Happy Naadam: Horse Racing

One of my favorite parts of the Naadam celebration in Uugtaal last week was the way the small jockeys (aged between 5 and 12 years old) would sing to their horses before each race.

This particular Naadam had 6 races. Each race varied in length depending on the age of the horse. The shortest distance was about 6 miles, while the longest was 14. And so several times over the course of the two-day long event, a group of between 15 and 40 children would ride their horses into the main stadium singing the ‘Glingoo’. It’s a free-form kind of song that is meant to encourage the horses to run quickly.

After riding around the inside edge of the arena, the riders would gather at the front where they would drink airag (fermented mare’s milk) and pour some on their horses’ heads and hind quarters. Singing once again, they would exit the stadium and trot toward the starting line.

Horses are an essential part of Mongolian culture and the traditional lifestyle. They are veneered and used for everything from transportation to nourishment. But until I saw how the children interact with horses, I didn’t quite understand just how much a part of life they are. Dozens of young boys casually rode their horses around the grounds, showed off by doing tricks, squirted water guns at their friends and even shared ice cream cones. It was clear that if you were an 11 year old boy without a horse, you were just not cool.

Watch a video about the horse race:

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Wrestling and Archery.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Happy Naadam: Archery and Shagai

Saihan Naadaarai! Happy Naadam!

Today (July 11) is the first of the annual three-day long celebration of Naadam. It is a sporting and cultural event that dates back to the 13th Century, a time when the three ‘manly sports’ of horse racing, wrestling, and archery were vital to Mongolia’s global dominance.

Although the national Naadam celebrations started today, county-wide and province-wide competitions and festivals have been occurring around the country since the beginning of July.

Having already attended the Naadam celebrations in Ulaanbaatar back in 2007, I was curious to see how it was celebrated on a more intimate scale.

Last week, I traveled to Uutgaal, a small county seat just 150 km from Ulaanbaatar, with fellow documentarians Nina and Taylor of the Vanishing Cultures Project and Mark of Open Road Movies. We spent two days watching horse races, wrestling matches, archery and the newly added game of Shagai (ankle bones). As the only foreigners and journalists at this Naadam, we were granted excellent access to the roughly 400 participants, organizers, and spectators.

Here are the first two in a series of four videos highlighting each of the four main events.

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Horse Racing and Wrestling.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

A Mongolian Hair Cutting Ceremony

I was recently invited to a hair cutting ceremony by a family in Ulaanbaatar that has taken me under their wing. The boy, Orgil was three-years old, and had nearly shoulder length hair for as long as I’d known him. Over the course of a 3 hour ceremony, friends and family members cut off locks of Orgil’s hair until it was too short to cut.

Traditionally, Mongolian parents let their child’s hair grow until they are between 3 and 6 years old. When the child has reached an appropriate age (usually 3 or 5 for boys and 4 or 6 for girls), they mark the first haircut with a ceremony. It’s a sign that the child has survived the dangers of the first few years of life.

While this tradition is a time-honored, it has experienced a resurgence in the past few decades. It’s one of many Mongolian traditions and symbols that increased in popularity since 1991 when democracy was ushered in. Some ceremonies are quiet affairs, only family members and the family’s closest friends are invited. But more frequently, they are elaborate affairs. Think Bar/Bat Mitzvah or QuinceaƱera celebrations. Wealthier families will invite as many as a hundred guests, serving a full meal, and providing entertainment.

But regardless of the size, the ceremony is generally the same. A monk or family member will give a blessing, for the child. Then the parents will cut the first lock, collecting the hair in a khadag (traditional sacred blue cloth). They will then bring the child around to all of the guests – closest family and friends are first. Everyone will greet the child saying, ‘Tom xun bolooroi!’ or ‘Sain xun bolooroi!’ (Translation: Become a big/good person). Then they will give the child a gift, usually cash ($5 – $20), but sometimes a toy. As is the case with most ceremonies centered around young children, this is mostly for the benefit of parents and family members and serves as a good excuse to celebrate.

I have only been to one hair cutting ceremony, and so it’s difficult for me to know what is typical, but I suspect this was not. The family held the ceremony in a banquet room of the hotel they own. They served the guests a three course meal and had ample vodka, beer and juice available. An emcee guided us through the entire evening, and we were entertained by a morin khuur (horse-head fiddle) player, traditional throat singers, and even a Mongolian pop star who’s zenith was in the 1980s. It was pretty amazing.

Here’s an example of another kind of hair cutting ceremony:

PHOTOS:

The plate of fried cookies topped with candies and curds, called a ‘heviin boow’, is a common centerpiece at most formal celebrations.

Orgil, the guest of honor

A decorated roasted pig was among the special foods at the hair cutting ceremony

Orgil runs around with his cousins, a key part of any family celebration

Next to money, toy trucks were the most common gifts Orgil received

Orgil with his mom before the ceremony