The second day of the tour started out with being told we were leaving at 8am, and so we were up and ready bright and early. Only we had to wait another hour for breakfast, and another hour or so before actually leaving just before 10am. We made a mental note to ignore advised departure times in future and just wait to be woken up!
A few hours of driving and it was time for lunch. We stopped in the middle of a grassy field where herds of horses frolicked and goats hung out looking bored. And off in the distance we could see a large gathering of people, trucks, motorbikes and horses.
Sandwiches munched down, Aiyuna asked if we wanted to go over and see what was happening. She said it was a mini-Naadam festival, which seemed a little odd as it was out of season. But we walked over anyway. Will, the lone solo-traveller in our group, made it there before the rest of us and by the time we got there [all of about four minutes later] he had already been sat down in a group of older Mongolian men and handed a bowl of airag. John and I were subsequently ushered in by an older man and some young girls, found a seat and offered horse-cheese and some kind of sweet. As we were chewing the chewy horse-cheese a bowl of airag was placed in our hands. John took a tiny sip of it, barely able to stomach it, while I fared a bit better.
This airag, ladled out of a massive blue plastic drum, wasn’t quite as salty or sour as that we’d had the day before, but was quite a bit fizzier. We watched to see what other people were doing and ascertained that it was acceptable to drink some and pass it back to the girls – it wasn’t impolite to fail to drink the entire bowl. Of course, the downside to passing the bowl back was that another girl [it was always girls doling out the airag, some as young as five or six and very excited to be offering it around] would see you with empty hands and dutifully bring you another!
There must have been about one hundred or more people there, and there was a man on a horse in traditional attire with a microphone, clearly in charge of the festivities. A tent was set up with speakers and while we couldn’t understand what he was saying, a woman came over to me and started to explain what was happening. At this time, the young boys were going to race the two-year-old horses. The boys and the horses were of a size, even for small Mongolian horses. A firing gun and they were off, proud parents looking on and cheering as they galloped bareback to a flag-marked finishing line. Those boys looked like they’d been born on horses, and they’d certainly been riding since they’d learned to walk!
The woman explained to me that this was a family reunion, and that her brother was the man on the horse. She pointed out her children to me, her parents and parents-in-law, and told me about all the different families and how they were related. She lives in Ulaan Baatar and is a teacher there, but every year for about a week the whole family gets together like we were experiencing that day. It was quite special, and we watched little girls of four and five chasing the old men, their grandfathers or great-uncles, and the joy with which the same old men picked them up and swung them around. She introduced me to her daughters and her niece, and told me how her eldest son didn’t come this year as he just turned eighteen and is studying economics at university, and couldn’t take the time off.
Nick, one of the other guys in our group, had given his camera to a little girl and she was having the time of her life running around and photographing everyone. Even though the photos weren’t great [it was manual focus only], she got some gorgeous if fuzzy pictures of people from her point of view. I wish I’d done the same.
Soon I found myself being drawn away to join the others in a bigger group of local men in a circle on the grass. I was sat down and a man with a very serious expression poured me a big shot of vodka. I guess it’s always vodka-o’clock somewhere, especially in Mongolia! One down, and a few people later it came back to me again, with airag circulating in between.
Another foreign woman sat down beside me and we started talking, with her asking what we were doing and what our plans were, what we thought of Mongolia and so forth. Afterwards she told me I’d just been interviewed for German National Radio. It was quite bizarre, to find myself crashing someone’s family reunion in Central Mongolia and then being interviewed for German radio.
By the time we stumbled back to our van we were all feeling a little tipsy from the airag and vodka shots, and pretty stoked with the experience we’d had. The family welcomed us in with no questions asked, seemingly very happy to have a bunch of stray Australians, Brits and an American gatecrash their annual reunion, happy to share their food and drinks and stories. It was beautiful.
We stopped at a few spots to check out the views but nothing too spectacular. We arrived at our home for the night in the late afternoon, and it was picturesque. More gers, nice and cozy, and a lovely view.