A Mongolian Yak Festival

Unlike the Khatgal Naadam that we attended the previous week, the town's Yak Festival was a little bit more low key in terms of foreign tourist numbers. The only tourists in attendance were the ones, like us, who happened to be in Khatgal at the time. We had found out about the event from our horse trekking guide Munkhsukh who was extremely excited to show off his (and his yaks') skills.

The mood at the yak festival was extremely upbeat and light-hearted, unlike Naadam which was a little more serious. In fact, it seemed like Khatgal residents had basically gathered to laugh at the town men who spent the afternoon trying to get their yaks to do things that yaks don't really want to do. To add to the humour of the day, many (maybe most) of the men were inebriated. The festival kicked off with a song and dance cultural show, performed by the local youth before proceeding to the yak-based entertainment. Here is a summary of the yak festival's events:

Random Yak Mounting
This may not have been an officially sanctioned event, but once every few minutes someone would mount an unruly yak, run around the festival grounds and get thrown off. This event was particularly popular with the spectators. Yak Racing
Yak racing was by far the highlight of the festival. Basically the yaks are slowly herded to the outskirts of the festival grounds. They are surrounded by jeeps and men on horseback and forced to begin by a slow advancing of the vehicles. None of the yaks move. The jeeps and riders get closer and honk/yell at the yaks. The yaks begin to scatter in various directions. Most of them are not running in the direction of the finish line. Most of them are not running at all, they are walking, slowly or grazing. Several minutes later a few yaks appear at the finish line to claim their titles. Most of the yaks do not finish the race. Yak Polo
Mounted on their yaks, equipped with wooden mallets and plastic construction hats, the local men attempted to play a polo match. As with the racing, the yaks ignored commands from their riders. Many yaks stopped to graze. Occasionally a yak sprinted off in anger. Surprisingly many goals were scored, all in what seemed like slow-motion. Yak Beauty Pageant
We weren't sure if it was the yaks or their riders on display, but everyone looked lovely. Medals were handed out in vast quantities (including gold and silver medals in the in the two-team polo tournament). Of course, there was also a wrestling tournament because no Mongolian festival would be complete without a wrestling tournament.

Khövsgöl Horse Trekking

As with all non-horse riders, we were pretty confident about our ability to sit on a horse for long periods of time. Our five day trip was actually a compromise from what we had hoped would be a longer one. We left from Khatgal with Juliette and Thibault who had agreed to share with us all of their camping equipment and a 3-person tent (for the four of us). It took about one minute for us to realise intellectually and physically that we were all terrible terrible riders. After a few hours on the horses we were seriously wondering if we would last through five days of riding. Not to mention that comfort was the last consideration in the conception of the Mongolian horse saddle. Our father and son guides, Munkhsukh and Sukhbat found our pain amusing but must of also found us to be annoyingly incompetent. When Thibault got off his horse and refused to continue riding they laughed courteously but soon forced him back on his horse despite a sincere objection on his part. Juliette, Yann and I fared a little bit better on our wooden saddles but 13 year-old Sukhbat found it hilarious to get our horses running and listen to us yelp while trying ineffectively to slow down. Due to what I like to think were my superior riding skills (and not my physique), I got the nickname Mongol-Malie (Mongol for Mongolian horse-riding skills, Malie from the mispronunciation of Emilie), consequently, I tried to hide my discomfort to the best of my abilities (but I was really really uncomfortable pretty much the whole time). We cooked our own meals, mostly vegetarian, mostly terrible. We were dealing with the meager spice/salt supplies that we had purchased in Mörön. One evening Munkhsukh collected wild garlic and made fried garlic flat breads, this was by far our best meal. Once the four of us would go to bed, we discovered, our guides would secretly get up and cook their own second meal, including the meat that was absent in our dishes. Despite multiple groups of foreign tourists heading out from Khatgal, we did not run into anyone for the first few days of our trip. We were led through what seemed like difficult terrain, sometimes having to dismount from our horses as they sank into swampy ground. Yann impeccably timed an acute sickness for the second day of our trek. I tried to get us to stop for the day but I was overruled (including by Yann himself), although we did get a longer rest at an isolated ger camp. The two resident children observed Yann as he sprawled himself out in the sun (I'm sure the sight of a dopey tourists struggling on a trek was not an unusual sight). Yann silently and unenergetically plodded along and I kept looking back at him half-expecting that he would be on lying the ground, having fallen off his horse. Munkhsukh also seemed to be looking out for Yann and we set up camp that night, I suspect, a little bit earlier than we normally would have. Huge Munkhsukh and tiny Sukhbat were great travel companions. With little in the way of English skills they still laughed, joked and even sang with us and had no trouble telling us what to do. It was especially nice to watch them work so lovingly together. Munkhsukh seemed to be genuinely proud of his young son who, although a lot smaller, could speak better English, could figure out our cameras with greater ease and might face a far different future than his own. One afternoon Sukhbat happily showed us a huge scab on his elbow which he had earned falling of his horse in a Naadam race. We ate together and set up camp together every night, and on our last night they even invited us for the second dinner (which included dried yak meat). The five days included varied and impressive scenery and we saw much more than we could have by jeep or on foot (at least we liked to tell ourselves this, because traveling by jeep or on foot would have been far more comfortable). Despite our discomfort on our saddles, the days were getting easier and easier as we got used to riding. The terrain also became easier to navigate as it flattened out around Khövsgöl Lake where we spent our last two nights. On our fifth and last day of horse-trekking we got up early and, encouraged by our guides, traveled back to Khatgal at a fairly brisk pace. It turned out that we were racing back in order to get to the Khatgal Yak Festival on time. We were dropped off at at Munkhsukh's home where we were warmly welcomed by his wife and daughter. We were then rushed off to the festival, to finish our last day together as a trekking group.

