We’re into Mongolia at last and here on schedule so we can enjoy the traditional annual Naadam Festival which celebrates Mongolia’s cultural inheritance and highlights three national sports – wrestling, archery and horse racing. It’s held throughout the country so we’re coming across the celebrations in small towns as well as in Ulaanbataar. 30% of Mongolians are still nomadic, living in Gers and moving around on horseback. I swear today however many of them are in Toyota Prius and Landcruisers on the road to family reunions for the Nadaam. As in Russia, Mongolians drive on the right. With most of these cars right hand drive cast-offs from Japan, navigating our way to the capital is particularly hazardous as oncoming drivers have to fully enter our lane to establish whether they can pass.
In theory there’s plenty of room for everyone – Mongolia is 6 times as big as New Zealand and has only 60% of our population. But the reality is it’s a suicide mission being on a motorcycle here at this time of year.
Mongolia as a destination is a bit like completing the circle for us because our first long motorcycle tour was across the Silk Road following Marco Polo’s route from Venice and ending at Xanadu, where Kublai Khan (Genghis’ grandson) had his summer palace away from the bustle of Beijing, the capital of the Mongol Empire at that time. I remember when we got to the Xanadu site and it was littered with all crockery and relics from that era, but was pretty much a neglected and derelict place. If it weren’t for the earthen fortifications we would never have found it. Perhaps it was because Kublai defeated the Han Chinese and established the Yuan dynasty, that his legacy remains buried – literally.
How different it is here in Mongolia Proper where Genghis – the Mongol leader whose forces conquered all the way across to Eastern Europe in the west and to Japan in the East – creating the largest empire ever. His statue dominates Sukhbataar Square in the middle of Ulaanbataar, sitting on a throne in a grand Colonnade adopting much the same pose that Lincoln does on his seat in Washington.
One wonders where Mongolia would be now if the grandchildren of Genghis hadn’t squabbled and undermined the unity of his purpose – one ruler to ruler them all.
Sukhbataar himself was an interesting figure as well. Like Genghis he also repelled the Chinese from his homeland, although much more recently. While the Manchurian Qing dynasty had taken full control of Mongolia in 1691, when it faltered in 1911 (not a bad term) the Mongolians declared independence. The Chinese rejected this and occupied part of Mongolia at least until thrown out by Russian Tsarist forces who, once the Russian Revolution established the Red Army, were in turn taken out by Mongolian revolutionary Damdin Sukhbaatar with the Red Army’s support. Mongolia became part of the USSR, kept the Japanese at bay during that country’s 1930’s and 1940’s bouts of expansionism, and finally got independence peacefully after the collapse of the USSR in 1990.
So this place has a war-filled legacy – a monumental history.
As we watch the ceremonial transport of Genghis Khan’s nine horse tails, representing the nine tribes of the Mongols, from Sukhbaatar Square to the Stadium to open the Naadam festivities, the rich history of Mongolia from ruling much of the world to its modern day struggle to escape poverty, keep its identity and participate in globalisation is front of mind. One things for sure though, the proud nationalism of the country’s 3 million people is to the fore during this annual celebration.