Sunday, August 9, 2015

5 Days of July - Day 2: Yak attack!

The second morning of my 5 Days in July began with a calm, rosy sunrise over the rolling hills west of Khujirt.  (All photos courtesy of Reade L. and Kenny L.)

Good morning, Uvurkhangai!

Following on last summer's traditions, I made American gambir (no eggs, no milk pancakes) for breakfast on one of the propane cook stoves.

Making American gambir for breakfast out of the back of the furgong
But the morning was rushed in order to get to the yak festival for the opening ceremony, which supposedly began at 11am.  We had hours over very rough roads between us and our destination.  Luckily we traveled through some of the most scenic countryside in Mongolia, the Orkhon National Park:

Overlook at the entrance of the Orkhon National Park

Hanging on to a weird caution sign at the edge of the Orkhon National Park overlook for dear life!

Once we entered the park, we headed past the small soum center of Bat-Ulzii, along and over the various rivers and streams of the Upper Orkhon delta.

Tiny waterlilies dot the slow stream along our road to the yak festival
This part of Mongolia is yak country: higher altitude means colder temperatures well suited to the yak constitution.  The mountains and hills lining the Upper Orkhon River valley are forested with dark pines and cut through with small river valleys dotted with white ger:
Bat-Ulzii submarine: a yak cools off on a hot July morning
After a few stall-outs and rough river crossings, we reached our destination: the 2015 Uvurkhangai province, Bat-Ulzii county yak festival!

Travelers and locals came by every possible means from far and wide to see the 2015 festivities
Our luck for the day only improved, as shortly after our arrival we met last year's Most Beautiful Yak, this splendid fellow:

The most beautimous yak in Uvurkhangai Province 2014.  But how will he fare in the 2015 competition?
The stars aligned and I was finally able to realize a long-time dream of riding a yak.  I never would have guessed I'd be so lucky as to ride a prize-winning yak!

Yak riding; no hands required!
As you can see from the above photo, a yak's withers or shoulder is much higher than its rump.  The saddle is nothing more than some padded fabric or carpet with no stirrups.  However, the yak's slow and steady gait make for an extremely easy ride.

Despite fears to the contrary, we hadn't missed the opening ceremonies of the 2015 yak festival.  Although almost an hour late, we were almost an hour earlier than the Master of Ceremonies, which gave us plenty of time to walk to the Orkhon River to cool down.  Our path converged with that of several yak herds fording the river.

Baby yak with a blue khadag around its neck
Up close, these tassel-tailed and dish-faced ungulates make lots of grunting noises, which supposedly earned them their Linnaean name, Bos grunniens, which means "grunting ox".  Yak and cattle interbreed in Mongolia, producing half-yaks (khainag) and quarter-yaks (name escapes me).  To the best of my knowledge, scientists don't have yak domestication or modern yak genetics nailed down.  Anyone looking for a research project: you should consider yaks!

Just as the last stragglers were crossing the Orkhon River, several horsemen trotted up and told us that these were mass escapees from the yak festival.  They proceeded to ford the river and turn the yaks back.  Much grunting, hooting, and splashing ensued, as the herd reluctantly turned back.

Herders driving the yaks back across the river towards the festival
The yak herd was successfully driven into the main arena for yak busting, were pedestrian yak herders would lasso a yak and then attempt to stay on a non-riding yak's back as long as possible.  The yaks did not enjoy being surrounded by people, horses, and vehicles, and were particularly displeased by the blaring speakers of the MC.

Yaks nervously await the beginning of the yak wrangling
This bunch below looked as if they planned to make a hasty getaway through our section of the audience.  Luckily they changed their minds!

All the spectators had a great opportunity to see the variety of coat color and quality amongst the yaks, as well as the khainag and quarter-yaks, as they waited nervously in the arena.

