Horses are the stars in Mongolia. Star horses have monuments, songs, paintings, lyrics, music and dances named after them. For every person in this country, there is an equal number of horses, making over three million in total. They really do follow the horses.
The final event of the Naadam is the horse racing which is held on flat, open ground about 30km out of the capital. Over 250,000 descend on the rolling course. We arrive early to beat the traffic. A golden dawn lights up hundreds off refreshment gers who are just opening up for a busy day.
A number of races are on the card, dependent on the age of the horse. We are going to watch the Soyolon, a race for 5-year olds, over 22-24 kilometres. There are two things you need to know about Mongolian horse racing. The first is that all the horses are ridden by child jockeys aged between 7 and 13, although many look younger than that., and the second is that many ride bare-backed.
The races are ridden over a straight course over the steppe. Hours before their start time the young jockeys walk their mounts from the finish up to the start, over the hills and far away. They then turn around and race for home. It takes about half an hour to race back and the crowd crowds into ramshackle, stepped platforms to watch the final stages.
The first sign of the approaching field is a gathering storm of dust in the far distance. Up to 100 horses can take part in these races. Tension mounts and the locals rise with a roar as the leading horses take form, accompanied by a small flotilla of outrider cars.
The locals scream and shout and applause and whistle and yell encouragement as the winner leads the rest of the field in.
Every finisher is greeted in this way and it may go on for 30 minutes or so as many of the horses are exhausted having raced that far. Only one comes in riderless. I hope he didn’t come off too far out.
The race over and it’s back to the struggles of the huge crowd, and, boy, is it huge and unrecognizable from earlier. Masses of spectators and family groups kick up a dusty haze as they move around the open hillside enjoying all the fun of the fair. There are some official looking rides and inflatables but most seem to be simple, traditional fairground activities set up by anyone with a bit of initiative. I saw one guy who was making ak killing with some half empty water bottles, some notes attached to each with an elastic band and some plastic hoops. He has a crowd off 50 strong, yelling encouragement and no lack of people wanting to pay to have a go. He has a huge wad of bills in his hand and his home-made hoopla stall is obviously a huge success. Other stalls include a host of Throwing Darts at a Rack of Balloons, Water Bottle Skittles, Paper Balls at Cans. All seems to require little brain and a lot of braun, judging by the prowess of the guys showing off to the pack.
In fact initiative is the word. Every other van is crammed full with large plastic bottles of coke or lemonade or the bright colours of plastic toys or dolls or kites or home goods. They’d called in at the cash & carry on the way, set up on the grass and were flogging any tat to the passing crowd. There are several outdoor pool tables, pony rides, have your kiddies photo taken in front of this poster. The ladies has set up little stoves and are frying up meat dumplings to sell. Great for the cholesterol.
Mixed in with the thousands on foot, are those on horse-back. You have to watch it as they come up behind you, unheard. The family groups proudly show off in their steed and matching livery. The more mature men go around in their Sunday best, standing straight and aloof. The problem is the young tearaways who at the earliest opportunity gallop at full speed into any open ground like lads doing spin turns in Blackbird Leys.
The noise, the sounds, the colour, the smells, the press, the emotion of so many folk pushing about together is absolutely brilliant, though you wouldn’t get that from these two guys who were a bit worse for wear. Oh, I should add that there is no betting in Mongolia and limited prize money. It is all done for the pride of participation and winning is acknowledged with awards and certificates. Sounds like my kind of school.