Mission Mongolia: Days at the Races

Finally, I have time to sit down and write a post about the two days of horses that we were able to get in during our whirlwind tour of Mongolia.

The first day started with an early wake up call, the entire group piling into the car, and heading on our way to the race grounds, which were a good 50 kilometres away from the main city. As it turned out, we weren’t alone in our endeavor, for soon we got stuck in gridlock with what must have been the entire population heading in the same direction to watch the races. Being one of the main sports of the Nadaam festival, horse racing plays a large part in the Mongolian culture. Genghis Khan practically built his empire on the back of a horse, and with a country where the number of livestock outnumber people, horses are still a very legitimate way to get around in a country where most paved roads stop within a hundred kilometres outside the capital.

Also, I feel the mentality of horse racing must play a large part in the Mongolian psyche as well mostly due to my observing how people drive…Listen to this. While we were stuck in gridlock going out to the races, no one was on the two lanes going into the city. Suddenly, it was as if someone had a eureka moment, saying to themselves “Why, what a waste of pavement!”, resulting in an impulsive swerve into the empty incoming lanes, honking madly … and then the race was on. The same energy that would have gone into racing if it weren’t for their current urban living, was now being utilized by their driving. What was at first a slow traffic jam in two lanes became a four lane race in one direction, more if you include the two lanes going off the shoulder and the multitudes of cars off-roading on the gravel.  What could have easily been a couple hours of driving in gridlock, now was a giant free for all that cut driving time in half. When I quizzed the guide about this type of behaivior, he laughed and told me that “In Mongolia, there are no rules…we consider that freedom”. Quite the libertarian society as it turns out.

We all eventually got to the race grounds in one piece and a little dustier then we started. As it turned out our arrival was well timed, as in the distance you could see rising plumes of dust. Mongolian races aren’t the sprinting compeitions that you would see the States, instead they are long endurance races, ranging from 10 to 30 kilometres, encompassing different ages and breeds of horses. The jockeys are incredibly young, ranging from 7 to 12 years old. The race that we got to see the end of was a 25 kilometer race, with the starting line so far away, the only way most people could tell that it actually started was by the rising clouds of dust. The actual ‘race grounds’ that I have been mentioning, is really just the finish line, with stands and and added carnival atmosphere with cultural shows and a huge amount of people having a good time.

The next race, after our arrival, was a 10 kilometer, one year old horse race. Mongolians start racing their horses young, and arrange their classes according to age, which range from one to five. Once they are five years old, they are considered ‘adult’ horses, and the racing just isn’t as exciting anymore… which was one reason I got as for why they weren’t really raced past that age. Much of the winning glory goes to the trainer of the horse, and after talking to some trainers themselves, a lot of money goes into acquiring these horses… one standard I heard was one Mongolian horse with potential could cost as much as a Lexus. So I’m supposing thats quite a bit of money.

The race itself was very exciting, with the gradual anticipation of dust rising up from the distance and seeing these little dots coming closer and closer. Its incredible to see these kids ride like nobodies business, and seeing the well trained horses come in as if it was no problem. Its quite exhilarating. I do have a shaky video of some kids coming in that I will figure out how to post eventually.

While that made up one day, my sister and I returned the next so she could get more film and so that we could spend time looking at more horses. The majority of races had already been ran, but the second day we were there we found was called the ‘Mini-Nadaam’. As many of the trainers and riders haven’t been able to see any of the wrestling or archery that has been happening out in the capital for the last five days, to make up for that, a mini tournament ocurs with all three sports taking place on a much smaller scale. That is quite a nice thought on the part of the organizers (as well as another excuse to party).

For the most part, my sister and I enjoyed walking the much quieter race grounds, and decided to make the half hour walk out to where the various herds of horses were being kept. While we were admiring the empty steep and the picturesque gers, two guys came up on their nicely kept soviet motorcycle, and asked us (in Mongolian I’m sure) whether we would like to have something to eat at their place/ger. With two hours to kill before having to meet our driver for the ride home, we took the ride, and ended up at a ger with bowl fulls of ‘airag’ or fermented mares milk and really hard cheese. Of the two women of the ger, one of them spoke English very well, and recounted some interesting facts about her family (over 1000 head of livestock) and how to milk mares milk (which is actually very interesting, so I will post something more specific to that later). While we were conversing pleasantly, we were suddenly poured something between a shot and a shooter of a clear liquid. The women smiled at me and my sister, and stated that in Mongolia, its important to take 3 shots when you enter any Mongolian home – if you are offered… I’m not making this up, but drinking is a part of being hospitable in Mongolia. I guess the reasoning is that after a long day in the saddle, nothing makes you feel a little more relaxed then three shots of …something. Not wanting to disrespect any local traditions, I did my part. Let me just say, walking back to meet up the driver was very interesting, as well as the off-roading going back. I may or may not have needed to take a nap when I got back to the hotel…

That recounts the narrative part of my trip to Mongolia. I have a couple posts that I want to write about some observations I had about Mongolian agriculture, development and animals (I do study Animal Science after all). I also figured out how to post some pictures on this blog. They should be under “Mongolia: Photos”. Stay tuned for videos as well.

Anyways, if you haven’t figured it out, I enjoyed Mongolia immensely, but I do need to go back. Five days just wasn’t enough. So if anyone would be willing to do a horse trek through the Altai mountains next summer… we should talk 🙂

Hope this finds you well – V.

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