SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The two-humped Bactrian camel was domesticated thousands of years ago to carry goods and people across Asia. NPR's Above the Fray fellow Emily Kwong sent us this audio postcard from a festival in Mongolia that celebrates this gentle giant.
EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Humps and hair.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMEL GRUNTING)
KWONG: That's the scene in Bulgan Soum, a tiny Mongolian town in the middle of the Gobi Desert - about 160 miles north of the Chinese border. Herders have come from all over the region for the two-day festival, which begins with a camel beauty pageant.
ENKHBAATAR DASHNYAM: (Through interpreter) Mostly young people participate in the Beautiful Couple Contest. But we wanted to represent the older generation of herders.
KWONG: That's contestant Enkhbaatar Dashnyam. The 59-year-old has been a herder all his life. He's brought two of his best Bactrian camels with him - Mashan Huren and Hos Yagaan.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMEL GRUNTING)
KWONG: Their Chewbacca-colored hair, which hangs like a beard, is brushed. Their humps are draped in gold fringe. The camels kneel down...
DULAMSUREN YUNDEN: (Foreign language spoken).
DASHNYAM: (Foreign language spoken).
KWONG: ...So Enkhbaatar and his wife, 47-year-old Dulamsuren Yunden, can climb atop.
KWONG: Pretty soon, it's pageant time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KWONG: The couple rides proudly across the festival grounds.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).
KWONG: And they look spectacular. Dulamsuren has a fur hat on her head. Enkhbaatar's belt is slung with a silver bowl, a snuff bottle, a knife with a holster for chopsticks - all the trappings of a traditional herder. Everyone is taking their picture, which matters more to the couple than winning. Enkhbaatar wants future generations - his grandchildren included - to have photographic proof of their lifestyle.
DASHNYAM: (Through interpreter) Since no one lives forever, I wanted to leave our pictures behind for my descendants. That's what we were thinking when we decided to participate in this contest.
KWONG: The judges won't announce the winners until tomorrow. But there's plenty to do at the thousand-camel festival until then. You can take in a match of camel polo, buy fermented camel milk. In 2016, the festival assembled over 1,100 camels and broke a Guinness World Record for largest camel race.
(SOUNDBITE OF POPPING NOISE)
KWONG: So why this regional craze for the two-humped creature? Festival organiser Ariunsanaa Narantuya and I meet after dark at the local community center. Men have gathered to play ankle bone shooting - knocking over sheep bones with tablets. The 35-year-old's face is covered with sweat. It's been a long day. His friend, 38-year-old Bolortuya Sainkhuu, interprets.
ARIUNSANAA NARANTUYA: (Foreign language spoken).
BOLORTUYA SAINKHUU: He's saying the first reason is number of the camels were decreasing.
KWONG: Together, they explained that under socialism, herders primarily sold their animal products to the state. With the democratization of Mongolia in 1990, herders lost that customer and had to embrace the free market economy.
NARANTUYA: (Through interpreter) Camel men couldn't get a good amount of money from selling the milk products and camel wool.
KWONG: Camel milk and wool wouldn't sell. But camel meat would. So some herders began slaughtering their camels. The festival was created a few years later, in 1997, by the local Camel Protection Association to reverse that trend and protect the desert creature.
(SOUNDBITE OF FESTIVAL AMBIENCE)
KWONG: And now Bulgan Soum is distinguished by its love and stewardship of Bactrian camels. After the pageant, Dulamsuren, the competitor with the fur hat, tells me that she and her husband have 200 camels in their herd. The birthing season is coming. While most baby camels make it, some don't or are stillborn. When that happens, she says, the mother camel will mourn.
YUNDEN: (Through interpreter) The mother camel literally weeps with tears in their eyes. The camel has a big body. But they have very soft heart.
KWONG: Dulamsuren has a song for moments like these, one herders have used for generations to soothe camels over heartbreak.
YUNDEN: (Singing in foreign language).
KWONG: This bond between herder and camel is hard to put into words. But you know it when you see it. And the judges definitely noticed. The next day, Dulamsuren and her husband were declared the winners of the 2019 Camel Beauty Pageant. For NPR News, I'm Emily Kwong.
SIMON: What a wonderful story. Emily Kwong is NPR's Above the Fray fellow, which supports foreign reporting in under-covered parts of the world.
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