It's the biggest Mongolian social event of the year – Naadam, a festival revolving around the "three manly games," including horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Women are now allowed to compete in all but wrestling.
The celebration is held throughout Mongolia, but the top draw is the three-day event in the capital, kicked off by a grand opening ceremony.
And then it's time for the most popular of the three manly sports, wrestling.
The rules are simple. It's a single-elimination tournament with no weight classes. If any part of a wrestler's body, aside from his feet or hand, touches the ground, he's out.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A wrestler must wear an open-front shirt because once a woman – disguised as a man – won the tournament, humiliating the rest of the field. Afterward, the uniform rule immediately went into effect to remove any doubt as to the sex of the participants.
The second most popular event is horse racing.
Boys and girls as young as five compete in distances ranging from nine to 15 miles through the desert in search of glory.
Not nearly as many people attend the ...
or ankle-bone shooting, a new event added in recent years, featuring contestants
flicking sheep bones at targets
several feet away.
The games themselves are the attraction, but like with all journeys, it's the people that make the festival and traveling memorable.
Sadly, it's time to wrap up another trip. Mongolia might not be on your wish list, but it probably should be if you enjoy wildlife, solitude, and a glimpse into what much of the world must have looked like centuries ago before metropolises littered the landscape.
I've never been to such a wide-open country, a place that even though almost 1,000 years have passed since his death I could still imagine Genghis Khan charging across the horizon at any second.
But it's still not an easy place to get around. Although I prefer backpacking, it's a good idea to consider organized tours in rural areas, which is most of Mongolia.
Reliable travel information is sometimes hard to come by, but at least as far as we were concerned, Alexandra and I had a positive experience with Ganzo at Travel Gobi Mongolia.
Do your homework. I heard several negative comments from travelers who didn't get what they expected with other agencies.
As always, thanks for reading my blog and sharing in our journey.
Once again, I'll close with my customary reminder. My passion is traveling. I'm not sure about yours, but I'll bet it isn't working 9-5. Sadly, we spend far too many hours obsessed with climbing the ladder of success and chasing dollars, rather than chasing our dreams.
Death will visit us soon enough. Don't put off your adventures too long because one day it will be too late.
It's an unlikely love story. A Norwegian girl traveling through Mongolia meets a Mongolian horse whisperer, marries him, sells everything, and moves to the countryside to open a small tourist camp.
But it's the kind of scenario you'd expect to find in a wide-open country where anything seems possible.
Dream Adventure Mongolia, two guest gers with four double beds each, is rustic – no electricity, no plumbing, and an outhouse, but it's extremely comfortable and romantic.
It's a place to get lost on long hikes in the woods or go horseback riding for hours, which is included in the price. Alexandra and I have little experience with the animals, but after a short lesson, we headed out into the vast landscape, under the constant supervision of our horse whisperer, Puujee.
These aren't your typical, pampered horses locked up in stables. They live in the wild, getting rounded up each morning. One of the guests said she's ridden horses all over the world but had never been given such freedom to ride at will without a long list of restrictions. In America, the lawyers would never let that happen.
We spent two days at the horse camp admiring the scenery and savoring the gourmet food. Did I mention the Norwegian girl Jeanett worked in the restaurant industry for years. We both would highly recommend a visit, if alone to meet the couple's horse whisperer in training, Storm, a real handful.
Afterward, we headed back to the capital for the country's biggest yearly party – the Nadaam Festival, three days of horse racing, wrestling, archery, and merriment.
We've left the sands of the desert for the high cliffs of Yolyn Am, meaning Valley of the Vultures or Valley of the Eagles, depending on who's doing the translating.
The cliffs shade parts of the canyon year-round, meaning ice lingers here from October until the middle of July. You'll notice the ice at the bottom of the right side.
After another night's stay in a ger camp,
we flew back to the capital Ulaanbaatar, where we stayed with a Couchsurfer, which is one of my favorite things to do but something my girlfriend Alexandra had never experienced. I have to hand it to her. Couchsurfing homes can be quite lavish, but Ulaanbaatar wasn't an easy Couchsurfing introduction.
Our host, Berz, is committed to maintaining a connection with Mongolia's traditional way of life, although he resides in an urban setting. He, his wife, and their four children live in a small ger just outside the city limits in an area some might describe as impoverished.
When our taxi driver dropped us off, he looked at us as if we were crazy, and when we got picked up the next morning, the driver said she brought along her sister because she was intimidated to go to the neighborhood alone, a section known as the ger district.
Mongolians continue to flood into the capital in search of work, often preferring to remain living in their movable homes.
When we arrived, Berz welcomed us warmly and congratulated me on my recent 50th birthday.
"I hate to ask you on this special occasion, but can you pick up a shovel and help me collect cow caca?" he asked.
The family, by obtaining special permission from the government, is able to raise 10 cows in their yard, and cows require a lot of upkeep, including disposing of their digestive byproducts.
I'm always happy to lend a hand.
As you might imagine, Alexandra relished watching me carrying out my less than desirable task, but she got her turn later when she was asked to milk the cows, as well as help roll out handmade noodles for dinner.
Although we were unaccustomed to the environment, especially the community outhouse, the different level of hygiene, and six of us sleeping on the floor of the family's ger, we could not have asked for a more loving family and a better way to experience a facet of Mongolian life that most travelers never see.
One of the highlights for us was watching the two daughters perform traditional dance and hear the son play a Mongolian horse-head fiddle.
I must admit I also enjoyed helping one of the daughters work on her English.
We didn't perform, but since the kids love games, we gave them the stacking game Jenga, which the children and their father couldn't stop playing.
The next morning, the family hugged us goodbye and we headed off to our next stop – a horse camp near Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, nestled in forest-covered mountains about an hour from the capital.