HOW TO APPRECIATE MONGOLIAN NATIONAL WRESTLING
By Oyungerel Tsedevdamba
It is Naadam time in Mongolia –a nomadic festival celebrated at the very least for centuries, and an important time for Mongolian wrestlers and horse-trainers, horse-riders and archers. The naadam tradition is truly ancient in its origins, predating, perhaps by millennia, the rise of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khaan) in the early Thirteenth Century. Naadam can be equated to the original Olympic Games of ancient Greece.
During the summer months, local naadams are held all over Mongolia. The biggest of them is the State Naadam held every July in Ulaanbaatar. Only the State Naadam awards national wrestling titles to successful participants.
Among all Naadam’s sports, the easiest to understand is archery. And you can easily see how horse races are run – for kilometers over the open steppe.
However, many foreigners are confused by Mongolian wrestling and may find it boring or too long. On the contrary, wrestling is actually the most interesting and entertaining Naadam sport. Every Mongolian understands and follows wrestling with a passion.
Here is how to follow the fun side and the intricacies of Mongolian wrestling.
Look at their hats first!
When the Naadam opening ceremony ends, and wrestling begins, you’ll see many wrestlers walking out onto the green field making eagle and falcon movements. That means they are about to start their first round of wrestling. In the usual 512-wrestler tournament, there will be nine elimination rounds of wrestling over two days. Or, during big anniversary years, there will be 1024-wrestler tournaments, also over two days.
In each succeeding round the number of wrestlers decreases by half because only the winners of a round go on to the next round.
So, why are hats important at the first round? For one thing, it makes watching the first round of 256 wrestling match-ups easier. Look at the wrestlers’ hats while they dance, walk or bow to the nine-white-horse hair-banners. Wrestlers’ hats have red strips hanging down. And some of the red strips also have yellow lines on them. Watch those guys! The more yellow lines they have, the higher ranking they are. Try to memorize the guys you want to follow because they leave their hats in the hands of their coaches when the wrestling commences.
When a higher ranking wrestler wins, people appreciate them, but when they fall or get strongly challenged, the real naadam starts!
Look at their body mass!
Long-term wrestling viewers immediately know who is going to do well on naadam by analyzing the wrestler’s body shape. You might think that if a wrestler is tough and muscular looking, he will do well. Actually it is more complicated than that.
There are many proven tactics for winning at Mongolian wrestling. Wrestlers have little or no limit of space. In the open field they are free to move over a wide area and they have little time constraint. So, some wrestlers have tactics to win fast by moving quickly and employing unexpected tricks while others aim to prolong the process by not doing decisive movements while wearing down their opponent.
The leaner and muscular guys are better off in sharp, short, artful wrestling, while the thicker ones with seemingly soft muscles are really good at endurance. So, when you chose your favorite wrestler to follow, it is better to pick two guys: one for sharp and short show and the other for stubborn success. Most naadam viewers are fond of sharp wrestlers, but more often than not the more stubborn and persistent contestant with good stamina becomes the ultimate victor.
Learn to catch the victory moment!
In Mongolian wrestling, one wins when the opponent’s elbow or knee touches the ground. Therefore, the Mongolian term for defeat is translated as ‘knee-dirtied’. However, touching the ground with the entire body or touching the ground with the head also counts as a defeat.
While in judo, hands wrestle with hands and legs wrestle with legs, in Mongolian wrestling, the wrester’s hands can touch everywhere—hands, torso and legs. But no one may grab the other’s head disrespectfully. In Mongolia, the head is the most sacred part of a person and even during wrestling contests one must respect the other’s head.
Because a wrestler can use both hands and both legs for tricks, and because most Mongolian wrestling tricks come from a standing position (because the knee must not touch the ground), wrestlers develop varieties of ‘air techniques’. Air techniques are done without clutching the opponent and therefore they’ll be very difficult to catch for the first time viewer.
Experienced viewers know how a certain technique works and immediately yell with excitement if such an ‘air technique’ becomes successful. Less knowledgeable viewers can enjoy the excitement of the audience and then ask an experienced viewer to explain what happened on the field. Oh, they’ll tell you, using their wrestling language, how the sudden trick worked geometrically and physically. It’s all about how to momentarily sense the change of the center of one’s balance, they’ll say. Sometimes it is understandable, sometimes it is just fun hearing from an expert viewer even though you don’t get all of what he or she says.
In general, most tricks are noticeable and easy to follow. Especially, when a wrestler grabs his opponent, lifts him off the ground and then puts him down. That kind of scene is quite common.
Listen to the background songs
When wrestling starts, background “long songs” begin. It is a philosophical guide for wrestlers. Those songs tell stories of a brother who shot his younger brother mistaking his horse and yellow deel (traditional Mongolian costume) for a gazelle and crying a river over his misdeed. Or the song will be about a placid universe where the beautiful sun rises and sets.
Sometimes the long song is about two palomino horses of Chinggis Khaan and how a certain area is their pasture and no one should hunt deer in the protected area. Or the song will tell the story of a man who couldn’t marry the woman he loved.
Every naadam wrestling tournament plays traditional long song music. While the old time story is sung in the background, a wrestler dances for his victory while another falls to the ground. Life and show go on. One wins and the other loses. These things happen all the time. The philosophical long songs make the entire game peacefully entertaining, but not revengeful.
Accepting defeat in a noble and peaceful manner is one of the ancient expectations in Mongolian wrestling and the viewers certainly appreciate the defeated if he accepts his loss with a smile. However, they get frustrated and angry if a wrestler disputes his loss. In such cases, fans will yell to the seemingly defeated contestant, “Give up your tahim! Give up your tahim!” demanding the wrestler to do a mandatory gesture of acceptance of a defeat.
Such a gesture is visible to everybody when the defeated contestant unties the belt of his top and walks under the outstretched right arm of the victor. But sometimes it might be confusing when a young victor goes under the arm of a defeated older wrestler. In such a case, the gesture means that the young wrestler is respecting the older wrestler and does not want to oblige the older higher ranking wrestler to walk under his arm. Mongolians appreciate this kind of act and applaud the young victor.
Bigger guys win easily in the early rounds
There is no weight category in Mongolian wrestling. Sounds unjust? There will be more of such ‘injustice’ and at first it makes you feel that Mongolian wrestling was not a good sport to watch. But, don’t give up, it will be more fun later.
In the first two rounds you will observe many big guys wrestling with young and smaller opponents. This is because all 512 wrestlers are listed according to their rank from the top and in the first two rounds the ranking list is folded -- meaning the highest ranking contestant wrestles the lowest ranking wrestler. The second ranked contestant wrestles the second to lowest contestant, and so on. Thus the nearly equal contestants (around 248-257 on the ranking list) will be wrestling each other. These equally matched wrestlers are the most interesting to watch.
Somehow such an arrangement makes Mongolian wrestling a game of ‘natural selection’ in the first two rounds.
In contrast, ‘social selection’ begins from the 3rd round. Those who expect that they’ll be beaten on the first round, still wrestle for victory. They are usually students or soldiers, or just young adults who love wrestling.
When you watch the first two rounds, do not spend all your time in the stadium. These two rounds take almost all of the first day of Naadam (after the usually spectacular opening ceremony). So, experienced viewers see the start of the 1st round and then go to other Naadam events such as the archery competition, the horse races and even the evening party on the main square. Some fans carry their radio with them so that they can follow the wrestling results – or even watch the games broadcast live on TV.
The third round is a “call” round
In the morning of the second day of Naadam, the stadium quickly fills.
By the beginning of the third round, the number of wrestlers will have decreased to 128. From this number, the highest ranking wrestlers will be praised by special juries called “zasuul”. Zasuuls will sing and praise them and loudly announce in song the opponent for the wrestler. Beginning from the highest titled wrestler, the wrestlers themselves choose whom they want to wrestle.
This launches a totally different game. First of all, the high titled champions, knowing that they must conserve energy for the remaining six rounds, will not call (select) a wrestler whom they have never before wrestled because they are leery of surprises. So, they call weaker wrestlers whom they feel they can easily defeat. Of course, the outcomes do not always go as expected.
After every high-titled wrestler makes his call, there will remain two equally ranked wrestlers who remain uncalled. They are called the “remains”. These two become the center of the attention because often, their wrestling is the most interesting and competitive, and because both are young potential rising stars.
So, to announce the wrestlers’ first calls, zasuuls stand in two rows alongside the wrestlers. These two rows are called “left” and “right” sides. A zasuul on the left side will first praise the highest ranking wrestler and make a loud announcement of whom he chooses to wrestle from the right side.
The praising song of a wrestler is translated something like this, “Here’s the all-Mongolia’s greatest, ocean like, firmly unbeatable, champion (full name), who was born in the (name) soum of (name) aimag (province), came here in honor of the 2223rd anniversary of the Khunnu Empire, and the 808th anniversary of Great Mongolian State, and in honor of the 93rd anniversary of the People’s Revolution, and 25th anniversary of the Democratic Revolution and the national celebration of Naadam! He openly calls (name) province, (name) soum’s wrestler (full name) from the right corner, for an honest test of strength in front of all Naadam viewers.”
