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Horsing around at a grassland festival

In the dusty plains of the Gegentala grasslands, three horses run side by side at full gallop while six boys form a pyramid on their backs. The crowd roars with approval as they hoist a flag.

Under the scorching Inner Mongolian sun, the annual Nadaam Festival ran from July 11 to July 13 this year.

A three-hour bus ride from Hohhot on surprisingly good quality roads leads to a collection of temporary traditional yurts dotting the plains. Horses are tethered to stakes while goats and cows roam the plains.

At the festival site there is little choice in accommodation. Traditional yurts, essentially semi-permanent tents with a round base, sleep five to seven people in a tight circle on the floor.

For those who don’t want to rough it, the more fancy air-conditioned yurts contain a double bed, table and chairs.

On the Sunday morning the festival gets underway with an opening ceremony. Agitated sun umbrella wielding viewers jockey for position as they wait for the speeches to finish and the stunts to begin.

They are rewarded with a series of daring horse-riding routines and some traditional dancing.

A large urn burns incense and sacrifices for a successful week of competition.

After the ceremony, the crowd drifts away to sample the restaurants’ fare, or catch a siesta in the midday heat.

Foreigners are left to discover when and where events take place – there’s no itinerary here, and very little English spoken. Navigation usually involves following the crowd.

In the afternoon, that crowd encircles the main stage, as two large Mongolian men attempt to throw each other to the hard ground.

The victorious wrestler bows to the crowd, while his vanquished opponent joins the group of bare-chested men sitting cross-legged in the dust.

One by one, they challenge the man, and one by one, they fall. Some play to the crowd, knowing that they can’t gain admiration by knocking over the champion. Some viciously kick at his legs. But he stands firm, and sooner or later, all lie on the ground before him.

When no opponent is game enough to challenge him, he is announced the winner. Grown men take advantage of the opportunity to have a photo with him and giggle as their hero poses shyly.

Among the very few non-Chinese at the festival, a group of Australian retirees with matching pink caps, the “China Birds”, seem overwhelmed to be in this remote location.

They are led to watch the next event by a bright bubbly tour guide who shepherds them towards the masses waiting for a horse race to start.

Half an hour later, the race is not yet underway and the crowd is being driven slowly backward first by men on foot, then men on horses, and finally by a car driven directly toward them, carrying pickets to erect a temporary barrier.

Once the track is finally established, a gunshot rings out and the race begins.

One white horse bucks its rider and takes off across the grassy plains. A marshal on horseback pursues the runaway stallion.

The event is won by the only thoroughbred racehorse. Ridden by a small boy, it finishes almost half a lap clear of its rivals.

With the day’s main competition finished, the crowd disperses to try some traditional Mongolian pursuits first hand.

The archery range and horse riding prove popular with locals and visitors wishing to indulge their Genghis Khan fantasies and ride with the horde.

Unfortunately for some, the terror on their faces gives away their lack of enjoyment, as the stubborn horses refuse to keep to an easy walk.

In the evening, the red sun sets slowly over the yurts and the full moon and stars appear over the vast prairies.

While the wrestling, horse riding and archery take a break for the night, the KTV yurts are busy serving baijiu and cold beers, just to remind you that you are still in modern China.

By Andrew Livingstone and Jenelle Whittaker (China Daily)

  1. July 6th, 2014 at 01:16 | #1

    Mongolian horsebow archery festival today is a show game more than a competition

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