16.08.2007 - 16.08.2007 20 °C
Logistics sorted and after a night in a clean and decent hotel (we have BBC World and CNN – wow, what’s happened to the markets?), we were finally feeling ready to start to enjoy UB and Mongolia. On Thursday, we took a gamble and headed 50km out of UB to a reenactment of a Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan to the locals) battle. We suspected it would be touristy and probably tacky as hell, but were drawn to the promise of – count’em – 500 horses and riders. Apparently, the event was first staged last year as part of Mongolia’s 800-year celebrations. Anyway, we paid our $68 each (that’s a lot of cash here in UB, where $20 easily buys two people a full dinner with drinks), and picked up the bus to take us on the one hour drive out of town (a bargain at 3000 tugrug each for the roundtrip – about $2.50 each!).
The drive was fabulous, and we enjoyed the endless, rolling green pastures with the gentle hills, and herds of goats, cows, horses and yaks. The weather was perfect – with blue skies and a cool breeze, the nicest day we’ve had. We were only slightly worried that there were just two other adults on the bus: this was apparently a major production so where were all the attendees? Our concern continued when we arrived, literally, in the middle of nowhere to an event that seemed to have more staff than attendees. It was a bit like walking through a ghost town in one of those old western movies: I was just waiting for the tumbleweed to roll through as Lloyd and I walked up a long avenue flanked by souvenir vendors towards an eerily empty stage area. Eerily empty except for the forty or so musicians and dancers putting on a pretty decent, traditional Mongolian music and dance display.
As two of the four most recent arrived prospects, Lloyd and I were quickly rounded up by one of the food vendors no doubt anxious to score a few of the dollars available. We ordered a couple of drinks and enjoyed the last few minutes of the traditional show. We were the only white people there among twenty or so Mongolian attendees, and our concern levels were rising. We were promised 500 horses, but looking out over the Mongolian landscape, there seemed little prospect of that. And why would they deliver 500 horses to a crowd that numbered less than thirty?
Show time was scheduled for 3.30pm, and at about 3pm, and after we had killed some time attempting one of Mongolia's 'three manly sports' (see picture - the other two are wrestling and horse-riding) and posing with camels, we started to see coaches on the horizon. Coach after coach of Japanese tourists were arriving strictly in time for the main event. Mongolian students clearly hired for the purpose greeted the Japanese in their own language, bowing respectfully to each as they filed into one of four stands laid out in a straight line in front of a massive sandy area. But still, no sign of 500 horses. With the Japanese contingent, we were now a respectable group of 300 or so, but I felt sure we’d be short-changed on the horses. Why would you bring them all out for less than a full house?
But bring them out they did. From 3.30pm to 5pm, we were treated to a display of incredible horsemanship, and choreography with military precision and timing. The horses marched over the horizon, at least a kilometre from the stands, in single file and just kept on coming.
Hundreds of horses raced within feet of the stands, kicking up sand and creating a timeless atmosphere as the riders recreated a famous battle orchestrated by Genghis Kahn (a national hero here in Mongolia).
Sure, the music may have been overdone at times, and the commentary was comical in places, but the horses, the costumes (I can’t even imagine the expense!) were first rate. We were thoroughly impressed, and incredibly relieved that we had taken the risk to go to this event. The last time I took so many pictures was on safari in Kenya watching things like lions mate - we’re talking like 500-700 frames! After 5pm, the horses rode off, and formed up into four sections about half a mile away.
The fact that they were still in formation at 5.30pm led us to the conclusion that this was – indeed – a military unit. And really that has to be the only way that this kind of production could be possible. I can’t imagine any other country attempting it, but what a great and proud way for Mongolia to promote its reputation as a nation of skilled horsemen.