The matching wrestler’s zasuul on the right corner would sing back loudly, “Here we heard your call!”
There is no shyness in calling a small guy compared to oneself.
The ultimate aim is to be the last wrestler standing after winning all nine rounds. So, clever high ranking wrestlers will usually choose smaller, weaker, less experienced opponents except when some tricky wrestling politics intervenes!
Yes, you read it correctly. There is a lot of wrestling politics. Some high ranking wrestlers who think they cannot claim for higher rounds, may decide to “help” young and promising wrestlers by calling them and falling for them.
Usually this happens when the younger guy is from the same province, or from the same school or even sometimes money is involved. Viewers hate to see such things happen, and they nickname it “nairaa”- which means “impure deal”. Therefore, those who reach titles and success by pure wrestling talent are most admired by the public and loved as true heroes.
Round four - full of surprises
Many newspapers and organizations announce guessing games on who’s going to win in nine rounds. It is not exactly betting, but very similar because those who win the guesses receive big awards after the Naadam.
It is relatively easy to guess the first three rounds. However, beginning from the fourth round all the guesses get broken because the fourth round selection rule is again “folding”. By the end of the 3rd round, all 64 remaining wrestlers would be ranked from top to bottom and the list is folded. Again, the lowest ranking guy would wrestle with the highest ranking wrestler.
But this time, this folding is not as easy for the high ranking wrestlers as it was in the first two rounds. At this stage, even the lowest ranking wrestler can be a future champion. All 64 wrestlers are quite competitive and no one is afraid of any other wrestler at this stage. So, many high ranking guys fall on the 4th round and many young new potential stars emerge. This makes the 4th round especially exciting.
But the real question of round four is who from these new stars will receive the title of Nachin (Falcon) in the next round! Experienced fans who can’t wait for the start of the 5th round list the names of newly emerging young wrestling stars and make tallies of their origin and wrestling ‘fire-camps’.
A wrestling ‘fire-camp’ is a Mongolian form of wrestling club where a group of wrestlers from the same province, same city or the same school join together to prepare for Naadam. Usually a high ranking wrestler leads such camp where he and his colleagues train new young wrestlers while also polishing their own skills. As a rule, the leader of the ‘fire-camp’, who is expecting to wrestle in future rounds, will not call a co-camper if he has plenty of other wrestlers from which to select an opponent.
On the other hand, a leader of a camp who calculates that he is unlikely to succeed in the next round, might intentionally choose his camp-student in order to give him a chance to win and get closer to a Falcon title.
As you can see, the origin of the wrestler becomes very important at this stage. So, the more experienced and knowledgeable the viewer, the easier it will be to correctly guess the wrestling matches in the upcoming 5th round.
5th round-- Stars are born!
Like in the 3rd round, the 5th round commences with long praises and calls where all the high ranking wrestlers can be warmly praised and their choice of wrestlers are sung out.
The praises are a slow start of something really exciting because by the 5th round, people want to watch only one thing—who will become new Falcons!
Falcon is a magic word in every Naadam. It is a dream title for every young wrestler. Because it means that they have won the 5th round and therefore qualify for their first state title. Titles are awarded by a decree of the President of Mongolia, and young wrestlers are eager to earn it. And the fans are even more eager to cheer for the new stars!
If those who already have state titles win this round, almost no one cares. All the attention is directed towards young un-titled wrestlers with fans wishing that many of them win the new title. In a very good year 6-7 falcons are born from 32 wrestlers. But more often, only 2-5 wrestlers reach this level. In some years, only one falcon is born.
When there are chances for more falcons, another strategy game begins. This is called “timing”. It means that the young wrestlers compete to become the title-winner as early in the round as possible, even if it means just a minute earlier. Why is this important? It is because in future, similarly titled wrestlers will be ranked according to the time of their title win. Therefore the wrestlers try to claim for a title as quickly in the round as possible.
6th round - New Stars Dance!
By the start of the 6th round you can suddenly notice that big, thick guys start dominating the game. Few of the 16 remaining contestants would be considered small or thin. Why? It is because after five rounds of competition, only the most well trained men who can endure several hard wrestling rounds remain. Defeating these big guys is the main task for the newly entitled Falcons.
Watching the wrestling of the 6th round is easy and fun. New falcons show beautiful courageous tricks at this stage. It is because they are not afraid of falling at this point that they like to give care-free and happy shows to the public. Fans really enjoy seeing beautiful, surprising and brave wrestling after the stressful 5th round.
Usually newly born falcons fall on this round even though they do employ surprising tactics. However, one or two of the new falcons might survive elimination in the 6th round and therefore qualify for a new title—Khartsaga (Kestrel). When that happens it becomes a game changing wrestling event and the audience shouts and whistles their excitement.
7th round - Endurance game!
In this round, the new title’s name is Elephant, if only a young star can endure this round. By this stage, only eight wrestlers remain. Most possibly, seven of them don’t need the title Elephant because they might have already achieved this title years ago and may be aiming for an even higher title such as Lion and Champion and Double Champion (Dayan Avarga), or Triple Champion (Darhan Avarga), etc.
If there is at least one wrestler who’s aiming for Elephant, the seventh round becomes the year’s favorite round. Especially, if he wins the title, the viewers get really excited. Elephant is a Big Star!
For a tourist, a new Elephant is not an emotional thing. But for a Mongolian viewer, it becomes a very special moment if the Elephant is your favorite wrestler or from your native area.
It is a good idea for a tourist to write down the name of the province the new Elephant is from. It may be the area where you will travel later. If so, make sure you write down the name of the new Elephant. Use his name in your conversation with the locals. You’ll see how much easier and fun the nomadic life becomes if you know the name of the favorite wrestler of the locals!
One boring part of the 7th round is the endurance game. Because the ultimate victory of the Naadam is quite close, the big wrestlers don’t attempt risky moves. They wrestle carefully, slowly, sometimes intentionally slowly in order to make the other wrestler tired or so frustrated that he tries too risky a move. Those who are confident in their endurance capacity, intentionally do not make decisive movements. Instead, they grab the other guy and just press on him for a long time. This is called “Uya”, meaning “tire” or “rope”. Like entangled on a rope, wrestlers don’t do much.
So, impatient viewers might demand the Uya wrestlers to move, but the tactics of those wrestlers are difficult to change. By the end of 30 minutes of non-result, the judges draw who will receive the right to have his preferred grab. If the lucky one doesn’t succeed with his preferred grab, the next grabbing choice is made by his opponent. In this way, the judges force the wrestlers to compete faster.
In the past, when the rule was to wrestle with no time limit at all, all the rounds beginning from the 7th round were terribly long. Wrestlers would play endless endurance games and the wrestling would end very late.
8th round - Tired stars!
Imagine yourself as one of these four strong guys. By this round, you’ve all wrestled seven rounds, maybe with very difficult opponents. You are tired, sweating like crazy, your eyes are sore from running salty sweat. You want to drink, sit down, rest, and take off these already too tight and wet wrestling costumes… if you were these guys. These tired stars of the 8th round move much slower than they did in earlier rounds.
If one makes a fast, sharp trick on this round, it means the guy had super training and unimaginably good preparation for this naadam. Viewers accept slow wrestling at this point very comfortably because it is one of the most tiresome stages of naadam for any wrestler who reached this round.
At the 8th round, viewers are impatient to see who will be one of the finalists. If one wins this round for the first time, his title will be Garid—the fairytale heavenly bird. But nobody cares about this new title. Instead, everyone is excited only about the upcoming 9th round, the final competition.
If one or two of these tired four wrestlers finds enough stamina and speed to “disturb the field” (meaning to do speedy, surprising tricks rather than just slow wrestling), then the audience becomes happily loud! Even long after the Naadam, viewers will be talking about such wrestling techniques just because it is very unusual to witness speedy wrestling at this stage.
Congratulations for staying with the Mongol wrestling fans ‘til the end. By this stage, you might be excited, like every Mongolian, to know who the ultimate winner will be. For a tourist, any winner is fine, you might think.
For a Mongolian, depending on which province a contestant is from, the final round can be quite emotional. If a finalist is from one’s native area, whole communities pray their wishes for the soon-to-be winner!
The title of Lion is given to a first-time naadam winner. One earns the title Champion only after two naadam victories from 512 wrestlers, or from just one such victory in a 1024-wrestler tournament.
The dramatic moment of the naadam’s final victory becomes the entire year’s favorite video piece. So, if you sense the final drama approaching, make sure you record the moment with all its excitement and shouts from the full stadium of spectators!