Another little cutie rounded up with its mom and entire herd for the yak wrangling competition

Without much warning for the yaks, the lassoing began:

Yaks seem to favor passive resistance, standing their ground while a given yak herder tugs on the rope in vain.  Eventually one would be wrangled forward, held by at least four herders, while the yak buster (my term for the guy trying to ride an unbroken yak) got ready to jump on.  While yaks can't get the lift-off that broncos can, it must be tough trying to stay on an unwilling yak:

The hardest part of yak wrangling isn't the lassoing, it's what comes after
Kenny got some phenomenal shots of yak busters mid-fall:

Another one bites the dust!

The large yak herd was then released so that the trained yaks could start their race across the steppe.  Unlike the yaks from the yak busting competition, these yaks are used to being ridden, have septum piercings, and are basically responsive to their riders.

Racers head to the starting line for the yak race
Many of these yaks would go on to compete in the beauty contest and polo match.

The littlest yak-racer: this kid and his young yak were the smallest competitors in the yak race

The yaks and their riders walked several kilometers from the festival grounds in order to race to the finish line amongst the spectators.

There goes our guy: the Most Beautiful Yak in Uvurkhangai 2014 heads to the starting line

From the finish line, it was hard to tell when the yak race began.  But once it got underway, the loping beasts and their determined riders lumbered across the plain towards us:

Racing towards the finish line, the first yak outstrips the herd as the racers near the yak festival grounds

The first five or so yaks ran at a decent clip and managed to properly cross the finish line without walking or skirting the line all together.

Brawn over beauty: last year's most beautiful yak didn't win the race
To everyone's delight, the little boy and his little yak finished in the top five:

The little yak and rider that could!
After the speedier yaks had finished, the stragglers heaved themselves over the finish line with much prodding and encouragement from their riders.  Many of the yaks seemed put-out at having to run several kilometers under the blazing midday sun for no apparent reason; one registered his dissatisfaction by skipping out on the finish line and running to join his pals.

Valiant effort: trying to make a full-grown yak run when it really just wants to stand in the river all day
The festival organizers decided to award the prize to the little boy on the little yak, although they had not finished first.  This was partly a function of the fact that no one had bet money on the actual winner and partly to reward the boy for his excellent showing.  The racing yaks took a short break before being led once more into the arena for the beauty pageant:

Yak beauty contest: a parade of the most beautiful yaks in all of Uvurkhangai Province
The criteria for yak beauty were never clearly announced or explained.  Certainly all the yaks parading in the pageant were large and had luxurious coats; other than that, I couldn't spot a consistent feature.  There were males and females, horns of different size and orientations, different coat colors, and different tack and accoutrements:

A prize-winning yak wears his medals on his forehead

A particularly fine saddle and fringe

Our fellow: he would shortly win this year's yak beauty contest

One of the participants even selected himself for entry into the pageant:

This fellow was either driven into the yak beauty contest sans handler or wandered in on his own, having decided that he wanted to compete.  He was a particularly fine specimen and remained very dignified as his competitors circled him.

Our fellow, the 2014 pageant winner, was crowned again this year, making him the Most Beautiful Yak in Uvurkhangai Province two years in a row.  The competitors took another break before the yak polo match as spectators on horseback crowded around the arena.

Horse buddies

The long, flowing tail is one of the signature traits of the yak.  When startled, excited, or at a full run, yaks will raise their tails like a banner behind them.

Finally the highlight of the festival came: yak polo!

Yak polo: half the speed and twice the fun of regular polo

I was surprised that more people and yaks didn't get clocked with polo sticks.  One polo player had a particularly deadly windmill technique that somehow didn't crack anyone's skull (that we know of)

Going in for a goal
Yaks - reluctant, slow-moving, and often unresponsive to commands - make for the biggest challenge to the polo players.
Who will get there first?  Half the challenge is getting your yak to stop backing away from the ball
There were a number of falls during the match, although no one seemed particularly hurt.  When one player fell and declined to remount, his wife scolded him for being a wimp!

