Ancient Mongolian Competition Ties Past To Present

Described as the Kentucky Derby, the Olympics and Christmas rolled into one, Mongolia's Naadam is an 8-centuries-old celebration of heroism and masculinity. The annual festival is devoted to the three "manly sports" — horse racing, wrestling and archery.

The most hotly contested event, the horse racing, hasn't changed since the 13th century and the days of Genghis Khan.

Wrestlers Compete In Naadam

From early in the morning, a steady stream of herders — all dressed in their festival finery — come cantering into the small town of Khujirt, 260 miles southwest of Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator. Both men and women wear embossed silken dels, or traditional robes, cinched at the waist with brightly colored sashes and leather boots on their feet.

The older men sniff from each others' snuff bottles as a greeting, while young women and men on horseback flirt as they circle the wrestling arena, cooling their animals down after the journey.

Measures Of Agility, Strategy And Brute Force

The events begin with a ceremonial dance from a youngster, and then the wrestling gets under way. Each wrestler performs the eagle dance as he enters the arena, a display of power and grace. All eyes are fixed on 37-year-old Dorj Batmunkh, who is looking forward to competing.

"You feel very light, excitement fills you as Naadam gets near," he says.

Dorj Batmunkh, second-generation wrestler in Khujirt, Mongolia i i

hide captionDorj Batmunkh, a second-generation champion wrestler, waits for a new opponent at the Naadam festival in Khujirt. Batmunkh did not win this match.

Ariana Lindquist for NPR
Dorj Batmunkh, second-generation wrestler in Khujirt, Mongolia

Dorj Batmunkh, a second-generation champion wrestler, waits for a new opponent at the Naadam festival in Khujirt. Batmunkh did not win this match.

Ariana Lindquist for NPR

His father was a famous local wrestler, winning the lion rank after a ninth-round victory. Batmunkh himself is a falcon, or fifth-round winner, at the aimag, or provincial, level.

"Mongolians say horses inherit speed, and wrestling skill is inherited, too," he says.

This is a contest of agility, strategy and brute force. The first wrestler whose knee or elbow touches the ground loses. Several pairs of wrestlers face off inside the ring simultaneously, grappling with each other intently.

The wrestlers wear open jackets a precaution introduced, legend has it, after a woman disguised as a man won the event. On their feet are traditional Mongolian leather boots with upturned toes, similar to those worn by Genghis Khan's army.

This year, Batmunkh is unlucky, and after a lengthy contest, he is eliminated in the second round.

"I had a chance to throw my rival, but something wasn't right," he says. "It's OK. Next year I'm planning to win."

The Main Event

This year, it's too windy for archery in Khujirt. And for many in the crowd, the horse racing is the main draw.

Naadam marks the end of an intense monthlong training period for those racing horses. "For 10 to 20 days, you really don't get enough sleep," says Chuluunbart Badelgar, the mother of a 14-year-old jockey.

But she admits the pre-race nerves are the worst moment for her. "I'm scared of the injuries my son could get. But once the boys head off to the start line, I can only pray for my son," she says.

Her son is racing his final season. At 14, he is becoming too heavy to compete as a jockey.

In this town, only one girl is riding this year. Some of the smaller boy jockeys are as young as 5 years old and seem impossibly, unbearably tiny.

At 11, Ganbaatar Tserenpuntsang considers himself an old pro. His racing colors are yellow from head to foot. But like most others, he will ride the 17-mile race in his socks.

"You don't want to hurt the horse by kicking it with shoes," he explains, "And shoes are heavy. And you might lose them on the way."

Most kids ride bareback, too.

Echoes Of The Mongol Hordes

Before the race begins, the child riders pay a fee for insurance. As the jockeys set off on the two-hour ride to the starting line, their trainers often flick airag, or fermented mare's milk, over the riders for good luck. As they go, the riders sing encouragement to their mounts.

Horse Race Evokes Genghis Khan

Along the way, they pass a shamanistic cairn, or sacred heap of stones, which the jockeys circle three times, their voices overlapping in song in an ethereal, slightly eerie chant. This is a prayer for a safe journey, an act of worship to the mountains and the sky.

These races are said to be the brainchild of the founder of the Mongol empire, Genghis Khan known here as Chinggis Khan. They originally doubled as military exercises and a celebration of martial might. Now, they are held each year in every town across the country.

A rope is held at the prescribed point 17 miles away from the finish line and when it's suddenly lowered, the riders surge forward. They scream and yell, wild warlike shrieks, as their horses' hooves thunder across the grasslands. It's impossible not to think of the Mongol hordes bearing down.

Trainers drive alongside in jeeps and motorbikes, weaving between the riders and veering dangerously close to yell advice to their child jockeys.

"Stop beating the horse," screams one trainer, who has levered the top half of his body out of the car window to get near to his rider. "Sing! Encourage the horse!"

Then he swears: From the corner of his eye, he catches sight of another of his riders losing control and galloping in the wrong direction.

"That boy will never ride for me again," he mutters, swearing more.

A Unifying Force

It's a half-hour gallop, full-tilt, to the finish line, where the town is lined up expectantly on horseback, gossiping as they wait.

Suddenly, a moving cloud of dust is thrown up in the far distance. The riders are approaching, ancient telescopes are lifted, and the crowd compares notes on who is gaining ground.

As the first riders approach, the crowd whoops. The finish is close, but first past the post is Ganbaatar Tserenpuntsang in yellow.

The crowd surges forward, closing in on the winner. The dust of the winning steed is thought to be lucky, as is the sweat, so supplicants race up to swipe horse sweat to dab on their foreheads.

At the finish line for horse-racing competition in Khujirt, Mongolia i i

hide captionSpectators, horse trainers, family and friends welcome riders at the finish line of the Naadam horse race in Khujirt.

Ariana Lindquist for NPR
At the finish line for horse-racing competition in Khujirt, Mongolia

Spectators, horse trainers, family and friends welcome riders at the finish line of the Naadam horse race in Khujirt.

Ariana Lindquist for NPR

The winning horse gets a medal, below its forelock. Its trainers embrace. Jockey Tserenpuntsang gets the honor and a money prize.

These races are a test of bravery and stamina, with tiny children riding at top speed for hours, sometimes through thunderstorms and rain. Their faces say it all: the wordless terror of the tiny 6-year-old, racing for the first time; the bloodied cheek of one who fell off and was dragged along behind his horse; and the grinning conqueror's euphoria.

The horse racing and wrestling are rites of passage for Mongolian males. But more than that, the Naadams are a unifying force for Mongolia, a distant echo of its past as the biggest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen.

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