Since before we were even planning our big trip, we had this crazy idea that we wanted to go to Mongolia, the land of blue skies, horses and nomads, buy horses and ride across the steppe. So while in South America, we got an itch to end our trip with something big and adventurous – and Mongolia sounded like just the thing. So thanks to an amazing friend who helped us out with discounted flight tickets, were able to go.
We arrived in the capitol, Ulanbataar, from Beijing in the middle of the night and had fortunately booked a hostel already. We groggily woke up the next morning with plans to figure out what the heck we were doing (which part of the huge country we wanted to go horsetrekking in, how to get there, how to buy horses and tack) – but immediately got sidetracked by a flyer hanging in the hostel that offered a ride to the last Nadaam Festival of the year – Today! We asked when they were leaving and the answer was right now, so we hopped in an old Russian jeep and were on our way before we knew what happened.
A few minutes outside of the city, we were quickly driving through expanses of rolling green hills as far as you could see, no fences, no buildings, nothing. We knew we’re arriving at the festival when we started seeing Gers (traditional nomadic tent-homes, like yurts) and herds of horses. There were thousands of people there.
We started our day at the archery competition, one of “The Three Manly Sports”, which is what Nadaam is all about. The traditional dress is amazing and beautiful. And the skill of the archers blew us away! Even more so when we got to try our hand at it ourselves – it was tough! And we were using a little kid bow.
Next up we went to see some traditional Mongolian wrestling. Which involves quite interesting costumes!
I loved how there were horses everywhere! The people are incredibly skilled riders – standing up in the saddle, texting and galloping at the same time. We grabbed a seat in some bleachers next to where the horses were parked.
The final event we went to see was horse racing. The races are long distance – 25 kilometers – and are designed as a straightaway with no turns. That’s because the riders are little kids from 4-9 years old, and it’s safer if the kids don’t have to turn the horses. Basically the kid is just there to whip the horse and make it go fast. They use kids because they’re so lightweight, and they use virtually no saddle. We grabbed a seat in the grass when the horses and riders started heading out, thinking the race would start soon… but two hours later we hadn’t yet seen the telltale cloud of dust. That’s what you look for, a big cloud of dust in the distance. The riders have to trot the horses about 20 kilometers out from where you first see them and then turn around and start racing. We were so excited when we finally saw the cloud of dust, and it was over just minutes later.
We finished our day off with some fermented yak milk and evading the traffic jam leaving the festival, by heading for the hills. Our driver saw the traffic, busted a u-turn and drove right off the road. We just started flying through the grass, over creeks and rocks, and we made it back to the hostel in no time.
What a first day in Mongolia!