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Chasing Naadam Part 1: Catch a Naadam by the Tail


As ephemeral as a puff of smoke and as thrilling as a bullfight, Naadam, the legendary sports festival of the Mongolian people, is a riotous carnival of wrestling, horse racing, archery and sunshine. If you can find the damn thing, that is. 

I started dreaming about Naadam months ago, when it seemed our journey north could be re-routed to coincide with the biggest Mongolian festival of the year, a festival I knew little about except that it involved horses and bare chested men. Sounds fun, right? 

In my mind, Naadam became my whole reason for traveling to Inner Mongolia, because there’s nothing I like more than a rowdy and colourful festival (should you need convincing about this, may I remind you of previous travels to the Lantern Festival, the Ice Festival, the Sisters’ Meal Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Tomb Sweeping FestivalSpring Festival and a random Tajik festival all the way out in Tashkorgan. China arranges a rowdy and colourful festival approximately once every three days, year round).

But our epic, frustrating and often fruitless journey chasing Naadam was so huge I’ve had to divide it into two thrilling instalments, the first today and the next on Monday, so be sure to catch both!

In trying to pin down a Naadam we were fairly certain there was one in the Gegentala grasslands, north of Hohhot, which reliable sources said runs from July 25th until July 31st each year. In retrospect, we should have driven directly from Shanghai to Gegentala and camped right on Gegentala’s doorstep for two or three weeks straight, to be certain of catching Naadam the minute it opened.  
Our inconvenient problem was we had entered Inner Mongolia at the farthest possible point from Gegentala, because we’d also heard there was a Naadam in a town called Haila’er in the far north around mid-July and it sounded a lot more fun, with fewer tourists, so I figured we’d be able to get up close and personal with those bare-chested wrestlers rather than having to watch them from behind an enormous crowd. We could catch that Naadam first, then hot-tail it 1600km to Gegentala in a week to see it all over again. That was, of course, until we encountered the actual roads of Inner Mongolia, (where a speed of 30km an hour is optimistic going) and our plans all came unstuck.
So we headed towards Haila’er, chasing one seemingly white hot lead after another, only to be told the Haila’er Naadam was cancelled. Or that it started two weeks before and was already over. Or that it started in three weeks’ time. We chased our tail, round and round in circles.
We scoured the internet, made phone calls, sent emails, searched guide books and asked everyone we met from goatherds to shepherds to horse herders, but one tip after another led to a dead end and solid advice was completely overturned by the next person you spoke to. Finally, in complete and utter frustration, we took a side trip to A’ershan for a day to regroup and replan. Haila’er was still a whole day of driving away, on bad roads.
In A’ershan I managed to track down the name of a big hotel in Haila’er and called their desk.
“Hello, I don’t speak Chinese very well, but do you have a Naadam in Haila’er this week?” (fingers crossed, toes crossed)
“Yes! We do!” (sweet, sweet relief) “It started two days ago, and today is the closing ceremony!” (crushing, crushing disappointment).
We began to think we were cursed.
We turned tail and drove westwards across Inner Mongolia like demons, pursuing the start of that Gegentala Naadam like our lives depended on it. And of course, that’s when it happened – we came across a Naadam we didn’t even know about completely by accident.

Catch a Naadam by the Tail

On our way back from the ruins of Xanadu the police diverted us off the main road at a town called Zhenglanqi, late in the afternoon. We thought it was yet another set of roadworks until I saw a group of brightly coloured tents and flags through a stand of trees. Could it be? Surely not.
Yes! It was! A Naadam! Our elation was palpable. 
Everyone was converging on a huge grassy field on the town’s outskirts. Every road was packed with parked cars, and people streamed from every direction. There was a great buzz of excitement in the crowd and we just followed on its wave, anticipating a long night ahead of games, food and who knows? Maybe even singing and fireworks. 
In the gold light of late afternoon an entire tent city revealed itself, red, yellow and blue, with flags flying. Alongside the tents were rows of yurts or gers, traditional Mongolian circular tents clothed all in heavy white felt roped round and round, and entered through a single low painted door. 
There was a sideshow alley with a haunted house (full of Mongolian ghosts), a chair-o-plane and a merry-go-round, all as familiar to me as any carnival in the west. Children ate fairy floss and held spinning foil windmills while their fathers tried to win giant tuffed toys for their mothers by throwing darts at a board.

