The 11th of July is the Mongolian National Day celebrating the overthrow of Chinese rule (91 years ago this year). It is also the day the Naadam Festival opens and one of the most important holidays in the year. 2012 is the 806th Naadam Festival celebrating the three 'manly arts' of wrestling, archery and horsemanship. I've seen this national sporting festival described as 'the second oldest Olympics in the world' (although, as 'the other Olympics' is a Victorian re-creation, perhaps Naadam should carry the 'oldest' accolade). It's certainly a very important event for Mongolian people and we were to be present for the opening ceremony.
The 'Golden Eagle' party left the hotel by coach at 9 o'clock, leaving two full hours before the ceremony started at the Central Stadium, just a few miles away. The traffic in Ulaan Baatar seems pretty bad at the best of times. A decrepit road system combines with a certain lack of road discipline to provide an ideal formula for hold-ups. It seemed that everyone wanted to reach the Central Stadium. We slowly inched towards the stadium site where there's parking quite inadequate for the once-a-year demand of Naadam.
A series of fields outside the stadium had been pressed into use for parking but manoevreing was difficult due to the pressure of crowds on foot and the large number of traders selling the usual assortment of Chinese-made favours. The Mongolian National flag was being sold all over the place in sizes from 'small' to 'hazard to other traffic when attached to your car'. But it all seemed very good natured and the Mongolians were often in National Costume or (particularly in the case of young women) dressed for a disco.
We'd reserved seating in the stadium so our party entered through gate 4 and ascended the crumbling concrete steps into the covered stand. Seating comprised a slatted wooden affair fixed to the raked concrete stand. By the time we were seated, the stadium was around half full with about three quarters of an hour to go but already there was an expectant atmosphere. The oval arena was grassed in the centre, with a running track around the outside. To our left, we could see the 'VIP' stand. There were an awful lot of tourists in the area where we were. We had quite a good view, impaired only by the large number of television cameras on various raised platforms. A large-screen television was placed opposite opposite the 'V.I.P.' stand and this carried a mixture of pre-recorded and live pictures. The public address system was relaying Mongolian singing. All sorts of preparations were going on with police, performers, contestants and television crews coming and going. I found it quite diverting.
A large grey-uniformed band lined up on the field with at least 15 minutes to go and, shortly after eleven o'clock, the band struck up a stirring rhythm as a line of mounted soldiers in traditional uniform entered the stadium. The first nine horseman were bearing the Mongolian symbols of power - nine ceremonial banners in the form of parasols decorated with horses' tails. These are normally kept in Government House in Shukhe Baatar Square except for one excursion each year to the Naadam Stadium where they are mounted on a podium and treated with great reverence. Throughout the Festival, these parasols are guarded by four soldiers standing in a rather curious pose, one hand on sword handle, one hand on hip. I was relieved to learn that these sentries are changed every three hours.
I'll describe the actual ceremony later but the photographs give some impression of the event. At the end of the ceremony, opened by His Excellency Tsakhia Elbegdorf, President of Mongolia, we walked back through the crowds to our coach.
It was as hard for our coach to extricate itself from the parking area as it had been to park in the first place and the public roads were still congested. We made our way over the river (Selbe gol running at just a trickle) and the railway line using the Peace Bridge and turned into the National Culture and Recreation Park (which didn't appear very park-like where we were). We got out of our coach at the 'Seoul' Korean restaurant where we enjoyed an excellent buffet lunch offering both Korean and European cooking.
Then, it was back on the coach to drive initially west and then north west for around 27 km to witness the finish of the Ikh Nas horse race for 7-year old horses at Khui Doloon Khudag. Getting there proved something of a nightmare but when we finally arrived, it was an amazing spectacle.
Horses are very close to the Mongolian soul. Remember, it was a nomadic culture with very little infrastructure so horses were vital and horsemanship is probably regarded as the highest of the 'three manly skills'. Certainly, a lot of Mongolians had made the journey to the impromptu track to witness the important result.
The 2012 finish was on grassy downs which would normally have been open country but had been converted temporarily into a small town with tents and Ger (the Mongolian round tent). Two stands had been erected close to the finish - a covered one for foreign visitors and an open stand for the locals. There was another stand actually at the finish line. Hundreds of cars which had brought the spectators were scattered around, with a few coaches which appeared to be foreign visitors.
Everybody was in high spirits and a number of Mongolian families were flying kites (it was quite windy at the elevated location). A number of horses were providing rides, mainly for children. A public address system was presumably relaying details of the approaching horses although the numerous police, with their walkie-talkies, seemed to provide a better source of information to Baggi, our guide.
The races are cross-country affairs of around 20 km. Anything up to 400 horses enter each race. Eventually, we could make out a number of approaching vehicles and a cloud of dust. As they got closer, we could make out a number of horses going flat-out, being enthusiastically whipped by their riders. The leading horse was well separated from from the group of runners-up. We must have seen about 200 horses complete the course. A few riderless horses came past.
Sadly, one horse collapsed just short of the finish, throwing the rider. An ambulance drove onto the course to attend to the rider but did not appear to be needed. A vet drove up to check the horse and administer the violent-looking equine version of C.P.R. but the horse could not be revived. I was told that it's not unusual for horses to perish in what amounts to an endurance race.
We rejoined our coach which then faced slow progress on the crowded roads leading back to Ulaan Baatar and our hotel.