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Mongolia Flag NAADAM


July 12. UB The Naadam Festival  The horse races were a good 35km from UB, out on the grassy and dusty steppe.   Jeremy had gone out at sunrise the day before to see things come to life before the races.  Our new roommate, a Indian fellow from Philadelphia, had joined him and they both raved about the atmosphere and sunrise so we painfully got ourselves out of bed and ready to go by 4am!

Jeremy scouted out the cab situation early to make sure we could find a ride.  It was dark out and our driver hadn't anticipated such a good fare so early in the morning so we had to stop for gas on the way.  We had to try two stations before we found someone stirring.  He made another stop at a late night automotive store to tweak his headlights.  When we finally thought we were on our way he stopped again.  I was thinking "What now?" and then observed him walk up to the nearby ovoo, do his circumambulation  and toss some stones on the sacred pile.  Ovoos are found at passes and performing this ceremony at the first one you pass on a journey is supposed to ensure a safe trip.  

The taxi took about 45 minutes to get out to the race location.  We were lucky that Jeremy had already made the trip because he had to give the driver directions.  We veered off onto dirt roads and somehow ended up near the finish line, oddly lit up with colored lights.  The only other objects even visible in the dim light were the nearby ger restaurants set up for the festival.  The light grew but the sky was hazy.  It was a very soft and majestic atmosphere but the haze dulled our morning sunrise.  Our taxi reappeared with passengers from somewhere amongst the ger camps.  The Mongolian man,, dressed in a full length del and cowboy-style hat, that got out came directly over and motioned that he wanted to look through Jeremy's camera, all set up a tripod.  He was quite curious about the zoom lens but after a few minutes of trying it out nodded in appreciation, got back in the cab, and drove off.  

We stood on the hill where we arrived and watched the restaurant camp come to life.  As the landscape lightened we could see more ger camps off in the distance, one of which belonged to the herders and horse trainers.  People slowly emerged from their tents and gers to start their day.  On the opposite hill we could see a herd of horses moving down the slope, stirring up clouds of dust.  Cars began to arrive as well, adding to the dust.  We left Jeremy and walked into the restaurant camp.  The sunrise had become a dark orange that was clouded in a haze.  We continued past the restaurants in the direction of the trainers camps.  We could only vaguely see what direction they were in across the dusty landscape but as we got close enough we could see the horses grouped along their rope ties and the young jockeys chanting as they warmed up their horses.  

The Mongolians are centuries old herdsmen and near gers you often see two tall posts connected at the top by a rope.  The horses are tied to the rope with enough slack to eat and the ability to slide back and forth a bit.  When they are not tied up the horse herds roam freely across the grasslands to feed.  In the area of the trainers' camp there were many of these rope ties and around the tied up group of horses the little jockeys were making a circle while they chanted.  Many were just bareback or with a cloth for a saddle.  The youngest age of a jockey used to be just three years old and then was increased to five years old but was increased again to six.  They are girls or boys but all look far too small to be racing a horse bareback for 30km!  But, for their small size they managed their horses with the ease that a kid back home spins around on his or her bicycle.  They were in complete control.  The Mongolian horse is not a large horse but very sturdy.  We watched them make their rounds.  One trainer or perhaps parent (often the same) took out a small framed deity that he carried in his del and blessed the front of the horse, the jockey's head, and the horses rear for good luck.  

Gradually the jockeys were rounded up in teams by their trainers, many of the teams sporting the same bright color (yellow and orange were popular), and moved off in the direction of the finish line.  We quickly began to make our way back as the flow of horse traffic increased.  It became evident that these people were no more in their element than on these horses.  Some stood in a full standing position as their horses jetted across the steppe.  Others sat comfortably to the side like they were hanging out in an old chair.  The traditional Mongolian saddle is made of wood and has medallions on the seat.  Legend has it that Chinggis Khan required this so his troops never got too comfortable in the saddle and lost their alertness. Perhaps that is whey the seated riders leaned off to one side of their saddles.  The groups of horses moved across the horizon in tight rows, looking almost like they were horse belly to horse belly.  As they came blazing towards we felt sure we'd be trampled but with total ease and indifference to our presence the horses divided and continued onward.  I snapped photos and in full run several riders gave me a big smile and a wave.  

Once we were back near the finish line we watched the trainers and/or parents kissing the children good-bye and sending them on their own down the course.  They traveled to the starting line on their own, these little six year old kids. Some were older but the majority were young and when 300 horses kick up to start a race it was a dangerous event.  Some fall off and some get hurt.  In Zuunmod we saw several horses cross the finish line without riders.  Apparently this still counts as a legitimate finish.  It is the horse, not the rider, that is competing in the race.  

