Naadam Festival & Gobi Desert
Lesley Shane travelled to Mongolia with Panoramic Journeys last summer on the Naadam Festival Experience, swiftly followed by the Gobi Highlights trip, both hosted by our Melissa. Here, in the second of two posts, she talks to us about visiting a local Naadam festival and exploring the Gobi Desert…
Khatgal, at the tip of Lake Khovsgol, was our venue for Naadam, the annual national festival which involves the three “manly” sports. Girls are these days allowed to participate in two out of three – archery and horse racing – but wrestling still remains the domain of the men. There are no weight restrictions, anyone can challenge anyone else. There were three or four bouts going on at the same time, the winners breaking into a wonderful dance round the spirit flags.
For me, the most exciting thing was the horse racing. The races were run over anything up to 30kms. The jockeys were the youngest of boys and girls, as the lighter the rider the better, and they often had no more than a small blanket as a saddle, tied on to the horse with string. The most important race over the two days was the race for five year old horses. All the spectators wanted to be as close to that winning horse as possible! It is deemed good luck for the dust (and there is plenty) to blow over you and afterwards, when the horse is being walked slowly to cool down, everyone rushes over to rub some of its sweat in their hair.
The Naadam festival is like a Mongolian version of a country fair. The dignitaries sit chattering, proudly wearing their medals, small children roam wild, young boys and girls try their hand at popping balloons with darts to win a bar of chocolate. Almost everyone has a horse attached to them – some just with a tether draped over their arm, a bit like a handbag; some are lolling on horseback while watching the wrestling; others trot through the crowds… Everyone, from toddlers to grandparents, are in their very smartest deels and matching hats in the brightest of colours; neon pink, turquoise, bright blue, a feast for the eyes. Couples in matching outfits and fancy saddles on the horses.
Our lodging for those two nights was an eco lodge on the eastern bank of the lake. It was our favourite camp – the peace and beauty of that place cannot be bettered. We were amongst the pine trees, wild flowers were aplenty, the waves lapped at the shore and bleached driftwood formed sculptures on the beach. A yak or two grazed along with the requisite horses and a full moon rose over the trees. Total magic. We had a bonfire that night and the Mongolian's sang wonderfully tuneful folk songs around it for us. A brilliant last night.
Our Nadaam adventure came to an end and after a quick stopover in UB, we headed south to explore the Gobi.
Just when we thought there could not possibly be more vast open spaces, there we were in the Gobi – mile upon mile upon mile of space! The scenery was so very different from what we had already seen. Not the lush meadows and soft hills covered in larch and pine, but wide, wide open spaces covered in scrubby vegetation, wildflowers and wild chives, and then, out of nowhere, mountains suddenly appearing. No gentle slopes, just suddenly purple, grey, mountain peaks like a choppy, stormy sea or the rough icing on a Christmas cake.
We headed for the Flaming Cliffs, which are aptly named and not only beautiful, but also the site of discovery of the first dinosaur eggs and skeletons back in the 1920’s. We scratched around in the sand hoping to find a scrap of dinosaur bone – I am convinced I did!
We spent two nights overlooking the longest range of sand dunes in the Gobi - 120 kms - the tallest of which is around 300m. We tried to climb it, but all except our gazelle of a guide gave up half way! It was a case of one step up and then slide two metres backwards, but the view even from halfway up was spectacular.
Another excursion was through a giant gorge called Lammergeier’s Mouth so named after the giant bearded vultures circling above. We picnic-ed in the shade of the huge cliffs and then walked on only to come across ice at the end of the gorge! On our final excursion we clambered up a rocky hill to inspect ancient petrographs incised on rocks at the top.
I absolutely loved Mongolia. It is a wonderful open, free and very beautiful country. The people are proud, stoic, friendly and hospitable. It was definitely an adventure holiday! If you want vast open spaces, freedom, beauty and peace, then head for the countryside, stay with the nomads in gers, ride the half wild horses and absorb this extraordinarily beautiful landscape.
If Lesley’s story has inspired you to visit Mongolia, check out our Mongolia pages on our website and see what trips we are offering. Or phone our office directly for a chat on 01608 676821 and let us help you plan your trip of a lifetime!