The Sunday Sun April 22, 2007

Saddle Up for
Mongolia
    Annual festival celebrates
    'manly' arts
- horse racing, archery and wrestling

 By Ruth Lor Malloy
SPECIAL To Sun Media

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia
A Mongolian wrestler's outfit is deliberately designed to show the sex of the wearer. It seems that long ago a woman disguised as a man beat her male competitors in this traditional masculine sport.

Only stallions can race in the country's national horse races. Although today both boys and girls can ride them, to lose a race to a mare would
still be too humiliating.

Only competitors 10 to 12 years of age can take part in the horse races, which can be up to 34 km . Yes 34-km long.

These were among the many surprising things I
learned last summer during Mongolia's Naadam Festival. The country's national games also called the "three manly games," take place July
11-13 every year in the capital Ulan Bator,

This festival also decides the nation's top archer but archery did not draw the tens of thousands of people who watched the opening ceremonies.

There, the huge crowd applauded the platoons of horsemen in 13th century costumes, dancers and shamans.


Enkhtuya, with her granddaughter is a Tsaatan reindeer herder who spends summers at Lake Hovsgol in Northern Mongolia.

Tourists might awaken in the morning to find horses grazing near their ger,

They beamed as people form Mongolia's many tribes wave to them.  They cheered the actors who portrayed Genghis Khan, who united the tribes in the 13th century and stated the Mongol conquest of China and much of Europe.

This country also worships horses.  It has two million of them - one for every Mongolian.  In the summer, many people drink fermented mare's milk for its strength giving qualities.  And don't mention eating horse meat to a Mongolian; such a thing is inconceivable.

Another surprise was the large number of police at all the events.  But they did almost nothing.  Three people were sitting in our reserved seats when we arrived and refused even a policeman request to move.  I even heard of a woman hitting a policeman to keep her seat.

We suspected authorities had sold more tickets than there was bench spaces. 

A vast hillside of people showed up at the horse races even though they were in the countryside about 35 km from Ulan Bator.  Some arrived on horseback and stayed high on their mounts for the best view.

The races were few and far between -  not surprising considering the length of the course.  We arrived just as the racers crossed the finish line and hundreds of people broke though police lines to to touch the winning horses for luck.  Muzzled police dogs with their handlers charged out onto the grass track to no avail.

"The prizes are big - like Toyota land-cruisers," said our guide. "But they don't do it only for the prize; they compete for the glory."

The last to finish a race gets a prize too, she added, to encourage youngsters not to give up.

We were fortunate to come across a preliminary regional race by accident a week before the big one.  There were fewer spectators so we had a good view of the 50 of so children as they urged their mounts to victory with whips and shouts.

These kids are tough.  Many rid bareback, some wearing only socks on their feet.

We also enjoyed the wrestling -on television.  At the stadium, the preliminary ceremonies - introductions, and warm up dances that the wrestlers perform - went on a very long time.

We opted for lunch instead and viewed some short matches on the restaurant TV.  The matches are not timed; the loser is the one who hits the ground first and the winner picks his next opponent.  We were fascinated by the medieval look of these big chested men with their pointed caps, long robes, tight briefs and big fancy boots with upturned toes.



A Tssatan woman plays with her baby outside of an ursa, a teepee like structure.
 

 

"The prizes are big - like Toyota land-cruisers," said our guide. "But they don't do it only for the prize; they compete for the glory."

The last to finish a race gets a prize too, she added, to encourage youngsters not to give up.

We were fortunate to come across a preliminary regional race by accident a week before the big one.  There were fewer spectators so we had a good view of the 50 of so children as they urged their mounts to victory with whips and shouts.

These kids are tough.  Many rid bareback, some wearing only socks on their feet.

We also enjoyed the wrestling -on television.  At the stadium, the preliminary ceremonies - introductions, and warm up dances that the wrestlers perform - went on a very long time.

We opted for lunch instead and viewed some short matches on the restaurant TV.  The matches are not timed; the loser is the one who hits the ground first and the winner picks his next opponent.  We were fascinated by the medieval look of these big chested men with their pointed caps, long robes, tight briefs and big fancy boots with upturned toes.

Even for the Coca Cola signs, the famous festival is a bit like stepping back in time 800 years.

This event draws an international crowd.  Anyone wishing to attend should book well in advance as trains (from Moscow and Beijing) and direct flights (from Beijing, Germany, Moscow and Seoul) book up months before.

In addition to the festival, we toured the beautiful Lake Hovsgol region in Northern Mongolia.  The area is home to the Tsaatan (Reindeer) people and is one of the country's major tourist areas.

Visitors usually stay at ger camps.  These traditional canvas and wood dwellings are equipped with electricity, several beds, a stove and table.

A Tssatan woman stirs a steaming vat of reindeer milk tea in her ursa at Lake Hovsgol. 

BOTTOMLINE

GETTINGTHERE
We booked our tour through Monkey Business Infocentre, Room 201, Youyi/Poachers Inn, 43 Beisanlitun Nan, Off Saniltan Bar St. Chao Yang District 100027 Beijing , China Call 86-10-6591-6519, e-Mail beijing@monkeyshrine.com or visit www.monkeyshrine.com

This agency has a six-night-all inclusive tour that includes staying in a ger camp during the Naadam festival, the Amarbayasgalant Monastery and Ulan Bator.  It costs about $1,250 each for two people.

If you want to go there from Beijing, one-way by train, add $700 each.  The train journey is 30 hours; the flight 2 hours and 15 minutes.

WHERE TO STAY
You can book a hotel in Ulan Bator yourself and take a taxi to the stadium for festival events.

The horse races are difficult to get to and our travel agency had a handy toilet there.

From the Bayangol Hotel (001-976-11-312255 or www.bayangohotel.mn) but without a tour, your might have trouble finding a schedule in English, transportation to the horse races, and tickets.

MORE INFORMATION
Visit the Mongolia Tourism Office online at www.mongolitourism.gov.mn 

Photos By Ruth Lor Malloy

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