When that classic winning moment finally occurs and the entire stadium rocks with shouts, yells, whistles at their loudest, you’ll feel that you are in the right place at the right time. The energy of the stadium is truly beautiful at this very moment! This is Naadam!
At the close of the wrestling, the President’s decree for a new title is announced. Right after this the two finalists come to the President of Mongolia to accept their awards. The ultimate winner doesn’t “walk on the ground” since the moment he won until he leaves the stadium. It is because the winner is lifted by crowds of men and carried on their shoulders to the podium area and also when he leaves the podium heading for the stadium exit.
Where to see more wrestling
The State Naadam is not the only place to see wrestling.
Naadam is, as mentioned in the beginning of the article, an ancient nomadic festival which Mongolian governments of all times funded and still fund every year. Naadam always took place in Mongolia whether the country was under communist regimes and during our deepest post-communist economic crises.
As the State Naadam is funded by the state budget, the local Naadams are funded by local budgets and community fundraising. A true Naadam is never a commercial event. It also doesn’t involve betting. All over Mongolia between July 7 to July 20 and sometimes beyond, there will occur some form of naadam somewhere in the country while the biggest Naadam takes place in Ulaanbaatar on July 11-13.
During all these various naadams, at least 22,400 wrestlers will be wrestling, 105,000 horses with child-riders will be racing, and 9,500 archers will be shooting arrows in front of local spectators. As mentioned, the tradition of supporting local naadams began thousands of years ago and continues until today because it is the biggest event for local nomadic herders to come together. Of course, Ulaanbaatar’s Naadam is the biggest tourist attraction in our country although every naadam in all 321 locations across the country is culturally interesting and fascinating.
Wrestling is virtually the same in every naadam except that local naadams have fewer rounds according to the numbers of participating wrestlers (32-256). And the winners of local naadams receive aimag and soum titles, but never a state title.
For those tourists who visit Mongolia during non-Naadam season and who would still like to experience Mongolian wrestling, there is one place you must visit on the right dates, the Wrestling Palace of Ulaanbaatar.
The Wrestling Palace hosts 128-265 wrestler tournaments prior-to and during national holidays and important anniversaries.
Below are the holidays during which the most interesting wrestling tournaments take place. To attend these tournaments tourists should check with their host company prior to the tournament. Sometimes the tournaments take place one day prior to a national holiday and sometimes they take place on the very day of the holiday. The most popular tournaments are:
- Post-holiday regional naadams (see the dates from the calendar of events at www.mongolia.travel)
- Mongol Pride Day, the first day of winter according to Lunar calendar (mid November);
- Independence Day, November 26;
- Democracy and Human Rights Day, December 10;
- National Liberation Day, December 29; This is the third most watched wrestling tournament after the State Naadam and Tsagaan Sar Eve’s. In this tournament only the best 128 wrestlers qualify to participate. The winner receives the President’s Cup.
- Constitution Day, January 13;
- Tsagaan Sar Eve (Lunar New Year Eve), Tsagaan Sar Eve wrestling is the second most famous wrestling tournament after the State Naadam’s.
- Patriots’ Day, March 1;
- Army Day, March 18;
In addition to these state funded tournaments, many tournaments are funded by companies, organizations and even by families and private individuals.
Can a tourist wrestle in naadam?
It is very hard to wrestle in the State and aimag naadams. The organizer of the wrestling tournaments is a non-government body, the Mongolian Wrestling Association, and the Association works all year round to watch and register every wrestler so that the ranking of wrestlers for any significant tournament goes smoothly and without controversy. So, for any wrestler who is not in the ranking database participation in important tournaments is impossible.
However, soum (county) naadams are quite relaxed. Most new wrestlers, young adults and students, try their first wrestling at soum naadams. And some soums accept tourists to wrestle in their naadam. The most tourist-friendly naadam takes place in Khatgal town near Khuvsgul Lake. Khatgal’s naadam wrestling tournament has accepted tourists for the past decade and many tourists have wrestled there. However, no foreign tourist has thus far won a soum naadam. If one does win a soum naadam, his official title will be Soum’s Elephant. But remember, you’ll probably be folded over in the first round and be obliged to wrestle the soum’s top wrestler!
HOW TO APPRECIATE MONGOLIAN HORSE RACING
By Oyungerel Tsedevdamba
You are in Mongolia, the land of horse riders and horse lovers. There is one horse for every Mongolian. By the end of 2014 or the beginning of 2015, Mongolia is expected to have 3 million people and the same number of horses. If there is a horse racing event during your visit to Mongolia, we recommend you attend as Mongolian horse racing is unique.
Horse racing is an important part of Naadam, Mongolian traditional games that also include wrestling, archery and ankle bone shooting. If wrestling makes the Mongolian viewers passionate, horse racing makes them cry. Viewers cry either over the horses that endured the long ordeal to reach the finish line, or over the small children that overcome the hardships of the long race with composure and stamina. They even cry over the last tired colt to trot across the line. Therefore, horse racing is a naadam’s soul-touching show. But before viewing the climax of the heartfelt event, spectators must understand the nature of Mongolian horse racing.
Know the Locations First!
Horse-racing takes place outside the city or town you are visiting. Every Mongolian town, village or city including Ulaanbaatar, has a ‘horse field’ which is usually an immense open space designated for naadam horse racing. Such a field must not be urbanized, and must be kept open as much as possible so that the town or city can organize a 25-30 km route that will accommodating all of its dwellers as spectators.
Every Mongolian knows the locations of the horse fields well beforehand, but visitors may wish to know where are you going and when they need to leave the city to view the races of their choice.
So, please learn from your guide the following locations for the races you wish to watch: Location of the send-off ceremony; Location of starting line; Location of Finish line; Where you can eat, use rest rooms and spend time while waiting for the horses; And the locations of particular horse trainers’ camps or gers;
Even though all these places are located in one general area, Hui Doloon Hudag in Ulaanbaatar’s case, please note that the name of the area expresses an entire valley of something like 40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. So be prepared to walk a bit to truly enjoy the horse race.
Navigating around the horse field while keeping the group together requires preparation (like wearing similar T-shirts and establishing a rendezvous place to meet at a fixed time, etc.). The entire valley and open space which has turned into a temporary three-day, nomadic city has minimum urban rules. There will be no streets, no signs, no maps, no motor vehicles (except in designated parking areas) and people will be roaming freely on foot or on horseback, while others sit here and there picnicking and enjoying the spectacle. There will be many similar-looking gers and tents everywhere too. Some services including food, toys, drinks, and culture shows are available, as well. In a word, stick together and designate an easily identifiable rallying point and time to reassemble. And bring a camera for the races and the many colorful Mongolian cowboys galloping here and there.
So, how to find the right locations in such a chaotic place?
First of all, the finish line is always fixed and easy to see. There will be chairs and pole for announcing race progress. So, after you park your car, walk toward the finish line with your group and from this location people usually pick a nearby site where they will find each other at a certain hour. Some prefer to buy a ticket and sit and wait for the horses that way, but most prefer to wander around and enjoy horse field life. Because people want different things, it is always a good idea to give each other some freedom of movement and reassemble at the chosen spot at the chosen time.
Know the Ages of the Horses!
It’s impossible to see all the horse-races, as other events will be happening in town and you’ll miss them all if you spent all your time on the horse field. So, most spectators go to one or two races of the six main races of pure Mongolian breed: Azarga (Stallion), Ikh Nas (full aged gelding, or 6-year old and above), Soyolon (5-year old), Hyazaalan (4-year old), Shudlen (3-year old), Daaga (2 year-old). Additionally, there are mixed breed races (thoroughbred horses are considered to be mixed breed in Mongolian traditional races).
Each age group races for a different distance. Stallion races are 22-24 kilometers, Ikh Nas are 25-27 kilometers, Soyolon are 22-24 kilometers, Hyazaalan are 18 kilometers, Shudlen are 14-16 kilometers, Daaga are 10-12 kilometers. The exact length of the races are set by the Horse Racing Commission each year.
Viewers have their own favorites. Most men like to see the Stallion and 5-year old horses. Women and families generally favor the Full Age Geldings and 2-year old horses.
Professional level observers don’t like to miss the 3 and 4 year old races and mixed breed races as they want to pick good horses for future races and trading.
The youngest four ages, 2, 3, 4, and 5 year old horses, are called ‘lower ages’, and stallion and full aged geldings are called ‘higher ages’. The lower aged horses race on their particular age group only for one year. But higher aged horses race for their category for up to 10 years. Therefore the latter races are called as the race of “colts of 10 years”.
It means that the winning the race of Stallions and Full Age Geldings is extremely challenging for any horse, and it’s even more difficult to win such races repeatedly.
Long, Straight Route: Horse Stamina and Child Riders Safety
When we watch Mongolian horse racing we actually watch horses that are ridden by children. By law, no child below age seven is allowed to ride in the naadam although many children know how to ride horses by age three or four. Now the parliament of Mongolia is debating whether to raise the age minimum of horse riders to nine.
