Steppe ing out into the Gobi

Now the real stuff starts. There is a bit of a health warning here. Many of the images are taken from the inside of one of the vehicles. I have included them to try and give you a flavour of the landscape and people rather than for their photographic qualities.

Having picked up provisions, the four 4×4 set off out of town on the last proper road that we’ll see for seven days. A picnic lunch of mutton dumplings (like a donna kabab in a pasty shell) and we hit the dirt track. At this point the steppes are green and luscious. Gers dot the landscape and herds of cattle, sheep and horses wander and graze contentedly. All is at peace with the world.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the grassland becomes tired, gers become fewer and it is a motorbike rather than a truck parked outside and the herds are less frequent, goats and camels take the place of the others. The rimming mountains push out and away until they are only a faint outline on the far horizons. A hard, flat surface hammers out as far as one can see in every direction, punctuated only by tufty grass and small, scrawny, low bushes called saxaul trees.

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The dirt track has simply vanished. In its place is a fan of light parallel ruts that head of in front of the vehicles and occasionally come together and cross before heading out on their own again. The drivers hammer along these ruts at anything up to 80 kph making strategic decisions at every junction about which route to take out. I think we are heading south into the desert. The heat is intense. Only one vehicle has working air con, the rest of us sit in the hair drier breeze from open windows. The only indication that you have any human company at all are the little squirts of dust far ahead or far behind from the other vehicles. Oh, just in case you wanted to know where you were, we pass two sign posts in the course of the day! Do you like this one?

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I must tell you a bit about the conveniences issue. There are no trees on the steppes, no bushes, no huts, no fences or walls. Together all four vehicles stop for such relief. The men go off to one side and face the scenery. The ladies go the other side and do the same. There is no choice but to get used to it. Initially people walk a ‘good distance’ but you soon realise that you are always in the sight of everyone however far you go, so a few steps soon suffices.

At some points the four vehicles are racing side by side on this 44 lane Santa Pod, rough track, off-road highway. Gentle rises and dips spread ahead through the hard landscape, the only difference being that over the hours the vegetation dies out even more and the rocks and stones and dust take over permanently.

The only other living things out in this wilderness are the odd group of very scruffy camels, who look up with a snotty look on their snooty faces, wondering what  on earth us humans are doing disturbing their peace.

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Late that day, having covered 400 kilometres over this harsh, hard, unrelenting surface, hammering along at speed over the rough side of a cheese grater for 12 hours, we arrive at a small town. We officially name it ‘In the Middle of Nowhere’ or Nowhere for short.

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Farewell to Mongolia

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So it’s farewell to this unique country and it’s wide, open spaces and calm, colourful people. Immediately I crossed the border from Russia it was noticeable how different this country is. People smile more. They wear colourful Western and traditional dress. Their cars are new  white and grey Japanese numbers. In the capital there is new building of office and apartment blocks on a colossal scale. Hundreds of cranes fill the sky line. This is all down to the discovery of new copper and gold deposits in the south of the country.

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Hate are a few interesting facts to leave you with:

50% of the 3 million population live in Ulaanbaatar

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The first dinosaur egg was discovered in the Gobi Desert

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At the age of 18 the government gives every citizen a plot of land of 500 square metres. They immediately put a wooden fence around the perimeter and erect their ger inside.

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There are still 300,000 nomadic herders on the steppes

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There’s are still shamans who follow their ancient ceremonies

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Mongolians are so very proud of Genghis and there are images of him everywhere although he died over 900 years ago

These images reflect the many different feature of this magnificent country. I will miss the huge, flat vastness of the desert and the steppes and the peace and calmness that that brings. I will so miss the quiet and the opportunities for reflection.

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Till next time and my next adventure.

 

A day at the races

Horses are the stars in Mongolia. Star horses have monuments, songs, paintings, lyrics, music and dances named after them. For every person in this country, there is an equal number of horses, making over three million in total.  They really do follow the horses.

