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Chasing Naadam Part 2: Perseverence Triumphs!

Above: What a Mongolian horse herdsman should look like, according to me. 
Below: Actual Mongolian horse herdsman, and his wife, whose advice I trusted despite him not fitting my romantic notion of a horse herdsman.
In his sparkling blue flat cap and trendy t-shirt-jacket-satchel combination, I have to admit he didn’t really look like a horse herdsman, but he assured me that’s exactly what he was – a mumaren 牧马人. He and his wife had struck up a conversation with me at a truck stop where he was refueling his motorbike. (Yes, this is the sad and modern truth – horse herdsmen in Inner Mongolia use motorbikes.)

I asked him if horse herding was good work.

‘Oh, it’s not work‘, he said, giving me the impression horse herding was an excellent occupation indeed. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked, waving at the campervan.

I told him we were travelling to Hohhot. Well, actually to Gegentala, to see the Naadam. You see, I still held out hope that after our recent near-miss we could break campervan land speed records and get there in time.

‘Gegentala?’ he said. ‘Why go all the way there when there is an even bigger and better Naadam just up the road? It starts tomorrow!’

I felt a little glimmer of excited hope as I pulled out my map, now grubby from the dozens of fingers that had traced lines across it in truck stops just like this one. I showed him where we currently were.

He moved his finger along a thin brown line to a point west of a small dot marked Abag.

‘Right there!’ he said. ‘Maybe….two hundred kilometres, at most.’

Now I’d suffered through a lot of blind leads before, and I wasn’t going to take what he said at face value – I was fully prepared to cross-examine him to pick up the fatal flaws in his claim. This was important – if we sidetracked to Abag and there was no Naadam, then that was it, curtains, our chances of getting to Gegentala in time exactly zero. It was a big risk to consider.

‘It’s a great Naadam with a very local flavor….’ he said, just as I began to work out what my cross examination questions should be, maybe something along the lines of and what colour is your favourite horse?

‘…..and there are never any tourists there’ he said, somehow innately knowing that the bane of any tourist’s life is a bunch of other tourists. Well, he might as well have said they were handing out free thousand dollar bills. I decided we should go immediately. No further questions, your Honour.

We headed to Abag, 200km by road, a mere trifle on the motorways of Europe, but equivalent to six or eight hours of hard slog on Inner Mongolia’s back roads. Already nearly dark, we stopped overnight in Xilinhot, a brightly neon-lit city-in-miniature with the fastest growing GDP in the China, thanks to rare earth mining nearby. Who would have known all those riches were sitting underground?

After the crushing disappointment of missing Naadam by several days in Haila’er and again in Zhanglengqi, I was determined we would catch every single second of this Naadam, so I woke everyone early and got them into the Naadam spirit with a hearty breakfast, and a few songs, and we hit the road. 

Within a few short minutes it had begun to rain, the sort of serious rain that causes cancellation of things. But I knew these Mongolians were a hardy bunch, stalwarts who could withstand subzero temperatures for months in wintertime. Rain, to them, was nothing.

By now the wind was picking up too, as we stopped just outside Abag for fuel. It was raining so hard torrents of water gushed across the driveway of the fuel station. I asked the fuel station attendant, like everyone I met, about the Naadam. 

‘Yes, of course there’s a Naadam!’ he said. ‘But all this rain! Why not relax in town, have lunch, and go out there when the rain stops this afternoon? It will be much more convenient for you!’

That was when I noticed a long procession of cars coming back the other way, headlights on, hazard lights flashing (as the Chinese do in dreadful weather), nose to tail for as far as the eye could see. 


One lone car pulled into the service station and I asked her if she’d come from the Naadam.

‘Oh yes – too wet!’ she says. Within ten minutes hundreds of cars have passed us back into town. Hundreds. Hundreds. All abandoning the Naadam because of the rain.

I just need to see it though. Just see a Naadam, even in the pouring rain. Even if it’s cancelled. We continue westwards, by now unable to see anything but the road in front and the endless swish of the windscreen wipers. There is a lot of thunder and lightning.

But then there it is. A magical city of tents on the horizon, blue, yellow, red, a long promenade of flags, a row of yurts, and a police blockade.

A police blockade??

‘The weather is too bad!’ the police tell me. ‘Maybe come back this afternoon?’ as they turn us around and send us back to Abag.

I’m not going to print what I said next, because it wasn’t polite. NOOOOOO!!!!! 

