5 Responses to Celebrating Nooruz (Persian New Year) in Bishkek

  1. The Runaway Guide

    What an amazing looking place. I’m so eager to explore central Asia. Looks like going back in time. Even though it’s the spring festival I bet it’s still cold as heck. Enjoy Stephen!

    • Stephen

      For the festivals, especially, it can often feel that way. Old traditional clothing, crazy horse games, etc. Still a bit chilly around here (especially in the mountains nearby) but slowly getting warmer. It will be good hiking weather soon!

  2. Joe Shaw

    I’m really loving reading about these Central Asian countries. I’ve always been fascinated with them – especially Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and I feel that they are pretty underrated in terms of tourism (probably because of everything that’s been happening in other parts of asia i.e Iraq/Iran etc..) I guess people feel like they are unsafe or not accessible. However these articles are really inspiring me to visit

    • Stephen

      Thanks Joe. Central Asia really is a fascinating region, and somewhere that has found it’s way deeply into my travel preferences. Check back over the summer for more, I’m hoping to spend a couple of months traveling through the region and then topping it off with an incredible festival in Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of September.

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