I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia late at night on June 28, was in town for a day and then took the train down to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I saw quite a few argali and got some great reference photos.
I returned to Ulaanbaatar (UB) after four days, had one day in town again, then joined a Mongolian friend of mine and her family for the annual Naadam celebration in Erdenet, which is a city to the northwest of UB. I got to see four horse races and learn quite a lot about horse racing culture in Mongolia since my friend’s brother is a race horse owner. It was a terrific look behind the scenes.
Once ready to go, the horses are ridden out to the starting point, so they will have done the course twice, out at a walk/trot/canter and back at a run. The feature race for adult Mongol horses was a little over 20km. It had been shortened this year since the rains have been slow in coming and the wasn’t as much grass as was wanted and needed.
A recent development is crossing Mongol horses with Arabians or American or British thoroughbreds, trying for more speed. These “hybrids” run in their own separate race. Above are four of them approaching the finish line.
There is also a race for two-years olds, which will be their first. The above two photos show the finish of that race. It’s a test to see how they do in a real race. Horses who show promise might be purchased from the breeder on the spot.
The rules governing the jockeys changed a couple of years ago to increase safety. The lower age limit was raised to seven years from five. The boys and girls (not many but there’s usually one or more) are required to wear helmets, knee and elbow pads and to wear shoes. They can still ride bareback, on a pad or in a saddle. Insurance is also required.
They really do start them early in learning to ride. I saw fathers putting two year olds up on a horse and holding them in place for a minute or two and riding with a bit older child seated in front of them. The young boy in the above photo was perfectly confident, sitting very calmly as he guided his mount.
Unlike American and European racing, the default for Mongol horse racing is geldings. There is one race just for stallions. Mares are not raced since they bear foals and provide milk. This stallion made sure he was between me and his harem. The racing horses are watched much more closely and aren’t allowed the same free range as the working horses. Their training for the naadam begins six weeks before the festival with a carefully calibrated diet and a conditioning routine. The ones picked for racing love, love, love to run and holding them back can be a challenge.
Here are two horses in the final stage of training. They were finally allowed to run and took off like a shot. The trainer and maybe the owner are in the car carefully observing them. The night before the race the men stay up all night with the horses who will race the next day, feeling the state of their stomach and feeding them at the appropriate time.
This is the jockey who rode my host’s horses. He’s eight years old and was all business. Never saw him crack a smile.
We stayed at this camp set up by my host just for the naadam races. It was a wonderful site with an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside.
Two of the cousins of the family watching the sun set.
It wouldn’t be a naadam without horse racing and wrestling and we also got to watch the latter. The rules are simple: if any part of your body other than the soles of your feet or the palms of your hands touch the ground, you lose.
The competition begins with all the wrestlers doing the Eagle Dance in front of a national standard.
It’s all very colorful, from the maikhan (the tents) to the officials to the wrestlers themselves. It’s single elimination all the way through. One loss and done.
I also got a tour of the city, known for its enormous copper mine which was established by the Russians back in the 1970s. Everything produced, which also includes molybdenum, goes to Russia.
There is a new Buddha statue which will form the center of a planned development. It’s one of the biggest in Mongolia and is directly across from the copper mine. There was also an ovoo with an unusual wooden bird on the top. I’ve never seen that before.
After four fun and rewarding days we took the overnight train back to Ulaanbaatar. I’m resting up and seeing friends, plus doing a little last-minute shopping because on July 16 I depart for western Mongolia for my third WildArt Mongolia Expedition which has been awarded a Flag from The Explorers Club! Stay tuned!