Because horses are very competitive, because yelling crowds excite the horses when they are close to finish line, and because children might lose control of excited horses and fall from them, naadam rules assure that horses reach the crowd of spectators near the finish line as calmly as possible.
Tradition dictates that race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses. Another reason of such a long straight route might be the tradition of 13th century military cavalry tactics.
When the routes are straight, the horse boys and girls are required to do minimum navigating work during the race. They don’t need to change the course of the race, they don’t need to try to stop the horse, and they only need to let the horses run.
The requirement of a long and straight race route has been serving as the best safety rule for children for many centuries. Falling from a horse is rare but most often happens near the starting line when the horses suddenly all turn together and start moving fast. In naadams officially organized by the Mongolian Horse trainers’ Association all trainers are required to provide the young riders with a helmet, protective clothing and accident insurance. MHA nationwide network serves as the government’s main partner in naadam organizing.
Ask How Many Stars and Unknowns are racing!
Horses have star power in Mongolia. Star horses have monuments, songs, paintings, lyrics, music and dances dedicated to them!
Star horses have particular titles. If the horse’s name has an additional title such as “tumen eh” (meaning “leader of 10,000”), this means that the horse has won naadams in past. If the title is longer like ‘dayan tumen eh’(multiple leader of 10,000) or ‘darhan tumen eh’ (unbeatable leader of 10,000) etc, then it means the horse has won several important naadam races.
If a truly famous horse is racing, then the announcer will follow its title with the word “state”. When a horse wins more than 4 state naadams, which is very rare, then such a horse spiritually belongs to all the people of Mongolia and therefore deserves a title “state horse” (Turiin Ajnai).
However, people love to see when a Bituu (Unknown) horse wins a race. In each race at least 50 percent of the horses are unknown. To guess which unknown horse might win a race, people go to the Send-off ceremonies of races to assess the composure, look and temperament of the horses.
Enjoying The Exotic Crowd: The Send-off Ceremonies
To capture the most beautiful pictures of horses, children and horse-trainers, one must get up early and drive to the Horse Field. At seven a.m. of July 11, stallions will ceremoniously but slowly go off (or to be sent-off by good luck wishers) to their race starting line from the nearby finish line. The stallion’s start line is approximately 25 kilometers away from the ceremony spot.
From 6 a.m. the exotic crowd of over 500 stallions, children and horse-trainers will be gathering and standing at the send-off ceremony location. Horses’ mains and tails will be carefully bundled with leather, some of the mains will be clean cut, and very small saddles will be placed on the backs of the horses.
Children will be wearing helmets, colorful tops with numbers on them, and they’ll be holding small whips.
Horse trainers will be wearing Mongolian deels, boots and holding horse combs. Horse combs are not like really combs, it is more like dull cutters and are made of very hard woods with beautiful ornaments on them. Horse trainers’ hats are fancy. The hats of famous trainers will have red strips hanging down. The more white or yellow lines on the red strip, the more high ranking is the trainer. Some people mistake the horse-trainers’ hats with those of wrestlers. Actually, they are different. Horse-trainers’ hats have a horse shaped silver emblem on top.
In the low light of the morning sun, any photo you take at this ceremony come out magnificently. The most beautiful horse photos can be taken during this gathering. Horses will be gorgeous and shining. So shining that experienced viewers can measure the success of the horse in that particular race by the level of shiny-ness of the horses’ hair and eyes.
It is said that a thin and small-stomach horse will do well if it is a very sunny day coming. However, if it is a rainy or cool day, then a fuller-stomach, thicker horse has a better chance of succeeding.
So, when you visit this send-off ceremony, you can discuss with other viewers which of the trainers fed their horses right the night before.
More important than a good meal, the shinier the hair and the eyes of the horse, the more charged and competitive the horse’s own spirit is said to be. Old timers will tell you that the best prepared horses do not attract flies, and if they poop, it doesn’t smell and when breathing, the horse’s nostrils become wider.
Unknown horses get noticed by expert viewers at this time and experienced announcers make notes of those seemingly well prepared, high spirited horses to watch more carefully during the race.
Horse trainers are usually very nervous during the send-off ceremony. They pray, and carefully attend to the child rider, and remind him/her of the best tactics such as when to whip and when to leave the horse alone, and when to hurry the horse. Horse trainers don’t speak loudly, in fact, they frequently whisper their advice to the rider so as to not be heard by a rival trainer or jockey.
It is not a good idea to ask questions from children and trainers during this short ceremony. It is best to leave them in their own world and just observe and take pictures during the send-off.
Such send-off ceremonies will take place for the full aged Geldings and Stallions at least an hour before the finish line arrival schedule. But for lower aged horses, the send-off ceremony takes more than two hours as all the horses will have to go through formal teeth inspection to confirm their age.
Most photogenic send-off ceremonies are early morning’s, that are: Shudlen for July 10; Stallions for July 11 and Soyolon for July 12 for the national naadam.
Waiting for the horses to come back
One of features of horse watching is to wait for the sent-off horses to reach the start line at their slow pace, and then gallop back toward the finish line. It usually takes an hour. Viewers may spend this hour as they please. They can wander around the kitchen gers (which are many!), visit open-air cultural performances, or pay a pre-arranged visit to horse-trainer gers, or just enjoy an outdoor picnic and play cards or dominos on grass. The whole valley becomes a relaxed picnic area under the horse music.
Yes, there are such melodies in which horse galloping is an inspirational rhythm. The Horse Field sound system will be playing all-time favorite horse praising songs such as ‘Black horse’, ‘Chinggis Khaan’s two palomino’, ‘Mirror Palomino’ etc.
If your tour company arranged a visit to a horse-trainers’ ger, please appreciate it as a special treat. Horse-trainers are very busy during naadam days, and they accept visitors to their gers between the races and right after the races. You’ll find a free drink of mare’s milk, some meat and other snacks in the horse trainers’ gers. You are not expected to pay any money and not expected to give gifts except you wish you give small little treats to children. But you are expected to have permission from the horse trainer if you want to come closer to the horses.
It is not recommended to ask for a ride of the race horses. Also, it is not recommended to touch the horses without the horse trainers’ permission. If you are wearing shorts, short-sleeves, or bright clothing, it is better to keep away from the horses so that they stay calm and give safe rides to the children.
However, chatting with horse trainers and their family members is a fun way to spend time while awaiting the horses. If you don’t know what kind of “horse talk” you could start, just ask “how was the horse pasture this year?” or “in how many naadams has the horse participated?” If you see some medals in the ger, you might ask when the medals were earned and which horses earned them. Such talk leads to a very happy discussions and horse-trainers share their beloved horse’s successes with big smiles.
Seeing the horses dust!
If dust is unclean thing in the city life, horse field dust is considered wonderful stuff. If there was no rain recently, the horse field will be somewhat dusty. Having some horse dust is considered a naadam special treat.
So, if you are watching the horse race on a dry day, you’ll see horse dust from far away. Of course, horse trainers and naadam viewers prefer the naadam day soil be wet so the child jockeys do not have to breathe dust. But if the race cannot avoid dusty conditions, locals will refer to the old Mongolian saying: Everything in the universe has a reasonable explanation.
So, a good naadam explanation about you becoming somehow dusty and dirty during the horse race is that you’ll have a very good year. You might hear other seemingly ridiculous positive attitude superstitions in Mongolia at other times. In general such positive talk is called ‘good mouth’ or ‘mouth soul’.
Young men love to get dusted from a Soyolon as the 5-year old horse is the fastest. When Soyolon races, kilometers-long line of viewers hunt for places where the wind will blow Soyolon dust on them. Having such dust means the spirit of the strongest horses are connected to them via the race dust.
Horses have turned around!
After the horses reach the starting line and turn around to race, an announcer will loudly inform all the people on horse field that the horses have turned. It means that the race has begun some 20+ kilometers distant. The fastest race finishes in half an hour from the announcement. So, people rush back to their seats alongside the finish line. If the seats are full, people line up alongside a race border line to watch for the arriving horses.
The loud-speaker music will become faster and more horse songs and horse rhythm melodies will be playing. Everybody will be attending to what the announcer has to say. Soon, the announcer will report on the color of the horses that are leading and color of the children’s shirts.
Meanwhile, tourists can observe the behavior of five mounted men sitting somewhere very near to finish line. These five will all have beautiful horses and fancy deels. These are the “horses collectors”. Each of these men is delegated to collect one horse from among first five finishers.
So, when the first horse comes, one of these men will gallop alongside and grab its reins. When the second horse comes, another man will collect it. In this way, the five mean collect the first five finishers – all of which will receive awards. However, special rules apply if two horses cross the finish line at the same time. In that case, the horse whose nose first crosses the finish line wins. If a rider-less horse is among the first five, then it shall be collected only after five horses with child jockeys have crossed the finish line.