We followed the crowd and moved to the main arena, an open field facing a huge pavilion crowned with flags. In the setting sun there were eight men deep around the edge, some standing on stools or on horseback for a better view, all intent on what was occurring in the arena’s centre.

We stood politely behind, craning our necks, seeing nothing. Shouts erupted from the crowd and the excitement ramped up a notch, but we still couldn’t see a thing and fidgeted and hopped from foot to foot and craned our necks more, until my youngest daughter was hoisted onto my husband’s shoulders to act as sentinel and report back.

“It’s the wrestling!” she yelled down to me.

I’d read all about Mongolian wrestling by now, the bizarre costumes, the lengthy bouts, the force and determination required to win. I was desperate to see some action so I grabbed my camera and squeezed between the legs of half a dozen surprised onlookers until I was three men back from the front. Using the zoom lens I could just make out the two-man battle taking place – the wrestlers wore embroidered pantaloons and studded leather vests that covered their backs but left the chest bare. Three judges watched closely on as the wrestlers, locked in a hold, tried desperately to topple their opponents to the ground, forcing a win.

Then the arena erupted with shouts and yells and applause and before I knew it everyone around me was running into the centre. I had no idea what had just happened. The man beside me, seeing my confusion, said “That’s it! it’s all over!”

“The wrestling?” I asked

“The Naadam! This was the final wrestling bout, and when it’s over, the Naadam ends.”

All around me people now streamed back in the opposite direction, away from the field, the arena, and the victor. Naadam was over.