看到他闪闪发光的蓝色帽子和时髦的T恤,我不得不承认他真的不像一个牧马人,但是他坚称他就是一名牧马人。他和他的妻子在一处卡车停车场和我攀谈起来,他在那里给他的摩托车加油。(是的,很悲哀的现实是,内蒙古的牧马人骑摩托车。)

我问他牧马人是否是一份好工作。
噢,这不是工作。他说,让我觉得牧马就是一份很棒的职业。你们去哪里?他在房车旁挥手问道。
我告诉他我们要去呼和浩特。好吧,其实是去葛根塔拉参加那达慕。你知道的,在最近的那次错过后我仍旧抱有希望,我们能打破房车的记录准时到达葛根塔拉。
葛根塔拉?他说,为什么要大老远去那?这边开过去就有一个更大更精彩的那达慕,明天就开始了。
我抱着一丝期待打开我的地图,地图在卡车休息站被众多手指像这般比划过后已显得很脏了。我给他指出了我们当时的位置。
他的手指顺着一条细细的棕色线条指向一点,位于标为阿巴嘎之地的西部。
就在那里!他说,可能……最多两百公里。
那儿的那达慕具有浓郁的地方风味……而且几乎没有游客。他说,我决定我们马上就动身去。
我们朝阿巴嘎行驶,公路200公里,没多久天开始下起雨来,雨大到足以取消一些事情。但是我知道这些吃苦耐劳的蒙古人可以在零度以下的冬季蛰伏数月,雨水对他们而言,不值一提。
当我们停在阿巴嘎郊外加油时,又刮起了风。雨下得很大,不时涌进加油站所处的高速公路上。我问加油站的工作人员,就像我问遇见的每一个人那样,关于那达慕的信息。
是的,的确有一个那达慕!他说,但是在下大雨!为什么不在城里休息,吃吃饭,下午雨停时再出去走走?这样对你来说更方便。
然后我注意到有一长队汽车从另一头返回,打着大灯,闪着危险警示灯。
一辆车冲进服务站,我问她是否是从那达慕回来。
噢,是的湿透了!十分钟内,数百辆车从我们身边开过驶向城里。数百辆车,数百辆车,都是因为大雨放弃了那达慕。
但我还是想看看,想看上一眼那达慕,虽然外面大雨入注。即使它被取消了,我们仍继续一路往西,除了公路和不停摇摆的雨刮器,我们看不到任何东西。车外电闪雷鸣。
但是终于到了。地平线上出现了一座魔幻的帐篷城市,蓝的,黄的,红的帐篷,一长排飞扬的旗帜,一列蒙古包,和一个警用路障。
一个警用路障??
天气太糟糕了!警察告诉我,或许你们今天下午再回来?他们随即带我们掉头开回了阿巴嘎。
我不会写出我随后的言辞,因为那不礼貌。

Abag Naadam, as close as we were permitted to get.



A Few Hours Later…

Nothing like a hearty Mongolian meal to restore your sense of hopefulness, not to mention that strengthening Mongolian beer. By now, the weather has lifted a little, and the restaurant is beginning to empty. It’s time to seize our chance and get back to the Naadam. I’ve waited. I’ve hoped. I’ve worn the patience of my family thinner and thinner. This had better be good!

And it is. We step out of the campervan and straight into a crowd of wrestlers heading for a match in the main arena, splendid and also slightly ridiculous in traditional wrestling dress. Like a scene from Camelot, the arena is magnificent as the sun pushes through the heavy dark clouds, illuminating the flagged pavilions and the stadium.

I’m going to stop talking now and just let you enjoy the atmosphere, a riot of colour and spectacle, worth every single frustration of the last two weeks spent chasing this damn thing all over the countryside.

几个小时之后……
一顿丰盛的蒙古大餐最能补充体力。现在,天色稍稍转好,饭店里已经走空了。是时候抓紧时间回去看那达慕了。我等待和期盼至今的那达慕。我们全家的耐心快用光了。这次最好一切如愿!
如愿以偿。我们走出房车,迎面走向一群往主竞技场而行的摔跤手,他们身着灿烂而稍嫌滑稽的传统摔跤服。就像亚瑟王宫殿卡密洛特中的场景一样,阳光透过厚厚的云层,为旗帜飘扬的场馆和运动场染上光芒,竞技场显得无比辉煌。
我不想说什么了,让你来享受这氛围,这丰富的色彩和奇妙的景色,过去两周在乡间奔波追逐这该死的那达慕时所受到的每一次沮丧都值了。


Wow. Those pantaloons are really something! Naadams traditionally include three ‘manly sports’, the other two being archery and horse racing. I would love to have seen both of these events, but I could never quite pin anyone down as to whether the archery had already occurred, or was likely to occur  on subsequent days, or had been cancelled due to bad weather. The same went for the horse racing, a single long-distance race which finished at the arena.

