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Drinking with Nomads at a twenty mile horse race

The spectacular third sport of the Naadam and a traditional Mongolian concert to conclude the festivities

sunny 27 °C

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Eager to experience the third of the ‘Three Manly Games’, the horse racing, we had an early start so that we could be at the Naadam stadium by eight thirty. With a 25 mile bus ride to the ‘racecourse’ we felt this would give us sufficient time to find the bus and see the end of the first race. Even though this race had already started, at seven o’clock, being 20 miles in length it was not anticipated to end until ten o’clock. Yet we had not accounted for the hopeless organization of the Games. After 805 years one might hope that a sign pointing to the location of the buses could have been produced or better still an English speaking information booth provided. This was not to be the case. Lost and British we asked a policeman. Well, many policemen. Some told us there were no buses, some pointed us 180° in exactly the wrong direction, whilst others pretended that they could not understand my bus and horse racing mime. So it was an hour later, with a degree of sheer dumb luck we boarded a tired looking bus for the horse racing.

'What was that you said'

'What was that you said'

On board no seats were available so we found a spot to stand and waited to depart. As we waited more passengers joined us. As we continued to wait available space in the bus became a premium, until as we departed we were crushed, for the hour long ride, like rush hour commuters on the London Tube. Yet, at a variety of bus stops more people boarded and the crush of people grew. At our final stop, before we left the city, a flood of hopeful passengers surged forward. As a privately run bus the conductor was happy to carry as many as the bus would hold. Health and Safety, maximum operating limits and the like were certainly unknown concepts. Rammed on the bus we had little choice but to find whatever space we could have hold onto it for the next hour, vowing that a taxi would take us back to the capital.

Ponies ready for a 20 mile race

Ponies ready for a 20 mile race

Arriving at the grassy hill, that overlooked the finish of the racecourse it was clear that organization, Naadam and efficient rarely go to together. One can but hope that the organizers of the London Olympics were not there on a fact finding mission. Our bus was now stuck in traffic. Not because of volume but due to sheer stupidity and incompetence. Annoyed at having to queue single file to leave the horse racing a large number of cars had decided to drive down the other side of the road (the lane for entering the racecourse). This left the two lane road with departing traffic using both lanes but incoming traffic still using their ‘usual’ side of the road. Where the two opposing lanes of traffic met a lone policeman tried in vain to alleviate the situation. Understanding how long this would take to resolve we escaped from the bus scrum and gladly worked the last mile to the racecourse.

Our bus conductor shows us around

Our bus conductor shows us around

Young riders and their prized watches

Young riders and their prized watches

Will his pick up line work?

Will his pick up line work?

With our bus conductor, who had also escaped the chaos, acting as an impromptu guide we headed for a small Ger camp. Eager for us to ride their horses were declined but did accept our first taste of airag – fermented mare milk (3% alcohol). Tasting bitter and of slightly ‘off’ milk it was palatable but not tasty. Dried curd or aaruul was also offered, tasting very much like a tough, mild cheddar cheese. The hospitality of Nomad Mongolians is well known and this was no exception. Asking for no payment this was simply their culture. For us it was a wonderful welcome to this different area of the Naadam.

A ride is offered

A ride is offered

The modern world affects the Ger as well

The modern world affects the Ger as well

Give me a home where the Yak roam!

Give me a home where the Yak roam!

With our conductor/guide leaving us to return to his now extricated bus we headed for the centre of the festivities. Looking out over a large area that resembled a rock festival more than a horse race it was clear where the finish of the race would occur.

The Field of Dreams

The Field of Dreams

Jockeys ready to depart

Jockeys ready to depart

Yet all over the surrounding hills and grassy steppes, Ger camps and western style tents dotted the landscape. People sat cooking, drinking and generally enjoying the environment and like any good rock concert there appeared to be only one restroom – a hole in the ground with a couple of planks over it and a line of 50 people waiting to us it. This was not exactly Royal Ascot or even Brighton races on a wet Monday evening!

Queue for the pit, sorry, toilet

Queue for the pit, sorry, toilet

Everyone dresses up for the Nadaam festival

Everyone dresses up for the Nadaam festival

Yet this spectacle of Gers, tents, flags and people was mesmerizing.

Prayers flags overlooking the race course

Prayers flags overlooking the race course

A cultural village provided traditional Mongolian music and an insight into the arts and crafts of Mongolia.

A local orchestra helps set the mood in the Cultural Village

A local orchestra helps set the mood in the Cultural Village

The lead singer poses for pictures

The lead singer poses for pictures

A Mongolian caligrapher prepares a very special scroll

A Mongolian caligrapher prepares a very special scroll

With time passing quickly the finish of the last race of the Naadam was soon amongst us. Open to teenagers only the feat of stamina for both horse and rider, of this 20 mile ride, is one that can probably only be fully appreciated by those of my friends with an intricate understanding of horses. Yet, even for Trey and I, who might think that two miles is a long horse race, this race over open countryside between two points, with no fences or planned routes was an amazing spectacle.