I watched the loser leave the arena, his studded leather vest folded neatly under his arm. I knew how he felt, to come so close and still lose out. To strive for something, catch it by the tail until you are certain of it, then feel it slip from your grasp.
A little part of me had a quiet cry, because I had become convinced that this was as close to a Naadam as we would ever get, probably in our whole lives. There would probably never be another chance to come so far, and the detour to Xanadu and now to the tail end of a Naadam had probably cost us our best chance of making it to Gegentala in time. Naadam was over. 
To be continued…
追赶那达慕
犹如一阵烟雾般短暂,又如斗牛一般激动人心的那达慕大会,是蒙古人民的传奇的运动会,也是摔跤、赛马、射箭和阳光的狂欢节。前提是如果你能找到那该死的东西,那才是狂欢节。
数月前我就开始幻想那达慕,尤其是我们的行程只需向北绕行一下就能赶上年度最大规模的蒙古节日,除了马和赤膊的男人们,我对这个节日一无所知。听起来很有趣,对吗?
在我心中,那达慕是我去内蒙古旅游的全部原因,因为我只喜欢那人潮汹涌五彩斑斓的节日。但是我们的史诗般的令人沮丧又徒劳无获的追逐那达慕的旅程是如此漫长,所以我把它分成两个激动人心的部分,第一天和下周,一定不要错过噢!
在确认那达慕的行程时,根据可靠的消息每年725日到31日在呼和浩特北部的葛根塔拉大草原上有一场。回想起来,我们需要从上海出发直接前往葛根塔拉,然后在葛根塔拉边界扎营等待两三周,确保在那达慕开场时就赶上它。
然而我们的不便之处在于,我们是从可能离葛根塔拉最远的一端进入内蒙古的,因为我们也听说7月中旬在遥远的北部一个名叫海拉尔的地方也有那达慕,而且更有趣,游客更少。我们可以赶上那里的那达慕,然后一周内驱车1600公里到葛根塔拉观看下一场那达慕。当我们遭遇到内蒙古的实际路况时(时速30公里已经算好的了),所有的计划都泡汤了。
因此我们赶往海拉尔,去追逐一个又一个那达慕。有人告诉我们海拉尔那达慕被取消了,有人说它两周前举办过了,已经结束了,也有人说他三周后举行。我们追寻着那达慕的足迹来回奔波。
我们上网搜索,打电话,发邮件,翻旅游指南,并且询问我们遇到的从牧羊人到牧马人的每一个人,但是每条线索都一无所获。最后,在万般沮丧时,我们顺道花了一天去了阿尔山,那里离海拉尔只有一天糟糕的车程。
在阿尔山,我设法找到了海拉尔的一家大宾馆,并且打电话给他们的前台。
你好,我的汉语不太好,但是,海拉尔这个星期有那达慕大会吗?(衷心祈祷)
是的!有的!(太棒了)
那达慕两天前举办,今天是闭幕式!(无比失望)
我们开始想我们是否被诅咒了。
我们调转方向,重整旗鼓向西横穿内蒙古,将我们的人生全寄托在追寻葛根塔拉那达慕上。然后,在我们一无所知时我们偶遇了那达慕。
抓住那达慕的尾巴
我们从元上都遗址回来时,警察在一个名为正蓝旗的小镇把我们带离了主干道,那时正值傍晚,我看见一排树间有一群五彩的帐篷和旗帜。那会不会就是那达慕?肯定不是。
是的!就是!一场那达慕!
每个人都涌向小镇郊区的一块巨大的草地。那里人潮汹涌,我们就跟着人流走去,期待有通宵的游乐、食物和未知的东西,或者是唱歌和烟花。
整座由帐篷组成的城市,红的,黄的,蓝的,伴随着飞舞的旗帜呈现在金色的晚霞中。在帐篷的两侧是成排的蒙古包,传统的内蒙古圆顶帐篷,由厚实的白色毡布组成,入口则是一扇简易的印染的矮门。
我们跟随人流到达主竞技场,一块面朝被旗帜环绕的大帐篷的场地。八名大汉站在四周,有些人为了看得更清楚站在凳子或马背上。我们很有礼貌地站在后面,伸长了脖子,但什么也看不到。人群中不时爆发出阵阵欢呼声和叫好声,但我们仍旧什么也看不到,直到我的小女儿坐到了我丈夫的肩膀上,向哨兵一样作实况报道。
是摔跤!她冲我喊道。
我曾看过的关于蒙古摔跤就是:奇异的服装,冗长的较量,求胜的力量和信念。我不顾一切地想要看到一些摔跤的动作,所以我紧握我的相机,在众多惊讶的观众中向前挤,直到我站在了离赛场只有三个人远的地方。透过镜头,我可以看到两个男人的角斗——摔跤手穿着刺绣的裤子和镶有皮革的背心,背心仅盖着他们的背部,胸部赤裸。三位裁判紧紧盯着场中,就好像摔跤手那般胶着,试图彻底将对手摔到地上。
然后场中突然爆发出欢呼声和鼓掌声,在我还不明所以前,我身边所有的人都跑向场中。我不知道发生了什么。我身边的人看出了我的困惑,说:好了!都结束了!
摔跤结束了吗?我问。
是那达慕结束了!这是最后的摔跤比赛,当比赛结束时,那达慕也结束了。
所有人都往相反的方向散开,离开了广场,离开了竞技场和胜利者。那达慕结束了。
我目送失败的选手离开竞技场,他镶有皮革的背心整齐地贴合在胳膊下。我明白他的感受,来到如此接近胜利的地方但仍旧失去了。为了得到某些事物而努力,然后感觉它从你紧握的手中滑走。
我内心有一部分在静静地哭泣,因为我意识到这可能是我们一生中离那达慕大会最近的一刻。我们可能再也没有机会来到这么远的地方,再顺道去一次元上都,这次那达慕的尾声可能让我们失去赶去葛根塔拉那达慕的最好时机。那达慕结束了。
待续……