Sunday, July 12, 2009

We're off to the races!



H
orseracing was the last of the three *manly* sports of Naadam that we had yet to experience....that is until today!

Shortly after breakfast, the mini-bus showed up at our hotel to take us to the races! Very excited. Had no idea what I was going to be in for but always up for whatever adventure awaits me!

We headed down the road past the Central Stadium. In no time, we were in the middle of a traffic jam. My guess was that we were all headed to the same place.
The mass flow of cars, trucks, buses, etc. veered off the road somewhere on the outskirts of the city. We were headed to some location on the steppe. Then, it came into sight....a huge lot of parked cars and beyond them, tents. We had arrived though I still had no idea where we were.

We clamored out of the mini-van and followed Puji. As we passed the tents, we could see smoke billowing out of several of the tents and the smell of grilled meat was intoxicating. Those were the food stalls. I made mental note of that fact :-) Next to the tents was a very, very, very long row of Porta-Potties. I made a mental note of that fact too :-)

We climbed to the top of a gently sloped hill and once we were at the crest, Puji pointed out where the starting line of the race would take place. This is not a race on a track but a 17km race across wide, open steppe so all we would be able to see is horses starting and finishing.

Today, we would be seeing the 5 year old horses race. There are races for 3 and 7 year old horses as well. In all the races, the jockeys are kids....minimum age is suppose to be 7 but someone said that it's not unusual for the boys to be as young as 5 years old! Just imagine sending your five year old son on a 17 kilometre horseback ride all by himself. Unbelievable!!




There were masses of Mongolians strolling all over the hillside. Some had even set up tents and laid out blankets to sit on. Kids and adults alike were taking advantage of a gentle breeze to fly kites. Every now and again, someone would ride by on horseback. Even though it was an overcast day and it seemed like rain was threatening to fall, folks seemed to be in a festive mood.











Violeta and I decided to head towards the starting line. Bleachers had been set up to mark one side of the track. By the time we got to the bleachers, they were pretty much full so Violeta and I found ourselves two spots, on the ground, in front of the bleachers. The bleachers were to our backs, and we were hugging a flimsy metal fence. Just on the other side of this retaining fence stood a row of Mongolian police. It wasn't until later that I would realize why there were standing there.

Soon, Marilyn joined us. My initial impression of Marilyn was that she was very brash and aggressive. That impression would hold true today but instead of not liking her for her traits, I was actually grateful for they were what rescued me today!

We had no idea when the race would start so we just sat in our spots on the ground and watched happenings unfold before our eyes. As we watched racers ride by us, we realized we were actually sitting near the finish line and that the starting line was several hundred feet away. I could only see the starting lineup through the zoom lens on my camera.

Slowly, more and more people crammed themselves around the area that Violeta, Marilyn and I had take up space in. In no time, the shoving started and what started out as a few people sitting in bleachers and on the ground turned into an absolute mob scene. At one point, I was shoved so hard, that I almost lost my footing. People were literally trying to push their way in. Marilyn strong armed a few away from me so I could remain standing upright. The harsh tone of her voice kept a few more at bay. Thank God for her aggressive nature!!


As the crowd around us got more unruly, the shouting from the police increased. It was insane!! Remember, this is all taking place in the wide open steppe....does not make any sense that we had to be put in this situation.

Unfortunately, I was squashed in so tightly in the crowd that at some point I could not move any body part except for my head and right leg....no kidding! Luckily, my claustrophobia only kicks in when I'm in an enclosed space otherwise I would have had a panic attack and no way to get out. It was horrible!

While were distracted by the mob, the race had already started. Before we knew it, racers were starting to cross the finish line. Miraculously, the mob stopped shoving and started clapping and cheering.

I was so squashed in that I couldn't even raise my arms to shoot photos so Violeta had to do all the honors! Though the police were only allowing children to sit on the other side of the retaining fence, Violeta had managed to do the same but somehow managed to convince the police to let her stay. She shot this video of several riders crossing the finishing line and me....grinning while I'm being squished by the crowd like a sardine. Marilyn was squashed up next to me.

 
As each rider or group of riders would pass by our section, the crowd would erupt into cheers....sometimes the noise was really deafening!
 
We watched quite a few riders cross the finish line before calling it quits. We walked back up towards our designated meeting place to wait for the rest of the gang to arrive. Once everyone was in place, we headed back down to the parking lot. Our challenge? To find our mini-van among the gazillion vehicles parked on the open steppe. Thanks to Puji's cellphone, we managed to find out way to our driver and the mini-van. We all piled in for a short ride to a neighboring hillside where lunch was waiting for us. And what was waiting for us was a picnic style buffet lunch of khorkhog, veggies, rice and drinks. Simple fare but my first intro to mutton cooked in traditional Mongolian style.  
There were no dainty pieces of meat here....just h-u-g-e chunks of meat on the bone. We had cutlery to eat the rice and veggies with but for the meat, only hands would work. This is gnawing on meaty bones....cave man style :-) I had a few small bites of meat but that's all I could stomach. The stench of the mutton fat was a bit overwhelming for me and yes, this comment is coming from a woman who has a very adventurous palate!   After lunch, several of the gang took turns at doing some archery. I just decided to soak in all that was happening around me. I'm still pinching myself as I can't believe I'm actually sitting on the Mongolian steppe and had just experienced a cultural event that few people I know will ever get to see. Just amazing!