Let me introduce the players for the next 16 days. These are the people who will join me around Mongolia for the Intrepid tour.
Robin is our tour guide and leader fom Intrepid. He is a relatively young fellow from England who had been teaching in China prior to joining up with Intrepid. This trip, however, is his first in Mongolia. Of course we will have a local guide but she wasn’t there for the introductory meeting.
Next up is Lori, a New York native who definitely has the “New York” accent. Her roommate is Sarah from England. She’s apparently quit her job and started travelling – she has no idea for how long she will travel, maybe three years. Mieko is an older lady and I think a dental anesthesiologist from Zurich though her heritage is Japanese. She’s already convinced me that I should get a pedicure and manicure for the first time in my life while in UB (we’ll see…)
Scott is from Denver, Colorado. I’m not entirely sure what he does for a living yet but he does like climbing and has already summitted Aconcagua (the tallest mountain in South America). Rounding off those travelling singly is Danielle from Australia who arrived early on Tuesday morning quite a bit after the rest of us had met up.
The couples are from Australia and New Zealand. Steve and Barbro are from Melbourne, Australia and seem quite fun. Jenny and Zack are from Auckland, New Zealand.
Tuesday morning we boarded our buses and and drove off to the Naadam Festival. During the Naadam Festival, Mongolia pretty much froze shut and all eyes turned to the festival. Naadam is held throughout the country but the one in UB were the biggest and the most spectacular. It was a tradition that stretched back hundreds of years, an alternative to the worlds Olympics, but only in the traditional sports of Mongolia. These sports were wrestling, horse racing, archery and anklebone-throwing. This year was to be a special celebration, the biggest Naadam yet in honour of the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Mongolian Empire by Chingis Khan.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at the opening ceremonies but I knew it would be interesting. I was not let down. The ceremony was ablaze with colour, dances, acrobatics and pageantry. At times it reminded me of the 1988 Seoul Olympics opening ceremony, albeit on a much smaller, more intimate scale. As the 10,000 (probably more) people in the stadium watched, the festival was opened. I hope the pictures will carry more weight than anything I could describe in words.
Our local tour guide will be a young lady by the name of Jargalan, pronounced with a lot of guttural spitting sounds more like Jarathalan. I suspect I will learn little Mongolian while I am here. She speaks fantastic English and seems genuinely enthusiastic about making sure we have a very good time. This is her first tour-leading gig. Please note that means we have a fresh faced Robin and an equally green Jargalan.
After lunch we (minus Derek) drove off to see the horse racing which was being held 2 hours out of town on the Mongolian Steppe. When we stepped out of the vans and topped the hill overlooking the races, all I could see were vast grassy plains surrounded by gentle sloped hills and dotted with Gir (or Yurt) camps. Horses were being corralled here are there. The weather had turned against us and against a backdrop of rain and fog a train wound through the plains. I swear if you could replace the Girs with teepees I might as well have been in 18th or 19th century Montana.
The Mongolians are amazing horse riders. During the opening ceremony their horse acrobatics were truly awe-inspiring. Up to this point in my life I had never really ridden a horse (though I seem to remember being on top of a pony once). For me personally all this was even more astonishing. The horses, not the riders, are the stars here and are ridden in such races by very young children. This is not for the faint-hearted. There are accidents that befall these children.
Unfortunately for us, we had just missed the race that we had come to see. However, instead of resigning to our sad situation, Lori, Mieko and Robin headed back leaving the rest of us out on the steppe with Jargalan. Our cut off time to see the next race was about 6:30pm as we had to get back to make our restaurant reservations. Naturally by 6:30pm the race was still yet to start. The horses were being pooled together for the race and being checked by doctors out in the distance. By now a hundred or more horses had been rounded up with their young jockeys atop them. As a 5 or 6 year-old I could barely survive or walk in a graceful line, and here they were riding major horse-racing competitions.
Feeling rather saddened at the thought of not being able to see this race we headed back as instructed only to find that the authorities had blocked traffic to the city and as such we had no choice but to see the race. We made it back to the stands, just in time for the finish. The mist and rain seemed to depart as the horses ran towards us completing a 30km race. The dust cloud behind them could be seen for 20 mins before they approached us at the finish line. We noticed that some of the horses were finishing riderless. Apparently the horse can still win the race, it is about the horse remember not the rider. Which makes you wonder what happened to the rider…
As the horses finished the race a double rainbow opened in the heavens above the finish line. A good sign for a favourable Naadam no doubt. I do have to wonder about the number of police and army in this country and whether this festival is not a good time to commit some bank robberies here. To prevent people from crossing into the path of the horses along the unmarked and “unroaded” plains, they had created a human wall stretching so far that they became dots in the distance.
After the race, we returned back to UB for a Greek supper. I am now quite tired. Heat, wind, exercise, rain, excitement and fresh air doth combine to promote sleep. Tomorrow we will witness the other Naadam sports: archery, wrestling and anklebone throwing.
Oh and how could I forget another highlight of today. Some Mongolians offered us horse rides. Having never ridden a horse I immediately took them up on the offer for a short accompanied (thank god) ride. The rider sat behind me and managed to get the horse to go fairly fast and wow – amazing. I might need to learn how to do this for real. I must gallop into dreams now.