In our bouncy jeep we drove about 3 hours across the scrubby Gobi desert steppe this morning to the village of Bayan. We happened to arrive during their Naadam festival!
This is a purely Mongolian thing. Naadam means 3 men’s sport or something like that and consists of a 20 km horse ride from “way out there” back to town, archery, and wrestling.
Well I was excited to see this because the main national Naadam happened before we arrived, and this was a surprise. To bad the wind was so bad! It was blowing so hard it pelted us with stones and dirt! Zoe stayed in the car most of the time. We did all venture out to watch the kids ride in on their horses.
The competitors for the horse racing are traditionally 12 year old boys, but we noticed a couple girls too. These amazing kids! Most were bareback or rode a blanket, some barefoot, and all were hot and dusty and tired. The crowd, however, only cared for the first few racers and then seemed to cheer more for the horse and the owner (Dad, I assume) while the kid got shuffled off to the side after their wild ride. By the time horses number 15 and on were riding in, the place had cleared out except for us and a few stragglers. In fact, from the wrestling court 100 meters away I could still see some horses coming in about an hour later!! With NO ONE at the finish line.
By then the wind was so super bad. I was hunkered down under a canopy waiting for wrestling to start. Avi was hanging out with Grandma… One of the guides he befriended back at the dunes. She took him to the ger restaurant and to play some games and then over to join me watching wrestling.
The wrestlers wore little blue undies and a shirtless set of sleeves. That’s it!! And they were being pelted hardcore with wind blown debris. You wouldn’t have known. They still played out the matches. One guy would walked to the ref, flap like an eagle, have his hat removed, then dance/ flap toward the crowd, hit his thighs and bum and proceed to wrestle. This was on the ground! Not soft grassy ground. Hard, stone and sharp-rock covered ground. The first guy with a knee down lost. The winner of each bout would return to the center court and do another ceremonial flapping bird dance and get his reward: some hard cheese from the judges tent. Most guys tossed some at the air, the flags, the tent, and one guy brought his to our canopy and handed it out to everyone. Avi loved it, and was mad when none of the other winners did the same. He and I braved the wind to watch all the bouts.
The place cleared out a bit as a new group of kid horse riders were heading out of town for their race. We decided that was enough for us and drove to the flaming cliffs, which were even more windy.
The cliffs were tall and red and crumbly and so windy it was scary. We attempted the hiking trail on top for a bit, but when Zoe got an eyeful of sand we booked back to the van. Bahggy took us down below instead and it was much calmer. We messed around for a bit finding little caves and checking out the rocks. Avi had super fun pushing rocks down slopes. Zoe was again weary and we ventured to our ger camp for the evening.
The flaming cliffs are a type of badlands and this is supposedly the region most dinosaurs have been found. It was slightly unimpressive though. I guess this type of rock formation dots the landscape for hundreds of miles around, but that’s it… Dots. The actual cliffs were big but not super big. I felt the badlands of South Dakota or the painted desert in Arizona were more impressive with more vast area of formations. Here, the badland areas quickly gave way to scrubby rock-covered ground but we could see other cliffs patch up in places.
Near our ger camp there was a nice patch of badland cut into the flatland. We had more fun messing around there than at the actual flaming cliffs a few miles away. Our driver started feeling bad – his heart was racing and he took some aspirin- so we decided to take it easy and stay at the gers.
For 20,000T we had a couple single beds in a ger for the night. Folks on a fully-guided tours get this included as well as food, and there was a French couple there fully guided who got angry when asked if we could share their ger. The family running the camp just let us have one of their own gers and they crammed together in a smaller one. We verified with the English guide that the situation was fine with the family, because it was an option for us. We just thought if they had a spot available we’d stay inside to avoid the wind. The guide assured us they were happy for the business.
Zoe and Avi had a lot of fun at that ger camp playing with their kids, chasing the goats, and sharing their school workbooks with the other kids. It was a fun place to stay as the family was fun and welcoming and we even got to watch them butcher a sheep.
I bought the little toy ger this old man made with sheep wool.
Yep. That’s the floor we’ll sleep on later.
Turns out the wind calmed. We had a great evening and even the next morning exploring the little cliffs around the ger camp. It was awesome! The kids found cool rocks and a raw chalk chunk. The best though, was that Bryan found some actual fossils! This was one of the main reasons we came here, and the kids were stoked. They even tested them to make sure they were real by putting the fossils on their tongues! We read an article by Dr. Scott the paleontologist about it, and weird enough, it worked!!
Fossils stick to tongues
The fossils are like Velcro…it’s quite odd.
A huge outcrop of raw chalk!
In the afternoon we drove back to Dalanzadgad. It was only an hour and a half, but being in a hotel is a world away. First thing: showers! Then some TV and a walk around town to see their sad city park… which did have cute dinosaur statues on the pillars.
Tomorrow we are off to Ulaanbaatar and on to a homestay.