Moment of sweet tears
When horses with little children ride toward the finish line in front of the crowd, the crowd yells “giin goo” or “guurriii gurriii” in support of the riders. Horse boys and girls whip their horses and sing “gii iin goo oo”. The horses run faster with the children’s call.
For a moment, nothing else matters but the steppe, horses and children. Nothing else is more important, it will seem. May the child carry on, and may the horse reach the finish line after so many kilometers of galloping…
These thoughts, this moment, of seeing the approaching horses makes every Mongolian cry. If you ask your Mongolian friends, they’ll tell you how none of us can watch this moment without tears.
The five winning horses from every race will receive presidential award and medals. The children riding those horses will also receive presidential awards and gifts, and perhaps a Sports Master’s Degree if the child succeeded in multiple competitions. The horse trainers will receive monetary awards and state titles. In order to qualify for state titles, the horse trainers must go through a rating process conducted by the Horse Trainers’ Association.
It is worth noting at this point that Mongolians do not bet on horse races. It is all about the pride of victory and pride of continuing a long tradition of horse-related culture of the Mongols. As well as people of moderate means, many wealthy Mongolians own racing horses and employ trainers. They may arrive at the race sites in fancy Lexus or Mercedes SUVs but their hearts are with their horses.
Where else to see horse races
Horse racing takes place in every province and soum naadam (see the dates of these naadams in the Events Calendar on this website). Even the smallest naadams have good horse races.
The biggest horse race called “Ikh Hurd” (meaning Great Speed) takes place after the national naadam. In this race, the best of the best horses of all state and province naadams compete for high scoring. According to the Mongolian Horse Trainers’ Association scoring system for the best horses, best horse trainers and best horse riders, Ikh Hurd’s first 5 places score double the value of the scores collected at the national naadam.
The Mongolian Horse Trainers’ Association records and conducts most of the horse races in Mongolia. They maintain two websites www.morinerdene.mn and www.hiimori.mn.
The Association also conducts pre-naadam trial races. Such races are very important for predicting naadam results and many horse lovers visit pre-naadam trials.
Can a tourist collect horses?
Horses from the naadam races are not for sale and there is no horse trading activity during naadam. However, a tourist can collect a different kind of horse by visiting the Horse Field. It is called “hiimori” (meaning “wind horse”). The concept of horse exists in every level of physical and spiritual being, according to Mongolian beliefs. One form of horses are “air” or “wind”— the closest meaning of which is ‘spirit’ or ‘high spirit’.
If one has bright eyes, a shining happy face, toughness and composure, a Mongolian might say that you have a good ‘wind horse’.
So, when you visit a Horse Field and if you enjoyed all the races, the dust, cried over the racing children and horses, walked until you can’t walk any more and still remained upbeat and high spirited, then you collected a very good ‘wind horse’.
After all, the horse race’s main gift to spectators is not only the good show, but also lots of “wind horses”.
Many thanks to Tsagaandalai Lkhagvajav, Bat-Erdene Dashdemberel, Narankhuu Batsukh, Enkhbold Miyegombo and Davaasuren Tserenpil for providing information for this article.
HOW TO APPRECIATE MONGOLIAN NATIONAL ARCHERY
By Oyungerel Tsedevdamba
You are on the naadam field. Look around. Do you see wrestling or horseracing? Or do you see men, women and children shooting arrows from their bows? If you see the latter, you are at the Naadam archery field. Although the smallest of all the naadam fields, the archery field is the busiest throughout the naadam. Archery completion begins four days before the naadam’s official opening ceremony and ends when the 5th round of the wrestling contest concludes.
As with wrestling and horse racing, the President of Mongolia presents the national title of “state marksman” to the winning archers and they work hard to earn their titles.
SEE ARCHERY BEFORE YOU LEAVE
Because naadam time is the highest season for Mongolian tourism and there are not enough flights to meet everyone’s wishes. Consequently, many tourists have to schedule their return for just before naadam. How frustrating to be in Mongolia so close to naadam time and yet not to see it —a lifetime experience! No worries if your return ticket cuts you off from the main naadam. Archery is your savor.
Archery competition commences July 7th in Ulaanbaatar. There will be archery competition every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the archery field next to Ulaanbaatar’s main stadium.
KNOW WHAT TYPE OF ARCHERY IS ON
A single technological invention in Mongolia gave many ideas to the world. It was our bow making technology that was later studied by engineers developing light sturdy materials for aeronautics. Mongolian bows are light, multi layered and incredibly strong. They shot much further and more accurately than any other bows of their time. For that reason the Mongolian bow conveyed a great advantage in ancient warfare. Made of at least 12-13 different materials mainly involving wood, horn, sinew and animal glue, Mongolian bows made a great contribution to our animal herding nomadic culture.
As a reminder of our ancient ingenuity, three main types of bows and styles of archery are included in Mongolia’s naadam competition: Uriankhai style, Buriad style, and Khalh (or common national) archery. The national title-winning archery is Khalh archery as the shooting distance is the farthest and it is standardized by age and gender. The other two styles are national heritage styles.
The archery field will be filled with archers in colorful ethnic national costumes beginning from the morning of July 7th. This first day will be dedicated to Uriankhai style archery—i.e. shooting for 30 and 40 meters. You will see only men participating in this category. Uriankhai style is a cultural and sports representation of the hunting men’s world of the past. Until now, this archery excludes women. However, beginning from July 8th, the Buriad style day, plenty of women will be on the field. The archers of this day will be most likely wearing buriad hats, buriad-style deels and holding buriad-style bows. They’ll be shooting for 30 and 45 meters distance. But the fanciest bows, arrows and shooters come out in the khalh style of archery.
If you are travelling as a family, you will enjoy the July 9th children’s completion. The archers will be adorable and tough. Depending on their ages, the children’s arrow shooting distance will be between a minimum of 3 meters to a maximum of 65 meters. It will be a rare occasion if you really see a child shooting for 3 and 4 meters distance. It will mean that the boy of one year old (for 4 meters) and a girl of one year old (3 meters) are participating! Any children’s competition involving a child under eight brings lots of target moving jobs to the organizers. It is because the target has to be 3 times in meters the age of a girl participant and 4 times the age of a boy participant.
So, the closer the targets are to a little archer, the rarer the game you are watching!
From July 10th till the end of the Naadam, there will be Khalh, the common national, archery competition only and the race for the state title will be in full swing.
UNDERSTAND THE TARGET: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A BAD SCORE
When you are on the archery field, look for small brown and red leather cylinders stacked in two or three rows on the ground. They are the targets -- called “hasaa”. Usually, there will be 30 or 60 such cylinders or hasaas as the naadam target depending on the competition.
The red ones in the middle of the brown hasaas are the central targets for the archers, but hitting the red ones won’t grant the archer an extra score. So long as it moves the requisite distance, hitting any hasaa is equally scored “1”. So, there are no special high-score hasaas.
An archer is given 40 shots. Twenty of them are given to hitting 60 hasaas lined in three rows. The next twenty chances are given to hitting 30 hasaas lined in two rows. One is called an “archer” only when he or she ‘stands to shoot’. In one stand, four archers stand together facing towards the same target. The shooting is initiated by the highest ranking of the four. Then, the next ranking one shoots. This way, all four archers shoot one by one four times. While archers are “standing to shoot”, they must complete the stand, and nothing should stop them. Only a dangerously strong storm can be an excuse not to shoot. Regular rain is not a reason to delay the competition.
From the spectator’s eyes, the width of the hasaa rows and number of targets seem big and seem easy to hit. But it is not as easy as it looks. Also not all the hits are considered a score. The score is given only if a hasaa moves at least eight centimeters from its original location – the width of one hasaa.
To do the meticulous judging, a group of “surchid” will be standing near the target area generally named as “zurkhai”. Archers, after shooting four times at a shift, will be obliged to stand at the zurkhai to serve as “surchid”, or co-judges, for the two next shifts.
NATURE DICTATES ARCHERY: THINKING AND KEEPING IT ORGANIC
When you are watching Mongolian archery, you are also watching the art of communicating with nature. Imagine natural glue in the sunshine. It will melt. Likewise, the bow that is glued out of natural organic materials, will be softened when the sun shines too hotly and less flexible and harder when it is cold.
So, how does it influence in archer’s technique? Very much and every time! An archer is a constantly calculating and calibrating person. She or he has to know her or his bow exceedingly well. If archers do not know the “character” of their bows, they will miscalculate nature’s influence on their success.
A softened bow needs to stretch further to reach the target, while a hardened bow needs to be stretched less.
The temperature is just one of nature’s variables. Another important variable is the strength and direction of the wind. All pistol and rifle shooters know they need to calculate the wind into their aiming. But archers must calculate the wind effect plus the condition of their bows.
