It’s about time to end this virtual meandering around Mongolia. Well, for the moment at least. I’ve got ideas for a few more “specials” if I can somehow arrange them. They can’t be any harder than getting to talk with a Buryat shaman, can they?
Anyway for now I’d like to finish scattering some gems from my conversation with Mr N, by summing up some of the entertainment/diversions available for those passing by Ulaanbaatar.
One of the most interesting pursuits – and very Mongolian – is Naadam: the “games” that are held in Ulaanbaatar on a large scale during early-mid July, with smaller versions potentially anywhere and at any time (though probably not during winter!) The three principle sides to Naadam are wrestling, horse riding and archery. Wrestling is for men only but the others feature both genders, so I am informed. There are also a mix of ages in attendance. It’s a big deal.
The fourth element -that seemingly makes it’s presence felt whenever Mongolians have a good time is Shagai or “Ankle Bones”. We’ve touched on this before, suffice to say: it’s all about the casting of sheep/goat ankle bones and how they land in various configurations and orientations. Tournaments may be held in larger Naadams but given half a chance, it seems to turn up anyway, anywhere!
There are variations according to age and gender in the tournaments, with 20km, 35km and 40km horse races for steeds of various ages, a ten metre reduction in target range for female archers (from 75 to 65 metres), etc. Children in their primary years compete – the horse racing is notably a child event, without being child’s play. Six years of age is not uncommon. Incredible.
Like all the proverbial roads leading to Rome, a great chunk that is core to Mongolian culture seems to link in some way to Ghengis Khan. Mr N tells me about the origins of Naadam: that these games were 13th Century warrior training for the mighty Khan, with the winners being selected for his fearsome army. The true origins lie back even further as festivities deeply wedded to the culture. Mongolians and games seem inextricably linked throughout history.
Talking of entertainment: Mr N enthusiastically describes the mini Naadams – well, wrestling actually that he lays on for the tourists. The bouts are free-form and feature the tourists themselves, an interesting twist, primed on Mongolian vodka to get them in the mood. So let’s get this straight Mr N: you get the tourists semi-drunk and set them upon each other? Well, I think that this is for your entertainment! Sure enough, with a hearty “Yes!” he gleefully admits the truth, and I can almost see the grin bursting out of my computer. Whilst the national stars of the Nadaam step out of the games into fame and up to 10,000 GBP worth of fortune, the tourists probably wake up with bruises, a headache and a few souvenirs for their troubles. Well, at least Mr N and his staff had a blast!
So what else to do? The Gurvan Saikhan National Park is within spitting distance of UlaanBaatar, featuring more life than its Gobi Desert location may suggest. Yes, as I have previously mentioned: the Gobi isn’t as uniformly dead as our supposition about a desert may lead us to believe. Indeed, there are five eco-regions comprising the Gobi whole, each with their particular environmental signature. The rough dimensions of the desert area are 1600 km by 800 km. Enough room for several varieties of terrain. So expect to find forest, grasses, canyons, other plant-life, water, animals, rocks, flash-floods, mountains and of course: lots of sand, depending upon where you may wander (preferably with a decent guide).
Mr N also mentions the option of spending a night in the haunting ruins of Ongi Monastery, featuring ruined structures on opposing sides of the Ongi river. Its lifespan ran from 1660 until 1939 when it was destroyed (no understatement) by the Communist regime. Thanks to M and Mr N.
OK, well it’s about time I found someone to chat with in China.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 112) Arrival Beijing
[Photo by A. Omer Karamollaoglu]