Our plan was to just turn up and see what was happening. Well, not so much a plan as a loitering presence.
But then one of those lucky travelling things happened. On the way to Leishan we detoured to the pristine wilderness around Libo in southern Guizhou on the invitation of a young American blogger (Kaci and the World) living there, and spent our first night in Libo as guests of the generous hospitality and outstanding home cooking of her good friend and Chinese National Geographic photographer, Big Mountain. His real name.
Big Mountain is passionate about the many ethnic minorities in Guizhou, of which he is one, and has photographed all of them over many years. When we told him of our plans to visit the upcoming Miao New Year Festival he made enquiries and discovered it was, in fact, the very infrequent and incredibly important once-every-THIRTEEN-years Guzang Festival. Before we knew it our party of four without much idea of where we should go and what we should see had become a party of six with contacts and a plan.
Big Mountain set about explaining the intricacies of the festival to us. Preparations begin three years ahead of time, involving a drum (gu) which needs to be buried (zang) and another drum needing to be woken up, the selection of an ox for sacrifice, and the use of ducks as vehicles to swim across the heavenly sea, returning with the woken spirits of the ancestors.
It sounded terribly complicated and very, very interesting, but in the end came down to the essence of every good festival – a gathering of people, drinking, feasting, music and dancing, with a few uniquely Miao components thrown in, like the celestial ducks, some bullfighting, firecrackers and pig slaughter. It was going to be one hell of a party.
Here’s how the festival unfolded, from our perspective.
25 litres of liquor…check, smallish box of fireworks…check. Now to load the basket of ducks……..
2. Feast Number One 一号盛宴
At some point the ‘He jiu!!’ begins to reach a crescendo, with shorter and shorter intervals between toasts. Then just as everyone’s warming up the whole room stands and moves towards the door. We’re full to bursting with food and a little drunk.
The toasts continue for several rounds. Everyone makes the same puckered face when they have to ‘He gan!’ and drink the bowl dry.
Funny stories are told.
Serious stories are told.
Fireworks, possibly shot from a ‘lying in the grass’ position. Not going in Nat Geo anytime soon.
4. The Sacrifice 献祭
We return at eleven, fortified by a good nights’ sleep and strong coffee. Still, the ongoing firecrackers are a bit upsetting to the delicate equilibrium, as are the squeals of pigs meeting their end in every corner of the village. For some reason I had thought the village en masse might sacrifice a single pig, but apparently there is to be one pig for every family. Or in some cases, two.
‘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.
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!!!!!
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Festival, Spring 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).
Catch a Naadam by the Tail
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.
- 20 large dried bamboo leaves
- 400g fatty pork, cubed
- 1/4 cup plus 1/4 cup dark soy sauce (dark soy is for colour, and unsalted – do not substitute normal or light soy)
- 1/4 cup shaoxing rice wine
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 2 spring onions, sliced
- 250g uncooked sticky rice
- In a bowl mix together 1/4 cup dark soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sugar, salt, ginger and spring onions
- Add pork pieces and allow to marinade for up to 24 hours, minimum 2 hours
- Add remaining 1/4 cup dark soy sauce to sticky rice and mix well until grains are well coated
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil, immerse bamboo leaves and boil for three minutes until leaves become soft. Drain.
- Take a bamboo leaf and hold it with the spine facing up
- Fold the leaf as shown, approximately one third of the way along its length
- Fold again, this time lengthways as shown, open out the base of the folds to form a cup
- Fill with 1-2 spoonfuls of coated sticky rice, a piece of marinated pork, then another 1-2 spoonfuls of rice
- Holding the filled portion in the cup of your hand, fold the long part of the leaf over the top
- Tuck in both sides of the parcel, then pinch the overhanging leaf together and fold sideways as shown
- Holding parcel firmly, wrap tightly with string and knot to fasten
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add zongzi so they are fully submerged
- Simmer for two hours (water will darken due to dark soy sauce), then drain
- While still hot snip string wth scissors and unwrap
- (can be frozen, uncooked, for up to one month)
Shanghai’s best location for learning to cook Chinese food:
Chinese Cooking Workshop
2 Dongping Lu, near Hengshan Lu
Tomb Sweeping Festival is quite a catchy little name for a public holiday, don’t you think? A whole lot more interesting than Easter Monday, which it happens to co-incide with this year. In Chinese it’s called Qingming Jie 清明节. Qingming means ‘clear and bright’ , but how exactly this translates to ‘tomb sweeping’ is best left to someone who knows a bit more about the Chinese language than me.