Shooting arrows in the wind while considering the organic nature of one’s bows is a complicated thing. It is not easily demonstrated on the TV screens or from the panorama of the archery field, but if you have a chance to chat with archers after their shooting, or while they wait for their shooting, please ask them to show you their left hand. Most shooters use a “marking on the back of a hand” technique to find the right target. If there are many marks during one competition, it means that the archer had to change her/his aiming point several times because of a change in the wind or temperature during the competition.
Even if the day is windless and calm, the archer will have to change her/his calculations a few times just because the organic bow changes its character throughout the day.
How to become a good archer when the bows are so capricious? The best of the best archers are of course those who do their training throughout the year in every condition of the weather over and over patiently.
Because nature complicates the art of archery, the Mongolian archery community is truly passionate to maintain this interesting and challenging way of shooting arrows. Even though young innovators offer plastic materials for making bows, such innovations threaten the national intangible heritage of the art and techniques of shooting organic bows. Therefore, only traditional bows are allowed in the state naadam.
WATCH THE BODY LANGUAGE: MEASURING SUCCESS AND FAILURE OF A SHOT
The first and most important body language communicator of archery is the surchid. As I mentioned earlier, surchid are the archers who are serving as co-judges when they are not shooting.
This group of surchid will be employing body language to convey technical information to actively shooting archers.
The body language easiest for the viewer to observe happens when the target is successfully hit. In such a case, all the surchid will raise their hands with the palms up and shout “uukhai” which means a point is counted.
When the arrow flies over the target, the surchid will make a sliding movement with his/her hands (with the palms down) over the hasaas, thereby showing the archer how high the arrow sailed over the hasaa. Watching this body language, the archer calculates his/her next shot.
If the arrow strikes the ground short of the target, the surchid will show the length of the gap by their arms. If both arms are far stretched out, it will mean that the flight of the archer’s arrow was quite short of the target.
Sometimes, the arrows reach the targets, but don’t hit the hasaa strong enough to make a score. This is very frustrating for the archer, and the surchid will make a stepping or drumming movement with their hands.
However, the archers while shooting arrows, hardly show any emotion. They stand still. They follow their ranks. Senior ones shoot first and the junior ones stand in line according to their rank. They watch their environment and the target attentively. They calculate. They concentrate. They display a noble and determined character. They use their muscles to stretch a bow 40 times and each such stretch is equal to lifting 25 kilograms.
CAN A TOURIST PARTICIPATE IN ARCHERY?
Yes, if you have your own Mongolian bow and arrows. Remember, you can’t participate in the Mongolian naadam if your bow is not made according to Mongolian tradition. No metallic or other materials harder than wood are allowed to strengthen your bow. To participate in naadam archery, one needs to submit his or her request to the naadam’s archery committee. Because the state committees register the archers via the national archery association, it is not so easy to enter the national Naadam because the national archery association ranks the archers throughout the year and grants permission to compete in the naadam only to the higher performing archers.
However, soum naadams and other local small naadams can be more relaxed and one can get registered with the permission of the local naadam commission.
Most archers allow the spectators to try his or her bow after they finish their competition. If you are given such a chance, please be mindful of few things before you try. First of all, protect your left arm and right thumb as a strong shot could hurt you at those places. If you happened to have thick cheeks or a thick chest, the stretched bow might hurt you too. So, hold them at a reasonable distance from the snap of the bowstring.
If you are keen to hit the target, then sense the bow very well. Is it a hard frigid one or is it a soft one? Use more strength and aim farther in order to reach the target if your bow is softer. And do more precise aiming if the bow seems to be not too soft and not too hard. If it is windy day, please sense the weight of the arrow first. You should use heavier arrows if the wind is too strong against you.
Such calculations will never seem to end and must always be in your mind if you are serious about archery. But this is naadam. Most importantly, you are having a holiday here. So relax and just enjoy your time on the archery field in full harmony with nature.
HOW TO APPRECIATE THE MONGOLIAN ANKLE-BONE SHOOTING
By Oyungerel Tsedevdamba
Even though naadam’s original nickname is “three manly games” meaning wrestling, horse-racing and archery, a fourth game came into the naadam’s official agenda in 1998, mongolian ankle-bone shooting (Shagain Harvaa), another UNESCO registered world heritage.
At each naadam, you will find a tent area or building space dedicated to ankle-bone shooting games. Once you are there, you should recall this explanation to understand the game.
Pick any one game first
Ankle-bone shooting is a team game, a sort of minature version of bowling. Instead of bowling pins, there will be ankle bones or other little bones of herd animals. And instead of a bowling ball, there is a ‘bullet’, a amall polished piece of deer horn, that when launched flies straight and true across a carpet toward the targets. And instead of bowling conveyer to bring the ball back to the bowler, there is a line of people sitting on two sides between the shooter and the target returning his or her bullet after a shot.
Several ankle-bone games will be in progress at the same time. Pick any one of them. A crowd will be circling and making ‘uukhai’ noise or a long song sounds. In the north end of the “shooting”, you will see a small wooden structure comprised of an Aravch or target bones and bullet catcher, a Zurkhai or Target area, at the opposite end of the carpet from the shooter, with the target bones lined up to be shot.
The more bones that are arrayed on the Target line, the earlier the stage the game is in. If you catch the players having only one to two target bones remaining at the Zurkhai line, then it must be close to the end of the game, the most competitive stage of a particular round. Make sure not to leave that particular game because it will be over soon and dramatic cheers will explode when the last target is hit.
Also, look at the carpet. At the end of the carpet will be two strips of wood on which little bones are arrayed. The better players are on the side that has collected the most ankle-bones. You will find a crowd sitting along opposite sides of the carpet representing the team they support or participate in.
Watch the shooters’ age and gender
Each team of ankle-bone shooting has six, seven or eight players. In some naadams, there is a rule that each team must have mixed age groups. In such cases there must be at least two children, two young and middle aged persons and two elderly members. It will be considered a very confident and full team if women are on the team. However, in the other naadams, the entire game is organized separately for each age groups: Children under 17, adults 18-60 and the seniors above 61.
When you watch an ankle-bone shooting game where each age group is separately competing rather than having mixed age teams, it will mean that the most competitive game is going on.
Children, and adults are not allowed to use shooting devices and they must shoot a target using only their fingers. However, elderly and the women are allowed to use shooting devices.
The middle finger is the “gun” to shoot an ankle-bone which has been placed on a polished wooden stick with a low siding on one side. The shooter will use of his knees to steady and carefully aim the stick. An accomplished ankle-bone shooter calculates the strength of his finger, the angle he or she will shoot towards the target and the weight of the ankle-bone to precisely knock the target bone off the line.
Never utter rude words
When you watch ankle-bone shooting, you’ll notice an unusually friendly atmosphere around that little carpet. The entire game space is a circle with a diameter of 5 meters. In this little space, people are crowded to participate and support one team or the other. You’ll notice that no one is shouting rude words, no one is angry, and even when a shooter misses the target, people will be singing rather than cursing the target.
The anckle-bone game’s social role is to teach the younger generation to compete politely, and work as a team. It is a place that teaches people to have a calm team spirit.
Winning team will go to next level
During the state naadam, many teams participate in ankle-bone shooting. At first, each team will be given a chance to compete with equal number (sometimes 4, sometimes 5 and 6) of teams. Then, all the teams will be ranked. The best ranking teams will continue the game and compete with each other, while the teams with many losses will leave the game. The team with the most number of victories will be always selected to the next level of completion. In this way, the best team is determined after 10-12 games that involved 80-100 teams totally.
In the state naadam, the best team of every province, every UB city district is eligible to apply to participate. Additionally, the ankle-bone shooting association of Mongolia compiles a list of eligible teams to participate in the naadam. In order to be eligible, the teams must have participated in previous games, and won local ankle-bone games that were organized by the Association’s members and affiliates.
There are traditional ankle-bone shooting places called local “shagain toirom”, meaning “ankle-bone circle”. The word ‘circle’ is originated by two things. Firstly, each team competes with all the other participating teams making the entire competition a whole circle. Secondly, the teams camp at the area making a circle. The camping, social circle, and the competition circle all together make the friendly environment for the “shagain toirom” or “ankle-bone circle”.
In the past, the khans, lords and religious leaders would identify auspicious spring days to gather the community and their friends at a certain picturesque place, and would remain there for several days watching or playing ankle-bone shooting against opposing teams. Such circles would be places protected from wind, where travelers with just a light tent could stay for days. There was a saying that whatever happens in life, real friends meet at least once a year at the ankle-bone circle. Famous ankle-bone circles called “Khanginakhiin shugui” and “Honhor lake circle” were the places for dignitaries to come together each spring when the Bird Cherry trees blossom.
Each year, every province organizes province-wide competitions before the state naadam so that they can send their best teams to the state naadam. In the provinces, every soum (county) is eligible to send one team to the province naadam. In some provinces, some companies and state enterprises can send their teams to the naadam too.
Pay attention to the uukhai song
When a shooter concentrates his attention for his next shot, two different sounds will begin. His supporters will start mellow, helping melodies while his opponent team members will try to distract the shooter by their sharp loud voices.
