Experiencing nomadic life and the Mongolian Naadam festival…

After returning from our 6 day trip to the Gobi Desert, we set off from Ulaanbaatar on another adventure to the Mongolian countryside. We travelled with a Canadian living in Norway, called Jacynta and a Chinese American called Jenny, who we had met on our Gobi trip and who were both very friendly and great fun. We visited the Khustai National Park, where we were lucky to see wild Przewalski’s Horses. The breed are the ancestors of most of the world’s domesticated horses and were previously extinct in the wild. In the 1990s a small number were reintroduced from European zoos (in part thanks to the Mongolian Ambassador called Bold who we shared a cabin with on the train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar) and now the wild population numbers over 300. The national park was full of life and we saw numerous scampering marmots and birds of prey whilst we were searching for the Przewalski’s Horses. We didn’t see any wolves, but we are told there is a healthy population in the area!

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We stayed the night with a local nomadic family and in the evening we ‘helped’ them tend to their animals. The family kept horses, goats, sheep and cows and we were able to watch their impressive cowboy skills as they rounded up their horses, sheep and goats. They had a low-fenced pen or ‘corral,’ next to their Gers, which most of the horses were herded skilfully into. A few of the horses jumped over the fence and back out of the pen and a couple of them also jumped into the pen, so they could be with the herd. Either way, we had to be careful not to get hit by the horses! Later on, we had a go at catching some of the goats for milking. You had to approach them carefully and then be very quick and grab the goats by their horns. Once it got dark, hundreds of pairs of eyes reflected eerily in the light of our torches.

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The next morning, we got up early and had a go at milking the family’s cows. They let the calves feed first, to stimulate the milk flow and then pull the calves away, so they can milk the cows. Afterwards, the calves are allowed to return to their mothers, who then trot off and rejoin the herd. After breakfast, we went out horse riding on the nomad’s semi-wild horses. As we left the Ger camp, the other horses in the herd voluntarily walked with us for a while, before deciding to stop and graze. We rode to a hilltop, where we were rewarded with stunning views across the vast grassland. The nomads only round up horses from the herd when they need to use them. It was liberating to see our horses being set free again and rejoining the herd on the open Steppe, after we had finished our ride.

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We were lucky that our time in Mongolia coincided with the annual Naadam festival; and we spent our last two days in Mongolia experiencing the festivities of the biggest event of the year. Naadam is a sporting competition embodying the three key skills for Genghis Khaan’s Mongol Warriors: Wrestling, Horse Racing and Archery. On our trips, we had briefly visited two local Naadams and seen the preparations and aftermath of the Horse Racing.

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Back in Ulaanbaatar, we attended the Opening Ceremony, Wrestling and Archery at the national stadium. The Opening Ceremony was an impressive display of parades, music and dancing, celebrating Mongol traditions and included a speech from the President of Mongolia.

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In the afternoon, we watched the first rounds of the wrestling and the archery. The competitors still wear traditional Mongol outfits to compete. The archers wore long traditional robes called ‘Deels,’ with high leather boots with upturned toes and sported ornate pointed skull caps. The wrestling matches are fought by big burly wrestlers, in their unusual, but colourful outfits; consisting of brightly coloured skin tight pants (underwear not trousers, in case you are American!) and a short jacket called a ‘Zodog,’ which exposes the wrestler’s chest. That night, the party continued in Chinggis Khaan Square, with a concert of a variety of bands; including surprisingly, a Mongolian Abba tribute band! At midnight, a spectacular fireworks display illuminated the night sky. We followed it up with a couple of beers with Jenny and Jacynta and didn’t get back to our hotel until 2.30am.

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The next day, we watched a full day of wrestling at the national stadium. The wrestling is a knock out competition with no weight categories, but as you can imagine, it’s usually the biggest competitors who make it to the finals. The competition is full of ceremony, starting with the competitors doing a traditional dance around the referees, symbolising Falcons or a Phoenix. The bouts can last for over half an hour and by the end many competitors are left physically exhausted. After a bout is won, one wrestler ducks underneath the other’s arm, as a mark of respect and the winner runs around the 9 ceremonial flags of Chinggis Khaan and then spins around, with arms outstretched, to celebrate his victory. We were very lucky to see the final. At the moment when the winner floored his opponent, the whole stadium erupted and he instantaneously became a national hero!

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From Ulaanbaatar, we flew to our final destination, South Korea…

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