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Destination: Mongolia

Horse Race of a Different Color

Young riders kick up the dust of ancient times

March 15, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Martelle is a reporter for the Times Orange County edition

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — You have to rise early to beat the horses.

Very early.

We're already up and out by 5:30 a.m., walking in the predawn haze through a tent city at the base of a sweeping mountainside. The camp is stirring, and soft voices and the gentle whinny of horses float among the tents. In the distance, beyond the low smoke of cook-fires and the tethered horses, we can see a small grandstand, and, facing the grandstand from 50 feet away, a short wooden observation tower.

This is where the day will really begin when, in about an hour, about 400 horses and their young riders move from the camp to the tower, then on to a nearby ridge. Then, when all the horses have gathered, they will trot en masse 15 miles out from the city, turn around and, at the sound of a gunshot, sprint back to this little wooden tower.

That cold recitation does little to brace us for how all this actually transpires.

This is Naadam, the ancient Mongolian festival codified into a national holiday after Mongolia's successful fight in 1921, with the help of the Russian Red Army, for independence from China. Held every July 9 to 11, the festival centers on the traditional Mongolian sports of wrestling, archery and horse riding.

But it is the spectacle of children racing horses that has brought us to this camp at the crack of dawn, for the first of three days of such races.

A Times photographer and I were in Mongolia to cover a group of Los Angeles-based physicians who traveled here to help Mongolian doctors improve medical care. The doctors' visit coincided with Naadam, so the photographer, Gail Fisher, and I decided to take in the festivities with them.

We began with a few days in a tourist camp of gers--portable felt-and-canvas huts known to most of us by the Russian name, "yurts"--before moving on to Ulan Bator and the Naadam festival, with other side trips planned during the two-week visit. Most travelers come to Mongolia with tour groups, and ours was arranged by the Ulan Bator Foundation of Venice, which also put together the medical mission. But it's also possible to make independent travel plans.

Given the decades of Soviet domination of Mongolia, English is not widely spoken, so hiring a driver and interpreter makes a huge difference in both freedom and comprehension. We lucked out by getting a fellow named Sodh, a hydrologist with passable English skills and a pleasing sense of humor who seemed to know everyone in the country, which proved invaluable.

*

As significant as Naadam is for Mongolians, its informality is refreshing. Tickets ($25 a day for foreigners) are required for the opening and closing ceremonies, and to watch the wrestling. Those events take place in the National Stadium, which is surrounded for the three days by vendors hawking everything from soft drinks to maps. No tickets are required for the archery competition--with both men's and women's divisions--which is held just outside the stadium.

The horse races take place at the city's edge and involve both girls and boys. You can buy grandstand tickets, but you really don't need to because the best views are from ground level. There are no crowd restraints, no ticket booths (except at the grandstand), no advertising or vendors, no souvenirs or Special Collector's Edition Programs.

In this commercial vacuum we cross the dusty grasslands from the camp and step beneath the wooden observation tower, which will later serve as the finish line.

Then the swirl begins.

For more than an hour the horses enter the grounds, singly and in groups, circling the observation stand as the riders--children between 4 and 11 years old--chant the traditional song "Guiin Goo" for luck and inspiration before riding off to a staging area atop a nearby ridge. It is pure bedlam, a carnival of billowing dust and snorting horses and the light, excited voices of youth.

The children must be strong enough to race 15 miles, and light enough to ride quickly. Most of the riders are in saddles--a Mongolian type that keeps the rider leaning forward--but many ride bareback. All are dressed in traditional robes of deep red or vibrant yellow or mixtures somewhere in between. Few ride alone. Fathers and brothers and uncles trot alongside, slowly swelling the group at the staging area to more than 2,000 horses.

From a distance, it looks like the return of Genghis Khan's thundering hordes.

*

Tourism exists as a nascent capitalist dream here, with rudimentary accommodations and the occasional upscale hotel in the capital, Ulan Bator, and little available elsewhere. A former Soviet satellite (Mongolia was the second nation, in 1921, to undergo a Communist revolution, opening the door to Soviet domination just after Mongolians won independence from China), Mongolia has only welcomed tourists for about the last five years, and the nation's lack of creature comforts only adds to the mystique.

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