Such a voice battle will not be the case for every shooting, especially in the early stages. However, the closer the race, the closer the end of the round, the more psychological battles go on.
Sometimes the teams won’t make sound during the actual concentration, but right after the shooting. Still the sounds are intended to bring success or failure to the shooter’s next shot. The challenge for the shooter is that he or she must remain calm throughout the entire game so as to not to be distracted by the battle of the voices.
Can a tourist try the game?
Yes. Any team that left the game is free. It means they can just take their time and play the game without competing against anyone. A tour group can arrange a time and place with such a free team and just play the game. Ankle-bone shooters are team-spirited polite people, if they have time and a space, they will be happy to share their techniques with guests and let the guests play the game.
To visit a team (most teams in the countryside would have a tent), it would be a good idea to bring a gift or two which can be shared by the team members.
Mongolian communities abroad organize ankle-bone shooting games. Anyone who can find such a game occurring in her or his country, can visit and participate.
NINE JEWELS OF MONGOLIAN FOLK ART
By Oyungerel Tsedevdamba
1. Long song (Urtiin Duu) Almost every Mongolian folk concert begins with a long song, a song with long notes. Think of it as opera aria of the steppe. In the past, when a nomadic herder rode a long way from home to round up his wandering horses, and when the Mongolian warriors rode thousands of miles across Euro-Asia, the long song served as the main entertainment – a way to overcome the long rides and encourage the man’s closest ally—his horse! A competent long song singer uses different techniques than does an opera singer. She or he sings using so called “open voice” with a relatively closed mouth. With usual opera techniques, a singer cannot exploit her or his natural “open voice” as they use mouth movement to moderate their voice. Whereas Mongolian long song singers utilize a different breath technique to sing long, powerful tunes. Imagine yourself a nomadic herder riding through the countryside in winter. It is minus 20 or 30 Celsius. Would you sing with your mouth wide open or would you devise a technique to sing without freezing your throat? So, the long song was born on the vast steppe, improved in the winter, and honed by the winds of Mongolia. Please enjoy this UNESCO registered world heritage! The songs will be about love, the sun, horses and battles, happiness and sadness, mother and father, God and Chinggis Khaan. Long songs vary depending on what region of Mongolia they are from. Gobi and steppe long songs are mellow, while songs from mountain areas are full of sharp highs. The shorter folk songs of Mongolia also have various characters depending on the location and the theme.
2. Horse headed fiddle(Morin huur) The sound of this two string instrument will remind you of the cello. However, the cello has four strings while morin huur melodies are created with only two strings. Legend has it that the morin huur was created by a man called Cuckoo Namjil who lost his favorite flying horse. The horse headed fiddle is the principal accompaniment for the long song as players can produce horse-galloping rhythms. The culture related to the horse headed fiddle is also registered by UNESCO as a world heritage. The horse headed fiddle is a leading instrument in the Mongolian national folk orchestra. The orchestra has multiple fiddles as well as other instruments such as the yochin, yatga (harp), shanz, huuchir, limbe (flute), buree (horn pipe), tsan, bishguur, buree (pipe) , tsuur, tovshuur, ikel, drums and so on. The newest addition to the Mongolian folk music orchestra is the Altai yatga (Altai Harp), a five-string instrument of the 7th century which was recently discovered in a cave in the Mankhan soum of Khovd province and recreated. This instrument is best suited for the epic song melodies.
3. Throat singing (Hoomii, Khuumii) When you come to Mongolia, expect to see or hear something unusual. Here’s one: Throat singing. At first, you’ll be puzzled ‘What is it?’ Then, when you notice that the man who’s doing it is using no other instrument than his own mouth, and he is emitting at least two tunes at once. Yes, if you can distinguish that there are multiple tunes coming out of one mouth, then you are hearing a real Hoomii. The hoomii is the expression of the mountain spirit. In the Mongolian Altai mountains, and all other Mongolian high altitude locations, one can hear the extraordinary solo of the wind at the top of the mountains. Also, at the bottom of the mountains, one can hear the sound of the very wind differently. That wind sound will be blended with the sound of spring water, and the sound of animals, birds and tree leaves. How to express such a complicated natural sound? The ancient Mongolians devised a way to express that sound using one’s tongue and throat. The tongue moves inside the mouth making the second sound while the voice is coming out of the throat with the first tune. The khuumii’s ultimate home land is Khovd province of Mongolia. There, every member of the family learn to sing khuumii. On our stage, you’ll hear some of many techniques of khuumii. Human throat and tongue collaborate to produce a sound of windy mountains. Please enjoy this unique Mongolian folk art, that is also registered by UNESCO as the world heritage.
4. Mongolian dancing techniques (Mongol Bujig, Bii Biyelgee) For most visitors to Mongolia, our most understandable cultural element is dance. However, there are certain common elements of the Mongolian dance that need some explanation. Firstly, if there are lots of jumping in the dance, pay a little more attention to it. They are usually telling a story on the horseback. If the dancers are holding their arms in front of them while jumping/waving/galloping, they are simulating the holding of a horse’s reins, or managing a bolting horse, etc. Mongolian dances are inspired by our nomadic daily lives. The more you know about nomadic life challenges and aspirations, the easier to appreciate Mongolian dancing. There is a special group of dances called “bii biyelgee”. This particular dance is performed by all age groups, and the movements will show the daily chores of nomadic families. If there are three people dancing Bii Bielgee on the stage, all three of them might perform completely different “chores”. It is because they are showing you the division of labor within the family! Bii bielgee techniques from Durvud people are very special. In order to dance in the Durvud way, dancers stand with bent legs and move only their upper body and the head. It will look like these dancers are standing on stirrups and riding horses while doing their chores. The stationary Durvud style bieylgee dance makes it possible for family members to dance at home, i.e. in the ger, without stepping all over their ger’s floor. It is very comfortable to perform this dance at any small location, but it means the dance is difficult to perform by those whose thigh muscles are underdeveloped. The Bii Bielgee dance is registered by UNESCO as a world heritage.
5. Mongolian Limbe (flute) performing circular breathing technique (Limbiin bituu amisgaa) The traditional technique of playing mongolian flute has been developed to accompany the long song. One stanza of the long song lasts 4-5 minites, and the whole song could last 20-30 minutes. The ancient musicians invented the way to play the music for the entire long song without breaking the flute melody for a breath. The most accomplished flute players perform a continuous flute melody uninterrupted by a breath. Make sure you notice it when you listen to a performance and please give your greatest applause for such a performance because it is so rare for musicians to have that capacity! The performer is not playing it for you without breathing. He or she is breathing, but is using a skill that helps her or him breathe air by her/his nose while blowing the air by mouth. The art of Limbe playing with its circular breathing technique is registered by UNESCO as a world heritage.
6. Mongolian tsuur (Mongol tsuur) If you see an artist playing a simple wooden flute-like instrument which produces a complicated, thick and natural sound, please take special notice. You are hearing perhaps the most ancient musical instrument invented by the Mongols. In this generation, tsuur’s performance and the traditions are kept alive only in the far west of Mongolia—by Uriankhai people of Bayan-Ulgii province. Tsuur has only three holes, and it is played both by the human voice and the voice of the instrument producing the sounds of nature. There are no written notes on how to produce certain sound and melody by tsuur, all such knowledge has been transmitted orally by every generation since the tsuur’s first invention. After thousands of years of successful survival, this rare instrument is faced with extinction during our times. Modernization, learning things only via written notes and ignoring oral traditions has displaced tsuur learning from every school, including the art school curriculum. Nowadays, only a couple of families have transmitted this art to their children. UNESCO registered tsuur as a world intangible heritage requiring urgent safeguarding. If tsuur is being played on stage, I recommend you to hail it, and congratulate the artist for bearing this rare and precious heritage of the Mongols.
7. Contortion (Uran nugaralt) It is said that contortion was developed as the palace entertainment of the ancient khaans and the queens. The main feature of mongolian contortion is to use very little space, i.e. just a round table top, to perform unimaginable twist of one’s body to accompanying music. Contortion is the art of controlling one’s body, and the defying the presumed limits of what the body can do. Mongolian contortion trainings are conducted by experienced contortionists that transmit their knowledge to small groups of disciples through a decade or more of hard work. One tutor trains up to 10 students at a time and less than a half of the students become contortionists. Many Mongolian contortionists work in the world stages like Las Vegas show centers and the Cirque du Soleil. When you see contortion on stage, you are actually seeing the unique contribution made by Mongolia to the world of show business and the circus. The old time palace entertainment became accessible to all only in our time. There was a time that this art form very nearly disappeared. However, Mongolia was lucky to have a contortion genius by the name of Norovsambuu, who popularized the art by her extraordinary performances in the 1960-1970s. Norovsambuu continues to train young contortionists although lots of challenges confront contortion trainers. Because the training process is quite long, because the trainer needs to take care of little children-students, the biggest problem of any contortion trainer is financing the training room and facilities for decades. Anyway, this marvelous art is still alive thanks to the determined, tough and stubborn community of contortion lovers. Be surprised, marvel and be thankful to those who are teaching, learning and preserving this difficult art form.
