This is a tiny bit late as Naadam was this past weekend, but I’m going to post it anyways. After all, how often does one get first-hand photos and descriptions of life in Mongolia?
But first, we need to go back a bit. In the spring of 1995, I was finishing up my last months of university. After years of my father constantly asking me, “When are you going to graduate?” I was about to do just that with a degree in English literature. (And for the record, I wasn’t on the six-year plan. I graduated in four years. Even my mother was exasperated by dad’s constant query of when I would finish.) So, what does one do with a degree in literature? Join the Peace Corps, of course! I still remember how excited I was when I returned home one afternoon to find a big, fat envelope from Peace Corps, informing me that I’d been selected to go to Mongolia, and by the way, I needed to be ready to go by the end of June. My mother promptly went out and bought the Lonely Planet edition of Outer Mongolia. She then proceeded to laugh herself sick reading descriptions of food markets and how to buy bread (at that time, the author could not).
After a somewhat frazzled month of procuring long underwear and packing, at long last we flew to Ulan Baatar, the capital city. There we landed, all 13 of us, a few of us sans luggage. We’d barely gotten over jet lag and retrieved all of our missing luggage when we were bundled into vans and taken out to the middle of the countryside to a horse camp. Horses were everywhere. People were everywhere. Mongolians were celebrating Naadam. To this day, one of my clearest memories of Mongolia is looking across an expanse of grass-furred hillsides, seeing a long string of horses and riders across the steppe. The only sky I’ve ever seen that compares to Montana is that of Mongolia, that ethereal blue that goes on for eternity.
Naadam is the largest of the Mongolian festivals, celebrating the three manly games: horse racing, archery, and wrestling. Wrestling is perhaps the crowd favorite, but my heart was with the horse racing, for obvious reasons. I was used to seeing large groups of people on horseback. Regardless of culture, a good rider is still a good rider, a good horse is still a good horse, and the first horse across the line is the winner. Some things don’t require language for understanding.
Mongolian horses are much different than horses I was used to seeing in the US. They are much smaller than Quarter Horses, more akin to Morgans in size. Sturdy, raw-boned but sure-footed, Mongolian horses don’t have the heavy muscling I was used to seeing on horses that perform ranch work. What they didn’t have in muscle, however, they made up for in stamina. They needed that stamina for long days of work out on the steppe, gathering sheep and herding other horses.
In Mongolia, horse races are more similar to what in the US, Canada, South America, Europe, and the Middle East are considered endurance rides, where horses race for much longer distances 25, 50, or even 100 miles in a single day. Mongolian races don’t have the vet checks to test the horse’s soundness and physical health along the way, but horses generally aren’t going as far and they’re carrying lighter weights as the jockeys are children.
We may consider them young to be riding in races, but Mongolian children are demon-good riders. Many carried small quirts and sang to the horses as they rode. I was told that singing encourages the horse to run faster. Jockeys, however, don’t play quite the role that jockeys or riders do elsewhere in the world. Should the child come off, the horse will keep running. In Mongolian horse racing, a riderless horse can win the race.
All the photos for this post were supplied by Enkhmanlai Myagmar, known to me as Manlai. He was the youngest of two brothers of my host family up in Sukhbaatar, which is where I lived. Naadam may celebrate the manly games, but to my thinking, it also celebrates friendship, even almost twenty years later.