Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 13, 2006. Naadam

While I spent four days in the country, Ulaan Baatar filled up with tourists. This week, my last in Mongolia, it’s Naadam, the national holiday and sports festival. It’s also the 800th anniversary of Chinggis Khan uniting the nation, and the Ministry of Tourism has been pushing it as the time to visit Mongolia and the time to be in Ulaan Baatar. I don’t know if they met their own expectations, but the city certainly seemed to be full of foreigners. Mostly Europeans, though I saw an Elderhostel assembled in Sukhbaatar Square, and plenty of fresh-scrubbed Koreans and brazen Aussies. Mongolia is closer for Europeans and Australians than for us. Besides, traveling in Asia is what cool Europeans do, I think. I don’t know where cool Americans go – backpack around South America? These tourists aren’t friendly, it seems to me. Maybe there are too many of them. Maybe they are in crowded hotels with a million other tourists, and smiling at unknown white folks means accepting that they are tourists – not “travelers”. I’ve never quite understood that distinction between tourists and travelers, but for lots of people being a tourist is somehow an insult, whereas to be a traveler is a badge of honor. I think maybe travelers spend less money and more time, and fancy that somehow they are experiencing the country as the locals do. Perhaps.

I only saw a little of Naadam. Tuesday morning I made it to the square – that’s Sukhbaatar Square, there only is one referred to as The Square – in time to catch the cavalry parade that begins the Naadam opening event. It wasn’t much of a parade – a few hundred men on horses heading one way at nine o’clock and coming back the other way half and hour later. But the horses

were delightful, and it was lovely to see so many of them trotting along what’s usually the dull street by my office (which was, of course, shut tight for the holiday). The young men on the horses looked a bit bemused by the whole thing, as if dressing up in costume and riding around town on a horse in front of a crowd of tourists (plus a few Mongolians) seemed as strange to them as it was for us. They stared at us with our snapping cameras just as we stared at them in their Chinggis outfits on their unruly horses. They seemed like kids, goofing around on the horses, not taking themselves too seriously.

Wednesday I headed out for a walk, and ended up at the stadium where the Naadam games are held. There are three sports during Naadam, the three “manly” sports - archery, wrestling and horse racing. I didn’t have a ticket, and I’d heard it wasn’t too exciting anyway. Indeed, Tuesday afternoon I turned on the television and watched for a while.

The wrestling was on. Pairs of beefy men attired in the briefest of shorts, short tight long-sleeved jackets, and heavy embroidered boots that turn up at the toe were locked in what looked like embraces, until suddenly one would throw or trip the other to the ground and become the winner. A wrestling official in long embroidered blue deel would place a pointy ribboned hat on the winner’s head, and both men would circle around for a bit, arms waving in the air, in the traditional eagle

dance performed by all Mongolian wrestlers. It seemed that dozens of wrestling matches were happening at once, though the TV camera rarely pulled out enough to see the whole field. When it did, though, it also seemed that the bleachers were empty, and the few people in them weren’t paying any attention to the events down below.

So when I headed to the stadium, I wasn’t too concerned about watching the matches, I figured I’d just see what there was to see. A steady stream of people was heading the same way, so I figured there had to be something.

What there was, it turned out, was a huge festival on the stadium grounds.

Scalpers were selling tickets to get inside, but hardly anyone seemed to be bothering with that. Instead, they meandered among the stalls and stands and sideshows happening outside. Lots of people were selling things – sunglasses, hats, fancy dresses (mostly for children), trinkets, touristy arts and crafts - though there were very few foreigners there. (I think they all had tickets and were inside the stadium being bored by the wrestling.) Lots of men were offering pony rides to children and

adults alike. A couple of men had camels, and intrepid Mongolians paid a few tugruks to get on their backs, walk around a bit, and have their friends snap pictures. One man was even offering rides on a small yak. I guess these animals are no more familiar to urban Mongolians than they are to me, if they’ll pay to ride around on one for a few minutes. I ventured to pet the camel, but it turned around and shrieked at me. I jumped in surprise and shrieked myself, and all the Mongolians watching laughed and took a half-step back.

There was food everywhere, of course; fruit stands, kebab stands, people dishing out ladles of mutton stew from pots they carried with them. Many of the nicer restaurants I’d seen in town had stalls there – the fancy Korean place I’d walked past the night before, the Monoglian Nomads place with t-shirts reading “meat is for men, grass is for animals,” the Mexican-Indian one that lists burritos on the left column of the menu and curries on the right. (I ate there later – it was very good!) A dairy company was selling liters of milk, and offered small cups to taste, in case you didn’t know whether you liked it.

And of course there were the ice cream carts. I’ve never seen a town with so many people buying ice cream pops from carts on the street. Not just children – old ladies in deels, young men in suits, cops, middle aged women in pointy-toed shoes, everyone is licking ice cream off a stick. The little ”supermarkets,” as every little food store grandly calls itself, all have big freezers, and hardly a person at the checkout doesn’t have at least one ice cream pop in her basket. Including me, of course! After all, when in Mongolia, do as the Mongolians.

There were things to do besides buy trinkets and eat at this festival. Some company had one of those dancing air men, long skinny fabric creatures with

air blowing up into their legs, making their arms and torso dance wildly in the wind. Little children would run up to it, tug on an arm or leg, and run away happily shrieking as the man whipped around them and righted himself. A band played western pop tunes on Mongolian instruments. A man with an eagle would place it on your arm while his partner took your photo with an instamatic camera. Dozens of people had games – ring tosses, hoops to aim balls into – though I never saw any prizes if your aim was good. The ubiquitous telephone folks were there, too, men or women sauntering in the crowds or sitting on a curb with a telephone in hand, in case you wanted to make a call.

Everyone was out, wandering among the sights. Families with babies, young couples, girls arm-in-arm, groups of old people in silken deels, middle-aged men. Lots of people were dressed up. Most of the ones in traditional clothes were old. One stout woman in a purple brocade deel sported black leggings underneath it, with Snoopy embroidered at the ankles. Middle-

aged women were in fancy dresses and high-heeled shoes, men were in suits. Little girls ran and played in frilly white party dresses and tights. I even saw a little boy in a three-piece suit, though he didn’t look very happy about it. Often a twosome would pass, a frail old woman in silken deel leaning on the arm of her teen-aged granddaughter, in skin-tight jeans and a tiny tank-top, teetering on the pointiest of spiked heels. And both looking very happy to be there together.

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