After all of the children had set off to the finish line we went to find a spot on the already crowded bleachers.  We found a couple of good seats but the bleachers were made of steel pipes and made the long wait until the race finish seem even longer.  We patiently waited with numb buns for nearly two hours.  Off on the distant horizon some race vehicles moved into view and the crowds got excited.  Other people tried to jump on the bleachers to get a good view, our two hours of waiting be damned.  We held our positions but still had a fair wait until the horses actually started to appear.  From over the horizon we could see a vertical column of dust moving along for each horse.  As the first one came over the horizon the people on the nearby hill swarmed down and flooded the raceway.  Policemen had been lined up all of the way down the long race track but not densely enough to prevent the throngs of enthusiastic spectators from overtaking them.  The race vehicles held them at bay as the racers continued to file into the finish.  The first place finisher was way ahead of the pack but some of the subsequent groups came in neck and neck, the little jockeys bouncing right off the backs of their horses as the clung to the reins, flinging their arms in full circles as they whipped their horses to move faster.  A few horses did come in without rides, one with a saddle all of the way under its belly.   We never heard what happened to these riders but also never heard that anyone got seriously hurt.

Once the winning horse crosses the finish line it is mobbed by people who want to wipe their hands on its sweaty coat and smear the sweat on their foreheads.  This custom must come from Mongolia's Shaman roots.  They believe that by wiping the sweat on them they can obtain some of the strength of the horse.  We opted not to join in this part of the festivities out of concern for our safety!  Jeremy got in there with some other photographers and said it was total chaos.  The overexcited horse even bit one journalist.

There was still another race schedule for later that morning but we felt that our experience had been pretty complete.  Not too far from the ger camps there was a train station that was being used to shuttle people out to the race.  It seemed like an odd place for a station but that must have been one reasons that they were able to relocate the horse races from near UB to farther away.  Mongolia had little more than one train line that bisected the country from China to Russia and it just happened to pass near this area.  We walked through gails of dust being swept up by zig zagging car and horse traffic, all of the way to the station, to be told that the next train to UB didn't come for another three hours.  I guess the logistics weren't that well planned.  As we turned back we watched the only taxis in view pull away with passengers.  We had to wait a bit before we found a minibus back to the city.  It was packed but it was going the right direction.  We were relieved until we hit the highway and started to go nowhere.  A large truck had roll off of the highway in an accident but that wasn't what was holding us up.  There was so much traffic heading back to UB that both lanes of traffic were clogged with UB bound traffic, sometimes even forming a lost third lane of traffic.  The poor souls trying to make their way to the races were in bad luck.  For all of the policemen stationed along the raceway there were none controlling the traffic situation.  Still, we managed to chug our way back to UB in a hour and a half, thanks to the aggressive tactics of our bus driver!

Once we were safely back at our guesthouse we couldn't shower quickly enough.  If we thought that we were dirty coming back from the races at Zuunmod, we were ten times that dirty now.  In a rush to wash our filthy clothes I neglected to insert the washer pipe into the toilet (a clever way to drain your washer when you don't actually have the proper plumbing).  Rob had done the same earlier in the week but caught it immediately.  This time I didn't realized it until water came seeping out of the bathroom.  Frantic we sopped up the mess and took the floor rug outside to dry out.  It cleaned up pretty good but was more excitement than our sleep deprived, dust ridden bodies needed.

We were too tired to venture out for dinner and just cooked some food at the guesthouse.  The closing ceremony for Naadam was in the evening and we had to muster up enough energy to go at all.  We managed to arrive early enough to see the final round of wrestling, or so we thought.  It was actually the second to last round and ended up lasting for over an hour and a half!  The wrestlers were caught in a perpetual "hug" as they just tried to wear each other out.  Our special "foreigner" section had somehow gotten filled with mostly Mongolian people so we didn't even had a real seat.  I felt my head starting to bob as we waited for the wrestling round to come to an end.  Apparently this was unprecedented and Jeremy later told us that the judges look like they were in quite a quandary over what to do.  Oddly enough a local article in one of the English papers mentioned how some rules had been altered to prevent such a lengthy stand off.  Obviously they would need to look into further revisions. 

During this wrestling stalemate the most interesting thing that happened was that they winning jockeys were paraded around the stadium (on horseback of course) to loud applause and led up to meet the President.  One little jockey was sporting a different style of hat and this little fellow was led around the stadium with the other and then paraded around by hand on his own.  As I understood it this was the last finisher of the two year old horse race.  Those were the youngest horses to be raced. The other categories were three, four, five, six years (all geldings) and one race of stallions.  The little jockey didn't seem too phased by what was happening.  How much do you remember about your life at the age of six?  The whole thing must have been a blur to him but I couldn't help thinking that it was a bit cruel to make a spectacle out of him for losing.  The crowds cheered him all the same so perhaps it was a show of encouragement but he was led out of the stadium by a side gate as the winning jockeys exited in the opposite direction. 

Once the second to last round of wrestling finally finished I couldn't face another hour of two wrestlers just clutching each other.  It just didn't have the action I needed to stay alert.  I left Rob to watch the end and went back on my own.  As I came out of the stadium and ran into Jeremy who was also heading out.  The closing ceremony wasn't supposed to be such a spectacular event and it had been one long day. Rob later reported that the huge guy who one the second to last round took the final round rather quickly. I must say that I was impressed.  I thought for sure he'd go down in the final round after been worn out for so long in the round before.  

ULAAN BAATAR July 2-3 July 4-5 July 6 July 7-8

NAADAM July 9-10 July 11 July 12 July 13

COUNTRYSIDE July 14 July 15 July 16 July 17 July 18 July 19 July 20-21


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