For Mongolia's Ice Shooters, Warmer Winters Mean A Shorter Sports Season This season's final competition, originally scheduled for mid-March, had to be bumped up by two weeks. "The river was already melting," the town's mayor explained.
NPR logo For Mongolia's Ice Shooters, Warmer Winters Mean A Shorter Sports Season

For Mongolia's Ice Shooters, Warmer Winters Mean A Shorter Sports Season

Mongolian herdsmen gather to play musun shagai (ice shooting) on the Tamir River in early March. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Mongolian herdsmen gather to play musun shagai (ice shooting) on the Tamir River in early March.

Claire Harbage/NPR

On a bright Sunday afternoon in early March, the Tamir River in the steppes of Mongolia becomes a bowling alley. Two dozen Mongolian herdsmen have gathered to play musun shagai, known as "ice shooting." Right now, the ice on the river is perfect. Clear and smooth. The players are cheerful and focused.

Their goal? To send a small copper puck called a zakh down a 93-yard stretch of ice and knock over several cow ankle bones — painted red, none bigger than a golf ball — at the other end. Extra points for hitting the biggest target, made of cow skin.

Left: Cow bones and a ball made of cow skin, the targets of the puck, are clustered together during a break in the game. Right: A man demonstrates how to hold a zakh, the copper puck that is slid down the ice to hit the targets. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Left: Cow bones and a ball made of cow skin, the targets of the puck, are clustered together during a break in the game. Right: A man demonstrates how to hold a zakh, the copper puck that is slid down the ice to hit the targets.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Together, the targets form a line of tiny red dots that are difficult to see, let alone hit. When that happens, players know because the spectators raise a boisterous cheer.

"You have to spin it," says Gurvantamir Jamts, 47, a newcomer to the game. He is the mayor of Tsetserleg, the capital of Arkhangai province, where musun shagai was invented.

He cradles a copper puck between his thumb, index and middle fingers. He shakes it. Metal balls rattle inside. Thrown properly, the puck glides forward with the sound of an ice-skating blade on a freshly resurfaced rink.

A competitor looks back at the crowd of spectators after sending his zakh down the ice toward the targets and the scorekeepers who stand behind them. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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A competitor looks back at the crowd of spectators after sending his zakh down the ice toward the targets and the scorekeepers who stand behind them.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Ice shooting players Ser-od Dechingalav, 30, (right) and Enkhbaatar Batdelger, 30, won the partner contest. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Ice shooting players Ser-od Dechingalav, 30, (right) and Enkhbaatar Batdelger, 30, won the partner contest.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Cars and motorcycles draped with fur line the banks of the Tamir as players gather for the season's final ice shooting competition in early March. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Cars and motorcycles draped with fur line the banks of the Tamir as players gather for the season's final ice shooting competition in early March.

Claire Harbage/NPR

"The main technique," Gurvantamir says, "is how you hold it."

And how you release it. The players assume a static lunge, digging their back foot into a tiny divot in the ice. They release their zakhs with a throw and a hopeful look. All squint down the river to see if a red target was hit.

Newcomers to the game can struggle to keep their balance on the ice, but with experience comes grace. Many competitors slide forward as they release the puck, called a zakh, all in one motion. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Newcomers to the game can struggle to keep their balance on the ice, but with experience comes grace. Many competitors slide forward as they release the puck, called a zakh, all in one motion.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Musun shagai is a homegrown game, created in the 19th century as a way to pass the time. This is the final game of the season before the river melts, the last opportunity to wile away the winter hours before the mayhem of spring, when the goats, sheep, horses and cows give birth.

Top: Competitors watch their opponents play. Bottom left: In the partner competition, players work in teams of two. The scorekeeper keeps track of points by drawing a Buddhist temple, line by line. The team with the most complete temple wins. Bottom right: Gurvantamir Jamts keeps his zakh in a leather belt, strapped around his gray deel, a traditional Mongolian overcoat. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Top: Competitors watch their opponents play. Bottom left: In the partner competition, players work in teams of two. The scorekeeper keeps track of points by drawing a Buddhist temple, line by line. The team with the most complete temple wins. Bottom right: Gurvantamir Jamts keeps his zakh in a leather belt, strapped around his gray deel, a traditional Mongolian overcoat.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Only men play ice shooting competitively, though the event brings whole families together. Children scuttle around the ice in their boots, bundled up for the 20-degree weather. One group of teenagers cobbles together their own game using a flat rock to topple over food packages while practicing their technique.

Left: Burenbat Dorj, 44, plays a dozen times every winter. He is the governor of Erdenebulgan Soum, the local community hosting the competition. Right: Gurvantamir Jamts, 47, is new to the game and proud of its local roots in Arkhangai province. He is the mayor of Arkhangai's capital, Tsetserleg. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Left: Burenbat Dorj, 44, plays a dozen times every winter. He is the governor of Erdenebulgan Soum, the local community hosting the competition. Right: Gurvantamir Jamts, 47, is new to the game and proud of its local roots in Arkhangai province. He is the mayor of Arkhangai's capital, Tsetserleg.

Claire Harbage/NPR

This competition, originally scheduled for mid-March, was bumped up by two weeks. "The river was already melting," Gurvantamir said.

The frozen surfaces that make this game possible are harder to come by in a warming world. According to data from Mongolia's Institute for Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment, the country's annual mean temperature has increased by 2.2 degrees Celsius (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit) since data collection began in 1940. (The global temperature increase since 1880 has been 0.8 degrees Celsius or 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

People tread carefully on the smooth ice. The competition, originally scheduled for mid-March, was bumped up by two weeks because the river had begun to show early signs of melting. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

People tread carefully on the smooth ice. The competition, originally scheduled for mid-March, was bumped up by two weeks because the river had begun to show early signs of melting.

Claire Harbage/NPR

When the musun shagai competition ends, bowls of vodka are passed around. The local government even brought medals for the winners. They were made of clear plastic. Mayor Gurvantamir held them up, demonstrating how the sunlight glinted through — just like ice.

Emily Kwong (@emilykwong1234) spent nine weeks reporting in Mongolia as NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in under-covered parts of the world.