Sain baina uur from Ulgii, Mongolia,
The Steppes of Mongolia are indeed vast. It’s not hard to envisage Chinggis Khan’s marauding hordes careering triumphantly across the plains. It was brilliant horsemanship which enabled the Mongols to conquer so many, so far from here. Even today, in the sparsely populated country, with increasing levels of urbanisation, horsemanship is greatly prized (at least among the men). Boys start riding at age 2.
Naadam is a triennial sports festival held in all parts of Mongolia. It is composed of three events: all tests of manly prowess. We missed the big one in the capital but were privileged to see a provincial event high in the mountains where the Tuvan people live.
We missed the wrestling, caught the colourful archery, but it will be the horse racing which will unquestionably etch itself indelibly in the memory. The single race is run over 15 kilometres (incidentally, almost five times the length of the Melbourne Cup, just for comparison). It’s restricted in age for both horse and jockey: 3 or 4 years for the horses; 6 to 12 years for the riders. Yes, this is a race for boys, not men.
not your average country race meeting
Now, dear readers, if you are conjuring in your mind a country race meeting or gymkhana, forget that. There are no numbers, no jockeys’ silks, no manicured turf between fenced circuits, no bookmakers, no race callers, and – wait for it – no saddles. These kids are riding bareback!
The starting point is 15 kms away down the glacial valley and the 13 starters have to make the journey to that point in a group, the boys chatting amiably on the way. At this point I ask Aibolat whether the horse or the jockey would ultimately be considered the winner. “Both”, says he. “They are together.” Whatever happens, it’s going to be a spectacle to behold.
We wait expectantly a couple of hours after they set off, Linda perched on the hill with camera poised. Excitement grows when the first contestants appear in the distance. This reaches a crescendo when the first three converge on the finish post (a Mongolian flag on a pole) from three directions.
This is a surprise in itself since the direct route is glacial moraine. Between the river and the road is broken ground, most would consider too dangerous for galloping horses. The ground there is full of moguls, rocks, marmot holes (about the size of a rugby ball) and squirrel holes (about the size of a horse’s hoof – ominously). Incredibly, one of the flying finishers is taking this route.
Even more surprising is the size of the rider on the leader. The jockey is a seven-year old boy, riding hands and heels, and is just passing Linda, about to reach the flat (30 metres from the flag). Suddenly, he takes a short cut. The horse slips on a rock, and the pair are down! (Luckily, both horse and helmetless rider know how to fall at speed – and they sustain non-life-threatening injuries.)
a steward’s inquiry in Naadam
Even though this means the next runner strides on to cross the line first, this moment heralds a heated argument about the rightful winner. (This is when Linda opines that we should leave.)
Eventually, the steward announces that the fallen pair are the winners. This is a case of public acclaim trumping actual finishing order, but after 15 kms, uphill and into the breeze, it was judged that the 7-year old boy had tried hardest.
Post Script: I can report that the winning connections were as chuffed as any Melbourne Cup winner.
Bai Artai from Olgii