Let the games begin! Mare and I are fortunate to observe Naadam in the rural town of Dalanzagad, where the entire village participates. The most traditional form of celebrating these games of archery, wrestling, and horseback riding are found in the small villages.
Archers of all ages and genders compete for the highest score of their province.
Wrestlers clench each other until one of them touches the ground, with any body part except the hand. They have no time limit. Wrestlers are the heroes of Mongolia, held in the highest esteem.
There is only one champion, and no weight classes. A six-time champion recently lost the presidential election, but collected 44% of votes.
Mare and I devour skewers of mutton with tender cubes of fat, along with several khuushuurs (fried mutton pancakes), while waiting for the most exciting event…horse racing.
The best jockeys, between ages 10 and 11, run the small, powerful Mongolian horses for 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) before crossing the finish line.
The winners of all 29 Provinces in the country advance to the center city of Ulaanbaatar the following year, where one champion will emerge from each of the three games.
“Mongolians are not good at team sports,” Erka says. “They need individual dominance. It’s not in their nature to take one for the team.”
It is time to bounce and sway on the southbound road, towards the Gobi Desert. The landscape transforms into Arizona-like terrain. Rugged roads lead to Tsagaan Suvraga, where huge limestone formations rise from the limitless, flat landscape.
Bam! The rear stabilizer bar snaps in half. While MacGyver works his magic, Mare and I walk with Erka through Yolyn Am canyon, which fills with ice in the winter.
MacGyver fixes the broken stabilizer by cutting a long strip of rubber, from a tire inner tube, and wrapping a metal pole around the bar with the rubber…a temporary repair that works.
Onward to Bayanzag, (flaming cliffs) which resemble the Grand Canyon on a smaller scale. By now, the Gobi sun bakes us. Erka, Mare and I lose the path on top of the cliffs, and find relief by backtracking to the vehicle.
Having no shower for days, we smell pretty rank. Back at the ger, we are happy to sip hot beer, and await “ger service” of a mixed mutton dish. We share some of our store bought beer with a Chilean couple, and a woman from Indonesia.
Tomorrow, we head to sand dunes in the heart of Gobi, where MacGyver hopes to find additional tools for much needed repairs. Thank you Abundant Universe! Ron Mitchell