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Episode 14: The Naadam festival | Mongolia

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All of a sudden the dark yurt was filled by light. It seems the camp manager had “drawn the curtains” on our yurt. Obviously, yurts don’t have windows. When you close the door, it gets pitch black inside. However, on the ceiling, there is a circular opening that is covered with some sort of matting.

After he pulled it off, light from the outside burst into our room. Barely awake, we were comparing the luxury and opulence we were in now to the night before and the brick factory. This time we were sleeping in a normal bed, not the springy kind, our sheets were clean, we had a small nightstand separating our beds and we were walking on fluff carpets. It was, at that point, Nirvana for us.

And right by Ger Camp were also 2 restaurants – one was more on the festivity hall type – it had a big room where locals also held weddings or other ceremonies and right next door was a smaller one, for tourists, which is where we spent most of our time. We had the chance to meet a lot of interesting travellers from so many backgrounds. From people that were trekking and hiking the Altai Mountains to a petrography specialist, an editor who was looking for new ideas for his traveling guide that was still work-in-progress, and other people that came in with their Jeeps and bikes looking for adventure. All were really interesting and had a different story to tell.

We eat our breakfast at the tourist place, grab a beer on the go and head out to the motorcycles parking area. The plan for today was to fiddle a bit more around the bikes, tighten up some screws and other general maintenance stuff. The thing is that this sort of maintenance gets done so much faster and easier when you’re enjoying a beer in the meantime.

Anyway, since we had some spare time to kill until the festival started, I decided to download the bike’s user manual and check the suspensions settings on my motorcycle: 3 settings on the front – compression, rebound and preload and 3 on the back – high speed compression, low speed compression and preload. One has to be pretty savvy to properly set these up. For me it was just adjusting all settings to “Full load” (the preload) and “Standard” (the other settings).

As I was resetting it click-click-click counter-clockwise and guess what? The compression and rebound were set at 2 and 4 clicks rather than the “standard” 12-clicks. It turns out I rode all through Mongolia with racing-stiff suspensions. Anyway, I get them all setup and pat myself on the back for a job well done.

Here, in this parking lot, we meet Leo, a French guy who has toured Mongolia alone and was now heading back to France on a 500cc Royal Einfield. We hit it off fantastically with Leo - it was an instant friendship.

All’s fine and dandy until now but as you already know so well, devil’s in the details. We were just about to learn the news that would mess everything up for us. This year, apart from the national free holidays for Naadam – Mongolia’s national holiday – there were going to be a few more national holidays for the second tour of presidential election.

We knew that the border would be closed for the Naadam holiday and were expecting this – it happens yearly, and we were familiar with the custom – however, the extra days the border would be closed for the election had taken us completely by surprise. Nobody expected a second round…

Things didn’t add up, so we spoke to the lady from the Ger Camp camping site who had a relative that worked at border patrol and she confirmed the worst. The border will open back up on the 17th, in 7 days!! Not a single day sooner.

“Holy s**t” we thought to ourselves... all of our stellar planning has gone down the drain.

The options we have identified at that time were the following: we could stay put for the next 7 days – there was Naadam and we could find something to do around here. However, it felt really wasteful as there’s not THAT much to do in Ulgii. The alternative was we would backtrack all the way to UlaanBaatar and go to Russia via the same border crossing we entered Mongolia through. That border passing, being Mongolia’s main one, was opened throughout the election period.

The idea to cross the whole of Mongolia back was really an interesting one, however, our Russian visa expiry date was going to cut it really close. Also, either way we still had to wait for the tires which were on route from UlaanBaatar via a bus. That meant at least 1-2 more days lost. Adding to that were around 3-4 days it would take us to cross Mongolia all the way back to UlaanBaatar via the Southern route which was the best maintained road, mostly paved. After reaching Mongolia’s capital we needed to add another 3 days to cross Russia and get to the Kazakhstan border.

And all, the timeframes above were quite optimistic, assuming everything went well, we had good weather and we made crazy kilometres per day. In total we needed about 7 or 8 days of driving like maniacs to make it in time, best case scenario.

Long story short, we decided to drop this plan and to stay here for the next 7 days until the border opens.

