Friday, July 19, 2013

The Day of Manly Men - Naadam

Ever since coming to Mongolia - heck, even before coming here, I've been hearing about Naadam.  It is the biggest celebration of the year, the festival of the three manly sports...wrestling, archery, and horse racing.  And since it was SUCH a big deal, I figured I had to see it, so I planned my big trip this summer to put me back in time for it, a feat I managed, but just barely (thank you, Air flipping China).
I wish I had great, very insightful things to tell you about Naadam.  I don't (I couldn't even come up with a particularly witty title for this post, people).  Mostly, I appreciated the sight of the strapping young wrestlers in their costumes.  Even my enthusiasm for that was dulled by the fact that my Mongolian neighbors - whom I love dearly and missed while I was traveling, especially while I was in China - don't seem to "get" this numbered seat thing.  It's not just Naadam - we've run into this at the ballet as well.  However, when half of your ass is sitting on the raised wooden part because five people have shoved themselves into a space where only two people were meant to be sitting, and you can actually FEEL your back sliding into a position it's not meant to go in, you don't feel at one with the universe, no matter how many giant stupas you visited in the preceding days.
The big event is the opening ceremony.  In the central stadium, where the wrestling takes place, they have a huge presentation, centered on bringing nine white horse-hair banners from the parliament building in Sukhbaatar Square (name soon to be changed - esh!) to the stadium on horseback.  This year it included a lot of pageantry and traditional dancing.
And, of course, horse poop.  Talk about a Herculean task.  One of the ways you can tell it's time for Naadam is that suddenly it's no longer surprising to see people riding through town on horses.  UB may not be the most modern city, but most days you still don't see that.  Considering where I've been over the last three weeks, a little horse poop didn't faze me, but the girl I was showing around from Seoul was pretty concerned about stepping in it.
I think I loved the flag bearers best of all, though.  As I watched them run around the field, I felt like I was getting the smallest glimpse into the past, and could begin to imagine how terrifying it would have been to go into battle against these people. 
Okay, so you will all probably think less of me, but I didn't do Naadam hardcore.  We watched some wrestling, and then went and ate some khuushuur (Naadam khuushuur is the best!) and then wandered over and watched some archery.  There are apparently several different kinds of archery, which I figured out from looking at Spike's photos on facebook, but damned if I know the difference.  I didn't even make it out to the horse racing - it takes place outside of the city, and it's a pain to get out there, apparently. 
The thing that I think held me back (other than the fact that I was exhausted from my trip) is the fact that I can see these sports throughout the year.  There are wrestling, archery, and even horse racing events that take place throughout the year.  The thing that was really neat to me was seeing how important this event is to people throughout the country.  To see the little boys in their wrestling costumes run out on the field, to be crushed by people who just want to get in and see, to walk between dozens of tents, all selling khuuushuur...THAT was worth getting back from vacation.

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