The polo players broke at least four sticks in the course of the match, as players frequently clashed their sticks together and occasionally hit an opponent's yak (by accident).  Brave spectators and helpers would then rush out onto the pitch with a replacement stick.

Where's the ball?!?  Half the time, a yak would inadvertently stand over the ball while the spectators would yell out tips on how to get at it


The match was made up of three games: two semi-finals and the final round.  There were two teams that played with a lot more enthusiasm, skill, and aggression than the other two; no huge surprise who made it into the finals!

Victory run, sticks up!
At the end of the match, I honestly couldn't tell you who'd won.  I'd been a bit distracted and all of the players seemed equally delighted with the end of the game.  At the yak festival, everyone's a winner!

Visiting with local fellows watching the yak polo match
Yak festivals are not a traditional form of entertainment or celebration.  They began around Mongolia, like the Eagle Festival in Bayankhongor aimag, to promote tourism and industry by focusing on a region's special features.  The Uvurkhangai yak festival seems to be a joint venture of provincial government, local government, the local tourism industry (especially local ger camps), and local producers of yak goods.  That said, this festival drew far more Mongolian spectators than foreigners, and the local Mongolian spectators were possibly more enthusiastic than the outsiders.

Relaxing as the yak festival winds down
From my perspective, non-Mongolians often get very caught up in notions of authenticity when it comes to Mongolian events, products, and ideas.  Many would understandably argue that a yak festival is not an authentic Mongolian festival, as opposed to a naadam, and dismiss it.  However, all traditions were invented and I found the Uvurkhangai yak festival to feature more local involvement and less commercialism than the National Naadam by a long shot.  Such festivals are a really positive way to encourage local and cottage industries in Mongolia, especially those that rely upon and thus support herding communities, by getting the word out about activities and products specific to a region.

For example, yak wool should really be considered on a level with cashmere.  It's soft, warm, and durable; my warmest socks are yak-wool socks purchased here in Mongolia.  Yak hair also makes excellent ropes that are easy to handle but hard to fray or break.  If the vendors at the Uvurkhangai yak festival, of which there were only a handful of locals, had been selling sweaters, hats, socks, or mittens, I would have snapped up as much as I could afford.

By the afternoon our group decided that we should move on towards the night's campsite.  On our way, we stopped at the Upper Orkhon waterfall:

Ulaan tsutgalan: the Orkhon waterfall

The waterfall is where the Orkhon River transitions into a deep canyon lined with trees through much of the Orkhon National Park.
View into the tall forest within the Upper Orkhon River canyon

By a great stroke of luck, we ended up camping along a gorgeous spot at the top of the canyon.  The views were incredible and the refreshing smell of trees and river water on the breezes whipping up from the canyon were glorious.

Setting up camp along the Upper Orkhon canyon as a yak herd passes us by
Several of us took an early evening dip in the river by scrabbling down a path into the canyon.  There we met a very nice man who works in local government, who later told us a bit about the site we were camped near:

Shaman site along the Upper Orkhon River canyon.  A local family was planning to burn the stack of wood the next day during the shaman's visitation and ritual.

He and his family had arranged for a shaman to perform a ceremony here the following night.  The ceremony was intended for the spirit of the river, lus, but we were assured that we were allowed to sleep nearby (as long as we didn't do anything to offend the lus)
The shaman will perform inside the small protective circle of white stones
In all my years traveling through Mongolia, I have never seen a site quite like this one.  I have seen hundreds of ovoo - the sacred rock cairns found on hilltops, mountains, roadsides, and other important places - but none with this particular configuration.  While I would be interested to learn more about this site and the shamanic practices held there, shamanism is not a matter for casual dabbling.

As sunset faded into twilight, we sat around our campfire and listened to the rush of the river and wind through the pines below.  The next morning would take us away from this beautiful place, but we would camp along the banks of the Orkhon River again and again as we and it wound through Central Mongolia.

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