It’s Naadam in Mongolia. To describe it in Australian terms, it’s a bit like what would happen if the AFL grand final, the Melbourne Cup and Christmas were all held in one week in the middle of summer. There is horse racing, wrestling, archery competitions, ankle bone shooting (like complicated ten pin bowling, but perhaps a little more morbid since it’s played with the ankle bones of dead sheep).
Normally Naadam is a two-day public holiday, but this year it has been extended to a full week. The Asia-European Meeting Summit is being held in Ulaanbaatar, and the Mongolian powers that be have decided to clear city roads for Important Vehicles ferrying Important People by encouraging residents to take a holiday out of town. While many UB-ites do stay to attend the games, most seem to take the opportunity to head into the countryside. The roads are teeming with cars flying Mongolian flags. The cars are overflowing with kids, soccer balls, inflatable boats, and camping equipment. It does remind me of Christmas holidays at home. The supermarkets have been busy, and the flower shops have queues of people lined up to buy big bunches of white chrysanthemums.
The big events for Naadam are the opening ceremony, the wrestling and the races. The only way to attend is with a ticket, and the only official venue that sells tickets has a queue of people stretching down the street the day they go on sale. Many people have camped out overnight to reserve their place in the queue. As a result, the recommended course of action if you want a ticket is to approach, or be approached by, a scalper on the street. Matt and I decide that instead of watching the official celebrations we will spend the week doing some exploring of our own backyard. Perhaps part of the point in posting this blog post is to spruik to potential visitors activities that are readily accessible from UB. The Tourism Board can thank us later.
We go for a day walk with friends in Bogd Khan Uul national park. The entrance to the park is only 6kms from our doorstep. Before arriving in Mongolia, my expectations of the countryside were that it would mostly be flat open plains. Bogd Khan, however, is not at all like that. We joke that we could easily be in Switzerland. It is all steep hills and narrow valleys filled with pine and silver birch, now with an amazing carpet of wild flowers. Come August, it will be a perfect spot for collecting strawberries, but this time we return with armfuls of wild rhubarb to stew for breakfast.
We catch a 10pm opera performed in Chinggis Khan Square. It is part of the Naadam cultural program, and obviously popular with Mongolian families, many of whom attend wearing traditional Mongolian dress. ‘Three Dramatic Characters’, we gather, is one of the earliest and most popular Mongolian operas; it was first performed as an opera in 1942. The music is beautiful—Matt comments that it’s almost Vaughan Williams-esque in parts. The story line we don’t quite follow. There is clearly an honourable young man from the steppes, two young women fighting for his affections and an evil Chinese Khan. You can tell he’s evil by his Chinese hat and the way he tugs on his beard.
The following morning we pack up the two-wheeled green machines we have affectionately named Kang and Kodos for a three-day cycle tour to the east of UB. I’ll hand over to Matt—who finally managed to successfully complete a mountain bike ride without crashing —for a run down on that.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
When we first decided to move to Mongolia I had visions of Kate and I escaping from the city to explore Mongolia’s immense expanses of countryside, travelling on horseback, by bike or with a pack on our backs. I imagined somewhere where the geographic features were vast—limitless plains, meandering mountain ranges and broad valleys; I imagined somewhere where we could just absorb the landscape around us and breathe. Our little three-day trip was our first overnight foray into the countryside by ourselves, and it was a first, delightful taste of what I’d been hoping for.
On Monday morning we packed up as much as we could bear to carry on our backs for the 65km ride to the camp we’d booked on the south-eastern edge of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. The park is nearly 3,000 square km in size, but is only 55km from UB; it is therefore pretty much our backyard. It has brown bears, ground squirrels and several hundred species of birds. Our backyard is therefore probably better than your backyard.
Our ride took us pretty quickly out of the city, and soon we were turning left off the sealed road just past Mongolia’s biggest Chinggis Khan statue. Steppe eagles spiralled above, but happily for us, they obviously didn’t see us as potential dinner, in-spite of the carrion-like pace we were making on our mountain bikes, with our backpacks, and me stopping to check the map every 10 minutes. We arrived to a warm welcome at Saraa’s farm, our accommodation for the next couple of days. Saraa is a Mongolian teacher who spends her weekdays in UB teaching, and her weekends on the farm. ‘I like the countryside’, she said; ‘us too’ we replied.
The farm is a working farm with herds of cows, goats and horses being driven down to the nearby river for watering every morning and night and a traditional Mongolian dairy. Our yoghurt and milk have come straight from the udders of local cows, and are delicious. There are tiny baby goats running about everywhere, and I have to keep removing them from Kate’s jersey pockets (Kate: ‘please… I’m sure our landlady won’t mind…’). We made friends with the local farm dogs, who fight over our attention, and played a chaotic game of volleyball with Saraa’s extended family. Scoring was fluid, and monitored by the local patriarch who would randomly call out numbers at periodic intervals. Although I’m not sure, I’m going to assume that we won.
The next day we headed up into the hills on our bikes, winding our way through flat-bottomed valleys several kilometres wide, and over a couple of small ranges. All around was the green of the steppes, with serpentine tracks meandering between herder camps, each many kilometres from the next. Ground squirrels dashed for their holes, and always we ere watched over by the circling steppe eagles.
We returned later on in the afternoon for a beer and some hot chips at the Mongolian-style resort next door to Saraa’s place and a dip in the Tuun river, which runs all the way down to UB. And now here we are back in UB, planning our next trip, a three-day hike back into the park with one of the other volunteers, Stuart—and I can’t wait.
N.B. If anyone local is reading this and is looking for a place to stay, or go for a horse ride, we would highly recommend Saraa’s place. It was basic, but cheap, and very friendly
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