After 3 hours racing the riders finally reach the finish line

After 3 hours racing the riders finally reach the finish line

Trey enjoys the climax of the racing

Trey enjoys the climax of the racing

Watching the dust trails on the horizon as the front running competitors came into view was a spectacle to behold and certainly our favorite part of the Naadam. With an unknown young boy winning the race by some ten lengths we headed to the Ger restaurants. As at the Stadium they only appeared to serve Khuushuur. Yet, as yesterday they were tasty as we enjoyed yet another blue sky Mongolian day.

Row upon row of Ger restaurants

Row upon row of Ger restaurants

Our best Khuushuur yet

Our best Khuushuur yet

Plenty of room for ponies at the Ger restaurants

Plenty of room for ponies at the Ger restaurants

One for the road

One for the road

Returning to the capital by taxi proved as ‘exciting’ as the bus journey to the races. With a dual carriageway outside the race area congested the majority of drivers decided that both sides of the two-way dual carriageway could be used to return to Ulaanbaatar. Readily avoiding the inevitable head on traffic , as we drove on the wrong side of the dual carriageway, we were soon off-road, in our little saloon car, to avoid further congestion on the main road. Dirt tracks, dried river beds and muddy back roads provided for a bouncing and jarring ride back into the city.

Off home after a hard day at the races

Off home after a hard day at the races

The returning buses were just as busy. We opted for a cab

The returning buses were just as busy. We opted for a cab

A very tired rider

A very tired rider



Next year's competitor

Next year's competitor

Back in the city we had tickets for ‘Beautiful Mongolia’ A performance by the State National Grand Orchestra of Mongolia . Purchased from the daughter of the conductor we had been promised an evening of traditional Mongolian music, only staged once a year during Naadam. Walking to the concert the continual habit of drivers refusing to stop for green pedestrian crossing lights and to even speed up when one is legitimately crossing the road finally got the better of me. A driver of an old, yellow car, refusing to stop for us on the cross walk, received a very firm kick to his passenger door. Probably unaware of the slight dint he stopped abruptly and shouted a string of abuse, in Mongolian. A returned smile and a gesture to look where he was going in future did little to lower his blood pressure but did allow us the satisfaction of at last scoring a point for the pedestrian. Further along another incompetent pickpocket attempted to steal from my backpack (which I had worn under my coat at the market the day before). This time his attempt to open the zip was so rough and clumsy that there was no disguising what he was up to. Now aware of his intention he had little chance of returning to what he had hoped would be an open bag and he slunk off. Hopefully, their skills will not improve further.

At the concert we had a small, impromptu Olkhon Island reunion. Two Canadians that we had met on the bus to the island were in attendance and by strange coincidence a Dutch girl we had met in the bar at Nikita’s was sat next to us. It was she that had been the unfortunate victim of three pickpockets during the Naadam. Clearly, worried we walked her back to her hostel after the Naadam, discussing where she might go during her anticipated six months of travelling in Mongolia.

The Mongolian State National Orchestra

The Mongolian State National Orchestra

The concert itself was excellent and most enjoyable. Traditional Mongolian musicians played instruments such as the morin khuur (horse head fiddle), Mongolian harps and long horns along with demonstrating the strange Mongolian art of Khöömii (throat singing). With a few western classics such as Brahms and even some Queen thrown into the evenings repertoire the mostly unknown to us Mongolian music was both evocative and enjoyable, the lament for the lost camel in the Gobi desert being particularly descriptive.

Horse head fiddles

Horse head fiddles

The concert also provided a number of firsts, certainly for myself. It was the first Classic concert that I had attended with two conductors, who took turns to conduct. It was the first where I had seen musicians sing but this happened during a number of pieces, whilst the orchestra played on and it was also the only concert I have attended where the composers of two of the pieces were also playing in the orchestra, which provided extra interest for ourselves.

Traditional Mongolian dress

Traditional Mongolian dress

This second day of the Naadam had certainly been our favorite. The Opening Ceremony had been impressive but whilst the wrestling and archery were interesting the spectacle of a 20 mile horse race along with traditional Gers and hospitable Nomadic welcome that we had received was hard to beat. With an excellent Mongolian concert rounding off a great day we prepared to leave the city, in the morning, to explore some more of the beautiful Mongolian countryside that we had only briefly glimpsed today.

Posted by jamesh1066 17:53 Archived in Mongolia Tagged horse racing ulaanbaatar naadam

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