Sunday, 15 July 2007

Three Manly Games (and Anklebones)

Firstly, definitions. Naadam, which Mongolians call the "world's second oldest Olympics" is a three day festival of competitions in the "Three Manly Games": archery, wrestling and horse racing. Actually, women take part in the archery (possibly for a separate prize) and girls race the horses too. The story behind the traditional chestless jacket worn in the wrestling is that once a jealous woman competed, much to the shame of all the men she defeated, and so steps were taken to prevent this from happening again.

My wife and I had tickets for the two main days of competition (the 11th and 12th - Nadaam is held on the 11th - 13th July every year). She'd made me wait outside the ticket office at the Culture Palace while she bought the tickets in case there was the usual extra charge for foreigners - but for ordinary seats the tickets were a very reasonable 7500T ($7) regardless of nationality, for the whole event.

Wednesday morning was hot, with ominous clouds in the sky. However, rather than dress for rain I was determined to wear the short deel jacket I've recently had made - which put me in the exclusive company of old ladies and other foreigners. The National Stadium isn't far out of the stadium, and the route over broken ground, railway tracks, and beneath insulation-clad pipes was busy and lively. Traders lined the route selling cheap sunglasses, plastic toy guns, kvass and skewers of barbecued meat. Our timing was lucky, as on arrival at the stadium, we just managed to find seats, and didn't have too long to wait for things to get started. The stadium was full, but not overcrowded. I wrote the other day about an opinion piece in the UB Post suggesting that visitor numbers are down this year - whilst many more may well have been drawn by last year's 800th Anniversary of the Mongolian State, I find it hard to believe that there's been a significant fall - maybe there are more tour companies and hostels competing for the business.

The opening ceremony was quite enjoyable: a parade of horses followed by people in the various national costumes of the country. A lot of people bearing brightly coloured banners with swastikas on, too - the swastika being an ancient revered symbol in Mongolia and the personal seal, I'm told, of Genghis Khan. After marching round the stadium a few times there were dances performed - unfortunately, the banner holders were positioned so as to form a wall making it impossible for about an eighth of the stadium,including us, to see much of what was going on.

Eventually, after a rock song or two, speeches from the president, poems and so forth, the wrestling began. To be honest, it didn't really grip me, as I couldn't make out much of what was going on at the distance from our seats. We decided to take a walk around the outside of the stadium. That evening I watched some of the wrestling on TV, which I found much easier to follow.

Outside the stadium, we wandered over to the Archery field and the Anklebone tent. Both these events are unticketed - there's bustling crowds at the entrance to both venues, but inside it was possible to get right up on the action. We were at the Archery just in time to catch President Enkhbayar opening proceedings there. The Archery was very impressive to watch - particularly the way that crowds of judges hung very nonchalantly around the targets 75 metres away, it being presumably unthinkable that a Mongolian archer would miss by as much as a metre and a half.

The Anklebone tent was very crowded, and quite a racket was coming from inside - shouting and laughter, but beneath it all a loud, rising and falling drone, like some kind of meditative chant. Two sheep's anklebones - used for a wide variety of Mongolian games - are set up on a box in front of a black cushion. Some 10 or so metres away, the shooters line up on one knee, whilst squatting along either side towards the target are their team-mates - from whom the droning chant comes. With a powerful flick of their middle finger, and without looking up, the shooter fires a small rectangular puck along a piece of wood they have meticulously lined up to face the target - the object being to knock down both the bones. It doesn't qualify as a Manly Sport, unfortunately, so presumably owes its presence at Nadaam to the fact that it's both skillful and very entertaining.

We left the horse racing for day two. This year the races were taking place at Khui Doloon Khudag, some 40km outside of the city, necessitating a microbus journey. We went to see the Shudlen race - for 3 year-old horses. The aspect of the horse-racing that draws most attention internationally, and no small degree of criticism, is that the jockeys are all children aged from about six to ten years. Understandably, where hundreds of horses take to the field, there have been fatalities over the years. According to the UB Post, this year the children would "have to wear some protective gear" - which seemed to consist of an orange day-glo jacket, although about one child in ten was wearing a helmet. Another child in ten or so was also riding bareback.

There can be no doubt, but life can be hard on children in Mongolia. Many children have to work, and others beg for a living for themselves or their parents. Seeing the children ride, though, I find it very hard not to sympathise with the Mongolian instinct to take deep offense at any suggestion that the Naadam races should be ended. I suppose what becomes a bit uncomfortable is the fact that over the years, the race may well become more and more of a tourist event, and that starts to edge more into an area that I'm far less comfortable with, not least from my own perspective as a foreign spectator.

The race was thrilling and entertaining. It's 15 km in all - the 250 horses and riders competing set off for the start line at the foot of mountains on the horizon. Their return was heralded by a steadily approaching cloud of dust. The leaders came in at a thunderous pace. A fair few horses, understandably, were riderless, although I'm given to believe that there were thankfully no serious injuries this year. It was hard to consider the potential danger as the children were all quite clearly such competent riders. If children are going to ride horses at all, then why shouldn't they race? Well, anyhow, for my sins I enjoyed it. The presence of a very large number of country people on horseback - coming and going, suddenly breaking into a gallop through a crowd of pedestrians - kept the event from feeling like a tourist occasion, however many foreign spectators were around. Also, the fact that the two hundred or so ger selling food seemed to only be cooking the boiled flour and mutton buuz and khorschor was proof enough for me that this is still very much a Mongolian event.