|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|
|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!|
|Tiny waterlilies dot the slow stream along our road to the yak festival|
|Bat-Ulzii submarine: a yak cools off on a hot July morning|
|Travelers and locals came by every possible means from far and wide to see the 2015 festivities|
|The most beautimous yak in Uvurkhangai Province 2014. But how will he fare in the 2015 competition?|
|Yak riding; no hands required!|
|Baby yak with a blue khadag around its neck|
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|
|Yaks nervously await the beginning of the yak wrangling|
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:
|The hardest part of yak wrangling isn't the lassoing, it's what comes after|
|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|
|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|
|The little yak and rider that could!|
|Valiant effort: trying to make a full-grown yak run when it really just wants to stand in the river all day|
|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.
|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|
|Who will get there first? Half the challenge is getting your yak to stop backing away from the ball|
|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!|
|Visiting with local fellows watching the yak polo match|
|Relaxing as the yak festival winds down|
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|
|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|
|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|
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.