To make matters worse, I had just noticed that my bike’s front fork had started losing oil just sitting there in the parking lot… And it wasn’t like a drip-drip here and a drip-drip there. But a lot of oil was going down the fork, on the tire: the left brake caliper, the brake disk and the tire were all now soaked in fork oil. Initially, I thought it was from my earlier the suspension adjustments, so I started from scratch and reset everything. As everything was according to the manual, I couldn’t explain why this happened, but me tinkering with the settings and the fork starting to lose oil at the same time was way too much to just be a coincidence.

The next day we head towards the stadium the Naadam festivities took place. As we got closer to the stadium we could start hearing the general mumbling of the crowd louder and louder. Another sign we were heading in the right direction were the cars – they were parked more and more tightly (sort of similar to a Tetris game). Some road policemen were in over their heads trying to direct traffic here and there but neither the drivers, nor the pedestrians were paying them much attention.

We finally reach the stadium’s entrance and enter through the main gate. Past the gate, we found ourselves in this big square that had booths on both sides. The biggest difference I noticed between this and the booths at the Erdene Zuu monastery for example, was that this fair was targeted at the locals instead of tourists. The commercial tourist-posing eagle, decorative armours or fur items were nowhere in sight. All you could buy were cheap stuff, probably imported from China. Everybody sold all sorts of toys, umbrellas, household items and sweats. Most of them were selling more or less the same items so after looking around at 2-3 booths you got the idea about the whole offering.

The stadium was nicely organised, with tenths of flags raised in the wind, the stage had some really serious loud speakers. On one side there was a stand for the members of the public, a pavilion on the field for some soldiers and of course, the VIP area, with microphones and lots of shade.

Shorty after settling in the public area, the event begins. The first event was the parade of the county’s professions. The officers would lead, followed by the special task forces, the teachers, the doctors, what seemed to be as the navy marines, then came the pilots and so on. Each one of these groups was wearing its specific uniform or special suits, flying a flag that symbolized the profession they were representing. You could see on these flags a wriggly snake, the helm, the crayon and so on. Then, the parade was continued by the children from a local martial arts club who were wearing their kimonos and had all the medals hanging from their necks, and they all walked past the public stand.

After the parade was over, it was the time for the special forces to show off. Dressed up in their uniforms, along with their horses and their weapons, they entered the stadium riding in formation. Expert riders, they did all kinds on neat tricks: they stood up in the saddlethen got off really quickly and dropped into a shooting position, they made the horses kneel to the ground and many other performances – they weren’t always in sync but I gotta say the whole representation was quite impressive. Here’s a link of how it looked like:

After that a few people talked on stage about some things. This was the boring part.. apparently the crowd cared about what they were saying just as much as us who didn’t understand a thing. Politicians we figured... Anyway, this gave us the opportunity to take a well-deserved brake. After having spent around 2 hours in the sun we headed towards the back of the stand where there was a lot of hustle and bustle that raised our interest. And guess what? It was some sort of a food court. There were all these grills where all sorts of skewers were being made and in some rooms under the stand, people were making these dumplings filled with minced meat.

These were phenomenal I gotta say.

We grab something to eat and get back, by this time, near a guard fence as the battles were commencing.

The Mongolian battles didn’t seem to have many rules. The fighters wear some sort of harness around their waist that goes down in-between their legs – something similar to sumo wrestlers. The fighters usually grabbed on to it, tried to trip each other, the goal being to knock the other one down. However, hitting or other sort of hand bending techniques were not allowed.

The first round of fights begins… I believe there were some qualifiers or maybe even practice. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

Professional wrestlers weighing maybe 100 or 120kilograms, pure muscle were fighting some soldiers who were barely weighing 80kg – not even. The fighters were wearing the harness I described earlier whereas the soldiers were wearing their camouflage pants and boots.

The fight was so unfair that it was borderline hilarious. As we later found out, Mongolians believe that it’s all in the technique, not the size. Yeah, right!

20 minutes later, the fights had already become too repetitive – it was a constant David and Goliath battle, but unlike the Bible version, Goliath won every single time. We hung around the fair a bit and called it a day

One of the other evenings, along with Leo and another French guy we met at the tourist hangout spot, we decide to break our habit and go posh. We were going to take ourselves out on a night on the town. Unfortunately, what we hadn’t considered was that the Turkish restaurant where we planned our “boys’ night out” was already closed when we got there. So, we head back home absolutely famished only to find that the tourist restaurant neat the camping site and basically all other restaurants in town were all closed.

