July 11th to 13th is Naadam, the biggest event on the Mongolian calendar. Three days of competitions in three sports: horse-racing, wrestling and archery. We've picked up tickets for the first two days, so I'll submit a report on all the fun in a couple days time.
According to an opinion piece in last week's UB Post, there are significantly fewer tourists here than last year - possibly because people are putting off a Mongolia visit to coincide with next year's Beijing Olympics. The tourist presence is definitely noticeable, but there is general disappointment in the trade. These few weeks are when the many Mongolians who work in the tourism industry expect to make most of their year's salary, so a poor year means that a lot of people will be feeling the bite. I had to diappoint a taxi driver the other day by refusing point blank to pay ten times the correct fare, about which he was most bitter. I could hardly begrudge him his bitterness, as his greed had given me a chance to show off my mastery of Mongolian and meet his outrageous demand with a cry of "Yakshtay!"
However many tourists are here, the festival is a big holiday for everybody in the country. Street vendors selling Kvass are everywhere. Kvass is a Russian drink that has a lot in common with ale, I think, but is very low in alcohol and sweet - it tastes for all the world like a bitter shandy, and I find it really refreshing on a hot day. Most of the bars have now got tables out on the street, and are barbecuing beef or mutton, the smell of which is very enticing, a lot more so than the usual waft of steamed buuz.
Just down the road from my friend Niall's home, there's a ger just set up selling the traditional Mongolian summer drink, Airag- fermented mare's milk - so walking home the other day we popped in to try a bowl. The taste is not much of a surprise - salty and tangy, somewhat like a pro-biotic yoghurt drink. Traditionally, menfolk drink gallons and gallons of the stuff until they vomit (as depicted in Marzan Sharav's picture "The Airag Feast") - particular kudos going to those whose powerful stomach muscles allow them to projectile vomit clean out of the ger door. I quite enjoyed the Airag but didn't feel overly keen to test out my regurgitative prowess. This might not have taken much encouragement though, as I'd just spent the day at a large village outside UB meeting some of my very charming and kind in-laws. My wife's Uncle was fascinated to find out how much vodka a man of my height could drink before getting drunk. The fact is (and it's nothing to boast about, of course) I can put back a considerable amount, providing it's just straight vodka I drink, and that at no time am I required to go out into the fresh air or indeed stand up - both of which prove instantly fatal.
Anyhow, Naadam kicks off tomorrow at 11am, with an opening ceremony at the Central Stadium, and we'll do our best to get down there in time to get a seat. The horse-racing takes place somewhere out past the airport, I think, but we ought to be able to find a bus going there. Apparently you don't see much unless you're chasing the horses by car, but I'd still like to get out there and soak up some of the atmosphere. In the evening there's a free concert at Sukhbaatar Square, which I aim to catch from the terrace of Dave's Place. I might make my own contribution to festivities, as it's wednesdays that I like to go down to the English Pub and play a few banjo tunes (speaking of which - thanks for sending the thumb picks Barry! Golden Gates too, just like I asked for). My wife is trying to teach me to sing a few Mongolian songs, but I'm finding memorising the lyrics a little bit more challenging than the 'Lonesome Road Blues'.