Through the countryside yesterday, we happened about what appeared to be a huge number of cars collected on a section of the hillside.
(Remember that in Mongolia, a huge number of cars may be disappointingly few to many of you - it is a country whose total population is 2.7M - the same as Chicago, which is only the third largest city in the US)
It was a celebration of
. While the official celebration of the festival is in June, in many places dates are set for the celebration throughout the months of July and August. This is perhaps to help better organize and perhaps also to permit the festivities to last a little longer - the winters are long!
We were very lucky. I suppose I should explain.
Naadam celebrates three sports that are important to the Mongols since the days of Chinggis Khaan- horse racing, wrestling and archery. At these smaller events only horse riding and wrestling were celebrated. They promised to be exciting photographic opportunities. What could be better for us junkies?
When we happened upon the Naadam the horses had just ben sent off to the starting point of the race and the crowd was going to reassemble around the wrestling arena. Those familiar with wrestling can imagine all the pomp and thigh banging that goes on before two people actually engage. The Mongols have perfected this. They start of by inviting people from the audience to challenge them. Scrawny chaps come into the arena in their jeans and spend the majority of time back peddling as the professionals (or advanced amateurs) take them down. It is a round-robin competition - the winner goes on.. All the while the crowd chills. People line up around the arena - many enjoying the festivities while seated in or on their rides.
Others gather inside the arena on makeshift bleachers. Government officials walk around serving people cold fermented mares milk - ladling it from a large jerrycan into a bowl. The elders who are the first to receive it blow into it to push the fat away and then take a sip or a well meant chug. Interestingly, the bowl is always returned to the server, who pours more into the bowl before giving it to others.
It was very striking to me that the act of pouring more was the sign of respect that freshened the bowl - not the use of a new bowl itself. Simple kind gestures that mean a lot more than it takes to perform them.
Suddenly there was a rush. The trucks and motorcycles revved up and races across the hill side. Word had come the the horses were coming. People raced back to line the finish corridor. It was madness. Imagine a free-for-all, across the field, rear wheels spinning in place, cars, motorcycles and horses swerving as everyone made their way back. And each vehicle leaving behind its signature plume of dust for us to make our way through.
The lead horses, ridden by children standing astride, were flanked by flashing lights on a Toyota, as they came into view. As they crossed the finish line the owners of the horses took the wooden saddles off and wiped the horses down with spatulas.
Then back to the wrestling. By now all the walk-ups had been dispensed with and the real men were out. The thigh banging and the Mongolian eagle-wave was at its best. But these were real men - an as far as I was concerned could thump their chests as much as they wanted. One by one they dispensed with each other - a single bout where the winner had to force any part of the opponents' body (other than soles of his feet or the palms of his hands) onto the ground. In quick succession we were left with the two biggest men facing each other. The crowd was surprisingly calm through it. Not much cheering or taking sides, it was as if the outcome was less important than the process. (Author's note - Very appropriate for this blog). To wit, there were no bets exchanging hands.
Ulan Bator, it turns out is just like you would expect. A big urban center in a developing country, until recently heavily influenced by Soviet communism. Cookie cutter apartment buildings, statues at squares and crossroads, and construction projects that will get finished when they do. What you would not expect is the view you get as you disembark, enter the tiny customs hall and look back at the plane. The backdrop is gorgeous, with one tiny house at the top of the hill.
All of UB is like that. From anywhere it appears that the country side is a few miles away. I am told tomorrow the tarmac will stop two miles from the city and then we will drive as the crow flies!
At the heart of town is Sukhbataar Square (pronounced "su-qattaar") which appears to be the happening place. Kids playing, couples getting their wedding photographs in front of the huge Chinggis Khaan statue, surrounded increasingly on all sides by the western gods Svarsky, Apple, Mont Blanc, Armani. Mini skirts and traditional garb, seemingly a peaceful coexistence.
As a cultural introduction we were treated to a medley of traditional entertainment; folk dances, Shaman dance and the amazing throat singing before an authentic Mongolian dinner, with Buuz and Chinggis Beer.
Tomorrow we are off to the country. The main purpose of the two day drive is to make it to the two homesteads where we want to spend time - the horse herders in the Steppes and the camel herders in the Gobi. On the way we will stop and make pictures as the opportunity arises. Aah - everyone should have a holiday like this.