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Snapshots of the Naadam Festival
I woke up to hear our jeep ignition turn on and leave the guesthouse. I laid in my sleeping bag disturbed; wondering why Shat sped off at 6AM without saying goodbye. I felt a bit jolted as we had spent 3 days with him bonding in the jeep, desert, and villages. I tried to justify his unsocial behavior as cultural; maybe just something we westerners didn’t understand. As we ate our rice breakfast Natalie, Valerie and I discussed Shat’s abrupt departure and our surprise and dismay about being ‘dumped’.
According to the Ger to Ger loose itinerary we were stuck in this grey, bleak town until 11AM so I decided to try to make the best of it and find some beauty in it’s coldness by going for a walk around the dusty empty streets with my camera. I was surprised to find that there were more people out buzzing around the gravel roads than I had expected. I perched myself in the middle of the convergence of tire tracks which was presumably the ‘town center’ and watched the village sputter to life.
While snapping photos, I saw our old jeep speed through town towards our guesthouse. A wave of shame fell over me for ever doubting Shat’s intentions and social skills. He obviously hadn’t left us without saying goodbye. I stopped in at the store to get some bottled water for our day’s journey. When I stepped outside, our jeep was speeding towards me with a trail of dust following. Valerie and Natalie were in it already. It stopped and Shat opened the door and said, “Sherry, Naadam.”; I immediately hopped in as if he had said the magic words – “Sherry, Brad Pitt wants to see you.”
One word in Mongolian that I knew before I arrived in Ulanbatar was Naadam; the annual Mongolian festival celebrated in early July coinciding with the New Year. Naadam is the sole reason why many people travel to Mongolia. With 3 good travel months of the year and one large festival full of cultural artistry and sport; it becomes the focal part of many tourists’ trips. However I had to make the regretful financial decision and miss Naadam since the economics of supply and demand took over the airline and tour costs in early July in Mongolia. An already expensive airfare became impossible to afford on my ESL teaching salary. I wondered if it would be a move that I would regret once I arrived in Mongolia. Admittingly, after meeting tourists who had been here for the festivities, I felt pangs of regret resulting from my budget decision to skip Naadam.
However, when Shat pulled up in a fury and said the word “Naadam” in his heavy Mongolian accent, I knew I had been given a second chance by the travel Gods. Shat was my savior leading me to it. I knew that the official ceremony had already taken place in Ulanbatar on July 11th with a huge fanfare and throngs of tourists. Each even was highly orchestrated for the thousands of viewers in the capital city. However, I also knew that communities around the rest of Mongolia celebrated at different times around the 11th of July. Today was July 31st; much later than I would’ve expected any lingering celebrations, but I certainly wasn’t going to question it.
Shat drove us out of the village and over a rocky hill where we saw a bunch of people gathering with horses. With small children as the jockey on the small Mongolian horses it all looked correct proportionally. We weren’t sure if a race had just ended or was about to start, but we did realize that this village was celebrating Naadam today.
The people started dissipating and Shat beckoned for us to get in the jeep so that we could continue on to our next Ger on the itinerary. I got back in and asked him if we could stay for more Naadam and he said, “No, Ger to Ger.” I had been here long enough to understand the cryptic English. This meant that he must keep us on our planned itinerary.
I was dejected as we started to drive away. I knew I didn’t want to regret missing this cultural photography opportunity and decided to ask him to call the Ger to Ger office and explain that we wanted to stay for this cultural opportunity. After a short conversation and explanation that we’d rather watch Naadam than go horse riding again, it was set! Shat was to take care of us the rest of the day at Naadam!
Naadam is the festival of the 3 manly sports; wrestling, horse racing, and archery. I decided to leave my feminist alter ego inside and enjoy the manly sports without worry about why there weren’t any women allowed to participate. However, I did find out that young girls were allowed to race the horses; this was the only alternative if you didn’t have a son in your family! Regardless, there were many girls there in their best dressed outfits to watch all of the men compete – and I was one of them!
