Naadam Festival In Kharkorin

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July 13th 2010
Published: July 17th 2010
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Naadam - The grandest festival in Mongolia. It takes place around the same time in different towns across the land. We intentionally opted against being in Ulaan Baatar for the event because it gets way too crowded with tourists and locals alike and it's impossible to find accommodation there or even see the games properly. So instead we all decided (my Gobi companions and I) to check out the festival in the ancient town of Kharkorin, a former capital of the grand Mongol empire, but now reduced to a simple ramshackle Mongolian town, with a very small population and way less tourists.

The Naadam festival is centered around the three manly games - Horse Racing, Wrestling and Archery, and are skills that all Mongolian men were supposed to posses to survive and defeat their enemies. Tume dropped us off at a ger camp on the outskirts of town and we bid him farewell. We then got down to the main Naadam area for the start of the proceeding. Everyone was congregating to the area. most coming in by horse, making the scene even more amazing. We got around for the opening ceremonies, where some announcer spewed some crap for a bit, monks sang some hymns, then traditional Mongolian music was played, dancing, and last but not least a young contortionist performed in a dazzling display of human flexibility.

Soon after the games began. We got to the finish line to see the end of the first horse race. The horse racing is divided into categories of the horses age and that determines the length of the race. Most riders are young boys and it is an exalted prestige for them to do well in a race, along with being an extreme test of endurance at such an early age. Horse racing continued on for the remainder of the day. We then returned to the main area to watch Mongolian wrestling. There are no weight classes in this event and as a result most of the time it's the bigger guys that win it, and there are some monsters out there! The match ends whenever the loser touches the ground with anything but his hands and feet. The wrestlers come out with traditional garb and perform winged movements to symbolize different birds. Some matches can go on for a while. We also witnessed other games like ankle bone throwing and archery, where big wooden bows are used and archers have to constantly factor in the blowing winds. People would throw back the used arrows in a human chain like approach, not the safest method, and Jaakko got nailed in the back of the head as a result of it but turned out fine. Gotta keep your head up!

We stayed there for most of the day and then went back into town to bum around till the evening. We discovered a little bar where some Mongolian chick had spent four years in the states so we were able to communicate. She ran the establishment. Jaakko, Mike and Raz took off earlier back to the ger, while Alex, Polanski and myself stayed there a little longer to eat food. On our way back the shit hit the fan. Our ger was on the outskirts of town an area with no power so it was pitch black and there was nothing to distinguish anything else apart. We roamed for a good while, thinking we might have to sleep outside on this night and I was wondering how the others had found the damn place, to which Alex responded that he didn't think they had. And soon enough a vehicle cut through the blackness and approached us and we heard the others call to us from within, themselves lost beyond reason. The driver helped us find the place, for a small fee of course, and we were all relieved to be back! Turned out there was a sign inside stating "Come back before dark because it's hard to find the place!"

The second day of Naadam, we all hired horses from this likable lady we nicknamed Mama. She ran a small tourist information and Buddhist meditation center. Polanski, at this point, had no more money since he had left his cards in UB and was relying on handouts, which kinda ticked everyone off. Riding into Naadam on horses just like the locals did was like nothing else. We hung around for some of the events and then rode off over the hill to the place we had first camped at. Mike and Raz wore Del's that Mama had lent them and looked incredibly Mongolian. Our horses were alright, but what did us in was that, unlike in Khovsgol where we had Russian saddles, this time we had to make due with the ball breaking and ass raping Mongolian variety. Alex had a particularly rough time as his horse was too small for his tall body. Polanski looked like he was riding a donkey for the most part and was loving it. Once we had gotten over the hill, Raz noticed that his camera (Panasonic TZ7) was MIA. He had placed it inside of his del while riding and guessed it fell out. We all backtracked on our horses in search of it, but it was never found much to Raz's chagrin. We all told him we'd send the pics of our trip together but it obviously still ruined his day. We returned to the town and drunk Mongolians were abound, many with bloody faces, after a liqueur fueled Naadam.

We went back to see Mama and return the horses and she showed us her center and brought us back to her palace as she called it (she might have been trying to say place), a scrapyard with a shanty home right in the middle. Her son, we nicknamed Bruce Lee, studied Jeet Kun Do, and built himself a gym out of the scrap metal in the yard. I did some exercise there. We then visited the town's shower house because all of us, apart from some crummy bottle showers, hadn't washed in a week and a half and boy did it reek! That night we ate at a mediocre joint and then got lost again trying to find the ger...

The next day Raz and Polanski took off for UB, and the rest of us went to stay in Mama's decrepit tourist center as we were fed up with finding that bloody ger at night. It had two rooms with rusted and springy mattresses, making them seem more like hammocks than beds. The day itself was a wright off, I took off to the monastery, which like the town was rundown, and did some reading and writing. In the evening we visited Mama again at her palace and this time she was REALLY on the piss, recounting stories of her youth and babbling on and on. The rest of her family did not seem very happy. She kept saying she was a free woman. She invited us to come back later in the night to feed us and watch the world cup final. We spent the rest of the evening in the American educated Mongolians bar and then took off back to our rooms for a bit. We went back to the palace at around one in the morning and amazingly Mama was still awake and eager to give us food. I happily accepted. We then stayed up to see the football match, in which Spain won in a crappy contest. All of us were quite tired, except Mama, still on the piss and making a racket.

The next morning we got a rude awakening, as Mama burst into our rooms, very much still drunk, and began conversing to us about who knows what as I was still semi-comatose. Since that was all the sleep we'd be getting we got up and grabbed some food. We then got our stuff together and bid farewell to Mama, whom I won't forget anytime soon as she's a hell of a character, and made it to the main street. We tried hitchhiking unsuccessfully and then caught a random long distance bus that was passing through and heading to some other place, and got the hell out of Kharkorin.

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