DATED: 13 JUL 18
Well I’ve arrived and in time for Naadam no less. The border crossing was inordinately slow, like they don’t want people to entre but its in fact just a introduction to Mongolian time; it will happen when it happens. Visiting Mongolia was the driving force behind my route through Asia its been on my hit list for a long time. Route ‘B’ would have seen me turning east in Kyrgyzstan towards China, Pakistan and on to India. I hope Mongolia lives up to my imaginings.
That evening I find myself on the steppe, vast rolling mountains carpeted in well cropped grass, gers with smoking chimneys and of course ponies; just as I have pondered – this is Mongolia as I had hoped.
The following morning I reach the western capital of the Bayan-Ölgii province in the Alti mountains, the town of Olgii, Ulgii or Ulgy whatever it is called (why cant there just be one spelling), I am ready for my taster of Mongolian culture in the Naadam Festival. The festival dates back to the 1920s celebrating the People’s Revolution and an independent Mongolia; with the three main events wrestling, archery and horsemanship dating back to the era of the great Khan when Genghis considered these skills to be key components of a warriors physical abilities.
A Belgium couple that I meet in Almaty are here as well, Wafa and Tommy, so I have company for the next few days events. The main festival is held in Ulaanbaatar the capital and a vast Olympic esque opening ceremony signifies the start of the games. Here in Ulgii things are a touch more rural, I mean relaxed; more village fete than Olympics. We arrive on time by Mongolian standards and still people are just milling about, after doing the rounds of the show grounds (it takes all of ten minutes) we take our seats in the stands. Its quite some time before things begin, this ceremony just seems to consist of a lot of milling around.
Huzzah, it seems to be starting, a very European style brass band pipe up marking the start of the action. Next its speeches, in both Mongolian and Kazak, this region of Mongolia has mainly Kazak roots. It feels like school speech day without the marquee. The speeches go on for what seems like an eternity, its hot, we are sweaty and getting grouchy, before finally something more. I rather enjoy it but I think I am the only one in our group, we are treated to traditional singing and some pretty energetic dancing before yet more speeches. Then the wrestling begins.
Now it must be said that the wrestling is somewhat underwhelming. They pair up goliath sized men with what seem like mere children when they stand next to one another. This is just the heats, tomorrow sees the main competition, so it appeals that the large men just get to warm up by throwing small specimens to the ground, there are no weigh categories. At the start of each bout each wrestler does his best impression of an eagle in the Eagle Dance which symbolises power, bravery, grace and invincibility. They wear a pair of pants and what I would describe as an overly small petticoat with nothing else but knee high boots. Very fetching. The folk law goes that one must bare his breasts and wear tight fitting pants to bare his manhood for one year a women in drag beat all the boys; she must have been quite the sight to behold considering the size of these chaps. Mind you some of these guys have breasts bigger than most women, especially Mongolian girls who tend to be quite petite.
Day 1, Naadam, a tad under whelming.
The following day of the festival we find ourselves out in the sticks on a hill side overlooking the city below. A row of gers which wouldn’t be out of place at Glastonbury line a thoroughfare as well as traders selling all kinds of crap from toy guns to knock off shoes. The gers them selves serve hot drinks and food but unlike their Glasto counter parts there isn’t a stone baked pizza or vegan recipe insight plus there is a distinct absence of beer for sale; unimaginatively its just tea and shashlik (skewered meat). The shashlik come with big lumps of rendered fat intermixed with the meat, it might sound horrid but it spreads like butter on bread. Again like pork scratching’s I dare only eat one buttery lump, a tricky of juice runs down my beardless chin. Yum yum.
The events of the day, include what I would describe as under aged horse racing as jockeys as young five spur their steeds over a course of 15-30 km with the distance depending on the age of the horse not the jockey. Its not really a spectators sport but it’s great watching them rise over a distant hill top and make for the white finish line; like something out of the wild west or closer to home Genghis Khans era they chase one another across the plane below. I love the ground shaking thunder of hooves as horses gallop past or at least the ones with enough energy left gallop. At the finish line the a few of the children look more haggard than their charge, nearly slumping off the horse as if they’ve had one to many. Parents wait to collect both child and stallion and I don’t know who they say well done to as the race is about the horse not the child jockey. Like their riders all the equestrian competitors are male which surprises me.
In the back ground a coach loud of musicians have set up along side their coach. They are a hit and provide the background noise for the days events. They croon, I have no other word for it, its just such a foreign sound when considered next to European music; oriental crooning. Its fantastic and accompanying the vocalists are an array of familiar but not quite usual instruments. Violins played like cellos and loot like guitars with bulbous body and long thin fretboards. I could google their names but where is the fun in that?
At the foot of the hill below the musicians you can almost taste the testosterone, men are jostling, tempers flaring and fists raised. Its the afternoon and we are in the thick of it, the music is just a murmur now. Police try to deescalate the crowd’s temper but the electronic crick of their tasers does little to calm things down. They are perhaps a touch liberal with their tasers than police should be, we are only here to watch kokpar after all.
Its a simple game of tug of war really but with just two opponents, made a touch more complicated by the fact that they are mounted on horses, oh and in place of a thick hawser they have a goat carcass. The head has been removed as the horns might harm the horses. Each rider grasps a hoof and the game begins, some bouts last just a handful of seconds others a few minutes. This is no game for boys, its aggressive, skilled and requires the rider not only to steal the goat from his opponents grip but also to control a somewhat wide eyed and scared horse with his knees, for both hands hold a hoof. I actually thought we were here to see buzkashi where by teams of horsemen essentially play polo with a dead goat but this is a region of Kazak traditions and they play kokpar or “goat grabbing.”
As a spectator it is not simply a case of sitting back and cheering, you need to have your wits about you for in the melee that is kokpar the un-reigned horses gallop two by two through the crowd. People dash and dive out the way and the slow ones risk being trampled. At first Martin an additional Frenchman, Wafa, Tommy and myself are just tourists at the rear but soon we are in the thick of the crowd vying for blood and cheering enthusiastically with the masses. It is not always apparent who has won, for as the victor unceremoniously flings the corpse to the dirt the opponent might trot back over brandishing a hoof which seems to suggest that he has some claim on the prize.
The goat clearly resembled a goat at the start of the innings but its a rough game and hoof by hoof it begins to look more carrion like. The carcass rips down its midriff, limbs begin to fall off and in the last bout one man grips the hips and the other has is hands in the rib cage for there is nothing else left to hold on to. Goat is notoriously tough so maybe this is a good way to tenderise it. You may think its barbaric and wasteful, but cricket balls are made of leather and I saw prize winners squirrelling away their limbs for supper.
Day 2, Naadam, an absolutely grand experience and a hoot to boot.