How to toss an anklebone and shoot an arrow like a Mongolian
Anklebone tossing and archery are two of the ancient steppe sports showcased this week in Mongolia's capital at a centuries-old celebration of Genghis Khan's empire.
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Archers, too, display astonishing precision as they shoot at tin can-like cylinders of woven leather lined up on the ground, recalling the unmatched skill of Ghengis Khan’s cavalrymen at shooting from the back of their galloping horses.Skip to next paragraph
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The most popular sport is wrestling; two days of knockout competition – one fall and you’ve lost – whittle 512 starting wrestlers down to a single victor who instantly becomes a national hero to those who have packed the stadium and to everyone else in the country who has been glued to TV coverage.
The rules are simple but the procedures of the nine-round competition are complex, and Mongolian passions are easily stoked by the sight of two elephantine men leaning into each other head to head, waiting for the right moment to push, pull, lift, or trip their opponent in a sudden burst of activity.
When victory comes, the winner celebrates with a slow-motion lumbering lope, holding his arms outstretched, in the “eagle dance,” and his opponent must lower his head to pass beneath the victor’s arm.
'The difference between driving a Russian jeep and a Porsche'
The sport most symbolic of Mongolians’ nomadic past and present, though, is horse racing.
It bears little resemblance to racing in the United States or Europe: There is no track, just a vast expanse of rolling steppe 30 miles west of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, across which horse tamers pitch their “gers” (circular nomadic tents like yurts) in clumps.
Hundreds of horses run in each race, ridden bareback by boy jockeys, and sometimes by girls. They gather at the finish line, and then walk or trot the 16 miles to the start, turn around and race back, their hooves stirring up red dust clouds that can be seen from miles away.
The low-shouldered, tough little Mongolian ponies don’t look much like Western thoroughbred horses, either. Trainer Bat-Ulzii, a herder who had driven 300 miles to take part in this year’s Naadam, says that the foreign horses he has seen in films “look fancier and more elegant than our horses. But they don’t seem to be sturdy over long distances.”
“It’s like the difference between driving a Russian jeep and a Porsche,” she explains. “The Porsche responds to just a touch, but the jeep is more durable and reliable.”
The prize money for the winning horses is derisory (and the horse that comes last in the yearlings’ race earns the same purse as the winner, a nice touch that puts the value of competition in perspective), but the prestige of owning or training a Naadam winner is unmatched.
The real point of coming to Naadam, says Bat-Ulzii, who like most Mongolians uses only one name, is just to take part. “I bring my horses so that they can raise Naadam dust,” he explains. “I don’t come for the money. I just want to hold my horse’s silken bridle at Naadam.”