The girl’s cheeks are flushed beetroot red, her half moon eyes bright with anticipation as her wiry bay pony jigs around in a circle. Shadows of her horse’s ribs are visible beneath the make-shift saddle, a stirrup-less foam pad that is secured by a rawhide girth strap. The number nine is pinned to her back and chest. She is one of 20 child jockeys that will be competing in the Naadam Festival race held in a remote northern region of Mongolia. The child jockeys are stone faced with concentration as they trot their dread-locked, wild-eyed ponies past the group of onlookers.
The children start to sing in mid-trot. Their high-pitched voices echo across the lonely steppe. Our interpreter Molor explains, “they’re worshipping their sky father and giving thanks to the horse.” It’s a haunting, high-pitched chorus that ebbs and flows with intensity as they amble past.
My husband, our two good friends and I were at the beginning of a 19-day horse-riding adventure, where we trekked deep within the remote Darhat Valley, only accessible by horse, reindeer or foot. We were in search of the Tssatan people while getting a taste of a nomad’s life. To arrive in time to see Naadam festivities we jumped on an overnight train, hitched a ride on a regional flight and spent half a day in a Russian army van to reach the windswept town of Khatgal. It’s the frontier town to Lake Khovsgol National Park, the deepest lake in central Asia.
Naadam is a traditional type of festival in Mongolia held in country towns like Khatgal during the midsummer holidays. Translated as ‘the three games of men’, it includes Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery.
The dust cloud on the steppe signified that the 25-kilometre horse race had begun. Molor tells us that a jockey’s age ranges from 6 to 11 and the length of race depends on the horses’ ages. As the brigade of galloping horses raced towards the finishing line we saw number nine, the twiggy Mongol girl, as the front-runner. She screamed while whipping her bay pony on the rump. The pony was creamed in sweat, nostrils flaring with exertion. She spurted across the finish line to a cheering crowd.
It was an unforgettable horse experience that has been imprinted on my mind ever since. The courage, determination and sheer grit of these Mongolian kids as they raced across the steppe was a stand-out globetrotting experience that I would recommend to all my GT clients planning on visiting Mongolia.