A day at the races, Mongolian Nadaam style…

It’s been hard to avoid horse racing in Melbourne this week. The Melbourne Cup carnival seems to get more hyped every year, and all week it’s been a frenzy of fashion, ridiculous weather and thoroughbreds.

I largely ignored proceedings (although I’m regretting that now, given the inaugural win of the main event by a female jockey; plus the name of the winning horse, Prince of Penzance, appeals to me). But it has struck me that now would be the ideal time to share my experiences of horse racing in Mongolia.

Horse racing in Mongolia. Where the field of a few hundred horses races for up to 27km and the jockeys are as young as 7 years old.

We were lucky enough to accidentally time our recent visit to Mongolia to coincide with the annual Nadaam festival. I will talk more about this in later posts, but basically it’s a traditional festival covering the “three manly sports” of Mongolian horse racing, Mongolian national wrestling and Mongolian national archery.

None of these events are anything like what you might imagine.

The wrestling and archery take place in stadiums within Ulaan Baatar (as well as villages and towns all over the country). The horse racing in UB takes place at a venue outside the city.

This is the story of our day at the horse races…

Our first challenge was finding a bus to take us to the venue — called Doloon Hudag. Armed with virtually zero information, we clambered through the maze of food vendors outside the main Nadaam stadium trying to find buses, and in the end gained assistance from the police/security detail. Even as we were sitting on the bus, we weren’t entirely confident it was taking us to the right place… but thankfully, after a 1h 15m journey, we arrived at our destination.

We still had a while before anything was scheduled to happen, so we wandered around the food vendors, essentially a village of “kitchen gers” offering various different types of national cuisine. Horses were being ridden everywhere and the place definitely had a carnival atmosphere. It was hot, with no shade. Our efforts at eating icecream were disappointing, with “3 scoops” Mongolian style equating to about half an Australian scoop. Hmph

kitchen ger city (my photo)
kitchen ger city at Doloon Hudag (my photo)

At about 2pm we headed to the bleachers, where a small crowd was starting to gather, to watch whatever was going to happen. The bleachers were lined up along one side of the track at the finish line. All the public announcements were in Mongolian.

We sat around for a while wondering what was going to happen (and when). Eventually, one rider came down bearing a flag, and this appeared to mark the start of the procession of horses and riders to the start line. For the next 60-90 minutes, riders streamed past in groups, heading away to a distant marshalling point.

young riders head out (Kirstyn’s photo)

The horses and riders kept coming and coming and coming. Most of the riders were young kids, riding horses twice as big as themselves, many riding bareback. The sun was beating down on us and we felt rather sorry for the stoic security detail standing in lines beyond the fence.

marshalling area (Kirstyn’s photo)

Once the last horses had (finally) reached the marshalling area, they all got going again and headed into the distance and out of sight.

There are six horse races during the three-day Nadaam festival, based on age:

Azarga (stallion) – 22-24 km
Ikh Nas (geldings over 5 years old) – 25-27km
Soyolon (5 year olds) – 22-24 km
Hyazaalan (4 year olds) – 18km
Shudlen (3 year olds) – 14-16 km
Daaga (2 year olds) – 10-12km

Tradition dictates that the race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses. There’s no need for navigation. They just let the horses run and run and run.

We were watching the Ikh Nas… the longest race of them all. At this point we were waiting for them to ride out 25-27km to the starting point of their race.

And so we waited. The minutes ticked past. The sun beat down. More and more people packed into the stands, a flock of multi-coloured sun umbrellas. 4pm still nothing…

At some point they made an announcement and a cheer went up. We got excited, thinking it meant the horses were in sight! Alas, all it meant was that the race had actually started. But that was progress, right?

More waiting, watching, wilting. A few times we contemplated leaving. Why would anyone choose to do this? Why would they bring kids? But we kept thinking we’ve waited this long, we had better just see it through.

Finally at 4:45pm the racers appeared as a distant cloud of dust on the horizon. (You have no idea how many “mirage” clouds of dust I’d been seeing!) And then we could actually see the poor horses sometime after that, all sweaty and exhausted, their young riders lashing them with ropes.

first horses return (Kirstyn’s photo)

Most cantered in, a few managed a gallop, one or two had dropped to a trot. Some looked about to drop and the whole thing made me want to weep. We knew from watching the stallion race that morning on TV that they’d been pretty much galloping the whole distance.

horses returning (my photo)

We decided we didn’t much like the horse racing component of Nadaam, and we got out of there pretty quickly, before all the horses (and there were at least a couple of hundred) even finished. There was a mad scramble for buses, and we eventually found ourselves back in the centre of the city.

The Mongolians, though, they love the horse racing. Here are some interesting factoids from the tourist brochure we picked up:

Star horses get titles, like “tumen eh” (leader of 10,000) for horses that have won Nadaams in the past. The best horses are “dayan tumen eh” (multiple leader of 10,000 horses) and “darhan tumen eh” (unbeatable leader of 10,000 horses).

There is a lot of ceremony involved with all the Nadaam events. The horses’ manes and tails are bundled with leather; the horse trainers wear traditional garb with fancy hats and carry ornate horse combs; some of the races warrant dawn send-off ceremonies; there’s apparently a special crowd call of “giin goo” or “guurii gurrii” as the riders come in…

Horse field dust is considered wonderful, almost sacred. So getting dusty and dirty at the races (pretty much guaranteed) is good luck. Getting the Soyolon dust on you is apparently best of all.

The first five horses to finish each race are each nabbed by one of five designated “horse collectors” hovering at the finish line. The five winning horses and riders win presidential awards and medals.

Thus ended our “day at the races” in Mongolia. Worth doing once for the experience, but I think I’d much rather be riding the horses across the steppes of Mongolia, than watching them race.

(Some photos by Kirstyn.)

4 thoughts on “A day at the races, Mongolian Nadaam style…

  1. Saw some FB pix of my sister in a cute dress and hat (really a fascinator) at the Melbourne Cup the other day. She takes her adopted traditions seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

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