With wild rides and grapples, Mongolia celebrates muscular past

Thu Jul 12, 2012 3:54am EDT
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By Maxim Duncan

ZUUNMOD, Mongolia (Reuters) - A small cloud of dust rising in the distance sparks fevered chatter from hundreds of herders pressed around a wooden bandstand on the verdant Mongolian prairie.

Seconds later, dozens of small children on horseback, many of them under ten years old and most without helmets, thunder past the crowd, now whooping wildly.

It's almost a millennium since the descendents of Genghis Khan ruled an empire stretching as far as Europe, but Mongolians are still fiercely proud of their ancient nomadic culture, and the annual Naadam festival is where they show it most - and pass it on to the next generation.

As the winning jockeys dismount, members of the audience jostle to scoop handfuls of sweat from the stocky Mongolian horses, wiping it on their own foreheads for good luck.

"Naadam is a tradition passed down from our ancestors to our parents," said Battulga Tsogbayar, a tiny 14-year-old boy who won Tuesday's horse race near the town of Zuunmod, Tuv province.

"Coming first in a horse race at Naadam makes my family happy, and for me that's the most important thing about the festival."

Naadam centers around the three "men's sports" of horse racing, wrestling and archery, which have been practiced for centuries as intrinsic parts of nomadic life.

Nearby, wrestlers in cloth underpants and jackets covering their arms and shoulders lumber into a small stadium, where, arms outstretched, they perform a slow, almost balletic dance to display their physical prowess.   Continued...

Residents touch the horse of a competitor at a horse race during the Naadam Festival in Khui Doloon Khudag, outside Ulan Bator July 12, 2012. REUTERS/B.Rentsendorj