It was supposed to be a "Veloo Foundation" day - a day when I went out to the countryside to , in conjunction with the wonderful ladies from the International Equestrian Club and Saraa & Baagii from Saraa's Ger Camp , deliver a new ger to a very very needy family out in Erdene Zoum, a small community about 60 kms outside of UB. We had met this family a week or so previously- well, technically 3 single moms with their combined 8 children and handicapped younger brother all living together in one ger. Yes, one ger - a circular dwelling about 17 feet in diameter housing twelve people. That's what we thought we were heading to ....but, in typical Mongolian fashion, what happened next could not have been anticipated. Don't worry though ... we did manage to meet the family, deliver and build the ger and make sure that from now on they would have a safe and warm second ger for their family to spread out into....but that, of necessity, is going to be another blog. This one is about what ELSE happened.
So, ladies and gentlement of the audience, follow me this way..to the local Erdene Zoum winter Naadam...no wrestling or archery, but 18 kms of horse racing, by children, at minus 20 or so, and with everyone decked out in their new Tsagaan Sar finery - a glittering gorgeous celebration of the official end of winter. Mongolian Style.
First, it was up on horses for the children and off they go...trotting out 9 kms in the "brisk" morning air where they will turn around and gallop home.
So here's the wonderful thing for me....because we were out there helping out the poorest members of the community, the local Governor treated us to a wonderful Mongolian meal in his office and then escorted us through the security gate so that we could join the official cars and drive along with the kids on the race, affording us a very very rare look at the ongoing situation as the ride progresses!
So here's how it works...everyone is following that flag. In the dust, snow, and ice fog it is sometimes hard to see where you're going, so....just follow the flag!
Out on the course we witnessed dozens competitions. Dozens of head to head mini races, and almost all of them involving children riding at full gallop.... bareback. Some really amazing technique out there. I was in awe of how smooth the children were on the back of these wonderful Mongolian mounts.
And, of course, the cold... not that Mongolians ( or their horses for that matter!) seem to mind the cold!
This little guy battled and battled to try and pass the two lead horses but couldn't quite make it. He seemed pretty chuffed with 3rd place though!
...and we got to meet him and his Dad after the race...another random Mongolian Moment. I promised to develop these pictures ( and more!!) and get them up to him in Hintee when we ride up there in May ( 350 kms or so away)...Only in Mongolia!
For me, the race was only a small part of the fun & beauty though...I really loved getting a chance to people watch...including this valiant Mongol mounted on his metal steed and listening to heavy metal on his Ipod. Gorgeous! He was as interested in the race as the old ( and young!) men & women in their traditional dells ( long coats).
So, some of my potentially obscure observations...first of all, lots and lots of the kids had similar looking snow suits to ride in.
As they thunder by at lightning speed...
...I can only imagine that it makes finding your own little rider...
...that much more difficult!
Although, I have to say, it didn't seem to present too much of a problem to this very concerned Dad looking for his boy to come in...
And his concern is justified. Every race there is one or two horses that come in without riders. As this is one of the smaller races, lots of the children were riding without helmets. The child from this horse wasn't hurt - at least that's what I heard - but moving forward the good news is that there is increasing pressure to ensure that all these little racers are protected with safety equipment. Quite a battle though as this is the way it has "always been done".
The race grounds are a festival of colour and culture. Everywhere you look there are horses waiting for the race, just trotting around, or recovering from the race.
...and their people. Wonderful Mongol herders who still live the lifestyle of their ancestors...complete with the traditional accoutrements needed to take care of their horses.
Oh, and colourful dells. Lots and lots of them!
Texting herders..the new normal.
It's just past Tsagaan Sar - the Lunar New Year when everyone gets new clothes...and it was pretty evident when you looked around at the pastel of colour decorating the race grounds!
Of course, the well dressed Mongol not only has a new deel - but a new dell that matches his horse blanket! Beautiful!
Part of the necessary routine is walking your race horse around after the race to help him cool off. Everyone gets in the act...
...and I do mean everyone!! Little ones get one horse to walk around..
When you get to be a professional, you get more!
For me, some of the most beautiful things about the day ( other than careening across the steppe at about 40 kms / hr trying to get ahead of the riders for some great photo opportunities!) was just people watching. The clothes, the colour, the culture and the wonderful enjoyment of the people out relishing a great community day out - complete with traditional Naadam Khooshuur - think meat filled samosa...minus the spice. Here's some of my favourite snaps from the day.
Sheepskin lined dells ...everywhere!
Not to mention the fur hats!!
and the history written on so many faces.
All the race horses have this wonderful tail binding...I'm told it is so that their tail doesn't get tangled with their legs while they run.
Love this one...keeping an eye on his horse...I don't know what the horse is keeping an eye on!
How proud was this little guy?? A true Mongol...in training!
This is the wrestling stadium for the summer Naadam where I got to do just what he's doing last summer as I watched the wrestling. Wonderful memories being here for both the summer and winter Naadams!
...and the children in their new glad rags! SO gorgeous! They were all so happy!!
Winter made glittery!! The most sensible sort of decorations really - warm and beautiful!!
At the end of the day, this winter naadam seems to me to be all about family and community. It's about Dads honouring their families and culture in their Mongol best and passing along the tradition of riding and racing to their sons... yes sons...mostly, although some girls do ride in the race. Despite the pink outfit, this is a boy getting on the horse with the help of his Dad.It's about community,and competition and continuity.
It's about keeping the culture alive and providing a showcase for the special skills of those countryside folk who work so hard to train their horses and teach their children the time honoured skill of truly riding. It's about the continuing living rope of being the last horse culture on the planet continuing to unroll.
Oh, and it's about winning too!
..and caring for your horse, and passing that knowledge along to the next generation. Oh, and about catching up for a good gossip with your far-flung friends!
Not to mention, it's about looking good!
Oh, and just in case you were curious, yes, even with this amazing winter Naadam experience we managed to deliver and build a new ger for that needy family out there in the countryside. It was truly a two ( or maybe three!) blog day....but, that is the way of it, here ....at the end of the earth!