It was challenging to figure out the rituals of Naadam without a guide or any nearby English speakers. We had no one to ask our many questions to. We sat on little benches where all of the locals gathered to spectate. The atmosphere was festive in this grey little village. They even had a few games set up; one in which you threw a ball at a pyramid of old, empty paint cans. I loved the simplicity of it all; no neon lights, no funnel cakes, no rides. After an opening ceremony of singing and various speeches, the competitions were ready to begin.
I found it stunning that for the past week whenever I met a Mongolian man it felt as if there was this cowboy aura about them. They were rough, tough, silent, and hard working. Plus, they wore theses elaborate traditional robes with beautiful colorful sashes and always a hat; sometimes a cowboy hat or baseball hat. So when these manly men oozing testosterone suddenly stripped down to baby blue and pink speedos and mini jackets with pointed hats; I about fell over. I know why they call wrestling a manly sport; you had to be in touch with your manhood to wear that outfit! Most of their bodies were shockingly fit despite a lack of gyms, bad smoking habits, and having a heavy dairy diet. These were bodies you couldn’t form in a gym; instead they were bodies developed form hard, manual work.
The wrestling itself had many strange rituals such as greeting each other and doing a victory dance resembling a bird. When they entered the ‘ring’ they squatted, slapped their thighs and then slapped their ass and ran into the ‘ring’. At the beginning and the end of the match, the wrestlers put their arms out in the air horizontally, and slowly flapped up and down in a fluid motion. I found it to be an odd way to taunt the competitor. When one of the men pinned his opponent, he would get up, get his hat from the officiator, and then proceed to do this bird dance. It kind of reminded me of the taunting that American football players do when they make a touchdown.
As we watched all of the villagers compete, the villagers seemed to be watching us – the strange foreigners in the crowd. People would come up and sit next to us for a while just to take us in and size us up; then they’d leave. This didn’t bother me as long as they weren’t going to challenge me to a wrestling match! Then again, being a woman, there was really no fear of that happening (oops – the feminism needs to go back on a ‘time out’). The locals all passed around a big bowl of airag, fermented mare’s milk. Who knew that you could get drinkable milk from a horse? The bowl eventually was passed to us by a nice local that wanted us to be included in the festivities. I gave it a whiff, and decided, what the hell; I drank. It had that sourish taste of home made booze, but it honestly wasn’t too bad. In fact it was better than most of the cheap liquor I drank in college!
I loved the competition. The wrestlers were tough, really tough. There was no nicely padded floor, no apparent rules; only the hard, rocky desert ground to land on. They were focused as they began their match often spending the first few minutes simply staring their opponent down. The next move was often taking swipes at the other person, sometimes even latching on to their pretty baby blue ‘jacket’. You were lulled into relaxation as you watched the grown men pawing at each other as if they were puppies playing – then all of a sudden – ATTACK! Before I knew it someone was airborne and you heard a thud. The dust cleared and a winner was declared. The loser brushed the pebbles and dust out of their speedos and graciously watched the winner do their bird dance and receive his prize from the judges – hard unleavened bread/dunts…all of that for bortzig.
After many random wrestling matches; some occurring at the same time, the spectators suddenly got up and started walking or driving up over the hill in the distance. Shat gathered us up and took us there too. Way off in the distance you could see them; little puffs of dust. It took me a while to figure out what I was looking at or for, and then it dawned on me that this was the horse race. I wondered where in the world the horses started at – clearly they had been running for a while. The child jockeys raced them in to the finish line on bare backs while families cheered the competitors on. After the race the horses all came to the main ground where the wrestling had been taking place and various forms of milk were poured on the winning horses as some sort of honor; milk is King in Mongolia!
Seeing this small town festival was my highlight of my time in Mongolia. It oozed cultural experience which of course made me happy. Shat took care of us all day directing us where to go and where to sit. He even took us to his friend’s home to eat freshly made buuz. The events not on the itinerary are often the best – thanks Shat!
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