More Naadam!

We left Bata's Guesthouse with our new friends Juliette and Thibault who agreed to travel with us to Khövsgöl Nuur a northern lake on the border with Russia, only a few hours away from Mörön. Khatgal is a town on the southern banks of the lake and is a popular base for horse trekking expeditions. We joined the many foreigners staying at a local hostel and discovered we had arrived on the day of Naadam.

Even though we had just finished attending two days of Naadam activities in Mörön, we couldn't pass up another opportunity for Mongolian wrestling and horse racing. There were a lot of tourists in attendance (at least 1/3 of the spectators) which detracted somewhat from the atmosphere, but competitors and local spectators seemed to ignore all of us with ease. And no we aren't the only foreigners allowed to be there, although we usually wish we were. Before negotiating the details of our horse trek (beginning the next day) we enjoyed an afternoon of intense Naadam competition in perfect (if a little bit hot) Mongolian summer weather.


Mörön was an extremely pleasant place to discover (despite advice to the contrary in our guidebook). With just over 35,000 inhabitants it is the northern province of Khovsgol's capital. The July weather in Mörön was dry and warm in the day and refreshingly cool in the evenings. Our arrival in Mörön coincided with the beginning of regional Naadam festivities. We hadn't planned to stay in the city, but we decided that, given the few foreign tourists, it would be an ideal place to watch the horse riding, archery and wrestling that mark Mongolia's most important national event (Naadam translates literally to "games"). Along with everyone else in the area, we headed to the fields outside of the city two days in a row to participate in the excitement and joy of Naadam. Arguably the festival's most important event is the wrestling tournament. On day one we seemed to be watching the preliminary rounds, where the serious wrestlers had to contend with drunken challengers from the audience on their way to the next day's final rounds. Mongolian wrestlers are huge and scantily-clad. They were a cropped vest attached by a string at the front, covering only their shoulders and leaving their chests exposed. Along with their vests, tight fitting briefs and a pair of ornate, wrestling boots. Before every match, the wrestlers perform a ritual dance, imitating a falcon. In the preliminary round of wrestling, several matches took place at once. We often watched six men as they danced together before facing off. There are no weight or age categories in Mongolian wrestling, but no matter how mismatched the competitors, the wrestlers performed their dance with the same seriousness. In order to win a match of Mongolian wrestling, you must have any part of your opponent's body,  other than his feet, touch the ground. During the match, each wrestler is assigned an on-field coach, a zasuul, who holds the wrestler's cap while providing encouragement and strategic tips to his competitor. The more enthusiastic zasuuls liked to slap their wrestler's thigh as they shouted  encouragement. On the second day of the tournament, the big important competitors faced off in the final rounds. Unlike the previous day's matches, the competitors tended to be closer matched (challenges from the crowd no longer permitted). When the winner was crowned, he was immediately rushed by the spectators (touching the winner brings luck until the next Naadam).

The event that seemed to draw even more excitement was the horse-racing. As spectators we were completely unprepared for this event. All we were told was that there would be three races, classified only be age of horse. There was much excitement about the races involving young horses, as they would be wilder and speedier. We followed the crowds as they made there way to the outskirts of the festival grounds, many of the spectators sat on their own horses to wait for the racers. The crowd got excited as the first horses appeared in the distance, dust clouds on the horizon of the steppe. As they approached, we noticed the jockeys, a sight we were not expecting: young children. Exhausted little bodies spurred on their horses for the final few hundred meters of a 25 kilometre cross-country race. Some of the horses sprinted by, others trotted in slowly, their behaviour seemingly unrelated to the energy or instructions of their riders. As they completed the race, the faces of the young riders showed pride but many seemed stunned. Riders were joined by their family members, usually with  hugs and congratulations. Some young riders sadly were met with anger and obvious displeasure. The situation was upsetting to us and I had trouble holding back tears. I couldn't decide if the event was heart-warming or saddening, although in an event dominated by men, the few girls who competed were definitely inspiring. Children continued to trickle in over the finish line and we stuck around to encourage them as the crowd thinned. Like with the wrestlers, spectators pursued the young winners as they crossed the finish line, eager to get a little piece of good luck. Unlike the wrestlers however, people agitated to touch the winning horse and not it's jockey.  The horse is deemed the winner of the race the rider's performance is of little consequence. We watched the winning horses, led by their tiny jockeys, as they disappeared into a greedy crowd of well-wishers.