Monday, July 20, 2015

Naadam 2015 - Arkhust adventure

This year I made it my mission to attend a real countryside Naadam.  While the National Naadam celebrations in Ulaanbaatar draw the tourist crowds through sportsmanship, pomp and spectacle, and celebrities (this year Steven Segal was in attendance), the small Naadam celebrations held at the county- or soum-level have a community atmosphere and amateur appeal that I find charming and accessible that I find lacking from the national celebrations.

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!

Drought: June and July are usually the rainy season in Mongolia.  As you can see, the steppe lands are yellow and brown even in early July.  This lack of lush vegetation is already negatively impacting airag production in the area.  (Don't worry - the lovely Naadam organizers in Arkhust gave us some airag anyway)

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
The Arkhust Naadam opening day featured two horse races.  We missed the first one, just like the fellows below almost did, but had a finish-line view of the final race of the day.
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.

Unfortunately, a horse without a rider means that a jockey has fallen somewhere during the race.  Hopefully the kid was unhurt.  Interestingly, a riderless horse can win or place in a race; Mongolian racing emphasizes the horse rather than the jockey.  Although jockeys possess skill and stamina, the horse gets most of the attention and subsequently listed as a winner or top finisher.

Whips out!  Everyone is pushing their horses through those last few minutes

Crossing the finish line.  Jockeys in Mongolia are always small children.  Boys and girls as young as 5 will compete in a race.  At Arkhust, we were all impressed by the number of jockeys wearing helmets.  (Note how the second racer is riding without a saddle - not an unusual sight)

One of many young girls racing at Arkhust nears the finish line.  Do you see the grown man on the horse behind her?  He drunkenly jumped on his horse and bolted out of the crowd of spectators into the rush of racers.  The crowd was Not Happy with this clown.
Wrestling was the main attraction in the Naadam arena at Arkhust.  Mongolian wrestling does not have weight classes; rather, high-ranking wrestlers get to choose their opponents in the opening round, although from the spectator's position it's difficult to figure out exactly how that works.  In any case, multiple matches happen at the same time in one round, and the winner of each individual match goes on to the next round.  A round starts with the wrestlers slapping their thighs, jogging into the arena, offering their hats to the referees or coaches, and doing the eagle warm-up (and victory) dance:

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.

These two matches were the most exciting of the day.  The two in the foreground had a genuine fight, with slapping and shoving, that was a bit uncomfortable to watch (the angrier of the two, in red and blue, won).  The two in the background, as you can see, were quite mismatched in terms of size.  However, the little guy in blue was tenacious, tripping up the giant in red (whose knee may have been giving him trouble) with every trick in the book, and ultimately causing an unprecedented upset against all expectations.

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.
In between events we were invited into the ger set up by the Arkhust cultural center, where our kind hosts shared their spread with us:

We were treated to quite a feast: airag (in the large porcelain container and the smaller wooden bowls), cold mutton (including the uuts or fatty tail), and idee (the ceremonial dish for major holidays made up of stacked cookies and filled with dried dairy products and white sweets).

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 bowl of airag served in the welcoming ger.  Although it's early in airag-producing season, this batch tasted particularly strong in terms of flavor and alcohol content.  I think that may be due to the drought and its effects on both the mares and the vegetation around Arkhust.
After the day's events finished, a number of the jockeys and horses returned to the Naadam arena to cool down.

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
As evening set in, we made the trek over dusty country roads, swapping Mongolian ghost stories and turning our minds towards dinner.

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
The Chinggis statue boasts two excellent museums in its basement - one devoted to Iron Age cultures of Mongolia and the other to the archaeology of the Mongol Empire - and a vantage point on top of the horse's head.  We decided not to go inside, as it was getting late, but it seems that Tsonjin Boldog is open as late as 6PM.

Chinggis Khan looks particularly majestic in the golden evening light
Each year they add new cavalry statues to the Tsonjin Boldog complex, as seen on the arch below.  Rumor has it that donors can commission a statue in their own likeness!

Bronze Mongol cavalry atop the Tsonjin Boldog entrance arch
Unfortunately we were mired in terrible pre-National Naadam traffic once we neared the capital and didn't arrive in the city center until 9PM.  However, such a wonderful day was well worth some traffic!  My thanks to Vanchigaa for driving us and to my other friends who made the day fun and memorable; special thanks to Andreia for sharing her excellent photos of the day's adventures.

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!

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