Thursday, July 13, 2006

Happy Naadam!

This week is Naadam, the national holiday that features wrestling, archery, horseracing, and also anklebone tossing. The opening ceremony, on Tuesday, was a wonder to behold. My new roommate (another Alliance volunteer, who just arrived last Friday) and I were picked up by the Chairperson (Enkhtuya) of NGO for which I'm working and we were taken to the Naadam stadium.

The traffic was quite bad approaching the stadium, so we got out of the car and walked. We approached a bridge made of stairs that was missing a few steps, but rather than walk around, Enkhtuya suggested we just climb down the railing. Good fun and sort of adventurous. We rushed to get inside so we didn't miss the start. Enkhtuya managed to shove us in an overcrowded "line" or mass of ticketholders trying to get through the gates of Section 1 (the best section), but she didn't get through. She waved at us on the other side of the bars, "Have a good time at Naadam!" Luck led us to seats in the first row, and with my zoom lens, I got some amazing close-ups of people and performance on the field. Enkhtuya made it through another entrance, but we didn't catch up with her until later.

The opening ceremony was quite a spectacle: there were a few speeches, and some dancing, and horses, and a shamanistic ritual type thing, and beautiful, traditional costumes...and I'm completely doing the shortest summary of that ever. We were in the stadium for a couple of hours. I sat there, snapping away, thinking, "wow" this might be the coolest thing I've seen in UB yet. I was excited to be part of it, and really happy we had such good seats. At some point towards the end, some more people were let in our section and were sitting, then standing in front of us. That kinda sucked, but I stood up when I needed to to see what was going on, so it wasn't too bad. We saw a bit of the first round of wrestling, which took place on the field in the stadium. I don't really get the rules, but the outfits they wear (depicted in a photo I posted awhile ago down below) and the waving of their arms (like an eagle, apparently), make me laugh. A lot. We realized we were starving, so around 1 or so, we decided to go out of the stadium and get some food at one of the vendors on the grounds outside.

After eating, we were able to meet up with Enkhtuya, and we drove about 50 km outside of UB to the countryside where the horses race in to the finish line. By then the weather had turned rainy and cold, and we were unprepared. Still, we ran in our skirts and maryjanes through the muddy field to watch the horses. We were still a bit far away, but we did see them going as fast as they could with the children jockeys on the saddles. (Actually one horse no longer had the jockey!)

After the race's finish, we decided to head back to UB, but we first tracked down the ger of the Democratic Party, and stopped in. Enkhtuya knows some of the Democratic Party officials, so they were happy to greet us. We walked inside, and sat down and were offered bowls, not cups, bowls of airag. Airag is fermented mare's milk, and it's all the rage here in Mongolia. But let me tell you...I think it's pretty gross. When the girl ladeled it out of a gigantic vase-type bowl into another ample sized bowl and handed it to me, I asked Enkytuya if we could share it. I didn't think Alexandria nor I would be able to finish that on our own. I grabbed the bowl with my right hand (as you are supposed to do) with my left hand bracing my arm. But they gave Alexandria her own bowl as well. I slowly brought the bowl to my lips and tasted it the white liquid. At first it had a sour taste that I actually didn't mind, but the end was a kick in the throat of dairy that I just couldn't handle very well. I don't drink milk anyway...and it was just too heavy for me. At one point I told Enkhtuya that I didn't think I could finish it and she said I definitely should NOT because it will do a number on my stomach since I am not used to it. She didn't phrase it quite like that, but that was the gist. Then they opened the bottle of Chinggis Khan vodka that Enkhtuya brought, and we were all given little cups of it. (The officials had glass cups and made a toast; the rest of us were given plastic cups.) So airag and vodka in the official ger of the Democratic Party. Not bad.

We met a Member of Parliament in the ger, who lived and studied in San Rafael, as it turns out, about 6 years ago, and a couple other elected officials. It was very exciting, in a way. Inside the ger were photos of the early 90s when the democratic movement was making headway in Mongolia (speeches, hunger strike, important figures). Outside the ger stood the democratic party flags against an amazing blue, cloudy sky, and just a little ways away from the ger was the "toilet" which consisted of a dirt hole and a little cloth on some wooden pegs around it. The cloth in the front wasn't exactly covering the "toilet" very well, so anyone using it was sure to bare a little more than some of us might be used to doing.

We made it back to UB in the evening and we were beat! That was only Day 1 of the official three-day Naadam celebration in UB.

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