The final event of the Naadam is the horse racing which is held on flat, open ground about 30km out of the capital. Over 250,000 descend on the rolling course. We arrive early to beat the traffic. A golden dawn lights up hundreds off refreshment gers who are just opening up for a busy day.

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A number of races are on the card, dependent on the age of the horse. We are going to watch the Soyolon, a race for 5-year olds, over 22-24 kilometres. There are two things you need to know about Mongolian horse racing. The first is that all the horses are ridden by child jockeys aged between 7 and 13, although many look younger than that., and the second is that many ride bare-backed.

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The races are ridden over a straight course over the steppe. Hours before their start time the young jockeys walk their mounts from the finish up to the start, over the hills and far away. They then turn around and race for home. It takes about half an hour to race back and the crowd crowds into ramshackle, stepped platforms to watch the final stages.

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The first sign of the approaching field is a gathering storm of dust in the far distance. Up to 100 horses can take part in these races. Tension mounts and the locals rise with a roar as the leading horses take form, accompanied by a small flotilla of outrider cars.

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The locals scream and shout and applause and whistle and yell encouragement as the winner leads the rest of the field in.

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Every finisher is greeted in this way and it may go on for 30 minutes or so as many of the horses are exhausted having raced that far. Only one comes in riderless. I hope he didn’t come off too far out.

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The race over and it’s back to the struggles of the huge crowd, and, boy, is it huge and unrecognizable from earlier. Masses of spectators and family groups kick up a dusty haze as they move around the open hillside enjoying all the fun of the fair. There are some official looking rides and inflatables but most seem to be simple, traditional fairground activities set up by anyone with a bit of initiative. I saw one guy who was making ak killing with some half empty water bottles, some notes attached to each with an elastic band and some plastic hoops. He has a crowd off 50 strong, yelling encouragement and no lack of people wanting to pay to have a go. He has a huge wad of bills in his hand and his home-made hoopla stall is obviously a huge success. Other stalls include a host of Throwing Darts at a Rack of Balloons, Water Bottle Skittles, Paper Balls at Cans. All seems to require little brain and a lot of braun, judging by the prowess of the guys showing off to the pack.

In fact initiative is the word. Every other van is crammed full with large plastic bottles of coke or lemonade or the bright colours of plastic toys or dolls or kites or home goods. They’d called in at the cash & carry on the way, set up on the grass and were flogging any tat to the passing crowd. There are several outdoor pool tables, pony rides, have your kiddies photo taken in front of this poster. The ladies has set up little stoves and are frying up meat dumplings to sell. Great for the cholesterol.

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Mixed in with the thousands on foot, are those on horse-back. You have to watch it as they come up behind you, unheard. The family groups  proudly show off in their steed and matching livery. The more mature men go around in their Sunday best, standing straight and aloof. The problem is the young tearaways who at the earliest opportunity gallop at full speed into any open ground like lads doing spin turns in Blackbird Leys.

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The noise, the sounds, the colour, the smells, the press, the emotion of so many folk pushing about together is absolutely brilliant, though you wouldn’t get that from these two guys who were a bit worse for wear. Oh, I should add that there is no betting in Mongolia and limited prize money. It is all done for the pride of participation and winning is acknowledged with awards and certificates. Sounds like my kind of school.

Robin Hood or William Tell?

Archery is what it says on the can. Literally in the case of Mongolian archery. Rather than shooting at a target, archers shoot at rows of red or brown baked bean cans, made of leather, called hasaa and standing two or three high. If any part of the row is hit the judges start chanting and throw their hands in the air like the flying geese in the wrestling, to indicate success. If the arrow misses they indicate with their hand the height it passed over the top.

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Men and women take part, the women over 60 metres and the men 75 metres. It is not just a question of hitting the row of hasaas. A score is only recorded if any one hasaa moves at least 8cm. Not a easy as it looks.

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Each competitor is given 40 shots. 20 are used to hit a row of 20 hasaas stacked three high. The next 20 chances are given to hitting 30 hasaas lined in two rows.

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Them bones, them bones, them ankle bones

This is played in a large shed in the stadium complex. The Ankle-bone Shooting competition involves the champion team from each province. Teams are made up of six to eight players of mixed ages, some old guys, some young, even some children.