8. Mongolian Epic singing (Tuuli hailah) Before there was a TV and a radio in our lives, the mongolian nomadic herders’ children used to enjoy a form of entertainment called “epic singing”. Performers recount long descriptive and poetic fairytales told to music that could last from one night to a month long series. In the past (and to some degree even today) epic singers were invited by herder communities during the winter. Each night, after all the chores were done, the whole neighborhood would gather in a ger where the epic singer was staying. The singer performed each night for an hour or more epic folk stories in which heroes are born, and great battles take place. In such a manner, the epics would last several nights giving children enough time to memorize the lines, imagine the story and expect the continuation of the previous night’s tale. It was an effective way of developing children’s imagination while telling the history of the Mongolia’s long past. There are hundreds of epic stories composed by the Mongols and transmitted to every generation. Unfortunately, with the technology, TVs, Radios and Internet, epic singing was nearly forgotten by our generation. Mongolia is now being tested. We could preserve this ancient and unique form of art or lose it. However, mongolian epic singing is registered by UNESCO as a world heritage needing an urgent safeguarding. The government of Mongolia and the community of dedicated epic singers are collaborating to preserve this art form. If your host tour company brought this art to your attention and schedule, I must congratulate you and your host for helping us safeguard our ancient art of epic story-telling. The Bogd Khaan Palace Museum recently provided a ger and land for the epic singers’ community to practice this traditional art in the traditional ger because epic singing is best sung in the ger, with the crowd close to the storyteller. Some epic singers are naturally very emotional (for example Mr.Bayarmagnai), and dramatize all the events described in the tale as they perform, while other epic singers (for example Mr.Baatarjav) sing in a monotone manner. Whichever manner the singer sings, it is very rare to have epic singer perform for you. So, if you have a chance to witness such an art, be sure to listen to the epic song at least an hour so that you feel transported to the world when there was no TV. You may be given a chance to hear stories. In this case, here are some of the most famous epic tales: The Two Palamino Horses of Chinggis Khaan, An epic story of Jangar, An epic story of Geser, Story of the Best Man Khan-Kharangui.
9. Praising, Well wishing and Title calling (Eruul, Magtaal, Tsol duudah) Historically and even today, Mongolia is the lowest population density country on earth. Herders lived far from each other, only rarely gathering at one place. When they did gather for festivities, they liked to say best words to each other, to appreciate each other’s company and to show it with melodies and poetry. This tradition of appreciation goes not only from people to people, but also to nature, to the state, to peace and to the eternal blue Sky. However, every appreciation must be expressed genuinely, i.e. not composed by someone beforehand, but be composed just for the occasion on the very moment of the occasion. And that takes special skill! It is often difficult for someone to express genuinely beautiful appreciation, so a talented well wisher is invited to help. One who can create praiseful and optimistic lyrics on the spot, and sing appreciative songs and wishes to the surrounding crowd is called the Well Wisher. Usually the well wishers compose their praises and the well wishes with a horse-headed fiddle or tovshuur. Well wishers are hired to give a starting praise and well wishes for traditional festivities like bride asking, weddings, a child’s first hair cutting, branding colts, making felt and other private festivities and public events like naadam. Well wishers also play a role of a social peacemaker if two families needed to reconcile after a long conflict and misunderstanding. During naadam, the wrestling judges and the horse judges perform singing praises that are called “title calling”. For title-calling one doesn’t need musical instrument. The title-caller sings the full name, the origin and all the good titles of the wrestler whom he’s praising. He will also call the name of the wrestler with whom the his wrestler wants to wrestle. As to the horse title-calling, the singer raises the lead rope of the horse which came first in race, and sings of all the beautiful features of the horse that came first and he praises the child jocky and the horse’s trainer. Publically praised child jockeys receive a huge boost of self confidence that can last them a lifetime. Well wishing and Title calling is an important part of the mongolian folk culture that needs to be transmitted to the young generation. When festivities and naadams are embellished by well wishers’ original creations on the spot, rather than by pre-recorded music and lyrics, the crowd witnesses the live and exciting ancient form of communication between Mongolia’s nomads. If your tour company takes you to festivities and naadam, you will certainly be exposed to the well wishers’ arts, so enjoy it!
QUOTA IN, QUOTA OUT
March 8, 2008. Ulaanbaatar
I am a woman politician. I chose to be a politician when I was 26. It is important to stand up for principles, defend human rights and effect positive changes for our children’s future. However, it took many years to be recognized as a politician.
My first struggle was with the most important man in my life. It was 1997. When I said that I wished to speak up in the media about the political situation in the country, his response was “consider yourself divorced if you speak up in the media. I don’t want to be married to a woman who is gossiped about in the newspapers.” One year later, when my interview appeared in a weekly newspaper I was already divorced.
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SAVING CHILDREN'S SOCCER FIELDS
Part of the Struggle Against Predatory Development in Ulaanbaatar
When he approached the football field, he saw a shower of small stones falling on the tractor scoop. The tractor's windows were broken. About a hundred primary school children were throwing stones at the tractor and yelling 'Go away! Leave our field alone!' Then one of children shouted, 'Our football teacher is coming!' This excited everybody and the children began shouting louder, "Go away! Take your tractor away!" The shower of stones became more intense.
Enkhtaivan raised his hands and shouted as loudly as he could. "Children stop! Let me talk to the tractor operator."
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WHAT SHALL WE DO ABOUT THE SO-CALLED "STABILITY AGREEMENT" THAT CAUSES INSTABILITY?
Udriin Sonin (daily newspaper), 2006-04-17, issue 094
“Ivanhoe Mines’ stock price reached 15 dollars and 40 cents at the Toronto Stock Exchange.” “You may buy stocks of Oyu Tolgoi at this price.” “Mongolian stock exchange launched its technical preparation for you to buy Oyu Tolgoi’s stocks.” These surprising news announcements emerged amid the citizen protest movements and the Democratic Party’s decision to say “no” to any stability agreement.
First of all, let’s say “Wait a minute!” to the Mongolian Stock Exchange. Exactly what prompted the stock exchange to make its surprise announcement? Whose property is it offering to sell and to whom?
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MISTAKES AND RIGHTNESS OF THE DEMOCRATIC UNION COALITION
Mongolia’s Political Chronic of 1996-2000
TV Serial of Seven Parts
(Translated from Mongolian by Chinbat Emgen)
Issues how to form the new Cabinet and resolve internal organizational structure were raised one after one in hours before the winners, representatives of democratic forces which never ruled the country before.
That is why shortly after the election, two days later the coalition leadership paid a visit to Mr. Ochirbat, Mongolian president and informed on their proposal to appoint Mr. R. Gonchigdorj, Chairman of the Mongolian Social Democratic Party as Speaker of the Mongolian Parliament (Great State Hural ), Mr. M. Enkhsaikhan, secretary general of the Democratic Union Coalition as Prime Minister of Mongolia and Mr. Ts. Elbegdorj, leader of the MNDP as vice speaker of the Parliament.
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WOMEN STAND UP FOR EQUALITY AND RIGHTS
Mongol Messenger (weekly English newspaper), March 14, 2007
At the core of the fight for women’s rights has been the struggle for the recognition of women’s achievements and contributions to society. Women in the forefront of the struggle never said, “Love us because we are weaker and more fragile.” They demonstrated publicly and loudly saying, “We work hard. Don’t value our work less than that of others.”
Today is March eight. What rights does a woman have now? You have the right to study. You have the right to vote and to run for an office. You also have the right to work, have a vacation, speak freely and publish. You now have the right to establish your family according to your wish, own private property, and share the family property. You are entitled to equal payment for equal employment. You can petition government, have fair trial, get legal advice, call for assistance, receive protection from violence, even have a women’s quota in the election. In short, women now have numerous rights and freedoms.
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WAKE UP & WRITE ABOUT US
A Testimony by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba
"Six Degrees" Magazine, Stanford
Contributions by Naomi Abasta-Vilaplana, Alexandra Goldman, and Jess Steinberg
Many who come to my office have their case written and
spread out via Internet and newspapers. Sometimes, I write at my
own initiative. From 2000 to 2003, as a human rights activist and
executive director of Liberty Center I wrote 40 alerts in English
and in Mongolian. I also did a number of new things I have never
done at any of my other paid jobs.
These included free social activities to raise money for the center, organizing campaigns against human rights violations, maintaining websites, setting up a new library, publishing handbooks and leaflets, organizing training, giving legal advice, and working with the domestic and international human rights communities. While learning myself, I have been training non-lawyer activists for all provinces of Mongolia.
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