Sideshow Alley

Even more entertaining than the sports, sideshow alley at Naadam is both familiar and at the same time bizarrely novel. Hoopla games, the simplest yet trickiest of carnival games, are given a unique Inner Mongolian twist with all the prizes (live rabbits, grotesque plastic jade vases, or cash) laid on old carpets on the dirt.

Then there are pyramids of tin cans filled with cement, to be knocked over with a basketball, or rows of stuffed toys to be knocked off with bags stuffed with beans. Everything has a makeshift, rundown air but the lack of polish isn’t affecting anyone’s enjoyment.


The Circus
What would sideshow alley be without an amateur circus? The brightly coloured tent is manned by a spruiker with that patter familiar to every carnival goer, the lips pressed close to the microphone, the words running into one another. I can’t really know what he’s saying most of the time because he’s speaking Mongolian, a wonderfully musical language so different from everyday Chinese, but
what I think he’s saying is this:
‘Come-in-come-in, come one’n’all, here’s the best, the greatest, the biggest circus show on earth you, yes you, friend, come in and join the crowd we’ve got dazzling dangerous highwire acts and extraordinary and daring juggling, live animals and….you! YES YOU! Foreign friend! Where are you from, from America, from France, from…’
At this point the monologue is interrupted by the arrival of a long haired goat who has wandered out from inside the tent to see what’s going on.
The spruiker stops briefly to glance sideways at the goat and yell something to his offsider then continues on, looking about with slight disorientation until he spots us again in the crowd.

‘Oh! Even foreign friends want to see our circus, come in! Come in! Everyone welcome in the great and grand cirrr-cus!!’

We go in. Concentric circular rows of broken and chipped plastic bucket seats line the rickety stands. We take our place next to a man in a cowboy hat, and an old guy with no teeth, both smoking heavily.


The acts have the small audience transfixed. There’s a man with a whip, cracking the top off a beer bottle, another man balancing on a bamboo pole balancing on another man’s shoulder, a dog who can do maths, and a lady unicyclist who can juggle four plastic rings with a tower of china bowls on her head. These are the best kind of circuses, where it’s not so hard to imagine that you too could perform like this if you just had the time and the balance.

Restaurant Alley

After the wrestling was over I took a wander up and down the rows of gers, or yurts, in an area to the side of the main arena given over to eating. Low and sturdy, swathed in heavy felt or canvas and wound round with rope, you enter through a low brightly painted door into the dim interior. The choice of food is sadly, unexciting – lamb skewers or noodles – but you do get to sit in a yurt while you eat.

If beer drinking is your thing, you’ll find no shortage of recently victorious wrestlers happy to share a celebratory drink with you.

Five things I know about Naadam in Inner Mongolia:

I can now share with you the very little wisdom I have about Naadam. It’s not much, and it’s certainly not impressive, but here it is in case you ever decide to chase a Naadam for yourself. If you ever get the chance and your time is measured in weeks rather than days, go, go, go.

1. The starting date of Naadam, to add variety, changes every year according to the phase of the moon. It’s also likely to change depending on the distance you are situated from it and the number of farmers you speak to.
2. Naadam goes for three, five or seven days, except when it lasts for longer.
3. The first two days are always the best, and so is the last day if you are able to discover when exactly that might be.
4. The schedule of events may change according to weather, whim, or horse availability. Rain delays everything. Few people other than the competitors and judges seem to know what happens when.
5. If a horse herdsman gives you a red hot tip, go with your gut feeling. It’ll be right.



Five Naadams in Inner Mongolia:
(2012 dates, likely to change in subsequent years) 
Haila’er July 17-20
Zhenglanqi July 18-22
Gegentala Grasslands July 25-31 (these dates appear to be relatively fixed)
Abag Grassland July 24-28
Xilinhot August 5-12
There are many more Naadams I heard rumours of, but these five were the most consistently mentioned by locals.