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Naadam Horse Racing Mongolia
ULAAN BAATAR July 2-3 July 4-5 July 6 July 7-8

NAADAM July 9-10 July 11 July 12 July 13

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BALDAN BARAIVAN July 25-30 Intro About Baldan Baraivan Mani Buteel Buddhist Festival The Restoration Work Another Naadam & About CRTP

ULAAN BAATAR July 31-Aug 1
Naadam Horse Racing, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, July 12, 2003

Mongolia Flag NAADAM

July 9. UB The Naadam Festival We met Daka at 10:00 and had some breakfast at Bernard's before hopping in a taxi to the stadium.  There wasn't an obvious ticket window so we were glad to have Daka's help finding the office.  Unfortunately, the only had tickets left for one section that were available to foreigners.  The better tickets that provided seats with a good view of the opening ceremony had apparently been pre-sold so we were left with seats at the far end of the stadium.  They tried to make it seem like these were privileged seats because the area doubled as a stage and was covered from the sun but we would be as far as possible from the central point of the opening ceremony and had to pay $20 for the "privilege".  With no other apparent option we still bought the tickets.  The real joke was that the tickets only were needed for the stadium events - opening and closing ceremonies and the wrestling - everything else was outside the stadium and open to the public.  But, we didn't plan on coming to another Naadam Festival so we would make the most of this one.  

After buying our over-priced tickets we found our way to the nearby children's archery competition that was already under way.  The opening ceremony didn't happen for two more days but the Naadam events had already started.  Consequently there weren't any tourists watching this little event and enabled us to get a good look at Mongolian archery.  It was hard to determine the exact order of things.  The participants clearly knew what was going on but it seemed random to us whose turns was next.  A group of judges stood at the end of the field next to the rows of targets, what looked like clay blocks in the shape of coke cans.  Instead of penetrating a target with pointed arrows this style of archery had dull tips and the archers had to shoot up and land their arrows into the red painted area of targets.  The judges casually dodged the stray arrows and when one made the mark they all raised their hands and said a little chant.

After a half hour of archery viewing we at lunch at Millie's and walked to the bus station.  We wanted to get out of UB and see the Naadam Festival and old monastery in nearby Zuunmod.  It wasn't clear which buses went where and after searching for a while finally opted for a taxi.  The day was getting away from us and a taxi was quicker anyway.

Riding in the taxi out of UB we could really grasp the size of the city.  We were probably still within the greater area of UB for a good 15 minutes before our taxi turned off into the green expanse of the Mongolian steppe.  It was an abrupt change and the landscape went from apartment blocks, gas stations and power plants to nothing but green with a sporadic cluster of gers.  We arrived in Zuunmod in about 45 minutes.  It wasn't a pretty town but as we came down the hill into the town we could see the masses of people spilling out of the little town stadium.  Our taxi drove us up as close to the gate as possible to be rewarded by harassment from the local police.  For some reason we couldn't figure out the policeman took the taxi driver's license.  We felt bad for him but were in no position to intervene.  He waived us away like everything was fine but he would probably have a mess getting his license back.

The stadium backed up against the grass covered hills where clusters of temporary gers and tents were set up.  We pushed our way into the stadium (the Mongolians are skilled elbowers) and wedged our way into a spot where we could see.  A round of wrestling was starting and the judges and wrestlers were lining up on the field.  The lined up on two sides, one judge for each wrestler, like teams facing each other.  The wrestlers came out second and did a dance around their judge hanging on them and looking at their opponents.  The group then went up to the flag at the front of the stadium and addressed the main bandstand with their eagle dance.  It is a rather graceful dance for husky men in tight wrestling shorts.  With their arms soft flapping to the sides the turn right and left and then in a squatting position slap their front thighs and then their back thighs.  The outfits are traditional with most men wearing speedo-like bottoms in blue with white designs.  The vests were really unusual and covered their backs and upper arms, dipping down their backs a bit and wrapping only a little bit around the front where they tied.  Is was said that the vests used to cover the chest as well until a woman entered in disguise one year and won the event.  Their feet had heavy leather boots with slightly curled up toes and decorative thread.

We watched the wrestling round progress for a while.  It goes fast in the beginning as the better wrestlers take out the weaker ones.  All of the bouts go on simultaneously with two judges for each match.  When one wrestler touches any part of his body to the ground other than the palms of his hands or the bottom of his feet he has lost.  The loser does a small dance under the right arm of the winner and the winner goes off to prance around flag at the front of the stadium and then do his eagle dance again.  The winners also stopped to pick up some candies that they then threw into the air.  Gradually the group dwindles to the better wrestlers where the matches take more time to win.  It was quite an interesting sight.

