I pulled in beside Justin at the edge of the small town of Olgii as four horsemen dressed in the traditional dell jackets galloped past, making light work of the deep sand the town was entrenched in. The roads leading in had been busy with traffic and now motorcycles were parked two or three deep outside the nearest cafe. Horses were tied up outside shops and plenty of people were milling around the main street in their best clothes. Coupled with loud music and coloured flags fluttering above the stadium ground we were stopped outside, something was definitely going on.
In the cafe I sat next to a group of elderly dell-clad men who were finishing plates of huushuur (meat pancakes). Confirmation came that it was indeed the town’s summer festival of Three Manly Sports (archery, horse racing and wrestling) – known across Mongolia as Naadam. A horse race would take place in the afternoon. We ate our own share of huushuur liberally doused in tomato ketchup (counted as a vegetable in our limited diet) and decided to stick around and see the action.
We grabbed the attention of anyone we could to ask where and when the race would take place. Responses ranged between 12 – 2pm and as for where, they pointed to a hill behind the town. We completed our usual raid on the shops, refilled our water supply from the town pump and sat about people watching before taking our queue to head up when the critical mass of traffic started moving in that direction.
We were soon beaten by the steep and sandy track and reduced to pushing. Certainly no-one else was pushing fully-loaded touring bikes up the hills, most preferring to take the family by motorcycle, or piled high in trucks and 4WDs. I imagined the most elegantly dressed horse riders must be jockeys and thought we might be witness to some spectacular horsemanship.
It looked like most of the town has relocated to the hill for the day’s festivities and it reminded me of days out at Epsom races in London. Car boots had been turned into makeshift stalls selling the exact same range of sugary treats available in the town’s shops and kids ran around everywhere unconcerned about the serious business of the day. A few helped push my bike up the last few metres to the hilltop and immediately Justin and I are separated by a swell of onlookers.
We’d become a bit of an attraction ourselves and every now and then Justin called back to check that I’m okay. He was towered over by men on horseback on one side of the slope and had a thick crowd led by a guy who spoke pretty good English on the other. A pile of younger kids took turns trying out my bell and tried to sneak a foot on my pedals hoping for a ride. Girls in strappy sandals and sundresses took photos on their camera phones and I was a little amused that they wanted photos with arms around a grimy cyclist. In contrast when Justin asked if he could take pictures the young guys on horses backed away.
After half an hour or so we decided we needed a breather and pushed the bikes to the bottom of the slope to buy cones of ice-cream then back up the hill where we parked our bikes against the side of a truck and joined those waiting for race to start.
Its the woman who take most interest in us in Mongolia, the men looking over our machines but never asking many questions from us strangers. Today its an older woman who beckons me to sit beside her as she holds her chubby grandson in her lap. I take our well thumbed phrasebook and sit beside her doing my best to communicate as we wait.
The afternoon was broken up by a parade of young boys on horseback being led by adults waving numbers above their heads. I assumed that this must be the riders of the ‘children’s race’ and think this will proceed the main event. We waited. We ate more ice-cream and some rare apples and let some children clamber over our bicycles. We watched men sit around nonchalantly wearing the robes we quietly but respectfully call Jedi outfits.
The children on horseback were paraded again, some with a noticeable grimace of terror on their face. We waited some more. By 3pm Its clear we wouldn’t get much cycling done in the rest of the day, though Justin checked the GPS and found that we’re on the road we need to take out of town.
At almost 4pm we were debating whether we should leave when everyone around us stood up. You could see a little dust in the far distance, the horses were returning. And before they had even reached the hill, the race was over. We couldn’t help but laugh -from where everyone was waiting there was no view of the race at all. As each horse completed the course, their reigns were grabbed by an older rider and in order of finishing they were paraded past the hill one last time. We later heard that the jockeys are just four years old – no wonder they looked so frightened.
Travelling on through a dry desert landscape devoid of settlements, we only see one further glimpse of Naadam before the festival season is over. One evening we’re beckoned into a roadside ger for tsai but instantly forgotten as soon as drinks are in our hands. All focus is on a tiny black and white television showing wrestling in Ulaanbaatar. “Naadam?” I ask? “Tiim.” (Yes) is the positive reply, then all in the room return their focus to the games. This time at least there is something riveting to watch.