Arkhust, about 120km southeast of Ulaanbaatar, is a lovely little county seat not far from the train line running from the capital city to Sainshand, Erlian, and China. The town is nestled against rocky hills that ring the Nagal National Protected Area, which shield the residents from the bitter north wind and provide a scenic backdrop in contrast to the expansive steppe to the south. After calling the soum cultural center, I decided that Arkhust would be the ideal balance of proximity, rural countryside feel, local scale (we were the only non-Mongolians there), and hospitality. The opening day of the Arkhust Naadam was to be held on July 9th, just before the celebrations in Ulaanbaatar. Armed with some directions and a desire for a real Naadam experience, off we went on Thursday morning!
As we crested a hill on our way to Arkhust, our vehicle startled a herd of tsagaan zeer (Mongolian antelope), which raced away as if pursued by a large predator:
|Mongolian antelope are indigenous to the steppe region and supposedly a common sight in the eastern provinces. Despite 10 years of traveling in the Mongolian countryside, this was the first time I'd ever encountered these animals.|
At the Arkhust Naadam, community members were decked out in gorgeous deel - the Mongolian national outfit - in all kinds of patterns and colors, accented with belts and hats:
There were almost as many attendees on horseback as on foot. While many if not most of the kids on horseback were jockeys, some were just here to enjoy the festivities, like this young boy:
And these kids, who expertly wove through the crowds on foot:
|A jockey in full racing gear and helmet, which makes a very positive change from many races I have seen, is flanked by friends and families as he heads to the starting line|
Naadam usually consists of three main events, the Three Manly Sports: archery, horseback riding, and wrestling. At a small venue like Arkhust, archery is commonly skipped, as few people in a small community will have archery equipment. In addition to sporting events, Naadam celebrations feature musical and dance performances.
|A powerhouse singer and moriin khuur (usually translated "horse-head fiddle) player opened the Arkhust Naadam with some stirring songs|
|Racing to the starting line|
In Mongolia, horse races are organized by age class. Many races are a circuit or loop, such as the races at Arkhust, although the big national races are one-way. The Arkhust races were all 20-km races: much longer than horse races in the US.
|Here they come! View from the shudlen (3-year-old horses) race finish line.|
|If you look closely, you can see that some jockeys ride without a saddle. There aren't any regulations governing horse tack or jockey gear, although protective head- and body-gear for jockeys seems to be growing in popularity.|
|Whips out! Everyone is pushing their horses through those last few minutes|
|Two wrestlers face off while another in the background does the eagle victory/warm-up dance.|
Unlike archery, which is open to all ages and genders, and horse racing, which is open to girls and boys, wrestling is a man's sport in Mongolia. The boots and two-piece outfit are the traditional garb of a wrestler. At Arkhust we saw one or two wrestlers compete in track pants or jeans, but they were in the minority. Legend has it that the wrestler's vest is designed to keep women from competing, as long ago a woman defeated all others, much to the chagrin of the men. The wrestler's hat contains a lot of symbolism as well as indications of a wrestler's rank and previous titles.
|Two wrestlers grapple to throw their opponent off-balance. Mongolian wrestling combines the incredible size and strength of its top competitors with fine-tuned balance and grappling strategy.|
The aim in Mongolian wrestling is to cause your opponent to touch the ground with his hands and elbows by whatever means necessary. The most common strategy I've observed is to grab an opponent's belt or waistband and push/pull him off-balance. However, there are many other advanced tactics that wrestlers will employ.
The winner of a match will perform the eagle dance, sweeping his arm (wing) over the loser and often patting him on the back or butt, with arms up around the arena:
|Winner, winner, chicken dinner! This wrestler's zalaa, the red tassles or ribbons hanging down the back of his hat, signify the number of titles he's won. Clearly, this older pro is no slouch when it comes to wrestling.|
The ger itself was unusual in that, rather than the normal painted wood, all the wooden surfaces were beautifully and intricately hand carved with ornate Mongolian designs:
|Hand-carved wooden door on the welcoming ger at the Arkhust Naadam. The woodwork in this ger was some of the most impressive I've ever seen in Mongolia, or world-wide.|
|Our new friend cuts us some mutton as our Arkhust hosts ask us what brought us to Mongolia|
|Close-up of the different cuts of meat, including the fatty tail (far right) and intestines (sitting atop the fatty tail).|
A jockey with a top-finishing horse take some cool-down victory laps inside the wrestling arena after all the day's races finished. The blue cloth is a khadag, given to the horse for winning or placing in the top 5 in a race. Race horses in Mongolia have their forelocks in a top knot and their tails tied back.
|This little racer is Nomin-Erdene, who placed 4th in the shudlen race at the tender age of 7. The horse she raced on - not necessarily 'her' horse - is wearing a headdress for horses that place in the top 5 of their races as well as a winning khadag.|
|Two particularly splendidly dressed horsemen care for one of the day's top finishers, who munches on the Naadam arena grass after the race.|
|An owner looks on his winning horse with pride. Horse blankets are rarely used in Mongolia, although some racehorses will get transported in this kind of thin sheet.|
We had a bit of a misadventure when we attempted to leave: one of our tires had blown out! After the local repairman finished, we drove back towards paved road and the route back to UB. On our way, we stopped at a Bronze-Age feature (khirigsuur) in a valley north of Arkhust chocked full of ancient burials:
|Pointing: true archaeological expertise|
I'll say it again: it's almost impossible to go somewhere in rural Mongolia and *not* stumble across something archaeological.
|Our merry band of adventurers|
|On the road between Arkhust and the paved highway connecting UB to the eastern provinces|
But no journey east of UB is complete without a stop at Tsonjin Boldog, the impressive monument of Chinggis Khan on horseback about 55km east of the capital.
|It's only right to visit the Chinggis Khan statue during Naadam season|
|Chinggis Khan looks particularly majestic in the golden evening light|
|Bronze Mongol cavalry atop the Tsonjin Boldog entrance arch|
Eventually I'll post my pictures from the opening day of the National Naadam celebrations in Ulaanbaatar. However, I think that Arkhust, for all its modesty, and soum centers like it are much better places to enjoy the hospitality, entertainment, sportsmanship, and fun of a Mongolian Naadam. I would like to thank the people of Arkhust for welcoming us - literal strangers - to their celebration. Maybe we'll see you again next summer!