After taking in our fill of wrestling we went out in search of a horse race.  We guessed it had to be in the direction of the ger camps and open landscape.  Watching the movement of the crowds it looked like there was a slow trend to the south so we head off in that direction.  After about 15 minutes of walking we started to come up on one of the ger camps and were passed by a group of young jockeys accompanied by their coaches.  The slowed with big smiles as they saw me taking their photo.  We pointed in the direction they were going and they nodded.  We hoped that meant the races were that way.  In the ger camp we stopped for a coke and tried to ask people where the races were held.  I drew a map of the camp and an arrow to the south with 15km and 30km next to it.  The races were that long and in UB they took place some distance from the stadium so we thought we might be in for a while.  A man returned my paper with 100m written on and he stood pointing.  We turned around and looked around the next row of gers to see flags waiving at the finish line.

When we reached the finish line it didn't look like much was going on.  We climbed into the judges booth where kids were hanging out and just waited.  If nothing else it provided some good views of the surrounding countryside and the constant flow of horse traffic in every possible direction.  The Mongolians were really something on their horses.  Even the littlest kids rode around on them like they were on BMX bikes without a care in the world.  Of course, the race jockeys were as young as 5 years old so these people learned how to handle a horse very young and it was clear that they were no more in their element than when they were on horses.  Off in the distance we could see herdsmen moving their herds of horse across the steppe.  The dust was incredible and created a soft haze over everything, including my teeth!

We had been standing on the platform for a good hour when everyone was forced out.  Some more official looking people took up their posts on the platform and people started to line up along the ropes on either side of the finish line.  It looked like something was going to happen after all.  We lined up along with all of the other pedestrians while everyone on horseback (a lot of them) lined up on the opposite side.  We still had a long wait and had to stand our ground to keep from getting pushed out of our front row location by a very aggressive family.  The grandmother was even blowing on my at one point since her pushing and leaning had failed to get me to move.  I didn't want to be selfish with our view but it didn't seem like the Mongolians on either side of were getting quite as much pressure to move so we weren't going to buckle under the special foreigner treatment.

The crowd really got lively when we started to see horses come over the horizon.  The winner was in front by a landslide but it was still something to see these little boys and girls come hurling across the steppe and across the finish line.  The first three to cross the finish were accompanied on their last 100 meters by a judge of some sort holding a number in the air with their place on it.  The larger group of horses that came in afterwards were even more fun to watch.  There were a number of neck and neck challenges going on and these little kids had their whips flying through the air to get that extra commitment from their horses.  Many were riding bareback or had just a soft pad for a saddle.  A couple of horses passed without any rider at all.  The safety of the jockey that fell is scary to think about but in terms of the race it is the horse that wins, not the jockey, so the rider-less horses still counted.

Once the first horse has crossed the finish line many people crowded around it to get a touch of the animals sweat.  The person who wipes some of the sweat of the winning horse on them is supposed to get some of the horses energy.  It was total chaos.

Once the majority of horses had crossed the finish line we wiggled our way out of the crowd and made our way back towards the stadium.  With the horses going every which way and and cars zipping around the dust was worse than ever.  We found ourselves a mini bus back to UB which was a cheap and easy way to get back going that direction.  When we jumped off the bus in UB and looked at each other we could see the layer of dust caked on our faces and clothes.   

July 10. UB  Still recovering from our dusty experience in Zuunmod we took a day off of Naadam.  There was still plenty more to come.  We picked up our DHL package, got ourselves some passport photos, took out another cash advance, searched bookstores for a Russian phrase book, tried to visit the Zanabazar Fine Art museum but found it closing early for Naadam, looked into minted coins but found the Finance Director in Seoul, and finally had a successful visit of Mongolia's stock exchange.

At the Zanabazar museum we spent some time looking at the broad collection of goods offered at its several gift shops.  They had used horse stirrups by famous artists, Soviet era pins, antique knife sets, and an array of artwork from local artists.  The most popular theme was images from the famous "One Day in Mongolia", a painting depicting all aspects of traditional steppe life, reflecting the various seasons and geography.  The original was housed in the museum.  We sorted through a pile of the smaller excerpts to create a collage of different scenes for ourselves.  As we went over the details of the paintings with the sales women Rob pointed out in one scene that one of the many little figures was standing with his pants down.  You didn't see him right away but he was in the middle of the picture so anyone who looked couldn't miss him.  The sales lady just giggled and said that although it was a traditional art form the artists have always had that kind of a sense of humor.  So perhaps that was where the foundation was laid for some of the more explicit artwork we'd seen in souvenir shops...    

The stock exchange is worth a few comments.  It is housed in a pink and white Russian-style building on the main square in town.  A nice woman gave us a tour but the trading floor wasn't open.  They only trade from 11am to noon.  It was a smart little floor with about 20 computers but I can't imagine that it is very crazy even during trading hours.  If you can call a stock exchange cute then this was cute.