Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, July 30, 2007

Naadam: A quintessential Mongolian experience

When we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the city was buzzing with excited chatter about Naadam, the country's biggest sporting event, which was due to begin in a couple of days. Naadam is a bit like an annual Mongolian Olympics, with contests in traditional wrestling, archery and cross-country horse racing. The multi-day festival draws thousands of Mongolian and foreign spectators, making it either the best or the worst time to visit, depending on one's tolerance for crowds and interest level in traditional Mongolian sports and culture. In our case, arriving just in time for Naadam was intentional and we soon joined the scramble for tickets.

Spectators assembling outside the Parliament Building in Ulaanbaatar, before the official Naadam parade

"Naadam" is derived from the word "naad", meaning play or rejoice, and has been celebrated in Mongolia since 1641. Provincial Naadam contests take place all over the country while the national Naadam is held in Ulaanbaatar (or UB, as the locals call their capital). While there's plenty of sporting action to be seen in the provinces, the most elaborate opening ceremony is held in UB. Naadam actually began for us before we arrived at the stadium. We happened to be wandering around near the Parliament Building behind Sukhbaatar Square as an elite group of soldiers mounted their horses to parade the official Naadam banners to the stadium.

Escorting the Naadam banners is apparently a great honor for the Mongolian soldiers who are handpicked to perform this honorable duty.

We followed them as they escorted the white horsehair banners through the dusty, potholed streets of UB. We had to run to keep up, which resulted in a twisted ankle for Jason. 'No pain, no gain' for the photographer! Thankfully, he did get some great shots which seemed to take his mind off the pain for a few hours.

Cloudy skies threatened a wet start to Naadam, but we managed to stay dry.

Stadium seating had been grossly oversold, so we were a bit squashed, but well situated to observe some interesting crowd behavior. In the front row an aging pair of foreign tourists insisted on having their view-obstructing umbrella up in spite of the absence of sun or rain, much to the disapproval of those behind. A young Mongolian forced himself into a non-existent gap between two seated spectators which put at least one of them at risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis, although the victim was too polite to object. Then there was the tourist sitting next to Jason who didn't look up from his Tom Clancy novel from the moment he sat down. In fact, he was still reading it two and a half hours later when the ceremony ended. It must have been a gripping read.

The VIPs. There's no marching without the marching band!

The opening ceremony soon distracted us from people watching, commencing with a patriotic marching band who accompanied the mounted soldiers as they paraded the horsehair banners around the stadium. The banners were finally displayed on a platform where they would take pride of place for the duration of Naadam. Next came a colorful string of traditionally clad dancers, flag bearers and archers. The flag bearers moved in a carefully choreographed sequence while traditional Mongolian songs were performed by a traditional singer. After a speech by Mongolia's President, which was great to witness in spite of being totally incomprehensible to us, we enjoyed folk dancing brought to life by elaborate costumes and masks.

Folk dancers dressed for the occasion.

Mongolian beauty queens (can you imagine a national parade without them?) with flag bearers in the background.

The grand finale was a performance by a long haired Mongolian rock star who circuited the stadium with a fleet of motorcycles, in total contrast to the traditional presentations. The ceremony was a colorful and interesting one, although we were quietly relieved when it was over, as eighty per cent of the crowds filed out, leaving us to watch the first round of wrestling in peace.

Rock on, Mongolia! This rock star waves a Mongolian flag from the bike.

The wrestlers came in all shapes and sizes and wore distinctive embroidered knickers and cropped jackets with heavy looking leather boots. The rules were minimal and the objective clear, the loser being the first to touch the ground with anything other than hands or feet.

Wrestlers are pictured here warming up and fighting. The gentlemen in blue robes are the referees.

The contests we saw lasted anything from a few seconds to several minutes, and we'd cheer each winner as he circled the horsehair banners with arms raised in the traditional victory "eagle dance". The wrestling turned out to be a particularly exciting event this year as the long time champ was defeated in the early rounds, conceding the prestigious title to a young upcoming wrestler.

This wrestler circles the horsehair banners in the eagle dance for victory.

The festivities continued outside the stadium where vendors grilled kebabs and crowds milled around from one event to another. Our next stop was the archery, where we watched male and female masters of the bow and arrow demonstrate their skills in brightly colored outfits. Interestingly, there were no conventional concentric circle targets involved. Instead, the archers aimed at rows of cylindrical cans on the ground. Nonetheless, their precision and power was impressive.

The archery field

We were wooed away from the archers by the sound of monotonous wailing. The wailing was coming from the nearby venue for anklebones, Naadam's newest sporting event. Several anklebone contests were in progress simultaneously, with spectators gathered round each group of contestants. Contestants would take it in turns to flick an anklebone at a target board about six feet away, earning points for accuracy. Each contestant had a team of supporters seated on the sidelines, 'singing' (or wailing) to bring good luck. The concentration and precision of the competitors were amazing, and the wailing certainly added to the atmosphere of this intriguing event.

All eyes are on this anklebone contestant as he prepares to flick the bone.

On the second day of Naadam we drove 30 km into the countryside where the cross- country horse racing was taking place. We watched the end of the 'Ikh nas' race for 6 year old horses, as the lean muscular animals crossed the finish after racing for 27 km across open steppe.

This guard makes sure we don't get too close to the race.

It was incredible to see such powerful horses ridden by tiny jockeys, some of them younger than the horses, and most of them not much older. There was a mix of male and female jockeys, wearing bright colored pajamas with orange numbered vests. Many wore colorful paper crowns, most rode bareback and hardly any wore either shoes or helmets. We were shocked at the young age of these riders and the multitude of health and safety hazards involved in the event, as well as awed by the skill and speed of the race.

Here comes the winner, furlongs ahead of the competition

Interestingly, the jockeys (even the winners) were barely congratulated at the finish line, while the horses were showered with attention and airag (fermented mare's milk). This speaks volumes about how important horses are in Mongolian culture. The 'horse worshipping' is even more profound with the 'Soyolon' (five year old horses), the most venerated group. Mongolians believe that coming into contact with the sweat or dust from a winning Soyolon horse will bring them good luck.

This jockey checks out the kites on sale.

Naadam was undoubtedly a unique experience. Having been initiated at the national event in UB, we fancy checking out a provincial Naadam next time for a more up close and personal experience. Maybe we'll even find ourselves showered with sweat and dust from a winning Soyolon horse!

Next on Donkey Crossing: chilling out in the Gobi Desert


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm impressed that you know the names of the events- were there printed programs? I always wonder how you guys know all the key vocab. Good work.


2:55 PM  
Blogger MidWestCowboy said...

Twisted ankle getting to stadium, then watching new 'anklebone' event? that's, like, so weird...

9:55 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Rock stars on Harleys, beauty queens, Tom Clancy...good to know that home is never too far away, huh?

Anyway, I'm very disappointed that you didn't get a shot of Jason in one of those wrestling outfits doing the eagle dance...I know you could do the dance--I think I saw more than one during your streak of mölkky victories.

So what are the chances that you'll be importing some of these events as backyard games when you get home?

3:49 PM  

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