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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You know, we've been spending part of this week exploring one of the more distant and fascinating nations on earth. And this morning, we'll listen to a high point of the year in Mongolia. It's called the Naadam Festival. It's described as the Kentucky Derby, the Olympics and Christmas all rolled into one. One of its most important events, horseracing, has not changed since the days of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. NPR's Louis Lim sent an audio postcard from the Festival.

Unidentified Child #1: (Singing in foreign language)

LOUISA LIM: A single child rides in a circle, singing encouragement to his horse. Here, in the small town of Khujirt, 260 miles from the capital Ulan Bator, this marks the spot to the most hotly contested event of the Naadam: the 15 mile-long race for five-year-old horses.

This is like the trainer's paddock before the race meet. Everybody's gathered here. All the trainers are chatting. The thing about these horse races is that all the riders are kids, mostly 14 and under, some as young as four or five years old. And that's because they're incredibly light.

Mr. GANBAATAR TSERENPUNTSANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: At 11, Ganbaatar Tserenpuntsang is already an old pro. He tells me most kids race in their socks. Shoes are heavy, he says, and we'd lose them on the way. And we don't want to hurt the horses by kicking them in shoes. Most kids ride bareback, too. By 14, many are too heavy to race. Not Honebag Monebeck(ph). Elfin-faced and impossibly tiny, I can't believe him when he tells me his age.

Mr. HONEBAG MONEBECK: Fourteen.

Unidentified Woman: He's 14.

Ms. CHULUUNBART BADELGAR: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I'm scared of the injuries my son could get, says Chuluunbart Badelgar, the mother of another young jockey. She describes three weeks of arduous pre-race training. But once the boys head off to the start line, she says I can only pray for my son.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LIM: The jockeys take about two hours to ride the 15 miles to the start line, herded by men on motor bikes wielding whips.

Unidentified Child #1: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: On the way is an ovoo, a shamanistic cairn or a sacred heap of stones which the riders circle three times, singing as they go. It's a prayer for a safe journey, an act of worship to the mountains and the sky.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: These horse races are said to be the brainchild of the founder of the Mongol empire, Genghis Khan, known here as Chinggis Khan. They originally a celebration of Mongolia's military might and a way of training its fearsome army. Now, they're an annual event held in every town across the country.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

LIM: Suddenly, a rope marking the start is lowered, and the riders are off. With blood-curdling screams and pounding hooves, they race back to town. It's impossible not to think of the fearsome Mongol hordes thundering across the grasslands.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

(Soundbite of hooves pounding)

LIM: The race has started. We're in a jeep, driving alongside the horses. To begin with, they were doing about 50 miles an hour. It's this unbelievable sight, these tiny kids wearing really brightly colored clothes so their trainers can pick them out, and they're absolutely galloping at full pelt, screaming to encourage their horses.

Unidentified Woman: The trainer wants to get it (unintelligible).

LIM: Oh, my goodness.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: So the trainer who's in the car with us has just leaned out of the window and has been shouting advice at his jockey. He's concerned that the little boy is beating the horse too much, and he's shouting at him to stand up on his stirrups and to sing encouragement, shout encouragement to the horse instead of beating him.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We're now heading to the finish line.

(Soundbite of horse nickering)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LIM: So now we're at the finish line of the race, and the entire town has come out to watch. Everybody is dressed in their best, their best clothes.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: And they're all shouting as the first riders come, and screaming for people to get out the way.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LIM: Everybody is running to get into the dust of the winning horse, which is supposed to be lucky. So is the sweat of the winning horse, which people are wiping onto their foreheads. When I finally get up close, I realize the winning rider is none other than our friend the tiny, 14-year-old Monebeck.

Mr. MONEBECK: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I was at the back, he says, grinning from ear-to-ear. Then, at the 10, I realized I could win it. He says he'll earn money from racing, which he'll use to buy clothes and school supplies.

I love this, he says, face alight. These races are rites of passage for Mongolian boys. More than that, though, the Naadams serve as a unifying force for the country, a distant echo of its past as the biggest land empire the world has ever seen.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Khujirt, Mongolia.

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