After the opening ceremonies, we bounced outside of Altai City, in a dust veiled procession of ‘machines’, with our student, Cassandra, and her family, to watch the horse races. A handful of bumpy miles later, we pulled up to a make-shift party town of gers, tarp tented shops and sideshows, and even solar-paneled internet stalls, scattered at the foot of a hill, swelling out from the scruffy steppes. The horses have already left, so we settled to see the youngest archers take their first shots at Naadam glory. It was serious business for them, dressed in their silken regalia, flapping in an uncooperative wind. Little faces scrunched, as they pulled blunted arrows back, steady against shaft-burned rosy cheeks; after calculating trajectory, they released the missiles into the sky, and watched them rain down on the target, a series of leather rings stacked about knee high off the ground. When the arrow found its mark, their older counterparts, standing down the field, on either side of the target, would raise their arms to the sky, and celebrated the achievement in a brief song.
The riders rumbled back in a small dust storm, on sweaty, snorting mounts, to a crescendo of snorts and hooves, scattering archers and spectators alike. The young jockeys, between six to eight years old, dressed in vivid superhero costumes, drove the horses towards the finish, with whips, boots, and yelps! They have been at full gallop for almost three hours, and exhaustion heaved its desperate mask on the horses, and their very young riders. Sweat streaked channels through dust caked faces and huffing horseflesh! Some mounts returned without riders, leaving us to wonder what misfortune befell during the treacherous journey. Well-wishers quickly converged with cheery congratulations, swiping sheets of sweat from horses, with their hands, for luck, while mare milk was poured onto the winners, and the rumps of their mounts, from 2L Coke bottles! The last arrival was given the titles, ‘Complete Happiness’ and ‘Rich Stomach’ and praised alongside the ‘Winner of Ten Thousand’, as encouragement for its next race. We were swept up, capturing the chaotic visual feast on our camera, weaving through skittish horses, lurching autos, howling vendors, and staggering celebrators!
We used our familiarity with the Altai City wrestlers, to gain access onto the field, and spent the next two days squatting besides the judges, in the harsh arid heat of the Gobi, while the wrestlers clashed like two snorting bulls, just a handful of meters away. Mongolian throat singing, coupled with didgeridoos, piped out from giant speakers behind us, hummed intoxicatingly with the roar of the audience. Breaks in action were filled with award ceremonies for the archers, horses, riders, and trainers, and gave the Altai locals a chance to network with the rest of Mongolia. Decorated horses jingled around the stadium, mounted by their young caped riders, draped in blue prayer silks and medallions. None of Altai City’s small wrestling team made it into the later rounds, but they all seemed happy for the camaraderie, and the opportunity to test their skills against Mongolia’s best. We started to notice that the match-ups were drawn to favor the Mongolian sumo hero, Ozaki Ama Byambadorj’s family, who were natives of the Altai Province, as his brother and cousin suspiciously ended up against each other in the finals. We were surprised none of the locals raised any objections, as betting was rampant in the later rounds, and much money was changing hands. Despite the scripted ending, to our first country Naadam, we felt very lucky to have ‘happened-in’ on Altai City, in our Mongolian journey, at the time of their monumental anniversary, and we will forever treasure the friendships we made, at this little Mongolian outpost.