Magic in Mongolia (3/3)

Thin, brown dust floats in the air all around us, and I keep my eyes glued to the navy and grey figures of my host parents swiftly wading through the crowd in front of me. My host father wears a pastel-blue felt fedora and a navy polo shirt, and my host mom is sporting a grey Calvin Klein t-shirt and my black Nike baseball cap because she forgot a hat for herself. We make our way over to the finish line of the horse racing track.

It is the third and final day of the Naadam Festival, Mongolia’s annual cultural festival, which consists of three types of competition: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. The whole country takes these days off to relax and watch or participate in the festivities. The first two days of the festival are hosted in a (shockingly small) stadium in Ulaanbaatar, but the final day’s competitions are held in the countryside.

My host parents have driven a few hours to this city of tents out in the middle of the countryside, where thousands of people congregate to watch the final rounds of each sport.

I would never have known this particular area was the finish line of the race had my host parents not specifically directed us there. The stretch of land is only fenced off by some security guards in neon yellow vests with walkie-talkies (my same uniform as a Safewalker at Brown) and was as indistinguishable as the next stretch of unmarked land, until we heard the pounding of dozens of hooves storming down from the distance.

Standing on my tiptoes, clutching my camera, trying to peer and snap some shots through gaps between people’s heads, I now wish I were among the spectators who had thought to bring their own horses to casually sit on and watch the race comfortably from above.

The breeze whips through my hair as I stare out the open window of the Jeep in a trance, my thoughts bumping along to the rhythm of the wheels over the uneven ground. There are no streets, paths, or trails—not in the Gobi Desert. We just pick a direction and drive.

A nomadic family’s baby camel in the Gobi Desert

The crowd keeps inching forward, pushing me back. My host father sees me being swallowed by the crowd and waves me over to take his spot in the front.

The pounding of hooves drowns out my hesitance, and I push toward him, camera in hand, ready to snap away. The thin, lean horses dash by, ridden by thin, lean children. Most of the competitors in the horse-racing competition fall between the ages of 9 and 12.

I ask my host mom, “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Yes,” she replies. “But Mongolian children are brave.”

The first destination today is sand dunes. The motion of the car lulls me into a deep sleep, and suddenly, we have arrived. I pour myself out of the Jeep, wipe the dreams from my eyes, and look up. I am speechless.

I then notice that a couple of horses here and there are reaching the finish line without children on their backs. I ask my host mom about it. “Yes, it is very sad.”

I look blankly at her. Did they fall off? Will people go look for them? Are there designated meeting points somewhere along the 3-mile stretch of the countryside that is the racing track? Has this happened before? But I am so caught by surprise that I don’t ask anything more.

We take off our shoes to climb onto the dunes, and the sand spills between our toes. Our feet sink, so walking is hard. Instead, we run.

Arena in Ulaanbaatar where two days of the Naadam Festival are held

We move to the wrestling area. More people are informally gathered around an open space where big men wearing small outfits prepare to fight.

I’ve heard a story about the origins of these small wrestling costumes a couple times, but I’m not sure if it’s true. Apparently, a long, long time ago—before the standard outfit was the open-chested, long-sleeve jackets, briefs, long boots, and pointed hat—there was a legendary wrestler. He beat every person he ever fought. Then, people realized that this celebrated wrestler was actually a woman. Women weren’t allowed to wrestle. So to avoid this confusion and deceit, it was decided that all the wrestlers had to wear this particular outfit; and that is the way it has been since.

Mongolian wrestlers in traditional costume

The second destination of the day is a hiking trail in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. Our driver, Baatar, says, “At end of trail, ice. Big ice. Waterfall!” I assume I am misunderstanding him.

We pile out of the car again and enter the park. The mountains touch the skies, loom above us, and zigzag in front of us. The hiking path winds into the distance, and we start walking. I breathe in the clean, crisp air and listen to our driver point out the little purple flowers on the ground and the rock formations in the mountainsides that look like certain animals—an eagle, a camel, a turtle.

The crowd starts getting more excited, and I realize that the next man who has stepped up to wrestle is an American. He greets the crowd in a Southern accent, waving and grinning wide. He is paired with a Mongolian wrestler about twice his side, and the two circle each other. The build-up lasts longer than the match, which ends with the American’s defeat and the crowd’s roaring laughter. He is a good sport though, dusting himself off and seeming to take pleasure in the entertainment he has provided. The two wrestlers shake hands, and two more step in to take their spots.

Anita and Baatar beside the waterfall of ice

I cannot believe my eyes. In the middle of the desert, in the middle of the summer, I am looking at a big ice waterfall.

We have reached the end of the trail, and there is really a giant ice fixture on which adults and children alike are climbing up and down. One man is in flip flops and stepping more confidently than I am on the slippery surface. The ice has formed in the shape of an L, and the bottom is brown and muddy from being stepped on by people’s dirty shoes. But the vertical shaft is still pristine and glistens under the Gobi sun. Baatar smiles broadly at my stunned reaction and gestures towards the back of the ice wall. He explains, “Cave.”

Behind the ice waterfall, a cave blows cold air, freezing the small stream that trickles down from the top of the mountain. This ice must be present throughout the year, slowly and constantly melting during the summer, but never completely disappearing before the low temperatures of the wintertime cause it to start re-freezing and accumulating once again.

This is just a theory. Another one is magic.

Although we don’t watch the archery competition (my host mom says it is her least favorite, the most boring), there are small, makeshift archery ranges set up all over the area. My host mom stops us at one of them and tells me to give it a shot. Feeling pretty confident, having taken an archery unit in middle-school P.E. class, I agree to pay the small fee for three arrows. I pick up a bow; and before I know it, my host father has appeared with a bow next to me and is demonstrating how to properly load an arrow.

I try to mimic him, load the arrow, and release. It wobbles weakly in the air before landing short of the target. I try again. This time, the arrow flies straighter, truer, but still not far enough. My host father chuckles, pays the fee for three arrows, and shoots them, each landing on the target. The last hits the bullseye. With a wink, he drops his bow and saunters away in his blue felt fedora. The rest of us burst out laughing, and my host mom explains, “Yes, he is very good. Always hits. Like magic!”

This has been a series of stories from Mongolia, in Mongolia, and about Mongolia. The stories that I lived, still remember, and will continue to tell people. I chose these particular moments and stories to write about because they are the ones that burn the brightest in my memory, and they are the ones that I think both best define and transport me back to my time in Mongolia. Although no combination of vignettes will be able to culminate in my experience this past summer, this has been my attempt to record, preserve, and share the magic of the most incredible month of my life.


Photographs by Anita Sheih

Edited by Amber Yildizel & Cristina Taylor

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