Completely disappointed, we begin searching for a supermarket. We enter in the first place where we see lights and it was kind of shady… there were no tables or chairs unlike the places we had grown accustomed with, but as soon as you entered you would find a long and narrow hallway. The right side was flanked by a wall and the left side by a divan. People left their shoes or sneakers on the floor, near the divan and were sitting at a small table on it.

We ask the lady at the register if they had anything to eat and she answers that she has some of those dumplings we ate at the festival. Utterly joyous at the prospect of eating, we take a look across the room only to find that there was nowhere for us to sit. There were 4 of us and all the tables in there were occupied. Some guys at one of the tables see us almost despairing and invite us over to eat with them. We gladly accept their proposition, take our shoes off and climb up to join them.

Oh-and before I forget. This was not your everyday restaurant but it’s something that I would best define as a “lacto-bar”. You know what I mean, right? The most popular drink here was horse milk, well technically it’s mare milk, but let’s not get side-tracked.

On every table was a big bowl in the middle, full with fermented milk and a ladle. In front of everyone was a smaller bowl where they would pour the milk in using the ladle. The guys at the table with join get us 4 smaller bowls, pour us a ladle of milk and “Cheers!”. They were drinking bowl after bowl while praising the wonderful qualities of the milk compared to regular beer. I’m not saying that’s not true but that fermented milk that had a bit of alcohol in it had the most horrible taste…

Anyway, our food eventually arrives and happy to have fulfilled our mission for the night we thank the guys for receiving us at their table, say our goodbyes and head back to camp. We make a short pit-stop at a shop that was still open to grab some of that ordinary beer they were talking about and we head towards to yurt to continue our story-telling there. In camp, we find a small table towards the back of the site and shortly, a 50-year old lady joins us. .

She was a guide and had reached the camping site with a group of tourists. As you may imagine, her being a guide and all that, she shared so many interesting things about Mongolia. For example, in this presidential election race, the “new” candidate was a former fighter in these traditional wrestling of theirs. In their culture, wrestlers are treated with the utmost of respect and for most of them, the fame they get wrestling helps them move on towards politics. We later found out, that the former wrestler had ended up becoming the new president of Mongolia.

Another interesting thing she shared with us was about the desert and the people who live there. The camels, apart from playing the role of the “donkey” and carrying things around, and the role of the “cow” as the camel milk was way more popular, had another use. I don’t get how exactly, but locals use them to find spots in the deserts to dig to find water for their animals.

The following days followed a distinct pattern. We mostly hanged out with Leo waiting for the time to pass by. Other people would come and go. The good news was that, at least, we had everything we needed: cold beer, food, internet and electricity.

Talking about electric stuff, I started disassembling my intercom. It stopped working somewhere right after we eft Romania, during our first days of rain. Well basically our first week was riding in the rain. Unfortunately, soon after popping the cover open I realised that my small “patient” had taken on too much water which some circuits.. it was pretty much toast.

The TV was also useful in keeping us entertained through our prolonged stay. Each channel had something that would catch your interest: the music videos were most entertaining. One that caught our eye had a story that went something like this: the rich lady who fell in love with her bodyguard who then later stabbed a paparazzi by mistake, which lead to their breaking up. In another video, local gangsters alongside with the mega boss man wearing a fancy fur hat would brag about their wealth and end up proving it – they were showing off all of their horses in a stable.

When our ears started bleeding, we would switch to some sports channels where the Naadam fights from UlaanBaatar had taken over the whole schedule. At least these were legit and the weight difference between the fighters wasn’t as staggering as here.

On the downside, as my fork was still leaking, we couldn’t head out on our bikes and explore the surroundings.

On the good side, the road towards Almaty where I had scheduled it to get fixed, was mostly tarmac so the fork would have to hold its own until there.

In episodul viitor mergem catre granita impreuna cu Leo si al sau Royal Einfield. Vom ajunge in scurt timp, frontiera o vom trece fara nici o problema si vom intra in Rusia.

Chiar credeati ca asa a fost? Pe-acolo.. vom ajunge la granita dupa ce Leo si-a demontat jumatate de motocicleta ca sa repare o pana banala. Cat despre trecerea in Rusia, vom mai astepta doua zile la cateva zeci de metri de bariera frontierei.

Granita, nu aveam cum sa o trecem decat in bunul stil "taras-grapis": scandal la bariera, probleme cu reteaua de internet si cu un elefant. Da, elefant.

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