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Ankle-bone Shooting is a bit like a cross between bowls, Aunt Sally and Tiddley Winks. Two teams line up on low seats opposite each other. One or two shooters from each team face the far end of the carpet where there is a small wooden structure. Stood within it will be a number of ankle bones from a small animal. The further into the game you get, the fewer target bones there are. The winning team is the one that has knocked down the most bones, which is shown by the number stacked up on their side of the carpet.

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Each shooter has their own style. A small, rectangular, piece of deer’s horn is used as the bullet. It is flicked from a polished ruler with a low edge along one side. The shooter will use his knee to steady the ruler and aim. He will use his middle finger to flick the bullet to knock target bones off the line. Each team will collect these on their own sides of the target box.

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Ankle-bone Shooting is a noisy affair. Team members line up to take their shot. As each concentrates, his own team sounds out a mellow melody whilst the opponent’s team will try to distract the shooter with loud, sharp sounds and voices. Large cheers will go up when a bone its dislodged. With a many as twenty games going on at the same time you can imagine how loud it is.

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“The games social role is to reach the younger generation to compete politely, to work together as a team and to have a calm team spirit.” Maybe the Premiership could learn a thing or two.

The Good, the Bad and the very Ugly Wrestlers

Immediately after the opening ceremony the wrestling starts in the stadium. Each province’s top wrestlers take part, 512 in total. They wear similar outfits which, so the story goes, is open chested so everyone can see they are male. In the past, when they were clothed, a woman took part and beat some of the guys until she was recognised by a family friend. Each bout has a judge allocated. The judges are the ones decked out in the dark blue and red. There are a whole loads of bouts going on at the same time with a tangle of wrestlers hard at it, judges observing, victors jogging about celebrating and four static soldiers whose job it is to guard the Nine Banners, representing the 9 horsetails of Genghis’ 9 Mongol tribes.

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Some things you need to know about Mongolian wrestling. Firstly, and most importantly, there are no weight categories. So the lightest guy may have to fight the heaviest, and some of them are heavy. So, in the early rounds there are complete mismatches and if there is a chance that a thin guy can get one over a heavy one, the spectators give him all their support. This little guy put the big guy down.

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In the later rounds only the heavy, thick guys are left.

Secondly, ‘knee-dirtied’ is the Mongolian term for defeat. In other words, if you can get any part of your opponent’s body to touch the ground, you are the winner. Here are a few moves.

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Once you have put your opponent down, you flap your arms in the air like a goose trying to take off, you rock around 360° stiff legged before jogging off to give thanks to the Nine Feathers. You return to your defeated opponent and run clockwise under his outstretched arm to mask respect for his participation. You then collect a token from the judge and progress to the next round.

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Thirdly, there is no time limit so the bout can go on for 3 seconds or 30 minutes of even longer. Because of this the closing ceremony is always a movable feast. They start ’em young in Mongolia.

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The Opening of the Naadam Festival

The annual Naadam Festival has been held over centuries. Originally it was a gathering of the Mongol tribes where the champions of each one would compete in three ‘manly’ events to establish who was the overall champion in each. These were wrestling, horse riding and archery. Ten years ago a fourth event was added, ankle bones (more on this later). Now it is a competition between the nine provinces that make up Mongolia today.

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The Naadam Festival proper kicks off in the morning with a lavish opening ceremony involving 2,000 or so participants. This traces the history of Mongolia from early times, concentrating in particular on the uniting of all the tribes and the vast empire established by Genghis Khan which, at one point, stretched from Europe through to China and Vietnam.

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His grandson Khublai founded the Yung dynasty in China and moved the capital to Bejing. The period following communist control, independence and the subsequent growth of pride in traditional values is celebrated. In 1990 the population was 2 million. Now it has reached 3 million. The finale involves hundreds of youngsters, demonstrating their promise and potential for the future of this ancient yet young country.

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Enjoy the scenes. Olympics, eat yer heart out.