We arrived in Mongolia during the Naadam Festival, a yearly contest of the ‘Three Manly Sports’ of wrestling, horse racing and archery. Richard, Margaret and Ruby had seen some of the wrestling the day before, at the stadium in UB, but by the time we arrived and had lunch it was more or less too late to see the archery, so we elected instead to drive straight to the camp site. This meant that, for Chris and I, the horse racing was the first and only bit of the Naadam we saw.
It was magnificent. The ‘field’ in which the event was taking place was heaving with people. The term ‘field’ is a bit misleading, because it wasn’t a fenced-in space; it was just the bit of the steppe where the horse racing was taking place. Thousands of people milled about – friends, families, gangs of young lads on horseback, kite flyers, horse archers in magnificent costumes; mounted policemen and army types. The atmosphere was fantastic: everyone smiling, excited to be there, enjoying the holiday. Naadam races are really long – this one was a cross-country gallop of thirty kilometres.
While we waited for the race to reach us we were entertained by a display of horsemanship and archery on horseback. We all squeezed into one of the stands to have a look. All the seats were taken, so we ended up packed into the space between two of these stands, jammed in extremely tightly; it was difficult to see anything, especially as the show itself was quite far away. Still, the bits I did see were impressive. Men galloping past, standing up on the backs of their horses, or dropping down so that it looked like the horse was riderless; shooting various targets at high speed. At one point a line of horsemen all made their horses lie on the ground then stand up again, with riders still attached; another group, dressed in military uniform, gave the crowd a wonderful formal salute whilst standing on the back of their horses, as sure-footed and upright as though they were on solid ground.
After this we moved up to get a good spot for the horse race itself. There was a fair amount of hanging around, as there often is at these sorts of events, but we secured a great front-row position and settled in to wait, chatting to one of the stewards, who stood in front of us guarding the wire line that stretched between the crowd and the course of the race (‘racing track’ is too strong a word to describe the latter area). Then a cloud of dust kicked up in the distance: the race was approaching. People began to hurry towards the wire. Those of us at the front row crouched down so that the people behind could see.
Soon the race was upon us. As with the earlier displays, there was still a fair gap between us and the race: none of my pictures of it are particularly impressive. It was fun to watch, though, and to be a part of the happy, excited crowd. I especially liked the riderless horses who were still going hell for leather, convinced they were still in with a shot of winning.
Once the race had thundered on past us we made our way back towards the van; it took an hour or so to find it amid the chaos of the field. Eventually we were reunited, only to spend another age battling our way back on to the open road. We had lunch at our campsite, and decided not to go back for the rest of the afternoon’s Naadam events: instead we all had a long siesta before it was time to saddle up ourselves.
Before arriving in Mongolia I had only been on a horse once in my life. I’ve been on a fair few donkeys and camels, but the only horse ride was a short one in Jordan, on the way to Petra, and it wasn’t a complete success. I mounted easily, but the damn horse wouldn’t move. The rest of my group all started off on foot towards the entrance to the siq, the narrow chasm that leads to the ancient city of Petra. My horse just stood there as though it hadn’t the faintest idea what was expected of it as I urged, prodded and cajoled it to move. Eventually the man who had rented it to me noticed that I hadn’t got anywhere, and turned back. He raised an eyebrow at it, and the horse trotted forward very smartly. Luckily no one else witnessed this little debacle; instead they saw me trotting past as though I knew what I was doing.
This was the sum total of my horse riding experience by the time I came to be standing in the steppe, eyeing up the stocky beasts in front of us. Mongolian horses are quite small, but they seemed big enough to me suddenly. Chris had a little more experience, having had a few classes as a child; Richard and Ruby had both owned horses in the past, but Margaret was another absolute beginner.
They assigned us all horses and clapped us in riding helmets and chaps before we hauled ourselves on to the horses. Mine was a medium-sized brown fellow. They all had rather boring names like ‘the one with the stripe’ or ‘the black one’, so we each re-named our mounts; I called mine Sinatra, as he had startling light blue eyes, and Chris called his Wolfgang – you’d have to ask him why. Ruby was given a horse she had ridden before, as she’d been in the country for longer than we had: she’d called it Rowdy Brown. Richard and Margaret were mounted on Blackie and Blondie respectively. Amaraa’s horse was called ‘Amaraa’s horse’, and Baynmunh had a dapple grey horse which I was soon driven to name Farty. All of them were geldings.
At first I was led by Amaraa, but his horse and mine immediately started sniping at each other until Baynmunh told us to stop and swapped Sinatra and I for Margaret and Blondie: apparently Amaraa’s horse and Sinatra were not on friendly terms. We set off across the steppe at an easy walk; Baynmunh was now leading Chris and myself. Sinatra kept turning his head slightly, surveying me out of the corner of his eye; he didn’t seem very impressed with what he saw. We learned how to urge the horses on – ‘tchoo! tchoo!’ but mostly they chose to ignore us. Sinatra liked to walk as close to Farty as possible, so that my knee often ended up wedged into Farty’s arse – not a fantastic place for it to be, but it seemed as though I had little choice in the matter. Despite this, the ride was brilliant, especially when we went downhill, standing up in the stirrups – great fun.
After about twenty minutes we stopped high up in a beautiful silver-green valley, and decided to camp there for the night. I was disappointed – I wanted to go further, ride for longer. The van appeared, and we started to unload everything, setting up the tents and the dining table. I chatted to Amaraa for a bit and was amazed to hear that the twenty minute ride had actually lasted two whole hours – I could hardly believe it.
Each evening the horses were hobbled for the night, but they could still wander off quite far – “just a couple of kilometres”, as Amaraa put it. Some were tied together – Wolfgang and Sinatra were always a pair – while others were left alone. Richard’s horse, Blackie, was the leader of our little herd.
Mongolian horses have a fair amount of freedom. The following morning a 4×4 appeared over the ridge above our camp, and two men stopped to ask if we’d seen their horses, which were lost. Amaraa told us about his cousin, who once spent a couple of weeks in the Gobi Desert looking for some camels – moving from ger to ger, hosted by whichever family he happened to meet on his way. Often, in the mornings, Baynmunh would spend a long while looking for our horses after they’d strayed off in the night, carried away by their ongoing mission to eat the entire steppe.
This post is getting a bit long, so I’ll leave it there for now, even though there’s plenty more to report. Coming up (as they say on the news): Sinatra and I have a falling out, and Chris goes missing during a morning run. Stay tuned.