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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Festival of Ancient Mongol Pride

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia - Hundreds of children dressed in bright ceremonial costumes gallop toward the finishing line in the rain, their tiny mouths howling tribal victory cries as they lash the horses with hand-crafted sticks.


This is Naadam, a festival of chaos, celebration and tradition that began in the days of Ghengis Khan, when the Mongolian empire stretched from Hungary to Korea. Traditionally a seven-day summer festival, Naadam was shortened to a three-day festival in this century to coincide with People's Revolution Day.


Whatever the politics, it is during Naadam that the values and traditions of Mongolian society are passed on, unhindered by 70 years of Communist rule. The festival is still thriving, virtually unchanged, as Mongolia's largely nomadic 2. 2 million population struggles to adapt to a market economy.


Held this year from July 11 to July 13, Nadaam marked the first official visit of the British royal family to Mongolia. Princess Anne and her husband of seven months, Commander Timothy Laurence, attended Naadam festivities, as did the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.


The full name of the holiday is Eriyn Gurvan Naadam, or Three Men's Games, which refers to traditional competitions in wrestling, archery and horse racing that once marked the battles, births and weddings of Mongolian feudal rulers.


The most popular part of the festival are the 20- to 30-kilometer horse races, open to about 400 children per race, aged 4 to 10.


Avgaan Bayarmagnai, 10, learned to ride at the age of 3 - a year earlier than average. He said he has entered the races each year since then.


This year Bayarmagnai - Mongols are called by their last names - was first in his somon, or local district, of which there are 298. He went on to win first place at the festival.


Like most Mongols, Bayarmagnai trained for 20 days before his local festival began in the central province, about 45 minutes by car from the capital, Ulan Bator.


"I'm very happy", Bayarmagnai said, sitting on his horse in the winner's circle, adorned with a shiny new gold medal. He said he was afraid of falling when the rains turned the steppes into one big mud slide. To prevent falls, in fact, some of the younger children are tied to the horses.


A relative of Bayarmagnai, dressed in a traditional gray robe and crimson sash, said the family will celebrate Bayarmagnai's victory with a party for 60 people in their ger, the traditional nomadic home. Gers are comfortable, felt-covered dwellings supported by wooden frames that are easy to take apart and reassemble.


During the victory celebration in the ger, guests will sip ariq, a bitter drink of fermented horse milk. They will also eat mutton and horse milk curds, the bland staples of the Mongolian diet, Bayarmagnai said.


After the race, those in the winner's circle cluster round the winning horse to touch its sweat, which they then wipe on their foreheads to bring good luck.


"As a Mongol man we love horses since childhood. They are always with us", said Sharkhuu Baatar, 50, a farmer whose son also competed.


Gifts for the winners vary in different parts of the country. This year, some winners received a Russian or Chinese color television, a carpet, a school satchel, books, candies and medals for the horses - all difficult to carry home on horseback, the most popular form of transportation in Mongolia, which lacks basic infrastructure needs, such as roads and communication services.