Our Diary News from Ulaanbaatar

When planning our trip, we discovered that we would be in Ulaanbaatar at the time of their "Naadam Festival" - in fact the Trans-Siberian train tickets for that week were sold out. We were delighted - this gave us an opportunity to experience the Naadam! Every year, around mid-July, all Mongolians let their hair down and immerse themselves in a celebration of their culture that has been going on since the time of Genghis Khan. It is both a sporting festival and a cultural festival. Every province holds a Naadam of its own, but the most important is held in Ulaanbaatar. The preliminary events stretch over two weeks, culminating with the spectacular Opening Ceremony (Olympic Games like, complete with Presidential address) and two days of grand finals and all sorts of cultural concerts.

Upon our arrive at our guesthouse, we asked them if they could get us tickets to the Opening Ceremony. Fortunately they were able organise this which we delighted about - and they advised that entry to all the other events was free!

The games involve the 'manly sports' of wrestling, archery, horse racing and 'knucklebones'...

  • Wrestling - a huge knock out competition start with 500+ competitors. No rings - just tussling on the grass, each bout lasting a few minutes. Lots of sparring followed by furious activity, then the winner does a little victory dance - and advances to the next round.
  • Archery - uses traditional recurve bows to knock down 100cm cylindrical baskets set at a 50-60 meter range. The skill and accuracy was remarkable for both the male and female competitors.
  • Horse racing - involves a number of different events but mainly racing over a 30-40 km course set on the steppes 40 km out of town. Most of the riders were children aged anything from 4-13 years old, many riding bareback. At the event there were numerous demonstrations of the superb horsemanship of the Mongolians.
  • Knuklebone shooting - a skillful team sport where the shooter flicks a shaped antler 'bullet' at a target of bones - a bit like miniature 10-pin bowling.

We attended as many events that we could although the harsh steppe winds and brief rain showers cut short our visits.

Food during the event was restricted to "hursure" - our best attempt at pronunciation. This consisted of a fried tortilla stuffed with mincemeat of various sorts. Drink? Why, fermented mares milk, of course! It tasted a bit like unsweetened drinking yogurt with a large dash of vodka.

Mongolia is an interesting country - a young and emerging country with a huge heritage. The Mongolians are justly proud of this heritage - after all, they shaped much of the world that we know today.

Statues and monuments relating to Genghis Khan are everywhere. Genghis and his heirs ruled for 200 years (13th to 15th century) and had an empire that stretched from China to the Mediterranean. It was our misconception that the Mongols had a slash and burn mentality - how wrong we were. They were the inventors of diplomacy, religious tolerance and knew the importance of trade - they invented the concept of bank and promissory notes, they endorsed scientific understanding, mathematics and art, and developed modern military science and weaponry.
The "Silk Road" was their main artery enabling the movements of silk, spices, artefacts and ideas from the Far East to Europe. They built a network of safe havens along this road - every 30 km there was an outpost that gave protection to merchants on the route. It was our conjecture that it wasn't the demand for spices that led to the voyages of Columbus and Magellan - it was the breakdown of the Mongolian empire in the late 15th century. Religious wars broke out and the Mongols' hold on the countries dissolved - this made the overland route too dangerous. All we can say is that history is going full circle. One reason why we were doing the trip was that the route through the Red Sea was too dangerous because of wars caused by religious intolerance - the overland route was much safer.

The Mongolians are not great builders and there are no monuments or cities left behind as a reminder, just their ideas and influence on world history.

Today's Mongolia is still emerging from the communist stranglehold after the Second World War. They changed to a democratic government in 1990 after a student uprising led by Zorig - the brave and courageous student leader renowned for his diplomacy. Unfortunately he was assassinated in 1994. Mongolia is blessed with mineral resources and oil and is using this to help them achieve a place in the world order again; unfortunately their technical skill level is poor - they still have a strong nomadic culture and rely on herding as their main industry.