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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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